The Road to Revolution
Wars are complicated, and understanding their causes can be tricky, even for those who live through them. Conflicts can seldom be attributed to one reason and are often the result of years of tensions. The American Revolution is no exception. In this article, we briefly explore some of the top reasons the American Colonies decided to sever ties with Great Britain and form their own free and independent nation.
An intellectual and philosophical movement that began in Europe in the 1600s. It encouraged the use of reason, and its adherents believed that questioning authority, whether it be the Church or the monarchy, was a positive and necessary thing. From the Enlightenment arose ideas like limited government and the consent of the governed. There were numerous Enlightenment thinkers whose work influenced the Founding Fathers, but perhaps none more so than John Locke. Locke argued that humans are born with natural rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, an idea that Thomas Jefferson would later incorporate into the Declaration of Independence, albeit in a slightly reworded state. It was the influence of the Enlightenment, and Locke, in particular, that shaped the American colonists’ thinking on republicanism; the idea that the people, rather than the government, have the power.
The French and Indian War
The war, which erupted over tensions in North America between the English, the French, and the Iroquois Confederacy, began in 1754 and lasted for nine long years. The war was fought everywhere that the British and the French had colonies, from Europe to North America to the Caribbean. It was an immensely costly war for the British, who were left with a significant debt at its conclusion. The debt, and Parliament’s efforts to pay it, are among the chief causes of the Revolution. The North American colonies, which had been more or less left to their own devices for much of their history, were suddenly faced with numerous taxes. None of these taxes were excessive—certainly not by modern standards—but coming as they did after years of relative neglect by the Crown, they felt far more burdensome than they were.
The Stamp Act
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the British Parliament, led by Prime Minister George Grenville, attempted to raise revenue to pay down the war debt by imposing new taxes and new legislation that would regulate trade. Arguably the most controversial of the new taxes was the Stamp Act, which placed a new tax on all paper goods and printed documents and business transactions. The tax affected a broad group of colonists and led to widespread resistance, including Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves. Henry argued that the colonists still had the rights of English citizens, which included the right of no taxation without representation, which would become a familiar refrain in the years leading to the Revolution.
The Quartering Act
In the years following the French and Indian War, Great Britain felt the need to place many troops in the colonies to maintain peace and protect the colonists. The Quartering Act passed in 1765, the same year as the Stamp Act, and it stated that British soldiers were to be housed in barracks provided by the colonies. If the barracks were not big enough to accommodate all the troops in each area, they were to be placed in several public facilities, and if there still wasn’t enough space to house them all, they were to live in uninhabited houses or barns. Though the act did require Americans to accommodate British troops in their homes, as some modern Americans mistakenly believe, the act was still controversial, particularly in New York, where the troops were forced to remain on their ships. In response, Parliament suspended New York’s governor and legislature. The other colonies followed suit until the Quartering Act expired in 1776.
The Townshend Duties
In 1767, the British imposed a new tax, known as the Townshend Duties, on tea, china, lead, paint, paper, and glass items imported into the colonies from Great Britain. The new tax came a few years into the growing tensions between the British and their territories. Benjamin Franklin had informed Parliament that the colonies intended to manufacture their own goods rather than pay increased duties on them. Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, chose those items because he believed it would be difficult for the colonists to manufacture them. Townshend intended that the tax revenue would be used to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges, a way of guaranteeing the loyalty of colonial officials to their British overlords. The colonies in New England and New York agreed to boycott trade with the British for a year, which led the British to send troops into Boston to maintain order against the backdrop of increasing opposition to British authority.
The Boston Massacre
The increased number of British troops in Boston led to a tense atmosphere in the city. There were roughly 2,000 soldiers in a town of approximately 16,000 colonists, many of whom were becoming increasingly disenchanted with British rule. Fights and skirmishes between Bostonians and British soldiers were a common occurrence. Colonists often attacked loyalists or merchants who sold British goods. On March 5, 1770, colonists attacked a lone British sentinel who was guarding the Customs House. When additional soldiers were ordered in, they, too, were attacked by the mob. In response, the British soldiers fired into the crowd, killing three people and injuring several more, two of whom would later die. As news of the attack spread up and down the colonies, anti-British sentiment continued to grow, aided, in part, by Paul Revere’s provocative engraving that depicted a line of British troops firing into an unarmed crowd of colonists.
The Intolerable Acts
For several years following the Boston Massacre, animosity between the British and the American colonists continued to grow, particularly in and around Boston. In December of 1773, incensed by the Tea Act’s passage, angry colonists boarded ships in the harbor and dumped hundreds of chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company into the water. In response, a furious Parliament issued the Coercive Acts, which the colonists referred to as the Intolerable Acts. Among other things, the acts closed the Port of Boston until restitution was paid for the lost tea and limited Massachusetts’s ability to govern itself. The acts were intended to punish Massachusetts and serve as a warning to the other colonies but instead elicited other colonies’ sympathy and dramatically increased anti-British rhetoric. Within a few months of the Intolerable Acts passage, committees of correspondence were formed in the colonies, and delegates were chosen for the First Continental Congress.