Tuesday, March 08, 2011

What Were The Real Causes of The American Revolution?

When people consider the causes of the American Revolution, the slogan "No Taxation Without Representation" comes to mind. And so does the Boston Tea Party (1773), the Stamp Act (1765), and those "Sons of Liberty" tarring and feathering British officials in the streets. For many people, the American Revolution is seen as the byproduct of colonial unrest over unfair taxation. This is a very shallow understanding of the War for Independence. British efforts to restrict trade, control the colonial economy, arrest expansionism, restrain colonial dissent and protest, and station troops in North America all contributed to a rising tide of discontent that led to war. What was at stake ultimately wasn't how much in taxes colonists were willing to pay, but rather the fundamental issues of freedom and self-determination.

"No Taxation Without Representation"

The most famous slogan of the colonies leading up to the American Revolution was "No Taxation Without Representation." The fact that this slogan endures today shows the power of good public relations. Words - coined effectively and succinctly - have staying power! The power of slogans notwithstanding, when people conclude that the War for Independence was about taxes, they forget these simple facts:

  • The most burdensome and controversial tax levied on the colonies was the Stamp Act of 1765, which was repealed in 1766 (nine years before military hostilities broke out and ten years before independence was declared)
  • The last major tax which preceded the war itself was the Tea Act of 1773, which represented a paltry tax on British tea in North America -- so paltry, in fact, that British tea (taxed as it was) was still cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea
  • When the Second Continental Congress enumerated the specific grievances in the Declaration of Independence, they listed "imposing Taxes on us without our Consent" as Number Seventeen!

Clearly, if taxes were the main cause of the American Revolution, the war would have started sooner than it did, and the Founding Fathers would've thought to list it higher up in the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence.

So, if not taxes, what then?

Self-Government: The Real Issue Behind the War for Independence

With the conclusion of the French and Indian War and the ascension of King George III to the throne, the British government shifted its economic policy toward her North American colonies. Prior to the Seven Years War (or "French and Indian War" as it was called in North America), the British were content to allow the colonies to more or less govern themselves. After the French and Indian War, things changed.

The British extended their mercantilistic policies of trade restrictions and economic control, and began to directly tax the American colonists for the first time. In response to domestic tensions, they stationed more troops, undermined the authority of colonial assemblies, and ultimately imposed martial law in New England (and threatened to do so elsewhere). By the 1770s, it was clear that the British no longer respected the tradition of American self-governance.

The cause of the American Revolution was best summed up by militia volunteer Levi Preston. Interviewed over 50 years after the events of the Revolution, Preston gave the following explanation for the American Revolution: "What we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."

Recommended Reading

For more on this important subject, read the Declaration of Independence, Common Sense, and a previous blog post "What Led to the American Revolution?"

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