The causes of the American Revolution are many, but they can be broadly broken down into six factors.
- Changes in Warfare and Weapons
- Changes in Government/Society
- Changes in Political Philosophy
- Changes in British Government Policy
- Changes in the American Colonies
In this article we will discuss these causes of the American Revolution in great detail, then get into the timeline of events leading to the Revolution itself, from the end of the Seven Years War to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
I. Changes in Warfare and Weapons
Just prior to the 1600’s we see the use of matchlock rifles. The matchlock was the best mechanism for firing a musket prior to the flintlock rifle. If you can picture the rifles and muskets used during the American Revolutionary War or the American Civil War, you should see a small hammer on the side of the rifle that would strike a flint, causing a spark that lit the gunpowder that in turn burned then lit the gunpowder inside the barrel, forcing the gun to fire. Matchlocks were similar but lacked a flint. Instead, they literally had a burning piece of rope that would fall onto the powder when the trigger was pulled.
II. Changes in Government/Society (The Early Modern Era)
Historians in recent decades have argued that from a worldwide standpoint, the most important feature of the early modern period was its globalizing character. The period witnessed the exploration and colonization of the Americas and the rise of sustained contacts between previously isolated parts of the globe. New economies and institutions emerged, becoming more sophisticated and globally articulated over the course of the early modern period. Other notable trends of the early modern period include the development of experimental science, accelerated travel due to improvements in mapping and ship design, increasingly rapid technological progress, secularized civic politics, and the emergence of nation states. Historians typically date the end of the early modern period when the French Revolution of the 1790s began the “late modern” period.
III. Changes in Political Philosophy and Humanity’s Understanding of Itself
“Modernity” has many guises. It marks a historical period in Europe and its colonies, roughly from the late eighteenth century onward. By 1750, many leading intellectuals of Europe were convinced that there was an ideal of “modern” man-a man (not yet a woman) who saw himself as an intellectual and moral individual, believing in the findings of experimental science, and in the desirability of theological and political freedom. But this is not the modernity of the nineteenth century. By 1850, with industrial expositions and railroads spreading across Europe and its colonies, most of the populations of these countries accepted that they were living in a new, “modern” age.
it is worth bracketing the issue of transitions to modernity, and simply asking if there is, in fact, some social formation that is extremely widespread. I believe that there is, and that it corresponds to what E.A. Wrigley has called the “advanced organic societies.”
IV. Changes in British Governing Policy
Trying to pinpoint the main causes of the American Revolution is difficult at best because there were many contributing factors and even historians can’t agree on what they were.
Author and Harvard professor, Bernard Bailyn argues in his book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, that one of the underlying causes of the American Revolution was a growing belief among colonists that the British government was secretly conspiring to create an autocratic government in which the King would have unlimited power.
V. Changes in the American Colonies
Before the French-Indian war and the “intolerable acts, there were changes happening in the American colonies that made waging the Revolutionary War possible. To put it succinctly, the war could not have been fought in 1710 because an independent culture had not developed in America. What led to the development were things like decreased English immigration to America (ties with England were weakened), the First Great Awakening, and trans-colonial institutions like postal networks and newspapers.
Below are other causes of the American Revolution
The Colonies after the Seven Years’ War
- With the end of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), the British government drastically reduced military spending.
- Many people in Britain were now out of work and moved to America to try to find a living. Between the end of the war and 1775 the American population increased from 1.6 to 2.1 million people.
- Britain was now $122 million pounds in debt (today that would be 8 BILLION pounds, or 12 billion dollars); interest on the debt was $4 million pounds, which was 60% of the regular budget.
- The British people were already the most heavily taxed in Europe. They would not be able to come up with the money to pay off the debt.
- British Prime Minister George Grenville believed that the colonies should help pay for the war debt: “We have expended much in America; let us now avail ourselves of the fruit of that expense.”
- Parliament began to levy a series of direct taxes on the colonies.
- The Sugar Act (1764)
- First serious attempt to regulate American trade. (The Navigation Acts of the 1600s don’t count because the British never really enforced them).
- There had been a sugar act in the 1690s that had set a 9 pence per gallon tariff on molasses imported into the colonies. It was never enforced.
- Now Parliament decided to lower the tariff to 3 pence per gallon but make sure it was being collected.
- Parliament sent over customs collectors and inspectors to enforce the act. Colonists bribed some of the collectors to not collect the tax. American courts would not help enforce the act.
- In the end, the act proved to be nearly impossible to enforce. There was a great amount of opposition in the colonies. Many denied Parliament’s power to tax.
- James Otis: “The colonists, being men, have a right to be considered as equally entitled to all the rights of nature with the Europeans. And they are not to be restrained in the exercise of any of these rights but for the evident good of the community. By being or becoming members of society, they have not renounced their natural liberty in any greater degree than any other good citizens. And if it is taken from them without their consent, they are so far enslaved.”
- The Stamp Act (1765)
- Required colonists to pay a tax on anything printed on paper. When people would pay the tax, they would receive a stamp to put on the product to show they had paid the tax.
- Offended a wide variety of people, from printers to lawyers to gamblers and many others. It hurt Americans from all walks of life.
- The colonial governments highly resented this act, because they were used to governing their own affairs. Many condemned the act.
- August 14: A mob wrecked the house of the Massachusetts stamp officer Andrew Oliver and attacked the Governor’s House.
- James Otis of Massachusetts issued a call for a colonial conference. This meeting (October 1765) became known as the Stamp Act Congress. It issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances.
- By the time the Stamp Act was set to go into effect, there was not a single stamp agent in the colonies willing to enforce it.
- The opposition to the Stamp Act brought down Grenville’s government. The succeeding government repealed the act. In 1766, William Pitt again became prime minister.
- The Townsend Acts (1767)
- 1767: British Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend sponsored a new set of taxes only on goods imported into the colonies. He hoped to avoid the backlash against the Stamp Acts. He targeted things like paper, glass, silk, paint, and tea.
- Many colonists vowed to not import any goods from Britain.
- The Massachusetts Legislature printed a circular letter (written by Samuel Adams) that condemned the new acts and sent it to the other colonial assemblies.
- Mass governor Francis Bernard was ordered to dissolve the legislature if they would not take the letter back. They refused, and the governor dissolved them.
- 1768: Two British infantry regiments were sent to Boston to “keep order.” They harassed Bostonians in a variety of ways. Bostonians in turn constantly taunted the soldiers.
- The Boston Massacre (1770)
- March 1770: A street fight between a British soldier and a Bostonian brought a British guard unit out.
- The captain of the guard ordered the crowd to disperse, but they refused. The crowd began throwing snowballs and other things at the soldiers. One of the soldiers was hit by a club, after which he raised his musket. It went off.
- The other soldiers fired into the crowd. Three Bostonians were killed immediately. Two more died later of their wounds.
- This incident confirmed the colonists’ suspicion that the British were out to get the colonists.
- The soldiers who fired into the crowd were tried by a local court for murder. They were defended by a lawyer named John Adams, who got them acquitted.
- The Tea Act (1773)
- The British East India Company was about to go bankrupt. Lord North proposed to bail out the company. All taxes on 17 M of stockpiled tea from India would be lifted. This would drive down the price of tea and enable the company to sell it.
- Americans, far from being happy about getting access to cheap tea, instead attributed sinister motives to the British. They had been buying tea from Dutch and other foreign merchants for very cheap prices and smuggling it into America. Now these colonial merchants would be out of business.
- Also, they thought that lowering the price of tea was a trick that would lure them into buying cheap tea, which would in turn require them to pay the Townsend Tax on tea. This in turn would mean that they were acknowledging Parliament’s right to tax them.
- In Philadelphia and New York, East India ships were turned away.
- The Boston Tea Party (1773)
- In Boston, Governor Hutchison ordered that the tea ships be unloaded.
- December 16, 1773, Boston’s Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the tea ships and threw all the tea into the harbor. This was 90,000 pounds of tea. (9000 Pounds Sterling or nearly $2 million US in today’s dollars).
- This was the first time that colonists took direct destructive action against the British government.
- The event became known as the “Boston Tea Party”
- King George III: “The die is now cast; the colonies must either submit or triumph…. we must not retreat.”
- The Coercive Acts (“Intolerable Acts”) – 1774
- These are a set of laws passed by Parliament in retaliation for the “Tea Party.”
- One law closed the port of Boston until compensation was paid and replaced the civil government with martial law. General Thomas Gage became the military governor.
- Another law allowed the governor of Mass to quarter troops in unoccupied buildings (not private homes though).
- Thomas Hutchison was replaced as governor by General Thomas Gage.
- A group of Mass residents in Suffolk County drafted a set of radical resolves attacking the Intolerable Acts and sent them to the other colonies. These are known as the “Suffolk Resolves.”
- May 1774: The Virginia Burgesses declared that the acts are “an attack on all British America and threatens ruin to the rights of all.”
- Thomas Gage Mini-Bio
- Joined the British Army at the age of 20 and fought in the War of the Austrian Succession.
- Fought in the French and Indian War (including the Battle of the Mononghela) and rose to the rank of Brigadier General.
- Became military governor of Montreal (1760) and then commander of all British forces in North America in 1763. He held this position for 10 years and then returned to England.
- He had spent nearly 20 years in North America.
- A solid military officer but not much of a diplomat or politician. Appointed military governor of Massachusetts in 1774, arriving on May 13.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Revolutionary War. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Revolutionary War.
This article is also part of our larger selection of posts about Colonial America. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to Colonial America.
This article is also part of our larger selection of posts about American History. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to American History.
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