DECADAL PAPER: 1765-1775
19 February 2018
In the decade following 1765, the population of colonial America fractured into disparate groups: those championing freedom from British tyranny at any cost, and those desirous of peace and loyalty to their home country. These years also laid much of the groundwork for the debate on abolition, which would take many more decades to resolve. Meanwhile, the Puritans and their contemporaries had more than enough to write and think about, drawing on the subject matter of the initial violence and controversies of the Revolutionary War.
A series of largely political, nonviolent altercations between Britain and the colonies in the 1760s introduced tensions which escalated to violence in the 1770s. The first was the Stamp Act in March 1765. Through this Act, the British levied a tax against the colonies to alleviate lingering costs of the Seven Years’ War. Swift colonial outcry against the tax flowed largely from political rather than clerical figures. “Restraint and submission” characterized the Puritan response. In the vein of Puritan theology, ministers depicted the tax as an opportunity for submission to government and repentance of sins, suggesting by the latter problem that God had wrought the tax against the colonies to punish their sins. Shortly after the Stamp Act was enacted, the group “Sons of Liberty” formed in order to protest British overreach. The next year, in the wake of a series of American assemblies, mobs, and publications protesting the Stamp Act, it was repealed by Parliament.
In 1767, the British passed the Townshend Acts, a series of taxes on paper, glass, paint, lead, and tea. Eventually, colonial-wide protests against these duties led to a British military presence in Boston. Tensions with the British soldiers erupted in March 1770 in the Boston Massacre, in which five Americans died after a crowd provoked British guards outside the Custom house. Following this incident, Parliament rescinded all taxes except those levied on tea; it doubled down on these with the Tea Act, passed in 1773 to decrease British exportation fees on tea and thereby increase the trade of tea to the colonies. The Sons of Liberty responded to this Act in December 1773 with the destruction of a shipment of tea in the Boston Harbor. In order to make an example of Massachusetts’ ongoing bad behavior toward British law and occupation, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts in 1774, a series of laws which brought Massachusetts completely under British rule, financially penalized Boston for the destruction of tea, and mandated colonies to provide housing for British troops. In response to this, the colonies formed the First Continental Congress in October 1774, which called for a boycott of all British goods. Britain declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion in 1775, using this to justify the ordering of British troops to disarm the rebels. War officially broke out in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, shortly before the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775.
The Puritan clergy had been prepared to respond to this kind of political turmoil by the readings introduced to college studies in the mid-1700s. The subject matter of these works, by authors including John Locke, James Harrington, Thomas Gordon, and Josephus, taught ideas of “liberty and resistance to tyranny,” delivering the essential message “that liberty was precarious and required constant vigilance.” Some historians have interpreted the Puritan insistence on specific beliefs and behaviors to be oligarchical, theocratic, and generally undemocratic. The truth is that Puritan preaching in the pre-Revolutionary War period largely reinforced the values of the revolution. In the redemptive tradition of the nation of Israel, New England had been blessed with liberty because of God’s covenant protections and sovereignties. Pulpits were the most direct way to disseminate information to the colonialists, as church membership had increased in the 1750-60s. In the year the revolution broke out, New England recorded the highest number of sermons preached in the region’s history, and the Declaration of Independence itself was widely read from the pulpit. Congregational parishes in the colonies did not only speak from the pulpit but actively engaged with the political activities of the First Continental Congress in 1774. However the Puritans may have erred, they were not holding back the movement toward independence, nor were they backward thinkers opposed to the “rebels against the old Puritan order.” Where opposition to the rebellion split on religious lines, it was largely Puritan versus Anglican rather than Puritan versus secular.
This decade also witnessed the first major tremors of what would become a seismic shift in the views of slavery worldwide. In 1772, Lord Mansfield, presiding over the highest English court of law, handed down a decision in the landmark English case Somerset v Stewart. The slave James Somerset objected to his owner Charles Stewart’s attempt to send him to the Caribbean to be sold after Somerset had run away Stewart. Mansfield passed down the decision that Stewart had to free Somerset, “as if [Mansfield] could not find any English law supporting the contention of the plaintiff.” Abolitionists and legal counsel on both sides of the Atlantic interpreted this ruling as a de facto condemnation of slavery as unlawful under English common law and under natural law, though Mansfield almost certainly did not intend for the ruling to be applied so liberally. Some evidence suggests that the abolitionist fever in England following the ruling on this case fanned the flames of colonial racism, increasing the desire of colonial Americans to escape the ruling of British law. American newspaper reports of the Somerset v Stewart case “played upon the darkest fears of the American colonists” and “indicated to…readers how far the Mother Country had grown from her American colonies.”
Generally, the American public lagged behind Puritan ministers in criticizing slavery, but the Puritans were less vehement in early condemnations of slavery than were Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Additionally, English condemnation of slavery was typically a step ahead of similar American efforts. Granville Sharp, one of the first prominent English abolitionist figures, emerged as a powerful voice in the 1760s by publishing antislavery writings and by bringing the Somerset v Stewart case to court in 1772. The first American abolitionist group formed in Philadelphia in 1775, backed primarily by Quaker ideas and Quaker members. Among the group’s founding membership was the writer Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense attained tremendous popularity among all those favorable to the revolution, but whose antislavery views probably prevented him from holding positions of greater power in the new republic. The enslaved population in America had grown rapidly, such that “by 1774, 20 percent of the colonial American population consisted of slaves.” Despite this fact, abolitionist groups and opinions remained largely at the edges of American discourse until well after the Revolutionary War. No records remain of Jonathan Edwards speaking publicly on slavery, and the only document that transmits any of his views on slavery presents an attitude characterized by “deep ambivalence.” Nevertheless, the Somerset v Stewart case introduced fundamental ideas about human liberty and freedom under natural law which would eventually form the basis for American emancipation of slaves.
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 Harry S. Stout, New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England, 270 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 Ibid., 268.
 Gerald N. Grob and George Athan Billias, Interpretations of American History: Patterns and
Perspectives, Volume I to 1877, 71-72 (New York: The Free Press, 1967).
 Stout, New England Soul, 283.
 Ibid., 268.
 Ibid., 312.
 Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Triumphant Empire: Britain Sails into the Storm, 1770-1776, 231-33 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).
 Thomas J. Wertenbaker, “The Puritans,” in Interpretations of American History: Patterns and
Perspectives, Volume I to 1877, 92 (New York: The Free Press, 1967).
 Gipson, Britain Sails Into the Storm, 178-79.
 Lawrence Henry Gibson, The Triumphant Empire: The Empire Beyond the Storm, 1770-1776, 61 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).
 William M. Wiecek, “Lord Mansfield and the Legitimacy of Slavery in the Anglo-American World,” in The University of Chicago Law Review 42, no. 1 (1974), 107-110.
 Patricia Bradley, “Colonial Newspaper Reaction to the Somerset Decision,” presentation at the annual convention of the History Division of the Association for Education in Journalism, Gainesville, FL, August, 1984, 18-24.
 Ibid., 23.
 Stout, New England Soul, 323.
 Edward G. White, Law in American History, 76 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 257 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).