The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict

Taxation Without Representation

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict." ThoughtCo, Jul. 11, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, July 11). The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 21, 2017).
Franklin's Join or Die Cartoon
Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin. Library of Congress

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

Effects of the French & Indian War

On February 10, 1763, the French & Indian War (Seven Years' War) came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Defeated by Britain and its allies, France was forced to cede all of Canada in in order to obtain the return of Guadeloupe and Martinique. In addition, Spain obtained French Louisiana in exchange for Florida which was given to the British.

While triumphant, the war had badly stressed Britain's finances plunging the nation into severe debt. In an effort to alleviate these financial burdens, the government in London began exploring various options for raising revenues including the levying of new taxes.

Proclamation of 1763

On October 7, 1763, King George III issued a royal proclamation which forbade American colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. This was intended to stabilize relations with the Native American population, most of which had sided with France in the recent conflict and who had commenced hostilities against the British in May.  It was hoped this effort would reduce the cost of colonial defense. In America, the proclamation was met with outrage as many colonists had either purchased land west of the mountains or had received land grants for services rendered during the war. Almost immediately, settlers began ignoring the "Proclamation Line" and colonial leaders began lobbying London to move the line further west.

These lobbying efforts met with some success and the line was adjusted through treaties in 1768 (Treaty of Fort Stanwix) and 1770 (Treaty of Lochaber_.

Rise of Liberalism and Republicanism

As tensions regarding colonial lands and taxation increased during the 1760s and 1770s, many American leaders were influenced by the liberal and republican ideals espoused by Enlightenment writers such as John Locke.

Key among Locke's theories was that of the "social contract" which stated that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. Also, that should the government abuse the rights of the governed, it was the natural responsibility of the people to rise up and overthrow their leaders. The ideas of Locke and other similar writers contributed to the American embrace of "republican" ideology in the years before the Revolution. Standing in opposition to tyrants, republicanism called for the protection liberty through the rule of law and civic virtue.

While many of the Founding Fathers may have had contact with the writings of European thinkers, many other Americans came to their republican beliefs through dissenting churches such as the Puritans and Presbyterians. Through religious study, men like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, were taught key tenets such as that all men are created equal, that there is no divine right of kings, and wicked laws should be disobeyed. Across the colonies, these philosophies were preached by Revolutionary clergy in their sermons which brought the ideals of republicanism to the masses.

The Navigation Acts & Writs of Assistance

Since the mid-1600s, British trade had been regulated through a set of laws known as the Navigation Acts.

Operating on the philosophy of mercantilism, these laws required that all trade between British territories be carried on British ships and routed through Britain to ensure that proper duties were paid. While these laws were modified over the next century, they were widely flouted by colonial traders who wished to reduce costs and shipping time.

In an effort to increase revenues during the latter years of the French & Indian War, the British government began cracking down on American smugglers. Customs officials were empowered with writs of assistance (transferable, open-ended search warrants), which permitted them to search warehouses, homes, and ships on a whim without cause. Angered by this trampling of their rights, colonial merchants voiced their disapproval. In 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis challenged the legality of the writs in court arguing that they violated the constitutional rights of the colonists.

Though defeated, Otis' performance set the stage for increased colonial defiance of British policy.

New Taxes & Boycotts

As the British government assessed methods for generating funds, it was decided to levy new taxes on the colonies with the goal of offsetting some of the cost for their defense. Passed on April 5, 1764, the Sugar Act placed a tax of three pence per gallon on molasses as well as listed specific goods which could only be exported to Britain. While this tax was half of that stipulated by the 1733 Sugar and Molasses Act and an indirect tax, the new Sugar Act called for active enforcement and struck the colonies during an economic downturn. The passage of the Sugar Act led to outcries from colonial leaders such as James Otis and Samuel Adams who claimed "taxation without representation," as they had no members of Parliament to represent their interests.

The economic situation in America was made worse later that year with the implementation of the Currency Act which prohibited the colonies from printing paper money. This was enacted by London as many British merchants had been forced to accept depreciated colonial paper money in payment for debts. As many American businesses engaged in credit sales with Britain, they were crippled when several financial crises gripped London in the 1760s and 1770s. These forced British merchants to call in their debts. Unable to generate any form of liquid currency, American businesses were frequently ruined and the colonial economy damaged. Outraged by these new laws, and the Quartering Act of 1765 which required colonial governments to house and feed British troops in barracks and other public buildings, the American colonies began to systematically boycott British goods.

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which called for tax stamps to be placed on all paper goods sold in the colonies. These included legal documents, newspapers, magazines, and playing cards. This represented the first attempt to levy a direct tax on the colonies and was met by fierce opposition and protests.

Led by vocal orators such as Otis and Patrick Henry, the colonists began a massive boycott of British goods causing colonial imports to fall from £2,250,000 in 1764, to £1,944,000 in 1765. In several colonies new protest groups, known as the "Sons of Liberty" formed. Most active in Boston, the Sons of Liberty attacked an admiralty court and looted the home of the chief justice.

That October, after Massachusetts sent around a circular letter on the subject, delegates from nine colonies gathered at the Stamp Act Congress in New York. Guided by Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, the congress drew up the Declaration of Rights and Grievances which stated that as the colonies had no representation in Parliament, the tax was unconstitutional and against their rights as Englishmen. In London, colonial representative Benjamin Franklin argued a similar point and warned that continued taxation could lead to rebellion.

These points were disputed by the government which stated that the colonies enjoyed the same "virtual representation" as all British citizens in that those who sat in Parliament represented the entirety of the British people and not just those in their districts. It was also stated that Parliament had taxed the colonies for years previously without issue.

  Finally relenting, Parliament repealed the tax, but issued the Declaratory Act (March 1766) which stated that they retained the power to tax the colonies.

Townshend Acts to the Boston Massacre

Still seeking a way to generate revenue, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts on June 29, 1767 with the belief that the colonists only objected to internal taxes and not external taxes such as customs tariffs. An indirect tax, the acts placed import duties on commodities such as lead, paper, paint, glass, and tea. In addition, they created three new Admiralty courts in the colonies and reaffirmed the legality of writs of assistance. As with past taxation attempts, the colonists protested with claims of taxation without representation and cited that the measures were more about raising revenue than regulating trade. While colonial leaders organized boycotts of the taxed goods, smuggling increased and efforts commenced to develop domestically-produced alternatives.

Over the next three years, boycotts and protests continued in the colonies. These came to a head on the night of March 5, 1770, when angry colonists began throwing snowballs and rocks at British troops guarding the Customs House in Boston.

In the commotion, British troops opened fire on the mob, killing Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, and Crispus Attucks immediately in what was quickly dubbed the Boston Massacre. Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr died a short time later from their wounds. The soldiers involved were indicted for murder and their trial scheduled for that fall. Defended by John Adams, the accused were acquitted of murder, though two were convicted of manslaughter. With tensions in the colonies reaching a breaking point, Parliament repealed most aspects of the Townshend Acts in April 1770, but left a tax on tea.

Burning of HMS Gaspée

Despite the withdrawal of the Townshend Acts, colonial tempers remained flared in 1772. Actively patrolling to prevent smuggling, the Royal Navy drew the ire of many colonial merchants.

This came to a head on June 9, when the revenue schooner HMS Gaspée ran aground while chasing the packet boat Hannah into Warwick, RI. At dawn on June 10, members of the Providence Sons of Liberty, led by Abraham Whipple and John Brown, rowed out and attacked the stranded vessel. In the fight that ensued, Gaspée's commanding officer, Lieutenant William Dudingston, was wounded and the vessel burned to the waterline.

Responding to the incident, the British government ordered a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be formed to investigate the attack. Once the perpetrators were identified, the commission was to charge them with treason and send them to London for trial. Concerned over Americans being taken to England, several committees of correspondence were formed in the various colonies to consult on the crisis. Ultimately, the case was dropped as the commission was unable to obtain sufficient evidence, but the incident did work to further unify colonial leaders.

The Tea Act & The Boston Tea Party

On May 10, 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act with the goal of aiding the struggling British East India Company and undercutting the price of smuggled tea. Prior to the passage of the law, the company had been required to sell its tea through London where it was taxed and duties assessed. Under the new legislation, the company would be permitted to sell tea directly to the colonies without the additional cost. As a result, tea prices in America would be reduced, with only the Townshend tea duty assessed. Aware that this was an attempt by Parliament to break the colonial boycott of British goods, groups such as the Sons of Liberty, spoke out against the act.

Across the colonies, British tea was boycotted and attempts were made to produce tea locally. In Boston, the situation climaxed in late November 1773, when Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver arrived carrying East India Company tea. A standoff soon ensued as prominent members of the Sons of Liberty, such as Samuel Adams, urged the ships to leave Boston.

Opposing this was Governor Thomas Hutchinson who demanded the duty be paid before the ships left. Rallying the populace, the members of the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans and boarded the ships on the night of December 16. In what became known as the "Boston Tea Party", they carefully avoiding damaging other property and tossed 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. A direct affront to British authority, the Boston Tea Party forced Parliament to take action against the colonies.

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

The Coercive/Intolerable Acts

In response to the colonial attack on the tea ships, Parliament passed a series of punitive laws in early 1774. The first of these, the Boston Port Act, closed Boston to shipping until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. This was followed by the Massachusetts Government Act which allowed the Crown to appoint most positions in the Massachusetts colonial government.

Supporting this was the Administration of Justice Act which permitted the royal governor to move the trials of accused royal officials to another colony or Britain if a fair trial was unobtainable in Massachusetts. Along with these new laws, a new Quartering Act was enacting which allowed British troops to use unoccupied buildings as quarters when in the colonies.

In Boston, royal authority was asserted with the arrival of Lieutenant General Thomas Gage as the new royal governor on April 2, 1774. Initially well received as most Bostonians were pleased to see the hated Governor Thomas Hutchinson depart, Gage did not move to quash the Sons of Liberty for fear of escalating the situation. Further inflaming the colonist was the passage of the Quebec Act in June which extended that provinces boundaries south into the Ohio Valley negating other colonies' claims to the region. It also restored French civil war to the province and guaranteed the free practice of the Catholic faith.


The First Continental Congress

Using a variety of committees of correspondence, the colonial leaders began planning a congress to discuss the repercussions of the Intolerable Acts. Meeting at Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia, representatives from twelve colonies (Georgia did not attend as it was seeking British assistance with Native American issues on its frontier) convened on September 5, 1774 with Virginian Peyton Randolph serving as president.

In the discussions that followed, some delegates, such as the Samuel and John Adams and Patrick Henry, argued in favor of establishing a new governmental system while others, such as Dickinson and John Jay, desired to work towards reconciliation with Britain.

As a result of the Congress, which ended October 26, the colonies agreed through its Declaration and Resolves to the formation of the Continental Association. This compact stipulated that the colonies would boycott all British goods starting on December 1, 1774, and would boycott the West Indies unless the islands agreed to cease importing British goods as well. As a result, importation of British goods dropped 97% in 1775. In addition, if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, the colonies would cease exporting to Britain effective September 10, 1775. Departing Philadelphia, the group decided to return in May 1775, for a Second Continental Congress.

In the spring of 1775, Gage began a series of raids with the goal of disarming the colonial militias. On the evening of April 18, Gage ordered some of his troops to march to Concord to seize munitions and gunpowder. The next morning, British troops encountered colonial militia in the village of Lexington.

While the two forces faced off, a shot rang out. Though the source of the shot is unknown, it touched off eight years of war.

Causes of the American Revolution | American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns