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.

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The Generous Mercer of Hempstead

For Refugee Week 2019, David Stannard has looked at the impact of immigrants from Europe to the east coast of Norfolk and their links with the local textile industry.

The East Norfolk Textile Industry

The wider historical record makes it clear that the medieval weaving and textile industry was of great importance to the economy of east Norfolk, albeit there were fluctuations in the success of the industry, often due to competition from near neighbours in the Netherlands. One response to these economic downturns, particularly during the reign of Edward III and his consort Phillipa of Hainault, saw Flemish weavers and their families encouraged to come to Norfolk with new ideas and working practices as a means to revive the local industry. Similar activity took place during Tudor times with further waves of immigrants from the near Continent coming to east Norfolk, with the wills of the parishioners of Hempstead and Eccles at this time revealing how textiles were an important aspect of their everyday lives, and their celestial futures.

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Exploits on the Grand Tour

With the weather still cold and wet people are starting to think about their summer holiday. Many picturing warm sandy beaches and relaxing evenings.

200 years ago many of the middle classes were enjoying their first experiences of travelling abroad, by setting off on the Grand Tour. The tour incorporated stops in some of the most desirable locations in Europe, including Paris, Rome, Venice, and Naples and lasted up to 2 years. Many of their diaries and letters home have ended up at the Norfolk Record Office.

One of the last stops on many people’s tour was Italy. Getting into Italy involved a lengthy process, with the tourists having to decide whether to risk crossing the Alps or go via the Mediterranean route. Earlier tourists tended to cross the Alps by the Mount Cenis pass, arriving at Susa before navigating their way to Turin. To make their way across, tourists had to dismantle their carriages which were then carried on mules while they themselves were carried over on sedan-like chairs. As tricky as this already sounds a further difficulty could arise in the form of the weather.

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A Blood Red Sky, RAF plane crash over Holt, 1968

On a stormy August night in 1968 at the height of the Cold War, Ted Buxton a farmer in the Heydon area witnessed a terrible collision between two RAF aircraft. An RAF Victor from RAF Marham on a training flight crashed into an RAF Canberra returning to its base located in RAF Bruggen Germany. The incident was a tragedy and since skies became so crowded with aircraft during the Cold War, it is likely a disaster of this nature was to be expected.

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New for (Twenty) Nineteen: Spring Term for Primary Schools

We are really pleased we were able to run 2 new workshops over the course of the Spring Term.

Putting on a Tudor Pageant

In January, Year 1 pupils from Charles Darwin visited us as part of the Putting on a Pageant project. The project run by Curious Spark enables pupils to discover the stories behind Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Norwich in 1578. The pupils started the session by playing a tailor-made indenture game which not only gave questions and answers about the Record Office itself but also looked at Tudor iconography.

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Discovering Sound Recordings and the History of Railways: Spring Term for Secondary Schools

The spring term involved helping 2 local high schools with different projects they have been working on.

Oral History

Firstly we welcomed a group of pupils from Old Buckenham High School as part of their oral history project. The school have been working on a project with the University of East Anglia inspired by Akenfield Now. The initial Akenfield Now project followed a similar format to the film Akenfield which was set in a small Suffolk village in 1974 and tells the story of the last century. Pupils have been using oral history recording to create their own version of the film.

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Building a Future with Volunteers:  The Norwich Building Control Plans Indexing Project

The Norfolk Record Office is embarking on an exciting project working with volunteers to enhance catalogue descriptions and improve access to an otherwise under used collection.  The Norwich Building Control Plans Indexing Project offers a brilliant opportunity for volunteers to work together, develop new skills, and engage with archives.

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The Life & Times of Charles H. Harrison, Broadland artist

Charles H. Harrison (1842-1902) was known for his landscape paintings depicting the Norfolk countryside. Born in Great Yarmouth in a dull neighbourhood, his parents moved to a more comfortable cottage where the first signs of the young prodigy bloomed. Harrison developed an appreciation for all things beautiful, and this was captured in his work. As with many artists then and now however, his skills were overlooked by the education system. He soon gained a job as a decorator where he was mentored by people who also had an eye for detail and wished to express this. As with many young aspiring artists, he declined to follow ‘approved’ models, instead wanting to give his own unique spin. His style is described as bold and distinguished although rather crude and faulty when it came to colour. He was also a perfectionist and ended up destroying a fair amount of his own work, noticing faults which would bypass a less keen eye.

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