What Caused the American Revolution?

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 Idealogical 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.

Protestors pulling down statue of George III in New York in July of 1776, engraving by John C. McRae, circa 1875

Protestors pulling down statue of George III in New York in July of 1776, engraving by John C. McRae, circa 1875

Bailyn argues that when the colonists saw what they believed were signs of this conspiracy at work, it spurred them to rebel:

“It was this – the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their worlds dissembled – that was signaled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.”

Bailyn further explains, in an interview with Liz Covart about the origins of the American Revolution, on her podcast Ben Franklin’s World, that “this overwhelming evidence” was the various attempts made by the British government to meddle in colonial affairs, such as with new taxes, an increased military presence in the colonies and etc:

“Well as you know the rumor of an Anglican bishop in America was enough to scare the wits out of them because of what its effects would be on the practice of religion but there were developments, initially of course, of taxation which they wouldn’t accept because they had no role in it, despite the fact that most people in Britain never had a role in their own taxation. But they saw evil in that. They saw evil in the reorganization of government with more officials being sent to police trade, to keep the restrictions on trade, which had been very lose, to tighten them up, to bring in a higher income and they experienced in certain places a lack of a independent judiciary, since in the case of Massachusetts, judges who long had been paid, and in their minds controlled, by the local assemblies, were now being paid by Britain directly from the income that was made from customs in America and that was a blatant sign of a growing disorder to their disadvantage. And their were others that had to do with trade as the British government after 1763 tried to create a controlled and profitable colonial empire.”

In the end, Bailyn argues, this conspiracy was about Great Britain’s imperial government attempting to remove power and control from local colonial governments:

“That’s exactly what they thought and all of these little signals were just the signs that they feared that the government in Britain itself was moving in the wrong direction.”

The following is a list of some of the events that colonists believed were signs of a government conspiracy at work.

These events are what prompted the colonists to rebel against the government and, in the end, are believed to be the main causes that led to the American Revolution:

Royal Proclamation of 1763:

After the French and Indian War ended, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, on October 7, 1763, which forbade colonists from settling the land west of the Appalachian Divide.

The proclamation also prohibited private citizens and colonial governments from buying land from natives or making agreements with them, stating that only the British empire could conduct these official relations. Furthermore, only licensed traders would be allowed to travel west or trade with the natives.

The proclamation was intended to prevent the outbreak of another costly war like the French and Indian war by preventing further expansion into the contested areas.

it was also intended to keep the colonists near the coast. New settlements further inland would cost the government a lot of money in roads, protection, security and local governments.

Since the British government was already in heavy debt due to the cost of the war, it couldn’t afford to invest in new settlements.

Limiting colonial expansion to the area east of the Appalachian divide meant the colonies would expand west only when the government was financially able to do so and would avoid anymore costly Indian wars in the process.

Yet, the colonists ultimately saw the proclamation as an attempt by the British government to put its own needs and interests first instead of serving the interests of its people, as they believed governments should do.

The colonists believed they earned the western lands when they fought for the British government in the French and Indian War and saw this denial of their hard-earned reward as a betrayal.

Mayhew-Apthorp Controversy:

In 1760, the Anglicans in Boston began building Christ Church in Cambridge, which was a mission church built by the Society of Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

The S.P.G. was an Anglican missionary organization dedicated to converting Native-Americans into the Anglican faith.

In response, in 1762, the colonists created their own mission society, called the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians of North America, to convert natives to the Congregationalist faith instead.

In England, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury found out about the program and convinced the privy counsel in London to terminate the society’s charter in May of 1763.

Also in 1763, Reverend East Apthorp, the Anglican minister at Christ Church in Boston, published a pamphlet, titled Considerations on the Institution and Conduct of the Society for Propagating the Gospel, that supported the Society of Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts missionary work to bring the Native-Americans in the colonies into the Anglican faith.

In response to this pamphlet, Reverend Jonathan Mayhew of Westfield, caused a stir when he published his own pamphlet, titled Observations on the Charter and Conduct of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which argued that the S.P.G. in London was secretly conspiring to install an Anglican bishop in the colonies.

Mayhew was a radical Congregational minister who believed that the British government was trying to undermine the religious liberties of the colonists, according to J.B. Bell in his book A War of Religion:

“It was Mayhew’s understanding, in 1758, that with the accession of Secker to the see of Canterbury, there may be an effort by London officials to appoint a bishop for the colonies. If such a turn of events were true, he felt it was a threat to the civil and religious liberties of the colonists. He immediately wrote to Thomas Hollis, a prominent London Whig, for advice and help. Mayhew also was very suspicious that Archbishop Secker and the London-based S.P.G. [Society of the Propagation of Gospel] would terminate the charter for the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge Among the Indians of North America, a Congregational missionary programme for the native Americans. His suspicions proved accurate when the Society’s charter was disallowed [in May of 1763], reinforcing Mayhew’s mistrust of the Church of England.”

Bailyn noted that the timing of Mayhew’s pamphlet and the shutdown of the colonist’s missionary program was significant because it “erupted into public controversy at the very same time that the first impact of new British policies in civil affairs was being felt.” (Bailyn 97.)

Massacre at St. George’s Fields & the Boston Riot Shooting:

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, the violent deaths of two young boys at the hands of British officials stoked fears that the British government was out to terrorize its citizens in an attempt to control them.

On May 10, 1768, a mob assembled at St. George’s Fields in London in support of imprisoned John Wilkes, a radical member of Parliament and a patriot-sympathizer who had been arrested for writing an obscene poem about a courtier named Fanny Murray.

The mob in St. George’s Fields was fired upon by a regiment of Foot Guards and several people were killed, including a young boy who was wrongly identified as the leader of the mob. Rumors began to swirl that the “massacre” had been deliberately planned by British officials.

These rumors were echoed loudly in the North American colonies and when a similar event occurred in Boston on February 22, 1770, during which a 10-year-old boy named Christopher Seider was shot by a British customs official during a riot, the colonists felt it was more than just a coincidence and was evidence that “the two events were two effects of the same cause” (Bailyn 115).

The Boston Massacre:

A few weeks after the Boston Riot shooting, the Boston Massacre occurred, on the night of March 5, 1770, during which British troops shot and killed five protestors outside the State House on King Street in Boston.

"The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt," engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, circa 1770

“The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt,” engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, circa 1770

The event erased any doubts that the troops were actually a standing army sent there to terrorize, intimidate and force the colonists into complying with the new laws.

The acquittal of the soldiers the following autumn only strengthened these beliefs. It also didn’t help that in Boston, where the trial was held, there was a suspicion of judicial irregularities.

The trial was later denounced by the colonists as a “mock trial” in their list of grievances against the King in the Declaration of Independence when it was adopted on July 4, 1776.

Acts of the American Revolution:

In 1763, Great Britain was deeply in debt due to the cost of the French and Indian War, aka the Seven Years’ War, and also needed money for more troops to secure the newly acquired land won during the war.

To help pay down this debt and raise money for troops, Great Britain began imposing a series of new taxes designed to generate revenue from the 13 colonies.

These acts of the American Revolution were:

The Sugar Act
The Currency Act
The Stamp Act
The Townshend Acts
The Tea Act
The Coercive Acts

The Sugar Act of 1764 was the first attempt to tax the colonies. The act placed a tax on sugar and molasses imported into the colonies. Colonists resented the tax because they believed Britain had no right to tax for revenue without the colonists having representation in Parliament.

The response to the Sugar Act was moderate except for people such as Samuel Adams who saw it as an infringement on their rights and liberties and believed it was just the beginning of even more violations of their rights.

Adams expressed these concerns in his instructions to the Boston members of the Massachusetts Assembly in May of 1764:

“But what still heightens our apprehensions is, that these unexpected proceedings may be preparatory to new taxations upon us: For if our trade may be taxed why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern & tax ourselves–It strikes at our British privileges, which as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our fellow subjects who are natives of Britain: If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?”

Also in 1764, the Currency Act was passed, which regulated paper money by forbidding the colonies from issuing paper money.

The colonists believed the act was an attempt by the British government to gain control of the colonies’ monetary policies and felt the British were asking the impossible in demanding payments in gold or silver when these resources were continually being drained in the colonies.

In 1765, the Stamp Act was passed, which was a tax on all paper used for printed materials in the colonies. This act made many colonists realize for the first time that the British government could act contrary to the colonies’ interests.

The Stamp Act Riots in Boston, illustration published in The youths' history of the United States from the discovery of America

The Stamp Act Riots in Boston, illustration published in The youths’ history of the United States from the discovery of America

Colonists disagreed with the Stamp Act because they believed Britain had no right to tax the colonists without representation. It was the first act that colonists took to the streets to publicly protest, such as in August of 1765, when the Stamp Act Riots occurred in Boston.

In the wake of the Stamp Act crisis, Benjamin Franklin, who was working as a representative of the colonies of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia, addressed the House of Commons at Parliament in 1766 and answered questions about taxation in America.

During his address to Parliament, Franklin warned that enforcing the Stamp Act with military force would cause a colonial rebellion:

“Q. Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?
A. I do not see how a military force can be applied for that purpose.
Q. Why may it not?
A. Suppose a military force sent into America; they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.
Q. If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?
A. A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.”

Later in his testimony, Franklin explained that new laws and policies had already caused the colonists to lose respect for the British government:

“Q: And have they not still the same respect for parliament?
A: No, it is greatly lessened.
Q: To what causes is that owing?
A: To a concurrence of causes, the restraints lately laid on their trade, by which the bringing of foreign gold and silver into the colonies was prevented; the prohibition of making paper money among themselves; and then demanding a new and heavy tax by stamps; taking away, at the same time, trials by juries, and refusing to receive and hear their humble petitions…”

In 1767, the Townshend Acts were passed, which were a series of taxes on imports, and consisted of the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act of 1767, the Commissioners of Customs Act; the Vice Admiralty Act; and the New York Restraining Act.

The Revenue Act of 1767 placed a tax on British goods imported into the colonies such as glass, tea, lead, paints and paper and also paid the salaries of superior court judges, which used to be paid by the colonial assembly.

Colonists opposed the Townshend Acts because they felt it was wrong to tax the colonies without representation in Parliament. They responded by organizing massive boycotts of British imports.

Colonists also opposed the Vice Admiralty Act because it made it so that offenders of maritime law, such as smugglers, were tried in admiralty courts without juries.

In February of 1768, the Massachusetts Assembly issued a letter, now known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter, written primarily by Samuel Adams, that called on all the colonial assemblies to unite and resist the Townshend Acts:

“It seems to be necessary that all possible care should be taken that the representatives of the several assemblies, upon so delicate a point, should harmonize with each other. The House therefore hopes that this letter will be candidly considered in no other light than as expressing a disposition freely to communicate their mind to a sister colony, upon a common concern, in the same manner as they would be glad to receive the sentiments of your or any other house of assembly on the continent…It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, that the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s Commons in Britain… ”

In response to the Townshend Act boycotts and the Massachusetts Circular letter, Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the Colonies, dispatched two regiments, consisting of 4,000 troops, to restore order in Boston and enforce the new laws. The troop ships arrived in Boston in September of 1768.

In 1773, the Tea Act was passed which allowed for tea to be shipped by the British East India Company duty-free to the colonies, thus allowing them to sell the tea for a discounted price but with a small tax.

Even though British tea became cheaper, colonists still opposed the act because they were being taxed without representation and feared that the act would give the British East India Company a monopoly on the colonial tea trade.

The tea act is what prompted the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, during which several hundred protestors boarded merchant ships in Boston harbor and destroyed millions of dollars of British tea by throwing it overboard.

In 1774, the Coercive Acts, aka the Intolerable Acts, were passed, which were a series of four acts designed to restore order in Massachusetts and punish Boston for its rebellious activities. The acts were the British government’s response to the Boston Tea Party.

These acts included: The Boston Port Act, Massachusetts Government Act, Administration of Justice Act, the Quartering Act and the Quebec Act.

The Boston Port Act closed the port of Boston until damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid.

The Massachusetts Government Act restricted democratic town meetings and turned the governor’s council into an appointed body.

The Administration of Justice Act made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in Massachusetts.

The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and quarter British troops on demand, including in their private homes as a last resort.

The Quebec Act extended freedom of worship to Catholics in Canada and granted Canadians the continuation of their judicial system. Colonists found this distressing because they disapproved of allowing Catholics to worship freely in the colonies.

The Coercive Acts were intended to suppress the growing rebellion in Massachusetts and isolate it from the other colonies.

Instead, they were deemed so oppressive that it prompted the other colonies to come to Massachusetts’ defense and form the First Continental Congress to discuss creating a united resistance against British rule in the colonies.

The colonists saw all of these acts as an infringement on their liberties and, at the heart of it, they feared they were just the beginning of something far worse.

They felt these acts were the start of bigger and more expansive government policies and they felt they had to act to make sure that didn’t happen.

Sources:
Bell, J.B. A War of Religion: Dissenters, Anglicans and the American Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
“What We Get Wrong About Taxes and the American Revolution.” PBS.org, News Hour Productions, LLC, 26 Dec. 2016,www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/what-we-get-wrong-about-taxes-american-revolution
Franklin, Benjamin. The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2003.
“Samuel Adams Instructions to Boston Representatives.” Samuel Adams Heritage Society, www.samuel-adams-heritage.com/documents/samuel-adams-instructions-to-bostons-representatives.html
Ferling, John. Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It. Bloomsbury Press, 2015.
“British Reforms and Colonial Resistance, 1767-1772.” Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/brittwo/brittwo.html
Bailyn, Bernard. The Idealogical Origins of the American Revolution: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017.
Covart, Liz. “Episode 152: Origins of the American Revolution.” Ben Franklin’s World podcast, www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-152-origins-american-revolution/
“Road to Revolution.” Digital History, University of Houston, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3214
“Road to Revolution.” History is Fun, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, www.historyisfun.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/RoadtoRevolution.pdf
“Causes and Effects of the American Revolution.” Mr. Nussbaum, Nassbaum Education Network, LLC, mrnussbaum.com/arce/
Schulman, Marc. “Economic Causes of the Revolutionary War.” History Central, www.historycentral.com/Revolt/Americans/Leading.html
“Overview of the American Revolution.” Digital History, University of Houston, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=3

What Caused the American Revolution

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the writer and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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