King George: What Was His Problem?

Everything Your Schoolbooks Didn't Tell You About the American Revolution

Steve Sheinkin, illustrated by Tim Robinson

Flash Point

King George What Was His Problem
How to Start a Revolution
Entire books have been written about the causes of the American Revolution. You'll be glad to know this isn't one of them. But you really should understand how the whole thing got started. After all, if you ever find yourself ruled by someone like King George, you'll want to know what to do. So here's a quick step-bystep guide to starting a revolution.
Step 1: Kick Out the French
Let's pick up the action in 1750. Britain, France, and Spain had carved up North America into massive empires, as you can see on the map below. You'd think they'd be satisfied, right? But Britain and France both wanted to see their names on even more of the map. Let's face it, they both wanted the whole map. (It didn't bother them that most of the land actually belonged to Native Americans.)
To Britain and France, this seemed like a good reason to fight a war. You can call it the French and Indian War or the Seven Years War--either way, the British won. Britain took over most of France's land in North America. For Britain, this was the good news.
Step 2: Tax the Colonists
Here's the bad news: war is really expensive. The British were left with a mountain of debt. And now they had to keep 10,000 soldiers in North America to protect all their new land. That's not cheap. The British prime minister George Grenville started thinking of ways to raise some quick cash. You can guess the idea he came up with, can't you?
That's right: he decided to tax the British colonists. Grenville really felt that the thirteen colonies owed Britain the money. As he put it:
"The nation has run itself into an immense debt to give them protection; and now they are called upon to contribute a small share toward the public expense."
Grenville's plan was called the Stamp Act. When colonists signed any legal document, or bought paper goods like newspapers, books, or even playing cards, they would have to buy stamps too (the stamps showed that you had paid the tax). A few members of Parliament warned that the Stamp Act might spark protests in the colonies. But young King George III (he was twenty-two) liked the idea. He didn't expect any problems.
George Grenville
Step 3: Hang the Taxman
King George never did understand Americans. No one likes a tax increase, no matter what the reasons. Besides, the thirteen colonies had been pretty much governing themselves for years. And selfgovernment obviously includes coming up with your own taxes. So colonists started shouting a slogan:
"No taxation without representation."
Tax Protester
Meaning basically, "We're not paying!"
Shouting is easy, but how do you actually avoid paying the tax? Samuel Adams of Boston had that figured out. Adams was in his early forties, and he hadn't really found anything he was good at yet. His father once gave him one thousand pounds (a lot of money) to start a business. Samuel loaned half of it to a friend, who never paid him back. It's safe to say Samuel had no talent for business. All he wanted to do was write about politics and argue in town meetings. How far can that get you in life?
Pretty far, actually. Because when the time came to protest the Stamp Act, Adams was ready to take the lead. He figured it like this: The Stamp Act is supposed to go into effect in November 1765, right? Well, what if there's no one around to distribute the stamps? Then we won't have to buy them. Simple.
The job of distributing the stamps in Boston belonged to a man named Andrew Oliver. When Oliver woke up one morning in August, he was informed that a full-size Andrew Oliver doll was hanging from an elm tree in town. Pinned to the doll was a nice poem:
"What greater joy did New England see, Than a stamp man hanging on a tree?"
It got worse. That night a crowd of Bostonians, yelling about taxes, cut down the doll and carried it to Oliver's house. They chopped off its head and set it on fire. Then they started breaking Oliver's windows.
As you can imagine, Andrew Oliver found this whole experience fairly frightening. He wasn't so eager to start giving out the stamps in Boston.
That was exactly how Adams had planned it. Similar scenes took place all over the thirteen colonies. Calling themselves Sons of Liberty, protesters gave plenty of stamp agents the Andrew Oliver treatment. The agents quit as fast as they could. (Can you blame them?) So when the tax went into effect, there was no one around to collect it.
Step 4: Try, Try Again
Back in London, the British government was forced to face a painful fact--there was no money in this Stamp Act deal. Parliament voted to repeal (get rid of) the tax. King George reluctantly approved this decision.
Colonists celebrated the news with feasts and dances. Boston's richest merchant, a guy named John Hancock, gave out free wine and put on a fireworks show outside his house. The happy people of New York City built a statue of King George and put it in a city park. (Remember that statue; it will be back in the story later.)
What the colonists didn't realize was that British leaders were already talking about new taxes. After all, the British government still needed money. And most leaders still insisted that Britain had every right to tax the Americans. King George was especially firm on this point. He was a very stubborn fellow.
So Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in 1767. When colonial merchants imported stuff like paint, paper, glass, and tea, they would now have to pay a tax based on the value of each item. Or would they?
Step 5: Refuse to Pay
Rather than pay the new taxes, colonists started boycotting (refusing to buy) British imports. Women were the driving force behind these boycotts. Hannah Griffitts of Pennsylvania expressed the determination of many colonial women in a poem:
"Stand firmly resolved and bid Grenville to see That rather than Freedom, we'll part with our tea. And well as we love the dear draught1 when a'dry As American Patriots our taste we deny."
John Hancock found another way to get around paying taxes. Hancock simply snuck his goods past the tax collectors. He knew that smuggling was illegal, but he didn't feel too guilty about it. To Hancock, smuggling seemed like a fair response to an unfair law.
Of course the British wanted to stop smugglers like Hancock. But you have to remember, colonists really hated these taxes. So any British official who tried too hard to collect taxes was taking a serious risk. Think of poor John Malcolm, for example. This British official was stripped to the waist, smeared with hot tar, and covered with feathers from a pillow. Then he was pulled through Boston in a cart, just to make the humiliation complete. What was the worst thing about getting tarred and feathered? Malcolm said the most painful part was trying to rip the tar off his burned body. He mailed a box of his tar and feathers, with bits of his skin still attached, to the British government in London. They sympathized. They sent him money.
Hannah Griffitts
Then, in the spring of 1768, Hancock's ship Liberty (full of smuggled wine from France) was seized by tax agents in Boston. Furious members of the Sons of Liberty gathered at the docks, where Sam Adams was heard shouting:
"If you are men, behave like men! Let us take up arms immediately and be free!"
Samuel Adams
The Sons spent the night throwing stones at the tax collectors' houses. They even dragged a tax agent's boat out of the water and lit it on fire in front of John Hancock's house. The terrified taxmen escaped to an island in Boston Harbor.
Step 6: Send in the Warships
King George did not appreciate this form of protest. The world's most powerful country can't have its government employees hiding on an island--it doesn't look good. It was time to get tough with the colonists. In the words of Frederick North, one of the king's favorite advisors: "America must fear you before she can love you."
Why not just repeal the Townshend taxes? "I hope we shall never think of it," snapped North, "till we see America prostrate [facedown] at our feet."
North was another guy who didn't understand Americans.
In October 1768, British warships sailed into Boston Harbor. Under the command of General Thomas Gage, one thousand British soldiers marched off the ships and paraded through town in their bright red coats, beating drums and dragging cannons.
That should solve everything, right?
Well, nothing too serious happened until March 1770. On March 2, a British soldier named Patrick Walker was looking for a little extra work in Boston (the soldiers were paid almost nothing). He stopped by a ropewalk--an outdoor workshop where ropes were made--and spoke with a rope maker named William Green.
Green: Soldier, do you want work? Walker: Yes. Green: Well then, go clean my outhouse.
Only Green didn't say "outhouse." He used a word I can't print here. Walker was quite offended. He got a group of soldiers together, and they attacked the rope makers with wooden clubs. The rope makers fought back with clubs of their own. It was an ugly scene.
The point of this story is simple: the British soldiers and the people of Boston just weren't getting along. And it's easy to see why. The soldiers were in town to enforce laws that made people furious, and people took their anger out on the soldiers. Did the soldiers deserve such hatred? Maybe not. Most were seventeen- and eighteenyear-old boys from poor families. This was the only job they could get, and they hated being in Boston just as much as the people hated having them.
On the night of March 5, 1770 (three days after the ropewalk fight), all the anger in Boston exploded into violence.
Step 7: Fire into a Crowd
It was a cold night. There was a foot of snow on the ground. Sons of Liberty walked the streets in groups, wooden clubs in hand. They watched the soldiers, and the soldiers watched them. Both sides were expecting something to happen.
But no one thought it would begin with an apprentice wig maker named Edward Garrick. At about 8:30, young Garrick passed a British officer in the street. Garrick pointed to the officer and shouted:
Edward Garrick
"There goes the fellow that won't pay my master for dressing his hair!"
That's a serious insult, Ed--accusing a gentleman of not paying his debts. A young British soldier named Hugh White stepped forward to defend his officer. Garrick and White exchanged a few curses. Then White cracked Garrick on the head with the butt of his musket. Garrick went down, scrambled up, and yelped for help.
A crowd gathered quickly. At first it was just a few of Garrick's friends. Then people started coming from all over town. A man named Crispus Attucks led a group of fellow sailors from the wharf to the scene of the action. Attucks was six feet, two inches tall, about forty-five years old. He had escaped from slavery twenty years before. Witnesses said he had a stick or club in his hand.
Hugh White called out to his fellow soldiers for backup. Eight soldiers pushed their way through the mob to White. About three hundred people surrounded the soldiers, cursing at them and pelting them with snowballs, chunks of ice, even oyster shells. The soldiers pointed their loaded guns. The crowd shoved closer and closer to the blades of the British bayonets, shouting:
"You dare not fire!"
"You can't kill us all!"
Then there was a shot. Then a lot of shots. Then smoke and shocked silence. The crowd backed away. Crispus Attucks lay in the snow, killed instantly by two bullets through the chest. Six other men had also been shot. Four of them later died.
At a town meeting the next morning, Samuel Adams charged British soldiers with firing into a crowd of harmless protesters. As we have seen, this was not exactly true. Samuel was a gifted storyteller. He called the soldiers "bloody murderers." He gave the incident a name that everyone would remember: "the Boston Massacre."
Step 8: Keep the Tea Tax
After the Massacre, General Gage pulled the British soldiers out of Boston. This helped calm things down.
Over in Britain, leaders saw that the Townshend Acts were much more trouble than they were worth. Parliament voted to repeal the taxes. Well, most of them. They left a tax on tea. This was done on very specific instructions from King George:
"I am clear that there must always be one tax to keep up the right, and as such I approve the tea duty."
King George III
Sure, the king knew this small tea tax would not bring in any real money. He just wanted everyone to know that Britain still had the power to tax the colonies. Told you he was stubborn.
Step 9: Throw a Tea Party
On the night of December 16, 1773, a Boston shoemaker named George Hewes went into a blacksmith's shop and smeared coal dust on his face. He was hoping it would look like the war paint of a Mohawk Indian. It didn't, but that was okay. The main idea was to be in disguise. Hewes went out into the dark street with an ax in his hand. Dozens of men, all badly disguised as Indians, were marching downto the waterfront. Hewes joined the strange parade.
Three ships full of British tea were tied up at a wharf in Boston Harbor. The people of Boston had refused to let the ship owners unload the cargo. They had no intention of paying the tea tax. So the tea sat in the ships, neatly packed in chests. Not for long.
George Hewes and the other disguised Sons of Liberty rowed out to the British ships. Communicating with only grunts and silent signals, about fifty men boarded each ship. They dragged the chests of tea up to the deck, chopped them open with axes, and dumped the tea into Boston Harbor.
Hundreds of people came down to the wharf to watch. Hewes even saw a few spectators sneak onto the ships to snag some of the tea: "There were several attempts," he recalled, "made by some of the citizens of Boston ... to carry off small quantities of it for their family use ... . . They would watch for their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets."
Hewes caught one man shoving loose tea leaves into the lining of his coat. Hewes yanked off the coat, and the guy ran away.
It took about three hours to dump all the tea. Then, just to make sure no one was hiding any tea, each of the "Mohawks" was asked to take off his shoes and shake them out into the water.
When George Hewes finally got home that night, he told his wife, Sally, all about the Boston Tea Party.
Step 10: Pay the Fiddler
A british naval commander named Admiral Montagu watched the Boston Tea Party from the window of his waterfront house. As the disguised Sons of Liberty marched away from the wharf, Montaguopened his window and exchanged shouts with one of the men:
Montagu: Well, boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!
 
Son of Liberty: Just come out here, if you please, and we'll settle the bill in two minutes.
Montagu shut his window. The men cheered and laughed. Montagu was right, though--the people of Boston would have to "pay the fiddler." In other words, they would have to face the consequences of their actions.
One consequence was that King George threw an absolute fit. He called the Tea Party "violent and outrageous." And he wasn't alone. Even members of Parliament who usually supported the Americans were furious about the destruction of British tea. A member of Parliament named Charles Van captured the angry mood in London, declaring:
"The town of Boston ought to be boxed about their ears and destroyed. I am of the opinion you will never meet with that proper obedience to the laws of this country until you have destroyed that nest of locusts."
Charles Van
Now, that's the kind of advice King George liked.
At the king's request, Parliament passed a series of laws designed to teach the people of Boston, once and for all, that British authority must be obeyed. No fooling around now. Parliament ordered the port of Boston shut down until the town paid for the ruined tea. The people of Massachusetts would no longer be allowed to elect their own judges or sheriffs. And if the residents of Boston wanted to hold a town meeting, they would need permission from British officials.
To enforce all this, General Thomas Gage was sent back to Boston--this time with four thousand British soldiers.
That should solve everything, right?
Step 11: Stand Firm
A few months later, Samuel Adams was eating dinner with his wife and kids when one of Boston's best tailors knocked on the door. The tailor came in and began measuring Sam's rather round body. He said he had been asked to make Adams a new suit. He refused to say who had paid for this service. Then a hatter arrived. He measured Adams's head for a new hat. He wouldn't say who had sent him. Then a shoemaker came to measure Adams's feet. What was going on?
Well, a lot. As planned, the British soldiers had closed the port of Boston. This was a kick in the gut to the Boston economy, which was built on shipping and trade. Stores shut, jobs disappeared. Colonists called the harsh British punishments the "Intolerable Acts." Even people who avoided politics took sides in the crisis: you were a Patriot if you opposed British taxes and stood by Boston; you were a Loyalist if you supported the king.
Patriots all over the colonies sent supplies to Boston: beef, fish,flour, rice, cash. Patriot leaders also agreed to hold a meeting in Philadelphia. They could all get to know each other, maybe figure out what to do about the Intolerable Acts.
That explains the tailor, hatter, and shoemaker. Of course, Sam Adams would be making the trip to Philadelphia for the Continental Congress. But for such an important meeting, he really needed some new clothes (he was an embarrassingly sloppy dresser). So his friends hired the tailor and the others. And Sam Adams set off for Congress in a fancy new suit with gold buttons on the sleeves (and silver buckles on his shoes). Next to him in the carriage sat his cousin John Adams, well-known lawyer, Patriot, and grump.
George Washington
A few hundred miles south in Virginia, George Washington was also getting ready for the Congress. Washington was one of the few Patriot leaders with military experience (in the French and Indian War). He had recently made news with a bold promise:
"If need be, I will raise one thousand men, subsist2 them at my own expense, and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston."
Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton (two more Virginia Patriots) stopped by Washington's place, and they all set out together for Philadelphia.
As they rode off, a voice called out to them: "I hope you will all stand firm--I know George will."
That was Martha Washington, George's wife. And while she urged courage, she also worried where this conflict might lead, saying, "I foresee consequences. Dark days and darker nights."
Step 12: Make Speeches
The Continental Congress began in Philadelphia in early September 1774. There were a total of fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia stayed home). Fifty-six men meant fifty-six different opinions--and some very long debates. John Adams complained that if someone had declared that three plus two equaled five, members would have wasted a couple of days debating the issue.
So it took a while, but the members of Congress came to some serious decisions. They declared the Intolerable Acts to be an illegal violation of the rights of American colonists. They decided it was time to start boycotting trade with Britain again. And they agreed that the colonies should start arming and training their militias (volunteer armies) just in case there was trouble with the British soldiers in Boston.
Before the Congress ended, Patrick Henry did two things that he was famous for. One, he annoyed everyone by talking too much. And two, he made a few fabulous speeches. "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more," he cried. "I am not a Virginian, but an American."
This kind of unity really surprised British leaders. They had been sure that the other colonies would stand aside and let Massachusetts suffer alone.
Step 13: Let Blows Decide
Now the stage was set for a showdown. Neither side really wanted war, but neither side was willing to back down. As usual, King George thought a show of force would improve matters. He declared: "The New England colonies are in a state of rebellion ... . Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent."
Blows, you say? Speaking in a church in Virginia, Patrick Henry did his thing:
"Gentlemen may cry, 'Peace! Peace!' but there is no peace ... .
I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
Back in Boston, all this tough talk was making General Gage extremely nervous. Unlike Patrick Henry and King George, Gage was going to have to do the actual fighting. He wrote to London, asking for more soldiers.
"If you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty," Gage wrote. And this takes us up to April 1775. Right where we want to be.
Patrick Henry
Text copyright © 2005 by Steve Sheinkin