The American Revolutionary War was fought between 1775 and 1783. While it had a number of causes, the one that is most often mentioned in accounts of the period is the American (or soon-to-be-American) desire to break free from their British rulers. The war ended with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which specified some conditions concerning the British defeat and the American triumph. This paper will discuss some causes of the Revolutionary War, including but not limited to the traditional explanation.
One reason that the colonists ended up dissatisfied with their British overlords is that, while the British were quite accustomed to establishing and ruling over colonies, they had never established a colony quite like the future United States of America. It was largely made up of former Europeans, who had—like Britain itself—access to slave labor, at first in the form of Native Americans taken as slaves by Columbus and his cohorts; in part to make up for the lack of gold, which he had promised those funding his explorations. Later the American “settlers” would make abundant use of black slaves taken against their will from the African continent. Perhaps more important, however, was the related but distinct, and characteristically European, belief that the “settlers” were destined to rule, rather than to be ruled. The “settlers” buttressed this opinion with the allegedly God-assigned fate of “manifest destiny” (Loewen).
A second reason for the Revolutionary War was the increasing economic demand that Britain levied upon its North American colony in the form of taxes and other financial burdens. Part of this demand was standard practice, and part of it was needed to pay for the British role in the French and Indian War, which came to a close in 1763. The British claimed, implausibly, that the war had been fought, in large part, to protect the interests of the North American colony. Thus, in addition to such pieces of legislation as the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Sugar Act of 1764, the British decided to pass the Tea Act of 1773. Unlike the previous two acts mentioned, the Tea Act was not strictly a tax. It was rather a guarantee that the so-called British East India Company would have exclusive rights to sell tea in the American colonies. On the other hand, it functioned very much as a tax, in the sense that the “settlers” would have no choice concerning how much they paid for tea, and a rise in the price would bring the British Empire increased revenue.
The difference between the Tea Act, on one hand, and the other acts that were properly forms of taxation, on the other, was however profound in its effects. The ensuing “Boston Tea Party”, in which the “settlers” dumped into the Boston Harbor upwards of 100,000 pounds of tea, profoundly shaped the character of events to come. While it would be an exaggeration to say that this act pushed Britain into war—or even into a true preparedness for war—it did make the Kingdom angry, and made it reflect upon what was and should be its relation to the North American colonies.
Despite the details, the overall effect of the taxes and the Tea Act was that the American “settlers” were increasingly unsatisfied with their arrangement with the United Kingdom. While the famous slogan “no taxation without representation” grew out of this period, it was from one historical perspective nonsensical. Britain had long been exploiting its colonies—in fact, that was the entire purpose of having colonies—and all of them had been “taxed”, in one way or another. And of course none had ever received anything the like representation that the Americans were demanding. This was another instance of the irregularity of the early North American “settlers’” relation to their royal British overlords (Price).
One of the less-publicized reasons for the American decision to fight for independence from Britain was the increasing unrest among the poor, including the Native American- and other minority-poor. These many thousands of people had begun to wonder why it was that they were poor, when others in the colonies were so rich. The colonies’ elites realized that by declaring war against the British they could distract the poor and otherwise oppressed and aggrieved from their predicaments.
This same general strategy has been used constantly and consistently throughout American history. The formalization of the institution of slavery allowed elites to divide poor white and black dissent; the Jim Crow laws again allowed conservative politicians to render impotent the political threat of the white poor, reassuring them that they were, at a minimum, able to sit where they liked on a bus or in a restaurant; and the mass incarceration of blacks in our own day has allowed conservatives to all-but-eliminate the problem that blacks potentially pose at the voting booth, along with frightening poor whites into voting for the same conservative politicians(Zinn). Finally, a declaration of war, or absent that at least the unmotivated killing of many people, has been a frequently utilized and effective means of social control in the United States. This trend continues all the way up to the present, where Donald Trump has recently bombed a mostly unmanned military base in Syria, at a cost of roughly $100 million to the US taxpayer, to improve his dismal approval rating.
A final cause of the Revolutionary War that should be mentioned was the passage of yet further punitive measures against the colonies, in the form of what the kingdom called “Coercive Acts”, and what the colonies called “Intolerable Acts”. This was a series of punitive actions taken, particularly against Massachusetts, in consequence of the Boston Tea Party. Finally, it should at least be mentioned that the American Revolution would certainly have been lost had it not been for the unsung help that France and other European powers provided to the colonies.
- Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. Simon and Schuster, 1995.
- Price, William. “Reasons behind the Revolutionary War.” Tar Heel Historian, Fall 1992. Retrieved from http://www.ncpedia.org/history/usrevolution/reasons.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.