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America: The Way to Independence, Episode 29 - 03/11/05


Political cartoon chronicling the American tea tax (Getty Images/Hulton|Archive)

Political cartoon chronicling the American tea tax
(Getty Images)
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The War of American Independence began in 1776. The popular idea that it started with the Boston Tea Party is wrong, although the off-loading in America of cheap tea from the East India Company was an aggravation. There was no single reason for the war. The transition from colonies in dispute to full scale war was one full of sometimes complex contradictions.

For example, it was not a popular uprising. Most of the British in America (they were not Americans until after the 1783 Treaty of Paris) were not in rebellion. Many were doing very well under the Crown. Also, the rising was not from the oppressed classes - the slaves and Indians or Native Americans we now call them. Neither slave nor Indian got anything out of the doctrine of liberty. British soldiers fought white, often comfortably off British middle class. The merchant British in American were probably richer than most families in England. The average tax and tithe payer in England paid twenty five times more than someone in America. Trade preferences and the working of the Navigation Acts made Britain a big and easy market for American goods and products.

The reasons for the war include the following: the 1765 Stamp Duties imposed by PM George Grenville on America (and West Indies) to raise 15% of the overall administrative costs as well as paying for the army; the Declaratory Act; the Boston Massacre; the fall in the price of tea in India; the first 1774 Congress meeting in Philadelphia and, in 1775, the first shots fired at Lexington Massachusetts. If the British army had been competent enough, it could have put down the rebels at Lexington and Concord. The British army was not good enough and badly commanded.

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Historical Figure

Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790 (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790
(Getty Images)
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Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790

Franklin was the fifteenth child of a Boston family and at the age of 12 became an apprenticed printer at his brother's newspaper, the New England Courant. Having fallen out with his brother, Benjamin Franklin went to Philadelphia and then worked for two years in London (1724-1726). Back in America, in 1729, he bought the Pennsylvania Gazette. He moved into the legislature and was clerk to the Assembly and postmaster of Philadelphia. The breath of his intellectual was apparent when, in 1746, he started work on his research into electricity. It was Franklin who distinguished between positive and negative electricity and devised lightning conductors. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. When in 1757 he went to England to argue for rights to raise certain taxes, Franklin was given honorary degrees at Edinburgh and Oxford. Franklin was instrumental in the Declaration of Independence and in bringing France into the war in 1778. Still in Paris, Franklin brought about the Paris Treaty in 1783 which was Britain's recognition of American independence.

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Did You Know...

That Benjamin Franklin was the person who charted the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic storm patterns and, demonstrated how different colours absorb solar heat.

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Contemporary Sources

Remarks by Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin's reaction to the successful American War of Independence.

"Mr. President: The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances. I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"

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