“No taxation without representation!” “Give me liberty, or give me death!” “The British are coming!” The American Revolution had no shortage of mottos—things famously said by famous men and drilled into your brain by your history teachers. But the regular, non-Declaration-signing colonists had plenty of opinions about the oppressive British rule as well. Here are eight real grievances aired by colonial citizens leading up to and during the Revolutionary War—in their own words.
1. The Townshend Acts of 1767 “Threaten the Country with Poverty and Ruin.”
At a town meeting held at Faneuil Hall in Boston on October 28, 1767, Boston Freeholders and residents discussed the implications of the brutal Townshend Acts levied against the colonists. The Townshend Acts were a set of four acts passed by the British Parliament in the summer of 1767 in order to generate revenue for the Crown (through duties on goods such as lead, glass, paper, and tea) as well as exert British control over the increasingly rebellious colonists.
During the Oct. 28 meeting, the Bostonians found:
The excessive use of foreign superfluities is the chief cause of the present distressed state of this town, as it is thereby drained of its money: which misfortune is likely to be increased by means of the late additional burthens and impositions on the trade of the province, which threaten the country with poverty and ruin.
As a result, the citizens unanimously voted to boycott all British-made goods.
2. “Save your Money, and Save your Country!”
On November 16, 1767, the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser ran a letter from a man speaking in favor of Boston’s decision to boycott British-made goods. The unnamed letter-writer commends the Town of Boston “for setting so laudable an example” to encourage the production of goods in the colonies.
He ends his declaration of support with the rousing words:
Thus my countrymen, by consuming less of what we are not really in want of, and by industriously cultivating and improving the natural advantages of our own country, we might save our substance, even our lands, from becoming the property of others, and we might effectually preserve our virtue and our liberty, to the latest posterity. Blessings, surely, which no man, while in the exercise of his reason will contentedly part with, for a few foreign trifles. Save your Money, and save your Country!
3. “Since money's so scarce, and times growing worse / Strange things may soon hap and surprize you.”
The same issue of the Boston Post-Boy & Advertiser ran an “Address to the Ladies”—a rhyming poem that encourages women to exchange their satin ribbons for colonial twine and fancy brocade for homemade linen. Here’s a taste:
Young ladies in town, and those that live round,
Let a friend at this season advise you:
Since money's so scarce, and times growing worse
Strange things may soon hap and surprize you:
First then, throw aside your high top knots of pride
Wear none but your own country linen;
Of economy boast, let your pride be the most
To show clothes of your own make and spinning.
What, if homespun they say is not quite so gay
As brocades, yet be not in a passion,
For when once it is known this is much wore in town,
One and all will cry out, 'tis the fashion!
A fun twist comes in the final stanza, where the writer concludes that wearing homemade goods rather than foreign imports will make the ladies all the more fetching to colonial gentlemen.
4. “No tea, but as much New-England Rum as you please.”
But the ladies, it seems, didn’t need any encouragement. While the men were drafting declarations and having town meetings, the women were busy with protests of their own. As women typically took care of buying the household goods (like food, ink, and fabric for clothes), they were the ones to really carry out the boycott of items taxed by the Townshend Acts.
In the December 24, 1767, issue of the The Massachusetts Gazette Extraordinary, an article praised an “assembly of Ladies of the first quality” for doing just that. In addition to forsaking hair ribbons and taking up spinning, this group of women “drink nothing at their meetings but New England Rum.” The article continues, “And the patriotism of the above Ladies is more illustrious and worthy of imitation, as Rum is the principal and almost only manufacture of this country.”
5. “The very nature of freedom supposes that no tax can be levied on a people without their consent.”
In 1769, schoolmaster Charles Thomson (who would go on to become Secretary of the Continental Congress), writing on behalf of the Philadelphia Merchants’ Committee, declares that the taxes levied against the colonies are for the express purpose of depriving Americans of their liberties. He writes:
How much further they may proceed is uncertain; but from what they have already done the colonies see that their property is precarious & their liberty insecure. It is true the impositions already laid are not very grievous; but if the principle is established, and the authority, by which they are laid, admitted, there is no security for what remains. The very nature of freedom supposes that no tax can be levied on a people without their consent given personally or by their representatives.
6. Protests Turned to Violence During the “Catastrophe” of the “Horrid Massacre in Boston.”
Following the colonists’ adverse reaction to the Quartering, Stamp, and Townshend Acts, Great Britain installed armed forces in Boston to help keep the peace. On March 5, 1770, after two years of military presence in Boston, the first blood of what would become the Revolutionary War was shed when British troops opened fire on colonial civilians, killing six men.
Before chronicling the events of the massacre, an anonymous witness set the scene by laying bare the colonists' anger at the installed troops:
Thus were we, in aggravation of our other embarrassments, embarrassed with troops, forced upon us contrary to our inclination–contrary to the spirit of Magna Charta–contrary to the very letter of the Bill of Rights, in which it is declared, that the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with the consent of parliament, is against law.
7. “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.”
In 1773, newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia published a letter to the Commissioners of the East India Company in regards to the high taxes on tea in the colonies. As middlemen between the British rulers and the taxpaying American citizens, the writers proclaim, the East India Company Commissioners “are marked out as political Bombardiers to demolish the fair structure of American liberty.” The letter-writers ask that the Commissioners ignore Parliament’s sanctions and instead stand with the colonies.
8. “We are directly to cut up your corn, shoot your pigs, burn your houses.”
While the revolutionaries had much to complain about during the 1760s and ‘70s, loyalists—who often felt persecuted by the so-called rebels—had their own set of grievances to air. Janet Schaw, a Scot visiting her brother in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1775, wrote of her time in the colonies:
At present the martial law stands thus: An officer or committeeman enters a plantation with his posse. The alternative is proposed. Agree to join us [Whigs] and your persons and properties are safe . . . if you refuse, we are directly to cut up your corn, shoot your pigs, burn your houses, … and perhaps tar and feather yourself. Not to choose the first requires more courage than they are possessed of, and I believe this method has seldom failed with the lower sort.