Why Did The American Colonists Revolt?
Thomas Ash

A complex mythology has been built up around the American Revolution: it is a national story of great significance to the way the United States views itself. But the mythology is just that - a mythology. Contrary to the picture presented in American primary schools, the Americans were not a separate, turkey-eating people, subjugated by the cruel, tyrannical and essentially foreign British. In fact, many colonists thought of themselves as British. Historians accept that the American Revolution had a wide variety of motives and causes: these included slightly differing political traditions, the economic interests of both parties, the trading interests of those directly or indirectly involved in transatlantic commerce, the large debt Britain had accumulated in the wake of the Seven Years War, and a fair amount of mutual misunderstanding as well.

The British colonies had been around for 150 years in the 1760s - Virginia was the first to be founded in 1606. By 1763 a sizable spread of land had been carved out for Britain, and the colonies were prospering. Most importantly, the Seven Years War had just finished, leading to a complete withdrawal from the American mainland on the part of France, and, for the Spanish, losses of all but a rump of formerly French holdings west of Florida. The two great territorial rivals of the British colonies had been removed as a threat. The future looked bright and secure for the Americans, with the prospect of unlimited westward expansion held back only by the British response to Indian raids, the Proclamation Line along the Appalachians which prevented further settlement of the continent's interior.

The 13 mainland colonies between South Carolina and Maine, in particular, had grown from British settlements established for trade and prestige, highly dependent on the motherland, into semi-autonomous states. The 10 other colonies were in a very different situation, with small white populations almost exclusively growing sugar for sale to Britain in the Caribbean colonies, a very limited population with underdeveloped civil government collected in small areas of Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia little more than a military outpost.[1] It is no accident that it was the aforementioned 13 colonies[2] that rebelled.

Over the previous 150 years the colonies had attracted an ever-increasing number of immigrants and grown steadily in themselves so that they now contained significant urban centres such as Philadelphia and Boston, a large population (free and slave) of 1,593,625 in 1770[3], an abundance of land (with the prospect of more to the west - now free bar the Indians) rapidly being more fully used by the growing population it attracted, and a growing number of manufacturing industries. These were significant because the traditional model of colonies had been to serve as exporters of raw materials and staple goods to Britain and purchasers of manufactured goods, all along the protected trading lines of the Navigation Act. But the mainland American colonies were increasingly less dependent, more able to stand on their own.

In Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano points to the increasing heterogenity in the colonies (with many non-English British - Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants comprised 42.8% of the population in Pennsylvania - and numerous Germans from radical Protest sects[4]) as a factor in differences with Britain. The growing diversity of nationalities may have been seen as a part of the emergence of a set of colonies populous, wealthy and self confident in themselves, but most of the leaders in agitation were white English gentry. Notably, the New England colonies, which were at the heart of the resistance leading up to the revolution (especially Massachusetts), were 75% English.[5]

The English settlers who led the revolution were very conscious of claiming their rights as "free-born Englishmen." They were likely to have left England to set up a new life for themselves or escape religious persecution, and as such were bound to feel strongly about maintaining their relative independence. They also tended to identify with the "Commonwealth Whig" tradition which had been strong in England in the 1600s, when many of them left, a tradition which emphasised individual freedom and a stand against tyranny dating from the era of the Civil War. Talk of rights and 17th century Lockean Whiggism was influential in the pre-revolutionary dialogue.[6] This was a mindset which went together with the Puritanism of many in America.

The way the individual colonies were governed and organized varied greatly, and could hardly be described as fully democratic: the New Englanders enjoyed the most fully representative system, with voters able to decide on all matters of importance and choose local officials in annual meetings. But all the colonies had at least some tradition of ad hoc local democracy and also lively elected assemblies which assumed the role of lower houses, controlling finance and tax and acting as legislative bodies. Because of the 'policy' of "salutary neglect" practised by Parliament over the colonies, these local administrative arrangements became increasingly developed and were seen by the colonists as the accepted way the colonies should be governed. ("Salutary neglect" was the non-deliberate practical upshot of the long distance over the Atlantic and the weakness of governors - mostly Crown-appointed to run colonies seen as existing to serve Britain's economic interest - whose budgets and salaries were controlled by increasingly assertive colonial assemblies.) The electorate was of course limited to a white male oligarchy, but because of the affluence and achievable property qualifications, this oligarchy was unusually large. Because so much land was available, 70% of it was owned by freeholders[7], who were bound to feel quite involved in the political debates affecting the colonies at the time, with a stake in their future they wanted to protect. The colonists had enjoyed relatively little taxation from Britain, with over 99% of duties not paid because of widespread smuggling and corruption.[8] The colonists also bore a very light total tax burden compared to the average British subject.

The British were, however, unhappy with this situation. Even in the 1750s, there was concern at the growing independence of the American colonies. But the Seven Years War gave Britain a strong reason for getting involved: she was left with a debt of £137 million, over half of the budget going towards interest payments, and a garrison force in America which cost £384,000 a year to maintain.[9] The new Grenville ministry of 1763 naturally saw the reduction of this debt as its foremost concern, and decided that part of this would be the collection of a more meaningful contribution from the American colonies. The way in which Grenville decided to do this was to revamp and more aggressively collect existing tariffs on imports and exports in America. The central revised duty was the Sugar Act, a new version of which cut the duty on foreign molasses from 6d to 3d, but created provisions to ensure that it would be collected more vigorously, with British-appointed customs collectors forced to go to their American posts and the act enforced by an admiralty court in Halifax rather than by colonial civil courts.

The collection of such customs duties was in fact officially meant to have been in practice since 1733[10], and was seen simply as the natural state of affairs in the British Parliament, where the measure encountered little opposition. But in America the status quo had always been that the duties existed on paper, not on the seas, and colonists were happy to see them remain there. They had a view of their position, largely unformulated at this time, that did not really include the Parliamentary sovereignty over them and meaningful taxation these acts seemed to imply. This perspective is visible in many quotations, but perhaps the most pithy comes from William Knox, the agent for Georgia located in Britain: "The right of Parliament to charge foreign molasses with a duty of six-pence was unquestionable; but for Parliament to reduce the six-pence to three-pence is a violent usurpation of unconstitutional authority."[11]

The effects of the measure, which came into practice in the budget of March 1774, were quite significant in some areas. New England, where the rum distilleries were largely concentrated[12], was most affected, but the measure was felt across the colonies, as rum was a favoured drink and vital item for Indian trade. The merchants grudgingly paid the duties, but the colonial assemblies responded by issuing a number of declarations defending their right to be the main tax-levyers. Massachusetts was the first assembly to do so, acting on pressure from trade-centred Boston's Town Meeting, and in a special session asserted its right to levy internal taxes within the colony, suggesting Parliament could 'continue' - although the colonists had largely avoided this - to levy customs duties like the Sugar Act. Several other assemblies acted similarly, issuing declarations which sometimes protested specifically against the act and often defended the tax rights of the assemblies, which, unlike Parliament, contained representatives of the colonists.

The colonists did have a point. The Sugar Act was clearly an attempt to reassert British authority, and, taking it together with the high-handed use of admiralty courts and the 1764 Currency Act, which forbade the colonies from issuing paper money to pay the duties, some colonists could discern a concerted plan to bring them more closely under British administration. The British historian Keith Perry[12] mocks a young Thomas Jefferson's overblown - and pamphleteering - statement that from 1763 the colonies suffered "a series of oppressions ... [which] too plainly prove a deliberate systematical plan of reducing us to slavery."[14] But there was a grain of truth in this attitude, widespread in a less exaggerated form. The package of reforms was intended to firmly establish the political relationship between Britain and the colonies. It was not the cost of the taxes, which detailed studies[15] have shown to be very low, but the prospect of more intervention on all fronts, which worried them. This fear of tyranny was not a matter of petty economic self-interest, though domestic economics doubtless helped prod merchants into mobilizing some of the initial concern.

Britain clearly stated her intentions[16], with Grenville happily talking of "domination", and the Stamp Act was part of the same 1764 package. Passed in March 1765, to come into effect later that year, this was called by Whately, Secretary of the Treasury, "a great measure on account of the point it establishes, the right of Parliament to levy an internal tax upon the colonies."[17]

The Stamp Act was different from the Sugar Act in the eyes of the colonists because it was an internal tax, levied inland and thus more visible as a direct intrusion. It was powerful as a sign of Parliament's intervention, as it was a duty all Americans were likely to pay and meant all official documents like wills, newspapers, advertisements and playing cards had to be on special stamped paper. In the wake of the Sugar Act, which had elicited only fearful warnings against further intrusion, resistance to the Stamp Act was stronger. It was triggered by the wealthy, English oligarchies, politically aware and wishing to defend their acquired status. Patrick Henry's inflammatory Virginia resolves were partly accepted by an unrepresentative rump of the Virginia assembly, and other assemblies began to condemn the Stamp Act. They began closer inter-colonial opposition (as all colonies were affected in the same way) with an October Stamp Act Congress, which declared that only colonists' own representatives had the right to tax them, adding that they were loyal British subjects.

But as well as these assembly-led efforts, for the first time the resistance to British encroachment moved beyond political elites, to the streets. In Boston, the "Sons of Liberty" group, again led and started by the oligarchy, emerged as a channel for genuine grassroots anger, with a new popular dynamic at first connected to the economic slump. A "Sons of Liberty" mob burned the effigy of the local loyalist stamp distributors, and, throughout the colonies, crowds harassed their stamp distributors, forcing them to resign, so that by the time the Act was meant to take effect, it was a dead letter.

Resistance to the Act was so crippling that the new Rockingham ministry in Britain, taken aback, soon repealed it, but - resenting the implication that Parliament was not sovereign over the colonies - issued the Declaratory Act, which stated the contrary. American opposition had been based around the idea of an internal tax as an intrusion into Americans' affairs. But this position meant that Parliament had little practical authority over the colonies and Britain did not "possess" the American colonies in any meaningful way, something the colonists did not fully realise. The distinction between an internal and external tax was anyway spurious, as both were simply ways for Britain to raise a revenue from the colonies, which it had spent and was spending a large amount to defend (though the colonists never asked for the Seven Years War, something British historical accounts tend to ignore). This Britain was now determined to do, as much as a point of principle as a financial matter, and the Grenville program had thus far failed to bring the colonies into the sort of relationship the British envisaged. Although the Americans still thought of themselves as loyal British, they were slowly moving away from the idea of being loyal British subjects, because at the heart of their resistance was the desire for the continuation of almost total self-government.

The British response in 1766, with Charles Townshend now de facto Prime Minister, was to create a new set of import duties to pay imperial officials - something which was unhelpful as it only made them look more like foreign impositions free from all local control - and help pay for the cost of the army. Yet the duties were mainly an assertation of parliamentary sovereignty. Because of the recent Sugar Act and Stamp Act, resistance in America was very rapid, with much pamphleteering, non-importation by American merchants and an organised campaign of boycotting by local Sons of Liberty and crowds. The colonies were determined to halt Parliament's campaign. The Townshend Duties had to be repealed because insufficient revenue was being generated to support officials, but the tea duty was left to stand as a symbol of Parliament's right to tax the colonies. The Duties were the last attempt by Britain to revamp the colonial relationship - from now on the initiative would pass to the colonists.

British troops had had to be called to keep order in Boston. The Townshend customs commissioners there had been at risk as targets of public anger, but this anger now transferred itself onto the at times high-handed Redcoats, who were seen as the military arm of British encroachment. On March 5th, 1770, the Boston Massacre, the culmination of a series of clashes, saw eight British soldiers, pelted with ice and stones, open fire and kill five Bostonians. Though Parliament was subsequently quiet for 3 years, the mood in the American towns had changed to one of tension and imminent confrontation, and this soon spread to the countryside.

In 1773, Parliament made a change to tea duties again, changing the way tea was sold and taxed to prop up the failing East India company. This actually made tea cheaper for the colonists. But they were by now so conditioned against any British involvement that they took the act as raising the issue of British taxation in America again, and reacted by turning the ships away from port. In Boston, though, when the governor allowed the ships to dock and insisted the tea be unloaded, 60 Sons of Liberty disguised as Mohawks boarded the ships and dumped the cargo.

To Parliament, this was a fragrant and violent challenge to its authority. It was seen as requiring a response to restore authority rather than clarify constitutional arrangements, and the Coercive Acts temporarily closed Boston's port, clamped down on local democratic bodies, and bolstered the powers of the new governor, General Gage of the British forces, and his troops. Massachusetts was seen to be under a state of martial law, and the other colonies stood firm with it, effectively bringing an end to British rule and the British institutions of government that had existed from the colonies' founding.

Extra-legal institutions began to be set up, with provincial conventions of 'pro-liberty' colonists running the country at a local level (as British troops could only be spread so far) and colonists preparing for the onslaught - because the conflict remained a 'domestic' affair it was not known as a war - resisted British soldiers ordered to seize their munitions stockpiles. The conventions completely unofficially elected delegates to the inter-colonial First Continental Congress which, in Philadelphia in 1774, issued a statement, substantially more radical than the position of most only a few years ago, allowing Britain only a royal veto on colonial legislation and Parliamentary legislation on external commerce.

Though from 1763 to early 1774 the colonists did not consciously aspire to complete independence, they all along wanted a degree of self-government that was all but total. This was the status quo, acquired through "privileges [accumulated] through custom and accretion."[18] All their conduct over this period was aimed at defending that position. Many accounts[19] suggest that the American revolution was not inevitable, but America, with oligarchies separated from Britain by the Atlantic, just wanted to develop on its own. The clumsy actions Britain took to pay its debt and reassert its authority were, as Gerald Brown says, "attempting to check the historic development of more than a century."[20] The colonists' primarily political concern at these actions, combined with some economic motivation, clarified their desire for complete separation from British rule.

Endnotes

1. Crisis Of Empire: Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, Ian Christie (Edward Arnold, 1966) - p3

2. Henceforth, 'the colonies.'

3. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975)

4. Figures from 1770s. Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano (Routledge, 2000) - p13

5. Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano (Routledge, 2000) - p13

6. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, Massachusetts)

7. Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano (Routledge, 2000)- p16

8. Ibid - p28 (only £1,800 was collected annually)

9. Ibid - p27

10. See The Age Of Oligarchy, Geoffrey Holmes and Daniel Szechi, (Longman, 1993) p375 for a table of legislation affecting the colonies.

11. In his The Controversy between Great Britain and her Colonies Reviewed (1969) - cited in British Politics and the American Revolution, Keith Perry (MacMillan Education, 1990) p55

12. Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano (Routledge, 2000) - p29

13. British Politics and the American Revolution, Keith Perry (MacMillan Education, 1990) - p30

14. A Summary of the Rights of America (1774.) Francis D. Cogliano (an American) rather curiously points out that, since Jefferson kept slaves himself, he would have had a close knowledge of what slavery was!

15. The Economic History of Britain since 1700 Vol. 1, ed. Floud and McCloskey (Cambridge, 1981)

16. Thomas Whitely, Secretary to the Treasury in Britain, wrote of the duties: "they are a political regulation [and enforce] the observance of [our] wise laws." (see footnote below) Benjamin Franklin's comment from Britain was that "Every man in England seems to consider himself as a piece of sovereign over America." This was certainly true of the firmly held view of the constitution which emphasised Parliamentary sovereignty that was almost universal in Parliament.

17. This quote, and the quote in the footnote above, come from A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act , John L. Bullion (Missouri, 1982)

18. The Age Of Oligarchy, Geoffrey Holmes and Daniel Szechi, (Longman, 1993) - p304

19. eg. Christie and Labaree's Empire or Independence 1770-1776, Wright's Fabric of Freedom, 1763-1800

20. The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Gerald Brown (1963) - p179

Bibliography

Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano (Routledge, 2000)
British Politics and the American Revolution, Keith Perry (MacMillan Education, 1990)
Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
The Age Of Oligarchy
, Geoffrey Holmes and Daniel Szechi, (Longman, 1993)
Crisis Of Empire: Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, Ian Christie (Edward Arnold, 1966)
The American Secretary: The Colonial Policy of Lord George Germain, 1775-1778, Gerald Brown (1963)
A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act , John L. Bullion (Missouri, 1982)
The Economic History of Britain since 1700 Vol. 1, ed. Floud and McCloskey (Cambridge, 1981)
Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975)

© 2002

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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