SAT Subject Test U.S. History: The Fight for Independence
About 20 percent of the SAT Subject Test in U.S. History covers the period from 1763 to 1800. The majority of exam questions from this time period focus on political and economic history. Social, intellectual, cultural, and foreign policy issues take a backseat to questions about power and money. Most likely, you’ll see questions dealing with the American colonists’ motivations for rebellion and the decisions the founding fathers made after the new nation gained independence. Remember, during this time period, the American colonies and the ensuing United States were still experiments.
Throughout the revolutionary period, you see attempts by various people and groups to control and rebel. Some of these trial administrations worked, and some didn’t. But the important point is that the American colonies ended up creating an entirely new and unprecedented system of government that continues to survive today.
Untying the apron strings: A prelude to independence
The great experiment that was the American colonies became quite messy in the early 1760s. After defeating the French in the French and Indian War, the colonists and the British appeared united. Over the next decade, however, tensions mounted between the two groups. As the British became increasingly oppressive in their rule over the colonies, crisis after crisis foreshadowed the revolution.
The Proclamation of 1763
Three months after the Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War, Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa tribe, attacked a garrison of British soldiers at Fort Detroit. Although the British defeated Pontiac after several months of fighting, King George III worried about future conflicts with the Native Americans. As a consequence of this conflict, known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from settling west of an imaginary line that followed the Appalachians from Canada to Georgia. This line was meant to protect Native Americans, colonists, and the fur trade, but many colonists had already moved beyond this boundary (or chose to ignore it). To protect their interests in uncertain times, Britain kept a large amount of soldiers stationed in the American colonies. This move, though seemingly innocent, would eventually lead to numerous confrontations between the British government and the American colonists.
Acting up: British attempts to raise revenue
Britain’s debt from the French and Indian War amounted to a whopping £123 million (that’s more than $220 million in U.S. dollars, and imagine if that amount were adjusted for 250 years worth of inflation!). As you can guess, the British government needed a solution to its massive debt problem. Grenville, King George III’s chief minister, had an answer: The British government could raise the money by taxing the American colonies, of course! And several parliamentary acts followed to attempt to ease the war debt. The British government felt these taxes were fair because its troops were stationed in the colonies to protect the colonists. To assist in collecting the taxes, in 1760, Britain began issuing Writs of Assistance in the colonies; these open-ended writs had no expiration dates and allowed the officer who possessed them to search and seize, especially in cases of customs inspections.
Colonists didn’t accept taxation too well. Great Britain had pretty much left the colonists alone (a policy called benign neglect) in the decades before the French and Indian War. Now that Britain was paying more attention to the colonies, the colonists weren’t used to being controlled. They didn’t think they needed a standing British army in the colonies because they had their own militias to protect their interests. They also resented being taxed without having any say in the matter. The colonists had no elected officials in the British Parliament to represent their point of view when decisions to tax them were being made; the colonists had to endure British “taxation without representation.” Here are some of the important tax measures and how colonists reacted to them:
- Sugar Act of 1764: The Sugar Act increased the duty (import tax) on molasses from the French West Indies and increased the penalties for smuggling sugar (which colonists did to avoid paying duties) to force the colonists to buy more expensive molasses from the British West Indies. Colonists resented this type of control over a basic commodity and became hostile toward the British government.
- Stamp Act of 1765: This measure imposed a tax on paper used for all sorts of colonial documents (like contracts, marriage certificates, and even decks of cards) and required colonists to place a special stamp on the paper to prove that the tax had been paid. Colonists already paid taxes to their local governments, which were made up of elected representatives. Thus, to the colonists, the Stamp Act represented a breach of autonomy. Even though the tax was miniscule — perhaps a cent or so — it was more than citizens living in Britain had to pay, and that seemed unfair to the colonists. They resented the control the British government exerted on their lives without their having any say in the matter.
- The Townshend Duties of 1767: The Townshend Duties placed taxes on common items like lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea. Once again colonists were angered about being taxed without having representation in Parliament. Colonial women were primarily affected by the tea tax, so they got involved in the protests, too.
Tensions over the acts mounted and, in Boston in March 1770, a small crowd began harassing British soldiers, and a bloody confrontation ensued. Colonists threw snowballs and rocks at the soldiers, and the soldiers fired into the crowd, wounding 11 and killing 5. Revolutionary Samuel Adams called the event the Boston Massacre and advertised it for anti-British propaganda purposes, and many Bostonians demanded that Britain remove the troops from their city. In 1770, the British government repealed the duties, except for the tax on tea. But colonists had seen the writing on the wall and, in 1772, Samuel Adams set up Committees of Correspondence to establish networks of communication among the colonies in order to organize resistance to British policies.
- Tea Act of 1773: Because the tax on tea remained in place, protestors like merchant John Hancock ordered a boycott on tea sold by the British East India Company, and colonial merchants and smugglers profited. This boycott displeased the East India Company, and it turned to the British government for help. In response, Parliament enacted the Tea Act, which lifted the tax on the East India Company’s tea so it could undercut the colonial merchants’ (and smugglers’) prices. Most colonial ports turned away the East India ships in protest, but the British army planned to assist the East India Company so it could land its ships in Boston. The Sons of Liberty, a group of protestors that had been active since the Stamp Act crisis, thwarted the delivery by dumping the tea into the harbor to show their distaste for the Tea Act. The 150 protestors — many dressed as Native Americans — dumped the tea overboard as thousands of supporters watched from land. This incident became known as the Boston Tea Party.
- Coercive or Intolerable Acts: As a result of the Boston Tea Party, the British government passed the Coercive Acts in 1774 (which the colonists called the Intolerable Acts). The Coercive Acts was a series of oppressive acts intended to punish Boston, which was the heart of the rebellion. These acts closed Boston Harbor to trade; suspended the Massachusetts charter, essentially abolishing the local judicial system; allowed the quartering of soldiers in civilian homes; and gave control of present-day Ohio, where many colonists had been living, to the Canadian governors of Quebec. These acts affected all aspects of everyday life in Boston and caused fear among colonists outside of Boston, turning even the most ordinary British colonists into revolutionaries.
Colonial leaders decided to meet in the fall of 1774 in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress to address the abuses of the British government.
The SAT Subject Test is unlikely to ask you about the details of any one act. Remember, history is causal — events cause other events, and so on. Understanding the causes of major events is much more important than recalling the details of individual acts on their own. You’re more likely to see a question like the following:
What inspired colonists to meet in Philadelphia to hold the First Continental Congress?
- Wars with Native Americans
- Trade problems with Britain
- The Coercive Acts
- Taxation without representation
- The Proclamation of 1763
Upon first examination, answers, (B), (C), and (D) look plausible. However, after thinking about it for a moment, you see that taxation without representation caused trade problems with Britain (such as the Boston Tea Party), which in turn caused the Coercive Acts. Thus, the only correct answer is (C). Remembering that history is heavily influenced by momentum will help you on the SAT Subject Test.