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American Revolution

Causes and Early Troubles

By the middle of the 18th cent., differences in life, thought, and interests had developed between the mother country and the growing colonies. Local political institutions and practice diverged significantly from English ways, while social customs, religious beliefs, and economic interests added to the potential sources of conflict. The British government, like other imperial powers in the 18th cent., favored a policy of mercantilism; the Navigation Acts were intended to regulate commerce in the British interest. These were only loosely enforced, however, and the colonies were by and large allowed to develop freely with little interference from England.

Conditions changed abruptly in 1763. The Treaty of Paris in that year ended the French and Indian Wars and removed a long-standing threat to the colonies. At the same time the ministry (1763–65) of George Grenville in Great Britain undertook a new colonial policy intended to tighten political control over the colonies and to make them pay for their defense and return revenue to the mother country. The tax levied on molasses and sugar in 1764 caused some consternation among New England merchants and makers of rum; the tax itself was smaller than the one already on the books, but the promise of stringent enforcement was novel and ominous.

It was the Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1765, with its direct demand for revenue that roused a violent colonial outcry, which was spearheaded by the Northern merchants, lawyers, and newspaper publishers who were directly affected. Everywhere leaders such as James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry denounced the act with eloquence, societies called the Sons of Liberty were formed, and the Stamp Act Congress was called to protest that Parliament was violating the rights of trueborn Englishmen in taxing the colonials, who were not directly represented in the supreme legislature. The threat of boycott and refusal to import English goods supported the colonial clamor. Parliament repealed (1766) the Stamp Act but passed an act formally declaring its right to tax the colonies.

The incident was closed, but a barb remained to wound American feelings. Colonial political theorists—not only radicals such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, Josiah Quincy (1744–75), and Alexander McDougall but also moderates such as John Dickinson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin—asserted that taxation without representation was tyranny. The teachings of 18th-century French philosophers and continental writers on law, such as Emmerich de Vattel, as well as the theories of John Locke, were implicit in the colonial arguments based on the theory of natural rights. The colonials claimed that Parliament had the sovereign power to legislate in the interest of the entire British Empire, but that it could only tax those actually represented in Parliament.

Trouble flared when the Chatham ministry adopted (1767) the Townshend Acts, which taxed numerous imports; care was taken to levy only an "external" or indirect tax in the hope that the colonials would accept this. But this indirect tax was challenged too, and although the duties were not heavy, the principle was attacked. Incidents came in interrupted sequence to make feeling run higher and higher: the seizure of a ship belonging to John Hancock in 1768; the bloodshed of the Boston Massacre in 1770; the burning of H. M. S. Gaspee in 1772.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: U.S. History


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