Planting the Seeds of Independence: The State of the American Colonies prior to 1776

Today marks 243 years since the signing of the ‘Declaration of Independence’, that illustrious document wherein the Thirteen Colonies asserted themselves as independent sovereign states that would no longer conform to the leadership of Great Britain. Since July 4th 1776 ‘Independence Day’ has retained a consistent significant influence over American history. Indeed, ideas of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘independence’ have become a fixed part of the American identity and feature prominently in popular forms of modern American media, be it box-office hits such as the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day or the recent 2015 Tony Award winning Broadway musical Hamilton.

With clear connections identified between American culture and ideas of independency, several questions begin to arise: Why did the Thirteen Colonies consider themselves to be a sovereign republic separate from the British monarchy that founded them? What sparked such vocal support for independency? But there is a document hidden away in the Norfolk Record Office that could help historians answer theses questions and enhance their understanding of the link between independency and American identity, entitled The State of the Colonies in North America and of the West India Islands (1773-1774) (NRO, WLS XVII/31).

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The State of the Colonies in North America and of the West India Islands (NRO, WLS XVII/31)

Listing noteworthy details such as the civil and military establishments of various British colonies, the document provides valuable first-hand accounts of the state of the Thirteen Colonies prior to 1776. Given that a considerable number of accounts are bound within the document, this blog will focus exclusively on governor Thomas Hutchinson’s description of the colony that arguably kick-started the American Revolution – Massachusetts.

It was at Massachusetts Bay where the famous Boston Tea Party protest commenced on December 16th 1773. Members of the Sons of Liberty high jacked ships belonging to the East India Company and threw vast quantities of tea into Boston Harbor, an act of protest against the newly introduced taxes passed by the British Parliament as part of the May 10th 1773 Tea Act. The event coined the commonly acknowledged motivation behind the American Revolution: ‘no taxation without representation’; the firm belief that the natural rights of colonists were undermined as a direct result of having to comply with financial policy being enforced by a foreign British government which the colonies received no voice to influence.

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Thomas Hutchinson’s account on state of Massachusetts in 1773.

While taxation legislation certainly played an influential role in invoking revolutionary ideas among the colonists, a close reading of Hutchinson’s account reveals interesting details about the management and maintenance of Massachusetts that would have seeded into the American desires for independence. Hutchinson notes that:

‘The governor [of each colony] is appointed by the Crown’.

Alongside being refused a voice in influencing fiscal policy, the colonists were not even able to decide who held authority to governed the overall administration of their colonies. Hence, a desire to gain electoral rights would have influenced American independency rhetoric. When identifying the official geographical boundaries of Massachusetts, Hutchinson also states that:

‘The bounds of the province are particularly described in the charter of King William and Queen Mary’.

Several noteworthy implications can be extracted from this seemingly basic statement. Not only was the management of Massachusetts based on principals established by a foreign monarch, the monarch that had introduced such boundaries had been dead for over 70 years. This detail would have fed into the mind-sets of those individuals seeking sovereignty as their freedom to expand was being restrict by the legacy of a foreign monarch which none of the current living colonists would have known directly. It was not only a lack of power to determine legislation and elect their own preferred governor that created a thirst for independence. By 1773, a brand-new generation of individuals occupied Massachusetts who had no personal recollection or experience of the foundations that their colony was built on. It is therefore only natural that feelings of individuality from Great Britain would manifest and develop into calls for independence as a substantial section of society felt they held no personal connection to a monarchy they had never met and a country they had never stepped foot on.

From this short close reading of several extracts from The State of the Colonies in North America and of the West India Islands (1773-1774), we have only just scratched the surface behind identifying how and why American colonists had developed a clear set belief of their own sovereignty from Great Britain by the year 1776. Taxation was not the sole motivation behind calls for independency and those interested in further enhancing their understanding of the ideas and history that have ultimately cemented a connection between American identity and independency may wish to consider viewing this document, located in the most unlikely of places.

Researched and compiled by Third Year UEA Student Volunteer, Anthony Maggs.

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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