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The American War of Independence (1775-1783) served as a harsh lesson to the British Empire that the dominions they controlled, if treated improperly, would always be susceptible to revolution.
The British did not wish to see the thirteen colonies break away from their realm, yet their colonial policies in the late-18th century proved consistently disastrous, demonstrating a complete lack of empathy or common understanding with the American population.
One might argue that independence was always on the horizon in this period for North America, yet even in an era of enlightenment the British seemed, through sheer ignorance, negligence and pride, to seal their own fate.
As with any revolution in history, ideological differences may have provided the foundation and impetus for change, but it is so often the events in the run up to the internal struggle that enhance tensions and ultimately trigger the conflict. The American Revolution was no different. Here are 6 key causes of this momentous period in American history.
1. Seven Years War (1756-1763)
Although the Seven Years War was a multinational conflict, the main belligerents were the British and French Empires. Each looking to expand their territory across numerous continents, both nations suffered mass casualties and racked up copious amounts of debt in order to fund the long and ardous struggle for territorial dominance.
Arguably the most important theatre of the war was in North America, which in 1756 had been geographically split between the empires of the British, French and Spanish. With key but costly victories at Quebec and Fort Niagara, the British were able to emerge victorious from the war and henceforth assimilated large swathes of previously held French territory in Canada and the Mid-West as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
While British victory had removed any French and Native Indian threat (to an extent) to the thirteen colonies, the war had led to greater economic hardship in the US and an acknowledgment of the cultural differences between colonists and Britons.
Clashes in ideologies became all the more apparent as the British looked to levy higher taxes on the thirteen colonies in order to heal the debt they incurred from military and naval spending.
2. Taxes and Duties
If the Seven Years War had not exacerbated the divide between the colonies and the British metropole, the implementation of colonial taxation certainly did. The British witnessed these tensions first-hand when the Stamp Act of 1765 was introduced. Colonists bitterly opposed the new direct taxation on printed materials and forced the British Government to eventually repeal the legislation a year later.
“No taxation without representation” became an iconic slogan, as it effectively summarised the colonial outrage at the fact they were being taxed against their will and with no form of representation in Parliament.
After the Stamp Act came the introduction of Townshend Duties in 1767 and 1768 – a series of acts that imposed new forms of indirect taxation of goods such as glass, paint, paper, lead and tea.
These duties caused outrage in the colonies and became the main root of spontaneous and violent opposition. Encouraged and rallied by propaganda leaflets and posters, such as those created by Paul Revere, colonists rioted and organised merchant boycotts. Eventually, the colonial response was met with fierce repression.
3. Boston Massacre (1770)
Just a year after the imposition of the Townshend Duties, the governor of Massachusetts was already calling for the other twelve colonies to join his state in resisting the British and boycotting their goods, which coincided with a riot in Boston over the seizure of a boat aptly named Liberty for smuggling.
Despite these tremors of discontent, nothing suggested that the colonies might seriously consider fighting their British masters until the infamous Boston massacre of March 1770.
A detachment of redcoats were accosted by a large crowd in the city, and bombarded with snowballs and more dangerous missiles as the cold and frustrated townsfolk vented their anger on the soldiers. Suddenly, they opened fire after a soldier was knocked down, killing five and injuring six others.
The Boston Massacre is often represented as the inevitable start of a revolution, but in fact it initially prompted Lord North’s government to withdraw the Townshend Acts and for a time it seemed like the worst of the crisis was over. However, radicals such as Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept the resentment ticking over.
4. Boston Tea Party (1773)
A switch had been flicked. The British government had a chance to make important political concessions to these disgruntled voices, yet they chose not to, and with this decision, the opportunity to avert rebellion was lost.
In 1772, a British ship which had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations was burned by angry patriots, while Samuel Adams set about creating Committees of Correspondence – a network of rebels across all of the 13 colonies.
Yet it was in December 1773 that the most famous and overt display of anger and resistance took place. A group of colonists led by Adams hopped aboard the East India Company trade vessel Dartmouth and poured 342 chests of tea (worth close to $2,000,000 in today’s currency) of British tea into the sea at Boston Harbour. This act – now known as the ‘Boston Tea Party’, remains important in patriotic American folklore.
5. Intolerable Acts (1774)
Rather than attempting to appease the rebels, the Boston Tea Party was met with the passing of the Intolerable Acts in 1774 by the British Crown. These punitive measures included the forced closure of Boston port and an order of compensation to the East India Company for damaged property. Town meetings were now also banned, and the authority of the royal governor was increased.
The British lost further support and patriots formed the First Continental Congress in the same year, a body where men from all the colonies were formally represented. In Britain, opinion was divided as the Whigs favoured reform while North’s Tories wanted to demonstrate the power of the British Parliament. It would be the Tories who got their way.
In the meantime, the First Continental Congress raised a militia, and in April 1775 the first shots of the war were fired as British troops clashed with militia men at the twin battles of Lexington and Concord. British reinforcements landed in Massachusetts and defeated the rebels at Bunker Hill in June – the first major battle of the American War of Independence.
Shortly after, the British withdrew into Boston – where they were besieged by an army commanded by the newly appointed General, and future president, George Washington.
6. King George III’s Speech to Parliament (1775)
On 26 October 1775 George III, King of Great Britain, stood up in front of his Parliament and declared the American colonies to be in a state of rebellion. Here, for the first time, the use of force was authorised against the rebels. The King’s speech was long but certain phrases made it clear that a major war against his own subjects was about to commence:
“It is now become the part of wisdom, and (in its effects) of clemency, to put a speedy end to these disorders by the most decisive exertions. For this purpose, I have increased my naval establishment, and greatly augmented my land forces, but in such a manner as may be the least burthensome to my kingdoms.”
After such a speech, the Whig position was silenced and a full-scale war was inevitable. From it the United States of America would emerge, and the course of history radically changed.