The Origins of the American Revolution


North American colonists had just helped to win a world war and most had never been more proud to be British. And yet, in a little over a decade, those same colonists would declare their independence and break away from the British Empire.

The Revolution built institutions and codified the language and ideas that still define Americans’ image of themselves. Moreover, revolutionaries justified their new nation with radical new ideals that changed the course of history and sparked a global “Age of Revolution.” But the Revolution was as paradoxical as it was unpredictable. A revolution fought in the name of liberty only further secured slavery. Resistance to centralized authority tied disparate colonies ever closer together under new governments. A government founded to protect a republican establishment fueled new democratic urges and politicians eager to foster republican selflessness and protect the public good instead encouraged individual self-interest and personal gain. The Revolution unleashed many new, unforeseen forces in a new, unforeseen nation. (3)

The Origins of the American Revolution

The American Revolution had both long-term origins and short-term causes. In this section, we will look broadly at some of the long-term political, intellectual, cultural, and economic developments in eighteenth century that set the context for the crisis of the 1760s and 1770s.

Britain failed to define the colonies’ relationship to the empire and institute a coherent program of imperial reform. Two factors contributed to these failures. First, Britain was engaged in costly wars from the War of the Spanish Succession at the start of the century through the Seven Years’ War in 1763. Constant war was politically and economically expensive. Second, competing visions of empire divided British officials. Old Whigs and their Tory supporters envisioned an authoritarian empire, based on conquering territory and extracting resources. They sought to eliminate the national debt by raising taxes and cutting spending on the colonies. The radical (or Patriot) Whigs’ based their imperial vision on trade and manufacturing instead of land and resources. They argued that economic growth, not raising taxes, would solve the national debt. Instead of an authoritarian empire, “patriot Whigs” argued that the colonies should have an equal status with that of the mother country. The debate between the two sides raged throughout the eighteenth century, and the lack of consensus prevented coherent reform.

The colonies developed their own notions of their place in the empire. They saw themselves as British subjects “entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great-Britain.” Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the colonies had experienced significant economic and demographic growth. Their success, they believed, was partly a result of Britain’s hands-off approach to the colonies. That success had made them increasingly important to the economy of the mother country and the empire as a whole. By mid-century, colonists believed that they held a special place in the empire, which justified Britain’s hands-off policy. In 1764, James Otis Jr. (Figure 1) wrote, “The colonists are entitled to as ample rights, liberties, and privileges as the subjects of the mother country are, and in some respects to more.”

Black and white copy of a painting of James Otis, Jr.
Figure 1 — James Otis Jr. by Joseph Blackburn, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

In this same period, the colonies developed their own local political institutions. Samuel Adams (Figure 2) in the Boston Gazette, described the colonies as each being a “separate body politic” from Britain. Almost immediately upon each colony’s settlement, they created a colonial assembly. These assemblies assumed many of the same duties as the Commons exercised in Britain, including taxing residents, managing the spending of the colonies’ revenue, and granting salaries to royal officials. In the early 1700s, elite colonial leaders lobbied unsuccessfully to get the Ministry to recognize their assemblies’ legal standing but the Ministry was too occupied with European wars. In the first half of the eighteenth century, royal governors tasked by the Board of Trade made attempts to limit the power of the assemblies, but they were largely unsuccessful. The assemblies’ power only grew. Many colonists came to see the assemblies as having the same jurisdiction over them that Parliament exercised over those in England. They interpreted British inaction as justifying their tradition of local governance. The British Ministry and Parliament, however, saw the issue as deferred until the Ministry chose to directly address the proper role of the assemblies. Conflict was inevitable, but a revolution was not.

Portrait of Samuel Adams by artist John Singleton Copley.
Figure 2 — Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, Wikipedia is in the Public Domain
Portrait of John Locke
Figure 3 — John Locke by H. Garnier, Wikimedia is in the Public Domain

Colonial political culture in the colonies also developed differently than that of the mother country. In both Britain and the colonies, land was the key to political participation, but because land was more easily obtained in the colonies, a higher portion of colonists participated in politics. Colonial political culture drew inspiration from the “country” party in Britain. These ideas—generally referred to as the ideology of republicanism — stressed the corrupting nature of power on the individual, the need for those involved in self-governing to be virtuous (i.e., putting the “public good” over their own self-interest) and to be ever vigilant against the rise of conspiracies, centralized control, and tyranny. Only a small fringe in Britain held these ideas, but in the colonies, they were widely accepted.

In the 1740s, two seemingly conflicting bodies of thought — the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening — began to combine in the colonies and challenge older ideas about authority. Perhaps no single philosopher had a greater impact on colonial thinking than John Locke.

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke argued that the mind was originally a tabula rasa (or blank slate) and that individuals were formed primarily by their environment. The aristocracy then were wealthy or successful because they had greater access to wealth, education, and patronage and not because they were innately superior. Locke followed this essay with Some Thoughts Concerning Education, which introduced radical new ideas about the importance of education. Education would produce rational human beings capable of thinking for themselves and questioning authority rather than tacitly accepting tradition. These ideas slowly came to have far-reaching effects in the colonies.

At the same time as Locke’s ideas about knowledge and education spread in North America, the colonies also experienced an unprecedented wave of evangelical Protestant revivalism. In 1739-40, the Rev. George Whitefield, an enigmatic, itinerant preacher, traveled the colonies preaching Calvinist sermons to huge crowds. Unlike the rationalism of Locke, his sermons were designed to appeal to his listeners’ emotions. Whitefield told his listeners that salvation could only be found by taking personal responsibility for one’s own unmediated relationship with God, a process which came to be known as a “conversion” experience. He also argued that the current Church hierarchies populated by “unconverted” ministers only stood as a barrier between the individual and God. In his wake, new itinerant preachers picked up his message and many congregations split. Both Locke and Whitefield had the effect of empowering individuals to question authority and to take their lives into their own hands.

Despite these political and intellectual differences, eighteenth-century colonists were in some ways becoming more culturally similar to Britons, a process often referred to as “Anglicization.” As the colonial economies grew, they quickly became an important market destination for British manufacturing exports. Colonists with disposable income and access to British markets attempted to mimic British culture. By the middle of the eighteenth century, middling-class colonists could also afford items previously thought of as luxuries like British fashions, dining wares, and more. The desire to purchase British goods meshed with the desire to enjoy British liberties.

These political, intellectual, cultural, and economic developments created fundamental differences between the colonies and the mother country. Together, they combined to create latent tensions that would rise to the surface when, after the Seven Years’ War, Britain finally began to implement a program of imperial reform that conflicted with colonists’ understanding of the empire and their place in it. (3)

The Causes of the American Revolution

Most immediately, the American Revolution resulted directly from attempts to reform the British Empire after the Seven Years’ War. The Seven Years’ War culminated nearly a half-century of war between Europe’s imperial powers. It was truly a world war, fought between multiple empires on multiple continents. At its conclusion, the British Empire had never been larger. Britain now controlled the North American continent east of the Mississippi River, including French Canada. It had also consolidated its control over India. But, for the ministry, the jubilation was short-lived. The realities and responsibilities of the post-war empire were daunting. War (let alone victory) on such a scale was costly. Britain doubled the national debt to 13.5 times its annual revenue. In addition to the costs incurred in securing victory, Britain was also looking at significant new costs required to secure and defend its far-flung empire, especially western frontiers of the North American colonies. These factors led Britain in the 1760s to attempt to consolidate control over its North American colonies, which, in turn, led to resistance.

King George III (Figure 4) took the crown in 1760 and brought Tories into his Ministry after three decades of Whig rule. They represented an authoritarian vision of empire where colonies would be subordinate. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was Britain’s first postwar imperial action. The King forbade settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in attempt to limit costly wars with Native Americans. Colonists, however, protested and demanded access to the territory for which they had fought alongside the British.

Portrait of George III, standing in coronation robes
Figure 4 — King George III by Allan Ramsay, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

In 1764, Parliament passed two more reforms. The Sugar Act sought to combat widespread smuggling of molasses in New England by cutting the duty in half but increasing enforcement. Also, smugglers would be tried by vice-admiralty courts and not juries. Parliament also passed the Currency Act, which restricted colonies from producing paper money. Hard money, like gold and silver coins, was scarce in the colonies. The lack of currency impeded the colonies’ increasingly sophisticated transatlantic economies, but it was especially damaging in 1764 because a postwar recession had already begun. Between the restrictions of the Proclamation of 1763, the Currency Act, and the Sugar Act’s canceling of trials-by-jury for smugglers, some colonists began to see a pattern of restriction and taxation.

In March 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The Sugar Act was an attempt to get merchants to pay an already-existing duty, but the Stamp Act created a new, direct (or internal) tax. Parliament had never before directly taxed the colonists. Instead, colonies contributed to the empire through the payment of indirect, internal taxes, such as customs duties. In 1765, Daniel Dulany of Maryland wrote, “A right to impose an internal tax on the colonies, without their consent for the single purpose of revenue, is denied, a right to regulate their trade without their consent is, admitted.”

Stamps were to be required on all printed documents, including newspapers, pamphlets, diplomas, legal documents, and even playing cards. Unlike the Sugar Act, which primarily affected merchants, the Stamp Act directly affected numerous groups including printers, lawyers, college graduates, and even sailors who played cards. This led, in part, to broader, more popular resistance.

Resistance took three forms, distinguished largely by class: legislative resistance by elites, economic resistance by merchants, and popular protest by common colonists. Colonial elites responded with legislative resistance initially by passing resolutions in their assemblies. The most famous of the anti-Stamp Act resolutions were the “Virginia Resolves” that declared that the colonists were entitled to “all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities… possessed by the people of Great Britain.” When the resolves were printed throughout the colonies, however, they often included three extra, far more radical resolves not passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses, the last of which asserted that only “the general assembly of this colony have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation” and that anyone who argued differently “shall be deemed an enemy to this his majesty’s colony.” The spread of these extra resolves throughout the colonies helped radicalize the subsequent responses of other colonial assemblies and eventually led to the calling of the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765. Nine colonies sent delegates, including Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Thomas Hutchinson, Philip Livingston, and James Otis.

The Stamp Act Congress issued a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” which, like the Virginia Resolves, declared allegiance to the King and “all due subordination” to Parliament, but also reasserted the idea that colonists were entitled to the same rights as native Britons. Those rights included trial by jury, which had been abridged by the Sugar Act, and the right to only be taxed by their own elected representatives. As Daniel Dulany wrote in 1765, “It is an essential principle of the English constitution, that the subject shall not be taxed without his consent.” Benjamin Franklin called it the “prime Maxim of all free Government.” Because the colonies did not elect members to Parliament, they believed that they were not represented and could not be taxed by that body. In response, Parliament and the Ministry argued that the colonists were “virtually represented,” just like the residents of those boroughs or counties in England that did not elect members to Parliament. However, the colonists rejected the notion of virtual representation, with one pamphleteer calling it a “monstrous idea.”

The second type of resistance to the Stamp Act was economic. While the Stamp Act Congress deliberated, merchants in major port cities were preparing non-importation agreements, hoping that their refusal to import British goods would lead British merchants to lobby for the repeal of the Stamp Act. The plan worked. As British exports to the colony dropped considerably, merchants did pressure Parliament to repeal.

The third, and perhaps, most crucial type of resistance was popular protest. Violent riots broke out in Boston, during which crowds, led by the local Sons of Liberty, burned the appointed stamp collector for Massachusetts, Peter Oliver, in effigy and pulled a building he owned “down to the Ground in five minutes.” Oliver resigned the position of stamp collector the next day. A few days later a crowd also set upon the home of his brother-in-law, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, who had publicly argued for submission to the stamp tax. Before the evening was over, much of Hutchinson’s home and belongings had been destroyed.

A depiction of the tarring and feathering of Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm, a Loyalist, by five Patriots on 5 January 1744 under the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts. Tea is also being poured into Malcolm's mouth.
Figure 5 — The Bostonians Paying the Excuse-man, or Tarring and Feathering by Phillip Dawe, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Popular violence and intimidation spread quickly throughout the colonies. In New York City, posted notices read: “PRO PATRIA, The first Man that either distributes or makes use of stampt paper, let him take care of his house, person, and effects. Vox Populi. We dare.” By November 16, all of the original twelve stamp collectors had resigned, and by 1766, Sons of Liberty (Figure 6) groups formed in most of the colonies to direct and organize further popular resistance. These tactics had the dual effect of sending a message to Parliament and discouraging colonists from accepting appointments as stamp collectors. With no one to distribute the stamps, the Act became unenforceable.

Sons of Liberty broadside transcript: 'Tuesday-Morning, December 17, 1765. The True-born Sons of Liberty, are desired to meet under LIBERTY-TREE, at XII o'Clock, THIS DAY, to hear the public Resignation, under Oath, of Andrew Oliver, Esq; Distributor of Stamps for the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay. A Resignation? Yes.'
Figure 6 — Sons of Liberty Broadside, 1765 by Sons of Liberty, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Pressure on Parliament grew until, in March of 1766, they repealed the Stamp Act. But to save face and to try to avoid this kind of problem in the future, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act, asserting that Parliament had the “full power and authority to make laws… to bind the colonies and people of America… in all cases whatsoever.” However, colonists were too busy celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act to take much notice of the Declaratory Act. In New York City, the inhabitants raised a huge lead statue of King George III in honor of the Stamp Act’s repeal. It could be argued that there was no moment at which colonists felt more proud to be members of the free British Empire than 1766. But Britain still needed revenue from the colonies.

The colonies had resisted the implementation of direct taxes, but the Declaratory Act reserved Parliament’s right to impose them. And, in the colonists’ dispatches to Parliament and in numerous pamphlets, they had explicitly acknowledged the right of Parliament to regulate colonial trade. So Britain’s next attempt to draw revenues from the colonies, the Townshend Acts, were passed in June 1767, creating new customs duties on common items, like lead, glass, paint, and tea, instead of direct taxes. The Acts also created and strengthened formal mechanisms to enforce compliance, including a new American Board of Customs Commissioners and more vice-admiralty courts to try smugglers. Revenues from customs seizures would be used to pay customs officers and other royal officials, including the governors, thereby incentivizing them to convict offenders. These acts increased the presence of the British government in the colonies and circumscribed the authority of the colonial assemblies, since paying the governor’s salary gave the assemblies significant power over them. Unsurprisingly, colonists, once again, resisted.

Even though these were duties, many colonial resistance authors still referred to them as “taxes,” because they were designed primarily to extract revenues from the colonies not to regulate trade. John Dickinson, in his “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer,” wrote, “That we may legally be bound to pay any general duties on these commodities, relative to the regulation of trade, is granted; but we being obliged by her laws to take them from Great Britain, any special duties imposed on their exportation to us only, with intention to raise a revenue from us only, are as much taxes upon us, as those imposed by the Stamp Act.” Hence, many authors asked: once the colonists assented to a tax in any form, what would stop the British from imposing ever more and greater taxes on the colonists?

New forms of resistance emerged in which elite, middling, and working class colonists participated together. Merchants re-instituted non-importation agreements, and common colonists agreed not to consume these same products. Lists were circulated with signatories promising not to buy any British goods. These lists were often published in newspapers, bestowing recognition on those who had signed and led to pressure on those who had not.

Women, too, became involved to an unprecedented degree in resistance to the Townshend Acts. They circulated subscription lists and gathered signatures. The first political newspaper essays written by women appeared. Also, without new imports of British clothes, colonists took to wearing simple, homespun clothing. Spinning clubs were formed, in which local women would gather at one their homes and spin cloth for homespun clothing for their families and even for the community.

Homespun clothing quickly became a marker of one’s virtue and patriotism, and women were an important part of this cultural shift. At the same time, British goods and luxuries previously desired now became symbols of tyranny. Non-importation, and especially, non-consumption agreements changed colonists’ cultural relationship with the mother country. Committees of inspection that monitored merchants and residents to make sure that no one broke the agreements. Offenders could expect to have their names and offenses shamed in the newspaper and in broadsides.

Non-importation and non-consumption helped forge colonial unity. Colonies formed Committees of Correspondence to update the progress of resistance in each colony. Newspapers reprinted exploits of resistance, giving colonists a sense that they were part of a broader political community. The best example of this new “continental conversation” came in the wake of the “Boston Massacre.” Britain sent regiments to Boston in 1768 to help enforce the new acts and quell the resistance. On the evening of March 5, 1770, a crowd gathered outside the Custom House and began hurling insults, snowballs, and perhaps more at the young sentry. When a small number of soldiers came to the sentry’s aid, the crowd grew increasingly hostile until the soldiers fired. After the smoke cleared, five Bostonians were dead, including Crispus Attucks (Figure 7), a former slave turned free dockworker. The soldiers were tried in Boston and won acquittal, thanks, in part, to their defense attorney, John Adams. News of the “Boston Massacre” spread quickly through the new resistance communication networks, aided by a famous engraving attributed to Paul Revere (Figure 8) which depicted bloodthirsty British soldiers with grins on their faces firing into a peaceful crowd. The engraving was quickly circulated and reprinted throughout the colonies, generating sympathy for Boston and anger with Britain.

Portrait of Crispus Attucks
Figure 7 — Crispus Attucks by Unknown, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Resistance again led to repeal. In March of 1770, Parliament repealed all of the new duties except the one on tea, which, like the Declaratory Act, was left to save face and assert that Parliament still retained the right to tax the colonies. The character of colonial resistance had changed between 1765 and 1770. During the Stamp Act resistance, elites wrote resolves and held congresses while violent, popular mobs burned effigies and tore down houses, with minimal coordination between colonies. But methods of resistance against the Townshend Acts became more inclusive and more coordinated. Colonists previously excluded from meaningful political participation now gathered signatures, and colonists of all ranks participated in the resistance by not buying British goods.

Britain’s failed attempts at imperial reform in the 1760s created an increasingly vigilant and resistant colonial population and, most importantly, an enlarged political sphere — both on the colonial and continental levels — far beyond anything anyone could have imagined a few years earlier. A new sense of shared grievances began to join the colonists in a shared American political identity. (3)

Engraved print showing a sensationalized portrayal of the skirmish, later to become known as the 'Boston Massacre,' between British soldiers and citizens of Boston on March 5, 1770. On the right a group of seven uniformed soldiers, on the signal of an officer, fire into a crowd of civilians at left. Three of the latter lie bleeding on the ground. Two other casualties have been lifted by the crowd. In the foreground is a dog; in the background are a row of houses, the First Church, and the Town House. Behind the British troops is another row of buildings including the Royal Custom House, which bears the sign 'Butcher's Hall.'
Figure 8 — Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain