The American Revolutionary War: Changing Perceptions


Figure 1.--The English colonists had growing problems with Britain, but they in all liklihood could have been solved politically. The Quebec Act of 1774, however, made war nearly inevitable. It invalidated the extensive claims of all the colonies to lands beyond the Appalchians and turned them over to Quebec and Native Americans--excactly what the colonial militias had fought the French and Indian War to prevent. It essentially pinned the Colonists permanently along the Eastern seaboard of North America while the vast riches of an entire continent beyond the Appalachians beckoned. One look at the map here explains why the land-hungary Colonists were not going to accept the Quebec Act.

It is almost incoceiveable how a people who in the 1760s fervently saw themselves as English, judged England to be the nost justly governed country in the world, and honored the monarchy would in the 1770s launch a republican revolution. Ironically it was the aftermath of the French and Indian War that played a major role. The refrain 'taxation without representation' became the refrain most associated with the Revolution, it probably was not as important as other factors. Taxes were actually relatively light, but British colonial regulations restricted the colonists in many ways. And among the many restructions placed on tbhe colonists, Parliament added a new one--the Quebec Act (1774). It essentially pinned the Colonists along the Eastern seasboard of North America while the vast riches of an entire continent beyond the Appalachians. The Quebec Act alone made war with Britain inevitable. And while the Colonists would come demonized King George III, it was actually Parliament that precipitated the crisis. Revolting against an elected parliament, did not have the same revolutionary cachet among Enlightenment-influenced thinkers as standing up to monarchy. Once the War begun, however, it was the King who aggressively pursued it, ecognizing the vitalstrategic importance of North America.

French and Indian War: Aftermath

Frrance rivaled England in military power in the 1750s when the French and Indian War broke out over contol of the Western lands--specifically the Ohio Valley. The Colonies could not exist without England. It was British military power that preserved the colonies from French rule and French Catholcism. Britain made a major decesion at the peace negotiations that North America was stregically vital to Britain, more importnt than the immnsely vlublke Cribbean sugar islands. While one might think that this would have cemented the relations between the colonies and the mother country, in fact it did just the opposite. Not only did the French and Indian War eliminate a common enemy, but it created a growing bone of contention between the colonies and British--the issue of taxes and even more importantly Western lands. The Colonists no longer felt threatened which meant that they no longer thought that they needed the British as much as they once did. And with the French threat gone, they no longer felt the need to pay taxes for military forces.

Intolerable Acts

England without fully understanding the comnseqiences left the colonies that developed along the North Atlantic seabord develop their own governing institutions which cnme to mean a royal governor and legislature which controlled finances. This was in large measure a way of ensuring that there would be no financial drain on the Crown. The major restriction on the colonists was the Navigation Acts (1660s). They required that trade with the colonies be conducted by British and colonial ships and that colonial shipments of many important products go first to a British port. This at first did not prove restrictive not was it strictly enforced. This began to change after the French and Indian War as the colonies developed and the British began to enforce the Navigations Acts more strictly. And to this was acted a serius of new restructions and taxes. Parliament's response to the Boston Tea Party was the Intolerable Acts (1774). The desire to negotiate differences with the Colonists disappeared. The British decided that the Colonies were going to be forced to obey Parliament and the Kings' ministers. Opinions about the Boston Tea Party had varied in the Colonies. Some Colonists admired the action and resistance to British policies. Others viewed the act as violent and radical. There was no such hesitation in Parliament. The British Parliament passed the Coercive Acts (1774). The aim was to punish the Colonists and to restore firm British control. The Colonists immediately christened the new laws, the Intolerable Acts.

Quebec Act (1774)

The British Parliament passed the Quebec Act (1774). It was designed to provide for the administration of Canada which had been acquired from France in the French and Indian War. It was an effort to gain the loyalty of Britain's new French subjects. Abd in this regard it asuceeded admirbly--only it alienated the much larger English population in the 13 colonies. The Act granted political and religious freedom to the French Canadians who were still the dominant population. (This grant was a major reason French Canadioans remained loyal to the Crown despite repeated American invasions during the Revolutionary War.) The Quebec Act was highly resented in the Coloinies, however, and was considered one of the Intolerable Acts. This was primarily because it nullified the claims that the Colonies had in the Ohio Valley. These clainms were why Washington and the Virginia Militia was with the British in the engagement that launched the Fremnch and Indian War. It essentially pinned the Colonists along the Eastern seaboard of North America while the vast riches of an entire continent beyond the Appalachians beconed. British efforts to close the Ohio Valley to the Colonists was a major factor in deciding important colonial leaders like Washington that independemce was necessary. And it would be the Colonidts on the Western frontier that would provide the most determined resistance to the British.

Taxation Issues

Every American school boy learns that the Colonists were resisting taxation without representation. It is true that the colonists were not represented in Parliament. Another issue is the level of taxation. The British felt that the American colonies were not paying adequately for the cost of the defense of the Colonies. They saw Boston as one big tax haven. The colonists saw themselves as being over taxed. This does not seem to have been the case. Assessing tax levels is a little complicated, but we are probably talking about taxes amounting to something like 1-2 percent of their incomes. Taxes varied from colony to colony. Modern Americans pay something like a third of their incomes for federal, state, and local taxs. The British tax burden was clearly light both compared to modern Americans and othger people at the time--at least in America. Parliament and the King handled the American Colonists with a light hand. They were paying the lowest taxes in the Western world. British subjects at home paid up to ten times as much in taxes as their American cousins. The British government by 1775 was consuming one-fifth of its citizensí GDP. [Norquist] This was partly because of huge cost of the French and Indian War and the costly Royal Navy. The Colonists of course complained that it was lack of representation was the issue. Almost certainly, however, of greater importance was British imperial legislation limiting economic activity. The British attempted to prevent trade with other countries and to limit manufacturing that might compete with British manufacturing. The Colonists turned to smuggling. Inportant colonists were deeply involved in smuggling. There were also efforts to limit western migration to avoid problems with native Americans The British established what became known as the Proclimation Line.

Economic Trends

One factor affecting attitudes toward England was economic trends. For a range of reasons, the southern colonies might have been expected to remain loyal to the Crown. The Revolution broke out the Boston area. There were few ties between Boston and the southern colonies. The Anglian Church was more important in the southern colonies. Wealthy plantation owners dependant on English markets would seen to be unlikely revolutionaries. Here economic trends were important. Many in the southern colonies had become rich trading with Britin. Many found that prices for their tobacco (cotton was not yet important) and other agricultural prices were declining while the manufactured and luxury goods they brought in England were increasing. Washington complained about this trenbd. We are not sure just why these shifts were occurring. We have not yet found a study assessing this trend, but would be interested in any information readers may have found. One might think that as the colonies excpanded, production increased affected prices. At any rate, the changing terms of trade affected attitudes toward Britain and increased attention on British laws affecting ecomonic activity in the colonies.







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Created: 3:41 PM 12/12/2018
Last updated: 3:41 PM 12/12/2018