The colonists were at first demanding only equal rights with British citizens, until the events of April 1775.
In 1837, the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson published a poem called Concord Hymn, to mark the dedication of an obelisk in Concord, Massachusetts. This obelisk commemorated the events of 19 April 1775, which sparked the beginning of the American War of Independence. That day saw the firing of what Emerson called “the shot heard round the world”. It was indeed a historic day – truly a decisive moment both in British history and in the history of what became the United States.
“After the issue had become independence then it could only be sorted out by a war to the bitter end”
The events at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 were the culmination of ten years of growing tension between the colonists and the British government. At the heart of that tension lay the issue of whether the government could legitimately impose various taxes and duties on the colonists if the latter’s representatives had not given their consent. This principle of no taxation without representation had effectively been established in Britain by the end of the 17th century, and the colonists wished to be treated on an equal basis. As the Virginian lawyer Patrick Henry put it in 1765, this was “the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom”. The British government, however, insisted that it had a right to control the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”.
From the mid 1760s, this issue became progressively more contentious and each step that the British took to reassert their powers proved counterproductive. The situation escalated, and the colonists’ protests became not just verbal but physical, as in the celebrated Boston Tea Party of December 1773. General Thomas Gage, commander of the British military forces in America, wrote that “the seditious here have raised a flame in every colony”. By February 1775, the threat of disorder was so great that the British parliament, led by prime minister Lord North, declared Massachusetts to be in rebellion. They ordered Gage to restore British rule, to disarm those whom they blamed for stirring up protests, and to arrest their leaders.