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Causes of the American Revolution

The causes of the American Revolution are numerous and not universally agreed-upon.

The Declaration of Indepence was the key document of the American Revolution. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The Declaration of Indepence was the key document of the American Revolution.

Causes of the American Revolution

The Revolutionary War is one of the most studied, analyzed and debated events in American history. And rightfully so; the statesmen and soldiers who led the revolution are now legendary as American patriots. The institutions that still govern our country can be traced back to the struggle to create a nation when the Revolutionary War was won.

The French and Indian War

To trace the causes of the American Revolution, it's necessary to look back well before the year 1776, the year when the colonies approved and published their Declaration of Independence, announcing to the world their freedom from England. The Revolutionary War has its roots in another, less well known struggle: the French and Indian War of a quarter century earlier.

According to The Philadelphia Print Shop, by 1750 Great Britain controlled most of the eastern seaboard of North America. British territory covered ground that stretched up the Atlantic coast from what is today the state of Georgia all the way to parts of the present-day provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland of Canada.

But the British were not alone in North America. The Native American tribes still enjoyed their freedom in the interior of the continent, west of the Appalachian Mountains, while the French maintained a colony in the central part of the continent that was large in territory though sparse in population. (The British colonies had more than ten times the population of New France at the time of the French and Indian War.)

In 1754, the French and Indian War began as an armed conflict began between the British and the French over land in the Ohio Valley between the British colonies and New France. The struggle intensified as the British and French angled for strategic advantage in North America. The French eventually lost the war, along with most of their territory in North America.

But the French and Indian War was only one only one stage of a larger conflict between France and England. Two years after the beginning of the war in America, fighting broke out in Europe, where it also involved Spain and many of the German states; this was called the Seven Years War.

The Costs of the War

The French and Indian War and the Seven Years War were resolved by the same treaty in 1763. The settlement was favorable for Great Britain. Essentially the British won the right to dominate North America and India, but it had not been cheap.

Although the British colonies had reluctantly participated in the American war, it was fought and won almost exclusively by troops from Britain itself. The colonies were reluctant to send their militias into Canada where the battles were actually fought, despite the large subsidies they received from the British government.

In the end, Great Britain was saddled with a massive debt for the war, as well as the prospect of high ongoing expenses to maintain the military presence that would protect the enlarged colonial territory. Meanwhile, the colonies were ever more prosperous, in part thanks to the war itselfthey had received direct subsidies from the British treasury, and colonial merchants had done good business providing supplies and food for the British army.

The End of Salutary Neglect

Prior to the wars, Great Britain had treated the colonies with a policy of salutary neglect; in other words, the British government had been fairly lax about enforcing the laws and taxes that were supposed to regulate colonial trade, because Great Britain was also benefiting from it. The colonies flourished under this policy.

But when the Seven Years War and the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the British thought it was time to reevaluate the relationship. They wanted to end the "hands off" approach with which they had regulated the colonies, and to assert more direct control, both politically and financially. Now that Great Britain's treasury was strained, they wanted to shift some of the burdens of empire to the backs of the colonists, who meanwhile had gotten quite used to little or no day-to-day interference from London.

This tension between the British, eager to reassert control in the wake of a costly war, and the Colonies, resentful of British interference, was the fundamental cause of the American Revolution. It escalated over the next decade, as both sides refused to back down, and culminated in the Revolutionary War.

The Road to Revolution

The British Parliament's attempts to reign in the colonies after the French and Indian War included several legislative acts:

  • The Sugar Act of 1764: Although this legislation technically lowered the taxes on molasses and sugar in the colonies, the British government promised that it would be strictly enforced, unlike the previous higher tax which was widely evaded.
  • The Stamp Act of 1765: While Great Britain had previously taxed trade in the colonies, this was the first attempt to tax the colonists directly, and it was extremely unpopular. Many British colonists, some of them future leaders of the revolution, organized to protest the taxes. Amid threats of a boycott and incidents of mob violence against British officials, the Stamp Act was repealed the following year.
  • The Townshend Acts of 1767: This was an attempt to impose an indirect tax, a duty on many imported goods, that the British hoped the colonists would accept. The colonists opposed the duties, although without the violence of the Stamp Act protests, and many began to boycott British goods again. In 1770, all but the duties on tea were repealed.

As the tensions between Great Britain and the colonies increased, likeminded colonists began to organize networks of communication, groups like the Sons of Liberty and eventually the Correspondence Committees and Committees of Safety, that they used to share ideas and information, and in some cases to plan collective action.

Meanwhile, episodes of violence were becoming more and more common, including the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770, when British soldiers fired into a violent mob and killed several colonists, and an incident in 1772 when colonists captured and destroyed a British ship that had been sent to combat colonial smugglers.

The Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party

In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, a piece of legislation that was in part designed to demonstrate the British government's supremacy over the colonies. To protest the Tea Act, a group of colonists boarded a ship in Boston harbor and dumped its cargo of tea into the harbor.

The Boston Tea Party provoked the British Government to pass a series of coercive measures in 1774 that the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. Among their provisions were the closure of Boston harbor and the curtailment of the powers of local government in the Massachusetts colony.

In the fall of 1774, colonial leaders met in Philadelphia in the first Continental Congress and agreed to a new boycott British goods. The following spring, British soldiers moved to confiscate the weapons of the Massachusetts militia and to arrest the members of the Massachusetts assembly, which was meeting illegally. But the Massachusetts militia defended itself, leading to the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War.

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