Causes of the Revolution


*The Peace of Paris ended the French and Indian war for the French, but not for the Indians.  The war had, after all, begun over land claims, and settlers streamed into the back country and over the Appalachian Mountains even before the war was over--after all, D. Boon cilled a bar on a tree in 1760 in modern Washington County, Tennessee. 


*These settlers provoked the Indians living west of the mountains, and shortly after the French and Indian War ended, Indians attacked again under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac who briefly united several tribes to attack British forts and settlements around the Great Lakes.  They killed around 2,000 soldiers and settlers before being put down by force of arms and gifts of blankets infected with small pox.


*To avoid future conflicts, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, creating the Proclamation Line, forbidding settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains or even trading with the Indians without the permission of the British government.  Although the British planned to eventually allow settlement of this area, they meant to do it in a slow and carefully managed way rather than in the haphazard manner of earlier settlement that had so often provoked Indian wars in the past.  The colonists who had fought to open this land to settlement, however, felt betrayed.  This was just the first of many misunderstandings between the British government and their American colonists.


*The fact was that the colonists saw themselves as completely British and were proud of it.  As members of the British Empire, they enjoyed more freedom and self-government than anyone else on earth, and they attributed this to traditions of liberty enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 and to a mixed government that combined the best aspects of the three basic forms of government.


*Many colonial leaders were well-educated in the classics, and familiar with the work of the Greco-Roman historian Polybius (or works based on his), who stated that mankind naturally starts in a state of chaos until a strong leader can unite the people behind him in a monarchy (rule by one).  Over the course of time, though, a single ruler or his heirs will be come corrupt, and a good monarchy will become a tyranny.  This, in turn, will be overthrown by the best men in society, creating an aristocracy (rule by the best).  However, as their power becomes entrenched, they will rule for their own self-interest rather than the good of all, and become an oligarchy (rule by the few).  Finally, the people as a whole will rise up against this corrupt elite using the power of democracy (rule by the people), but soon this will collapse into mere mob rule (or ochlocracy).  Eventually a strong leader would emerge from this chaos and the cycle would begin again.


*The British constitution (meaning the collection of laws and traditions that had accumulated over the centuries, rather than a single written constitution) avoided this by having all three forms of rule combined:  the king was the monarch, the House of Lords was the aristocracy, and the elected House of Commons was the democracy, and each restrained the others.  Most importantly, the House of Commons had the power of the purse, being the only part of the government allowed to create new taxes. 


*In the American colonies, most colonial governments worked in much the same way, with an appointed Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, an appointed Council, and an elected Assembly, House of Commons, or House of Burgesses that had the power of the purse and used it to keep the governors relatively weak (if they even bothered to go to America at all--many remained in Britain and enjoyed the prestige and salary of a provincial governor with the inconvenience of actually sailing to America).


*Although only about 2% of British subjects in Britain could actually vote thanks to property qualifications and other restrictions, that was far more than in any other country, and the British often referred to the subjects of other monarchs (particularly the French) as slaves and sometimes even called their own system a republic because it was held together by the virtue of all classes of people.  To be sure, some British, particularly some members of the Whig party, felt that the British monarch had too much power to appoint men to important offices and used this and other favours to bribe politicians and other influential men, and this undermined the virtue (a subordination of personal interests to the public good) necessary to a free society, but most British people had faith in their government, including the British colonists in America, who saw themselves as part of a great British tradition and were proud to be so.


*In Britain (and America) at this time, it was believed that liberty was based on property--only someone with enough property to be independent of anyone else's control could truly be free.  This was one reason Britain and her colonies had property qualifications to vote:  a man who did not own enough property to support himself was not truly free, because whoever had economic influence over him might influence his vote, too. 


*Under long-standing traditions and the newer contract theory of government, a just government could not just take a free person's property.  Taxes were, at least in theory, a gift from the people to the government.  Therefore, taxes could only be levied by a representative body such as Parliament or a colonial legislature because it represented the property-owners whose property was being given to the government in the form of taxes.  This is why the House of Commons and the elected colonial assemblies had the power of the purse, and they guarded that privilege jealously.


*However, some traditions of government had changed over the centuries that people of the mother country and the colonies had been apart.


*A theoretical division, at least in America, was drawn between internal taxes (levied on property, to raise revenue for the government) and external taxes (levied on trade, to regulate commerce and the Empire as a whole in the name of mercantilism, which the colonists claimed to support even as they ignored it in practise through rampant smuggling).  Most British people felt this was a pointless distinction.


*A theoretical division, at least in Britain, was drawn between actual and virtual representation.  Actual representation occurred when a man voted for a member of parliament and the MP then represented the specific interests of the constituency that elected him, but some political thinkers had come to feel that MPs also virtually represented all Englishmen (most of whom did not vote any way), because they naturally had certain sympathies with all members of the United Kingdom, even those who were not born in the same county they were.  Many Americans felt this was unrealistic, at least across the Atlantic, and felt that only actual representation of the voters' interests granted acceptable authority to create an internal tax.


*There were a number of external taxes in place before the 1760s (such as the Molasses Act of 1733), but most were not enforced, or at least not enforced well.  Many Americans (like John Hancock) grew rich off smuggling.


*Taxes like this were acceptable in part because they were easy to get around and because they were part of the mercantilist system.  The idea behind the mercantilist system (which all imperial powers used) was that the colonies ought to supply raw materials to Europe, who would in turn sell manufactured goods to the colonies.  Each set of colonies only supplied and bought from the mother country.  The idea was that each empire would be self-sufficient.  Indirect taxes that promoted this were seen as a reasonable part of keeping the empire running.  They also often helped the colonies, as products like tobacco were essentially subsidised by this system, which made sure Virginia tobacco could be sold in London, although under theories of mercantilism, colonial industry was officially discouraged in the colonies so that they would remain consumers of Britain's manufactured goods rather that competitors.


*Thanks to the French and Indian War, however, Britain was deep (125 million to 140 million) in debt, and also needed to police the Proclamation Line.  The British government would need to pay for all of this, and rapidly came to feel that the colonies, on whose behalf the war had been fought, ought to help pay for it and, in general, ought to be managed more closely in the future.  Unfortunately, according to many colonists, taxes that specifically raise revenue could only be created by a colony's actual representatives in the colonial legislature, not by virtual representatives in London for whom they had never voted and with whom they had no connexion at all.


*The weakness of the connexion between the colonists and officials from Britain had become clear during the French and Indian War as well, when many colonial leaders, particularly militia officers like George Washington felt slighted by the British military officers and other officials they dealt with, a fact made worse by the incompetence of many British generals (such as in Braddock's Blunder and the 1757 attack on Ticonderoga).  On the other hand, British officers felt that the colonial militia were undisciplined, poorly trained, and unreliable, and many British leaders resented how reluctant the colonists were to even provide militiamen or even supplies to assist the British army that was there to fight for them, and then certainly did not want to pay for it afterwards.

This page last updated 24 August, 2015.
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