On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress takes the first step toward American independence by announcing their decision to open all American ports to international trade with any part of the world that is not under British rule.
It was the first act of independence by the Continental Congress that had so openly and publicly rejected the American Prohibitory Act passed by the British parliament in December 1775. The act was designed to punish the American colonies for the rebellion against the king and British rule, which had begun with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, by banning all British trade with America. It was, in essence, a declaration of economic warfare by Great Britain. For its part, the Continental Congress’ decision to open all ports to any country but those ruled by Britain constituted America’s declaration of economic independence.
The economic relationship between Britain and the 13 colonies had been mercantilist—the colonies provided raw materials such as rice and tobacco to the mother country, Great Britain, and in return received manufactured goods such as textiles and ceramics or foreign goods such as tea. Under the mercantile system, all American imports and exports had to pass through Great Britain on their way to and from the colonies. Undoing this economic relationship was a necessary aspect of freeing the colonies from the control of the British empire. Recognizing this, Britain had passed the Tea Act in 1773 in a misguided attempt to trick colonists into accepting parliamentary taxation by making legal tea imported from India through Britain cheaper than non-taxed tea smuggled into the colonies from the Netherlands. It failed; the colonists were outraged and protested vigorously, most famously in form of the Boston Tea Party. The Prohibitory Act finally cut the colonists loose from the mercantilist system, but not without repercussions: colonists lost not only the burdens of British taxes, but the benefits of British products, making it necessary for the new nation to open its ports to trade from elsewhere.