Digital History
Digital History ID 3793

Interpreting Primary Sources

Reading 1:

For fire and water are not more heterogeneous than the different colonies in North America. Nothing can exceed the jealousy and emulation which they possess in regard to each other....In short...were they left to themselves there would soon be a civil war from one end of the continent to the other, while the Indians and Negroes would...impatiently watch the opportunity of exterminating them all together.

Rev. Andrew Burnaby, 1760

Reading 2:

The revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.

John Adams, 1818

Reading 3:

A colonist cannot make a button, a horseshoe, nor a hobnail, but some snootly ironmonger or respectable buttonmaker of England shall bawl and squall that his honor's worship is most egregiously maltreated, injured, cheated, and robbed by the rascally American republicans.

Boston Gazette, 1765

Reading 4:

We have called this a burthensome tax, because the duties are so numerous and high...that it would be totally impossible for the people to subsist under it....We further apprehend this tax to be unconstitutional. We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental principle of the
constitution, that no freeman should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent, in person or by proxy....We take it clearly, there fore, to be inconsistent with the spirit of the common law, and of the essential fundamental principle of the British constitution, that we should be represented in that assembly in any sense, unless it be by a fiction of law....

Resolution of the Town of Braintree, Massachusetts, 1765, opposing the Stamp Act

Reading 5:

If we view the whole of the conduct of the ministry and parliament, I do not see how any one can doubt but that there is a settled fix'd plan for enslaving the colonies, or bringing them under arbitrary government....If the ministry can secure a majority in parliament...they may rule as absolutely as they do in France or Spain, yea as in Turkey or India....

View now the situation of America: loaded with taxes from the British parliament, as heavy as she can possibly support under,--our lands charged with the most exorbitant quit rent,--these taxes collected by foreigners, steeled against any impressions from our groans or complaints...our
charters taken away--our assemblies annihilated,--governors and councils, appointed by royal authority without any concurrence of the people, enacting such laws as their sovereign pleasure shall dictate...the lives and property of Americans entirely at the disposal of officers more than three thousand miles removed from any power to control them--armies of the soldiers quartered among the inhabitants, who know the horrid purpose for which they are stationed, in the colonies--to subjugate and beat down the inhabitants....

Reverend Ebenezer Baldwin, 1774

Reading 6:

Considering the utter impracticability of their ever being fully and equally represented in parliament, and the great expense that must unavoidably attend even a partial representation there, this House thinks that a taxation of their constituents, even without their consent, grievous as it is, would be preferable to any representation that could be admitted for them there.

Circular letter, Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1768

Reading 7:

The New Englanders by their canting, whinings, insinuating tricks have persuaded the rest of the Colonies that the Government is going to make absolute slaves of them.

Nicholas Cresswell, a Tory, 1774

Reading 8:

I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, that the same connection is necessary toward her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument....Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province [Pennsylvania] are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous....

The injuries and disadvantages we sustain by that connection are without number; and our duty to mankind at large, as well as to ourselves, instruct us to renounce the alliance: Because, any submission to, or dependence on Great Britain, tends directly to involve this continent in European wars and quarrels; and sets us at variance with nations, who would otherwise seek our friendship, and against whom, we have neither anger nor complaint. As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it....

[Continued British rule will lead to] the ruin of the continent. And that for several reasons. First. The powers of governing still remaining in the hands of the king, he will have a negative over the whole legislation of this continent. And as he hath shown himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty, and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power; is he, or is he not, a proper man to say to these colonies, "You shall make no laws but what I please"....Secondly. That as even the best terms, which we can expect to obtain, can amount to no more than a temporary expedient, or a kind of government by guardianship, which can last no longer than till the colonies come of age, so the general face and state of things, in the interim, will be unsettled and unpromising....O ye that love mankind! Yet that dare oppose, not only tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.

Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

Questions To Think About

1. What do the quotations suggest were the fundamental causes of the American Revolution?

2. Describe the political and constitutional views of the colonists. What is their view of Parliament's right to tax the colonies?

3. Do you think colonists from different sections and different social classes share the same political ideas?

4. Would you describe the colonists' grievances as calm and carefully reasoned or as exaggerated and paranoid?

Interpreting Statistics Colonial Society

Britain's New World Possessions, 1763
New England Massachusetts 246,000
Connecticut 146,000
New Hampshire 53,000
Rhode Island
Middle Colonies Pennsylvania
(including Delaware)
New York 97,000
New Jersey 61,000
Southern Colonies Virginia 346,000
Maryland 164,000
North Carolina 115,000
South Carolina 95,000
Georgia 6,000
Canadian Colonies Canada
(formerly New France)
Newfoundland 9,000
Nova Scotia 8,000
West Indies Jamaica 210,000
Barbados 88,000
Antigua 35,000
St. Kitts 25,000
Bermuda 11,000
Virgin Islands 7,000
Bahamas 4,000
Others 56,000

Questions To Think About

1. Which were the largest British colonies in 1760?

2. How did the 13 American colonies compare in size to Britain's other New World possessions?

3. Why do you think 13 of the colonies would band together in 1776 and declare independence-and not more or fewer?


Largest Cities in the American Colonies, 1760

Philadelphia 19,000
Boston 16,000
New York 14,000
Charleston, S.C. 8,000
Newport, R.I. 7,000
Marblehead, Mass. 5,000
Salem, Mass. 4,000

Questions To Think About

1. How many people lived in the colonies' three largest cities?

2. Why do you think the urban population was so low?

Ethnic Division of the Colonial Population, 1775
English 48.7 %
African 20.0 %
Scot-Irish 7.8 %
German 6.9 %
Scottish 6.6 %
Dutch 2.7 %
French 1.4 %
Swedish 0.6 %
Other 5.3 %

Questions To Think About

1. What proportion of American colonists were of English descent in 1775?

2. What were the largest non-English ethnic groups in the colonies?

3. Why do you think that the colonies were able to create relatively peaceful multicultural societies?

Distribution of Wealth in Colonial America

Proportion of wealth held by













Chester, Pennsylvania







Wealth per free person, 1774 (in pounds sterling)
Total Wealth Slaves Land Other
New England 33 0.02 28 5
Mid-Atlantic Colonies 51 2 27 22
South 132 58 55 19

Questions To Think About

1. How evenly was wealth distributed in the American colonies, in your view? Was it more evenly distributed in urban or rural areas?

2. Was wealth growing more or less concentrated over time?

Churches by Denomination (1750)
Anglican Baptist Catholic Congrega- tionalist Dutch Reformed German Reformed Lutheran Presby- terian
Connecticut 19 12   155       1
Massachusetts 17 16   233       8
New Hampshire 1     40       5
Rhode Island 7 30   12        
Delaware 14 2 1       3 27
New Jersey 18 14 2 2 7 4 19 2
New York 20 4 1 5 48 7 26
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