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Writing History As It Happens: The American Revolution

By Edited Jul 6, 2014 0 6

Looking at American history through 18th-century eyes

The Boston Tea Party, December 1773

The Boston Tea Party, December 1773

One sentence is all it takes to start a revolution. Here’s a real-life example:

“On the feventh of February A.D. 1765, the houfe of commons agreed to no lefs than fifty five refolutions, formed by the committee of fupplies, for impofing much the fame ftamp-duties upon the Americans, as are payable here in England ...

Today, most Americans learn the history of the American Revolution with the benefit of academic hindsight, although many of the details have fallen through the cracks of the years. Take a look at the events of the late 18th century through the work of a contemporary historian and you get a distinct flavor of the sense of injustice that prevailed at the time.

“The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England,” published in 1783, was the work of Edward Barnard, a renowned scholar of the time. Barnard’s book claims to present “a full, accurate, comprehenfive and impartial Account of all the moft remarkable Tranfactions, memorable Events and fingular Occurrences, in which the Englifh have been concerned, FROM THE REMOTEST PERIOD OF TIME to the PRESENT VERY IMPORTANT CRISIS.”

The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England
The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England

Barnard unfolds the events of the day much as a butterfly skips from flower to flower, dealing in one paragraph with the outcome of a tragic house-fire in London, England, in the next with a major military engagement of the revolution. On matters of substance, however, he provides enough detail to convey the sense of growing American resentment of all things English, including the stamp duties that he describes above.

Although the Stamp-Act, as it was commonly known, did not impose a heavy financial burden, it was universally unpopular. Americans objected violently to a tax imposed by a parliament in which they had no representation, and English traders, other than those of the infamous East India Company, resented the difficulties it presented to commerce.

Barnard’s account of American reaction to the Stamp-Act bears reading more than once:

“When the news arrived at Bofton, the fhips in the harbour hung out their colours half maft high, in token of the deepeft mourning; the bells were rung muffled; copies of the act were printed, with a death’s head to it, in the place where it is ufual to fix the ftamps, and cried publicly about the ftreets by the name of ‘The folly of England, and ruin of America’.”

The Stamp-Act was only one of a number of taxes imposed by an English government desperate to refill the country’s coffers, drained by heavy expenditure during the Seven Years’ war. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England assumed sovereignty over the former French and Spanish colonies on the eastern coast of North America, and proceeded to exploit America’s need for imported goods by imposing a series of what, today, would be considered import duties.

American Reaction to the Stamp-Act
American Reaction to the Stamp-Act

One of the better-known events of the early revolution, the Boston Tea Party, was an action taken in defiance of the English Royal Governor, symbolizing the colony’s rejection of the English Tea Act. This measure allowed the East India Company to import tea into America while collecting the tax on behalf of the English parliament, and the response from local merchants was a refusal to unload cargoes from tea clippers.

Since the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, refused to return the tea to England, the Sons of Liberty, a group comprised of Boston objectors, took events into their own hands. Barnard describes the events of December 1773:

“A number of refolute men (drefsed like Mohawks or Indians), in lefs than four hours, emptied into the fea, every cheft of tea on board three fhips, commanded by the captains Hall, Bruce and Coffin, amounting to three hundred and forty-two chefts, without the leaft damage to the fhips, or any other property.”

The Royal Governors of three other colonies where ships carrying tea had berthed, noted the fate of the Boston cargo and “wifely agreed to fuffer the tea to be carried back to whence it came.”

In several provinces, records Barnard, tea was termed “the Fetters forged for the people by Great Britain.” A public meeting of the inhabitants of Philadelphia resolved that the Tea Act was “a violent attack on the liberties of America,” and also resolved – although, notes Barnard, not unanimously – not to buy or sell any British goods shipped “contrary,” or unrequested, to them.

The British Ship H.M.S. Serapis Engaged with The U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard
The Battle of Flamborough Head, 1779

Thus were sown and nourished the seeds of the American Revolution. The magnitude of Barnard’s “PRESENT VERY IMPORTANT CRISIS” diminished not one jot, and he proceeds to describe in great detail the events leading to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Barnard’s New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England is filled with facts and detail not often exposed to the light of day. You can't match the gravitas of the original, but fortunately, his work has been reproduced in modern-day paperbacks, allowing access for any interested student. Barnard's considered descriptions of the dramatic events of his time illustrate only too well how seemingly insignificant matters can inflame opinion and give rise to unconsidered consequences of massive import. Perhaps, centuries from now, people will look back on our well-recorded times with similar sentiment.

If, of course, our civilization stands the test of time without self-destructing or imploding …



May 13, 2012 7:16pm
An excellent read. History is always more interesting when viewed from the perspective of the time.
May 13, 2012 7:34pm
Thanks - I happened on a copy of Barnard's work and felt it merited an article or two ...
Jul 1, 2012 3:32am
Thanks Mike - and plenty of contemporary resonance as we watch events still unfurling, following one Tunisian market trader's setting himself on fire in January 2011. Could be worth preserving contemporary history books in this Internet age.
Jul 1, 2012 6:36pm
Hi Richard - thanks for the comment. You're right - I had forgotten that all the current upheaval in Arab states resulted from one man's act of protest. I'm not sure there will be many physical books to preserve, however, with the plethora of digital media around today. They certainly won't match the 18th century records for sheer size and weight, I'm sure!
Jul 1, 2012 7:08pm

Thanks for your reply. The interesting (and scary) part of the situation is of course normal life in the light of big events (whose outcome is uncertain) unfolding around ordinary people..

Here we have December 1773 leading ultimately to the uprising of the Colonies and the war of American Independence some 16 years later. The true interest of contemporary history is to tune in the thoughts and feelings of people as it was going on without the hindsight we get from the standard history texts.

One wonders how accurately this will be reflected in the plethora of material that will be available the early part of the Internet age.
Jul 1, 2012 7:13pm
It was nice read. Thanks
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  1. Edward Barnard The New, Comprehensive and Complete History of England. London, England: Alexander Hogg, 1783.

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