The story of the American Revolution is a tale told in classrooms across America today, but little is discussed about the actual factions and tensions that caused such a breach between Great Britain and her colonies. In just ten years, Americans went from considering themselves as loyal subjects of the King- Englishmen who didn’t live on the mainland- to declaring their independence from Britain. If we look closely at the Declaration of Independence, we can see why. The list of grievances in the document cite everything that happened in the Americas from 1764 when the Sugar Act was passed, to 1776 when America decided to break ties with their colonial rulers. This essay explores the ties that existed between Great Britain and America, and the tensions that finally brought the colonists to act for independence, economically, politically, and intellectually.
Britain and the Colonies were very connected economically. In the early days of American Colonization, Britain instituted a policy of Statutory Neglect. This meant that Parliament might pass a few laws here and there to regulate trade, but they generally left the individual State governments to govern themselves. Various Navigation acts had been passed, such as stipulations that America trade only with the British, but they were not well enforced until later in the Colonial Era. Other laws also forbid the manufacture of goods in America, so the colonists relied on Britain to supply any luxury items they needed such as glass, paint, tea, and furniture. This created a large amount of dependency between the two countries. Britain relied on America for the revenue their trade brought in, but America relied on Britain for essential goods.
Another way the countries were connected economically was through war. Britain considered itself America’s protector, and therefore responsible for defending the territory through the various colonial wars. This meant that Britain also bore the financial burden for conducting these expensive wars, and there were recessions in both Britain and the Americas after the French and Indian war. As a result of this financial burden, Britain’s coffers were hurting. Citizens of Britain living in England had already paid more than their fair share of taxes, and Parliament was looking for new sources of revenue. Taxing the colonies seemed like the next logical step. Parliament felt that the colonies might even be glad to contribute in gratitude for British protection. Parliament was completely wrong. Americans felt that by contributing and paying troops out of their own government coffers during these wars, they had more than bourn their fair share of the financial burden. As Benjamin Franklin stated in his testament before parliament in 1766, “Pennsylvania, in particular, disbursed about $500,000 [during the last war], and the reimbursements, in the whole, did not exceed $60,000…” (Greene 73)
When the Stamp Act was enacted in 1765 this heightened the economic conflict between the Colonies and Great Britain. Colonists felt that having to pay these taxes in an economic recession would bankrupt them. When most States tried to institute a boycott of products taxed under the Stamp Act, the economic situation became more precarious than anyone imagined. Merchants, dock workers, and other men with jobs in trade began to be laid off, making the recession worse. Although the Stamp Act was eventually repealed, other Parliamentary attempts to raise money followed, such as the Revenue Act, the Townshend Duties, and the Tea Act. The Townshend Duties were particularly upsetting to the colonists, because they placed a tax on luxury items that were illegal to make in America. Colonists had no choice but to pay those fees or go without, which many deemed unfair.
At the same time Britain was trying to tax the colonies, it was also denying them greater economic opportunities. By insisting that America trade only with itself, Britain guaranteed cheap products from the Americas could be sold in Britain, at the expense of American profit. As the economic recession in the Americas grew worse, prices of tobacco fell to record lows, and Virginians felt that they could only make their farms profitable again if they could compete with world markets; a practice the Navigation Acts made illegal.
In addition to curtailing American commerce, Britain also prevented expansion west. At the end of the French and Indian War, Britain had signed a treaty with France stating that they would allow no settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. Colonists pressured the British Government to break the treaty line, but Parliament wouldn’t do so. This left colonists wondering if America would be turned into a larger version of England within a few generations: land locked into the hands of the wealthy and movement between social classes nearly unheard of, a situation many of them had come to America to avoid.
Politically, England and America also had many disagreements. In the early colonial years, the King granted individual charters to each state. Although the King was still considered their ruler, these charters granted broad political powers to the colonies to set up their own governments. Although citizens of the colonies were granted broad freedoms, they still considered themselves Englishmen and subject to all laws regular Englishmen observed. This was especially true of the statute in the Magna Carta which granted representation to all Englishmen who paid taxes. Colonists insisted that any measure to tax them was illegal according to English law, as it was impractical that they be represented in Europe.
With the re-instatement of the monarchy in England and a new Prime Minister, Lord North, being elected in 1770 the policy of Statutory Neglect ended for good. Although Parliament in general felt that taxing the colonies was a good idea, there was much argument about how to handle the growing colonial unrest. Some felt that Britain should let the colonies cool down, and re-institute Statutory Neglect for a while. Unfortunately, the faction that was for cracking down hard on colonial dissent won their way. They passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Britain had the power to pass and enforce any laws they wanted for the colonies. They also passed the Townshend Duties, which established a Trade Commission to enforce new tax policies, as well as adherence to the old Navigation Acts. As part of this policy, offenders were no longer allowed to be tried by a jury of their peers, but were forced to attend a special court, where they were tried by jurors appointed by the King. Often these courts were far removed from the state in which the offender lived, sometimes as far away as England. This was not financially viable for most colonists, who could not afford the travel expenses. In addition to bearing a potentially bankrupting financial cost to stand trial, colonists also received much harsher sentences.
As tensions rose and colonial responses became more violent, Parliament passed even harsher laws. In 1774 Parliament revoked New York’s charter and instituted a military government. A few months later, they did the same in Massachusetts, even closing the port of Boston and quartering troops in the city. The governor of Massachusetts, Hutchinson, undoubtedly exacerbated the tensions in Boston by asking that troops be quartered in the city, and insisting on unloading and selling taxed tea despite the mob that gathered. Still, even colonists in other States felt that Britain had overreacted. They feared the same would happen to them if they did nothing to help Massachusetts and New York.
In response to these fears, State governments came together to try and craft an organized message to send to Britain about their displeasure. By banding together in State legislatures, instituting the Committee of Correspondence for easy communication between States, and even coming together to form a Continental Congress, the colonists probably felt they were acting responsibly against the British laws. Unfortunately, the responses coming out of these governing bodies were completely inconsistent. The Massachusetts Circular letter, a pamphlet written in negative response to the Townshend duties states, “… the Acts made [in Parliament] imposing Duties on the People of this province with the sole & express purpose of raising a Revenue, are Infringements of their natural & constitutional Rights because… they are not represented in the British Parliament…”, (Greene 134) However, despite their clear frustration over their lack of representation in Parliament, they later write, “…this House think that a taxation of their Constituents, even without their Consent, grevious as it is, would be preferable to any Representation that could be admitted for them [in Parliament]” (Greene 135). Even as late as 1776, the Continental Congress drafted a letter explaining their need to take up arms in the battle of Lexington and Concord, and then sent the Olive Branch petition stating that they still wish to be subjects of the King. Parliament undoubtedly didn’t know what to think of these conflicting responses, and likely thought that the threat of colonial war was unrealistic, or certainly that the colonists would not be organized enough to overthrow the powerful British army.
Colonial reluctance to declare independence was undoubtedly linked to the close social and intellectual relationship American shared with England. Prominent colonists, such as Benjamin Franklin, often traveled back and forth between the colonies and Britain and there was much sharing of ideas between the two countries. One of the major places we can see this sharing of ideas is through the Age of Reason – an era in Europe characterized by scientific reasoning applied to social ideals. Among the tenants spouted by scholars was the idea of basic human rights, and arguments arose as to what those rights should be. One Englishman especially, John Locke, believed that basic human rights consisted of the right to life, liberty and property. In Dickinson’s Letters From A Farmer, we can see the transfer of Locke’s ideas of life, liberty and property to the Americas, which then became a fundamental part of the Declaration of Independence. Although the ideas of John Locke were fairly benign, other Englishmen such as Thomas Paine took the ideas of human rights to the extreme. In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine espoused the idea that monarchies, by their very nature, were corrupt and could never be otherwise. Colonists believing Paine’s compelling case against monarchy would have had a hard time reconciling this idea with their position as subjects of the British crown, especially when public opinion regarding the government was at an all-time low.
Opinions on how to respond to the harsh laws passed by Parliament differed greatly in the colonies, further exacerbating social tensions. Mob violence in response to the tax measures was popular among many colonists, especially once the Sons of Liberty, united by Samuel Adams, began to operate as an organized mob in Boston. On the other side of the issue were the governing bodies who wished to petition the King for redress, showing their displeasure intellectually. There were various factions within these governing bodies as well, some wishing to submit and hope the King and Parliament would be kinder in the future, and some wishing to be stern and make it clear that the colonies would never submit to harmful government policies.
On July 6th, 1776 a group of 56 men in the Continental Congress changed the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies irrevocably. By signing the Declaration of Independence, they refused once and for all to submit to all harmful government policies set out by King and Parliament. The intellectual, economic, political, and social ties and tensions that formed the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies could never have continued forever. It is unfortunate that schools today pay so little attention to the Declaration of Independence as a historical document, but only as an ideological one. Though its ideological contributions are certainly important, it is the list of grievances our forefathers set out so many years ago that tell the story of our country today.