US Military History Companion:

Revolutionary War (1775 – 83): Causes

This entry is a subentry of Revolutionary War (1775 – 83).

The roots of the Revolutionary War ran deep in the structure of the British empire, an entity transformed, like the British state itself, by the Anglo‐French wars of the eighteenth century. After the fourth of these conflicts, the Seven Years' (or French and Indian) War, the British government tried to reform the now greatly expanded empire. The American colonists resisted, creating a series of crises that culminated in the armed rebellion of 1775.

The Imperial Background

With the Glorious Revolution (1688), England's foreign policy took the anti‐French path it followed until 1815—a path that led to four wars before 1775. These conflicts spawned a British nationalism with powerfully anti‐Catholic overtones. They also transformed the British state into the most powerful fiscal‐military agency in Europe.

Britain's greatest weapon was its funded national debt, which harnessed private savings to military ends. British financiers, managing the joint stock corporations—the Bank of England, the South Seas Company, the East India Company—loaned the government money in wartime; the government used postwar tax revenues to pay interest on what became a perpetual debt. The demand for revenues stimulated the growth of another fiscal engine, the Treasury. A “Real Whig” (or “Country”) political ideology emerged, which denounced this powerful state as the enemy of liberty, stressed the dangers of standing armies, and insisted that consent to taxation was the property holder's sole bulwark against “enslavement” by would‐be tyrants in the government. “Country” ideology dominated the language of political opposition, but barely slowed the growth of the state. Each war's demands—and the stability of a securities market underwritten by tax monies—overrode the objections of those who feared expansion of state power.

The third Anglo‐French War (1739–48) brought America back in to British strategic calculations for the first time. New England colonists attacked Canada, conquering Louisbourg, the naval base that controlled access to the St. Lawrence. This prevented French reinforcement and resupply, and would have led to the conquest of Canada, had not merchants in Albany traded overland with Québec and kept New York neutral in the fighting. This independent foreign policy outraged British administrators, especially Lord Halifax. Between 1748 and 1754, Halifax and his associates at the Board of Trade planned reforms to ensure that in future wars the empire would function as a unit.

The Seven Years' War (1754–63) Destabilizes Imperial Relations

The French and Indian War, which became the Seven Years' War in Europe, created unprecedented problems of finance and control for Britain. In the war's early years, before 1758, the colonists traded with the enemy and refused to pay for British military operations. The ministry of William Pitt (1757–61) solved the first problem by offering to reimburse the colonies for part of their war expenses; the second solved itself as Britain conquered French colonies in Canada and the Caribbean. Pitt's victories and policies, however, doubled the national debt and made his successor determined to contain costs and reform the empire.

Beginning with George Grenville in 1763, a series of British ministers tightened the bonds of empire while trying to spread some of the costs of imperial defense to the colonies. They revived Halifax's plans to increase metropolitan supervision over imperial trade and the internal polities of the colonies, but also responded to the urgent legacies of war. As early as 1762, Whitehall planned to station fifteen regular army battalions permanently in America, with the colonists paying the bill. When the Peace of Paris in 1763 added all France's holdings east of the Mississippi River to the empire, the army became the de facto administrator of the conquests.

Ministerial efforts to stamp out illegal trade (which resumed after the peace treaty returned to France its richest sugar islands) coincided with attempts to subordinate the colonies to the metropolis. Colonists who believed that Anglo‐American cooperation and shared sacrifice had achieved the victory were outraged, and the patriotic fervor of the war evaporated in the face of postwar reforms. Chaos ensued when Parliament tried to extract money directly from the colonies with the Stamp Act of 1765.

The Stamp Act protests expressed outrage at British control. Adapting “Real Whig” ideology to their own needs, Americans insisted that as long as they remained unrepresented in the House of Commons, Britain had no right to tax them; submission to taxation without consent would enslave the colonists to whatever faction controlled Parliament. In the face of virtual anarchy, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but rejected the American understanding of taxation. According to British constitutional conceptions, taxation was a function of sovereignty (the state's ultimate power to take property and life), which the Glorious Revolution had vested in the king in Parliament. Parliament made its claims explicit by asserting its sovereignty over the colonies in a Declaratory Act that preceded the Stamp Act repeal.

After 1766, Parliament searched for ways to assert its authority. A new set of trade regulations and taxes, the Townshend Duties—named for Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, one‐time protégé of Lord Halifax—aroused a second wave of colonial opposition beginning in 1767. Deliberation and nonviolence marked this phase of resistance as radical leaders in several provinces clarified American political principles and promoted intercolonial cooperation. The result, a reasonably effective boycott of British imports in 1769, demonstrated the colonies' ability to dispense with the empire.

Unable to retreat in any way that would grant the validity of colonial arguments, Parliament in the spring of 1770 opted (at the urging of a new prime minister, Lord North) to repeal all but one of the Townshend Duties. Retaining a single tax, on tea, kept up Parliament's claim to authority while conciliating the colonists. This concession came none too soon.

On 5 March 1770, the same day North proposed partial repeal in Parliament, a squad of British soldiers fired into a taunting Boston crowd, killing five men. Troops had garrisoned Boston since October 1768 to protect customs officials, and had encountered little opposition before this so‐called “Boston Massacre.” To people who accepted the “Real Whig” maxim that standing armies were tyrants' tools, the “massacre” proved Britain's determination to rule by force. In the face of uncontrollable riots, Gen. Thomas Gage, the British commander in chief, handed over the soldiers for trial and withdrew the troops from Boston.

Before trials could be held, news arrived of the partial repeal of the Townshend Duties. Merchants jumped at the chance to end the unprofitable boycott; by fall, when the juries returned verdicts of manslaughter against two soldiers and acquitted the rest, the nonimportation movement had dissolved. The colonists continued to boycott tea, but otherwise business as usual resumed within the empire.

Yet business as usual in 1771 was not what it had been in 1750. The conquests—Canada, East and West Florida, and the vast trans‐Appalachian realm that stretched to the Mississippi—beckoned land‐hungry Britons and colonists alike. The Proclamation of 1763, the crown's attempt to separate white settlement from Indian country by a line drawn at the crest of the Appalachians, had failed; western army units had been withdrawn to the seaboard colonies until by late 1771 only one significant detachment remained, in Illinois. Squatters swarmed into the Ohio Valley, and Indian‐white relations drifted ever closer to war.

The growing chaos in the west revealed an empire in disarray. Yet empires can exist for centuries in decayed forms without creating revolutions, and British authority in North America might merely have declined indefinitely had not seeds of imperial conflict, planted by the Seven Years' War, borne fruit.

The Tea Crisis and the Dissolution of Empire: 1773–75

British army and naval forces, together with the East India Company's private army, had seized France's East Indian trading stations during the war; thereafter, the company opportunistically gained control of northeastern India. The costs of government and defense, however, outran the company's revenues, and by 1773 it faced bankruptcy. This would wreck British financial markets, but the Treasury had no funds to bail the company out. The only solution was to turn the company's vast inventory of tea into money, so the ministry granted the company a monopoly on tea sales in America.

But colonists saw the Tea Act of 1773 as an effort to force them to consume a taxed commodity, and no colonial port would allow the tea to be landed. Bostonians actually destroyed three shiploads on 16 December 1773, an action that goaded North's ministry into regarrisoning Boston and proposing a set of Coercive Acts. As passed by Parliament in May and early June 1774, these measures closed the port of Boston until the town paid for the tea; rewrote the Massachusetts charter to give the governor great power over local affairs and protect royal officials—including soldiers—from prosecution in colony courts; and authorized the quartering of troops in private homes. General Gage was appointed governor of the province.

Meanwhile, Parliament also tried to sort out the problems in the west by attaching much of trans‐Appalachia to the province of Quebec. The Quebec Act protected Roman Catholicism within the province and sanctioned French legal procedures in its courts, which made it look as if thousands of western settlers would be governed by a cryptopapist regime. The Protestant colonists lumped the Quebec Act and the Coercive Acts together as “Intolerable Acts” and resolved to stand fast.

The result was the most effective intercolonial resistance movement yet. On 5 September 1774, representatives of the colonies convened in a Continental Congress to protest the Intolerable Acts and create a nonimportation measure called the Continental Association. The association empowered local committees of safety to enforce the agreement, creating a crude intercolonial union and vesting police powers in radical hands. Agreeing to meet again on 10 May 1775 if the British government had not yet repealed the Intolerable Acts, Congress adjourned on 26 October.

By then, Massachusetts patriots had created an extralegal government called the Provincial Congress, taken control of the province's arms, and organized self‐defense forces. The ministry ordered General Gage to take military action to forestall rebellion. Receiving these orders too late to capture the Provincial Congress, Gage tried to seize munitions stockpiled at Concord. This triggered the Battles of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775, and grew into a general New England uprising. When Congress reconvened on 10 May, its only alternatives were to disavow rebellion and disband or to take control of the incipient war on behalf of all thirteen colonies. It chose the latter course, adopting the New England forces as a Continental army and appointing George Washington as commander in chief on 15 June 1775. Although it would be a year before the colonies declared independence from Britain, the Revolutionary War had begun.

Bibliography

  • Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1965.
  • John Shy, Toward Lexington, 1965.
  • Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation, 1968.
  • Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution, 1972.
  • P. D. G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis, 1975.
  • P. D. G. Thomas, The Townshend Duties Crisis, 1987.
  • John Brewer, The Sinews of Power, 1989.
  • P. D. G. Thomas, Tea Party to Independence, 1991.
  • Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, 1992.
  • Thomas Fleming, Liberty! The American Revolution, 1997
 
 

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