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. 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.”

In this same period, the colonies developed their own local political institutions. Samuel Adams, 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.

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.