Featuring 1776

An Introduction to 1776: The World Turned Upside Down

Why the Revolution? Part 1 of 8

1776 May Episode

In the 18th century, Britain was solidifying her reputation as a world empire, her American colonies being just one part. The Americans, generally, considered themselves Englishmen by law and by blood. They enjoyed a broad-based prosperity and freedom unknown in the mother country. Why then, in 1776, and nowhere else in the Empire, why then Revolution? It is not uncommon for the spore of one war to germinate as the seeds of the next. The American Revolution occurred in lineal descent from the Seven Years’ War known in America as the French and Indian War, 1754-1763.

That war was fought in Europe and in North America, the goal in North America for the British being to drive the French out. During the French and Indian War, British governors in the colonies as well as British generals, tried to encourage cooperative efforts among the colonies for their common defense, with little to show for their efforts. Perhaps these proddings caused the colonies to become more aware of their neighbors, even though each colony continued to act out of self-interest. After the war, Britain’s policies shifted to treat the colonies more as one unit rather than as individual entities, an administrative decision particularly in the area of taxation to support a continued military presence on the frontier. The truth of the matter was that Britain needed the money. Historian Jack Rakove writes, “The war itself offered ample proof of the need to replace ‘salutary neglect’ with efficient administration.”

The French and Indian war, ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, handed down two alarming legacies.

1) Britain was left with a massive debt of 129 million pounds.
2) Britain knocked out rival France for supremacy in Canada.

With the French no longer on their northern borders, the colonists were less dependent on the protective arm of the mother country. Before French General Montcalm died in the decisive English victory at Quebec in 1759, he predicted that without the fear of French Canada, the colonies would one day separate from Britain. A prescient Lord Camden said much the same thing to Benjamin Franklin in 1757, to which Franklin protested it would not be “unless you grossly abuse them.” Replied Camden: “Very true; that is the main cause that I see will happen and will produce the event.”

Both coastal and border colonials resented British Army recruiting techniques during the war and after. Colonists were vexed by the alarming tactics used by royal recruiting officers, tactics frequently taking place in local taverns where local boys were supplied with vast tankards of local hooch, enlisting them while they snored on the oak tables.

At the end of the war in 1763, Lord Shelburne, president of the Board of Trade in London, took a fateful step. He closed the frontier by announcing a Proclamation Line running down the crest of the Appalachian mountains. The end of the French menace eliminated the need for populating the area with settler-soldiers, he reasoned. Poor transportation in the back country, furthermore, made markets there meaningless, and frontier settlements drained off the coastal labor supply, both of which affected British trade with her colonies. Lastly, the line would create a buffer zone between settlers and Native Americans, quelling conflict on the frontier. However, the Proclamation Line infuriated restless Americans who had begun streaming into the lush virgin land of the Ohio Valley. And the line left 6,000 British troops in crude log forts along 1,000 miles of wilderness to keep the Americans on one side and the native tribes on the other. The troops cost Britain £400,000 a year, a huge sum to pay for remote fortifications and personnel. Who would pay the bill? Shouldn’t the colonies at least share the cost since they were the immediate beneficiaries? After all, while British citizens were paying 26 shillings in taxes per capita during the 1760s, Americans in Massachusetts, for instance, paid only one shilling a year.

If you are going to have an empire, you might as well profit by it. So the British instituted a mercantilist policy by which the colonies would supply the raw materials and in turn, Britain the manufactured goods. All goods to the colonies would be shipped from British ports. Raw materials from the colonies in turn would land at British ports. This required occasional adjustment. When the colonists started making their own hats from their unlimited supply of beaver, British hatters protested. So in 1732 the Hat and Felt Act was passed limiting hat making in America. The Sugar Act the following year was similarly passed to protect British Caribbean cane producers by preventing rum-drinking Americans from trading with the French sugar islands. The Iron Act of 1750 was also an attempt to restrict American production of iron in order to maintain the favored position of the British iron industry. The colonists felt each act was an infringement of their right to do business. An Englishman of the day said that the perfect colony under the mercantile system was one in which “the inhabitants … wear not a rag of their own manufacture, drive not a nail of their own forging, eat not out of a platter or cup of their own making, nay … produce not even bread to eat.”

Mercantilism, however, could backfire. By restricting the colonists to the British sugar islands, London caused a rum shortage hampering the trade of Native Americans with colonists for furs and Africans for slaves so that the colonists were short of the money to purchase the mother country’s manufactures. It also left the colonists in chronic debt to British merchants, a potentially explosive issue.

But when the colonists grumbled, they did not consider themselves foreigners but transplanted Englishmen. They read English books, followed English political practices, adopted English education, imitated English architecture, sang English songs, wore English styles, all at the expense of developing their own culture. The separate colonies levied discriminatory tariffs against each other and lacked uniform currencies. “They all loved much more [England] with which they had so many connextions and ties of blood, interest and affection,” said Franklin in 1760, “than they loved one another.”

Historians have noted the irony of the colonists depicting the government of Great Britain as tyrannical when, in fact, these same colonists had become more prosperous, enlightened, and experienced politically than any other group of colonists in the 18th century. Even Britain allowing colonists to make remarks about tyranny indicates that these colonists had considerable freedom. Cries of tyrannical interference came somewhat hollowly from colonies that regulated their own rates for wharfage, lodging, public transportation, milling, public slaughtering and set standards for consumables from firewood to leather. Each colonial assembly was elective with the franchise granted all males with nominal property holdings. It was a far more representative system than Britain’s. That said, Royal governors in the colonies approved all laws, held veto power and were usually advised by an appointive Council which could sit as a court of appeals and bring charges against the governor.

The Stamp Act was the first tax Parliament levied directly on the colonists. The colonies were habituated to taxes from their own assemblies for their own particular needs. The Stamp Act was a shock, a bolt from across the blue ocean. No matter that the revenue was intended for the protection of the colonies. As Benjamin Franklin said when he testified before the Parliament in 1766, the colonists “are very able to defend themselves.”

London had lumped the colonies together. The rules had changed.

< >