Why Did the American Colonists Revolt?

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Thomas Ash

A complex mythology has been built up around the American Revolution: it is a national story of great significance to the way the United States views itself. But the mythology is just that - a mythology. Contrary to the picture presented in American primary schools, the Americans were not a separate, turkey-eating people, subjugated by the cruel, tyrannical and essentially foreign British. In fact, many colonists thought of themselves as British. Historians accept that the American Revolution had a wide variety of motives and causes: these included slightly differing political traditions, the economic interests of both parties, the trading interests of those directly or indirectly involved in transatlantic commerce, the large debt Britain had accumulated in the wake of the Seven Years War, and a fair amount of mutual misunderstanding as well.

The British colonies had been around for 150 years in the 1760s - Virginia was the first to be founded in 1606. By 1763 a sizable spread of land had been carved out for Britain, and the colonies were prospering. Most importantly, the Seven Years War had just finished, leading to a complete withdrawal from the American mainland on the part of France, and, for the Spanish, losses of all but a rump of formerly French holdings west of Florida. The two great territorial rivals of the British colonies had been removed as a threat. The future looked bright and secure for the Americans, with the prospect of unlimited westward expansion held back only by the British response to Indian raids, the Proclamation Line along the Appalachians which prevented further settlement of the continent's interior.

The 13 mainland colonies between South Carolina and Maine, in particular, had grown from British settlements established for trade and prestige, highly dependent on the motherland, into semi-autonomous states. The 10 other colonies were in a very different situation, with small white populations almost exclusively growing sugar for sale to Britain in the Caribbean colonies, a very limited population with underdeveloped civil government collected in small areas of Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia little more than a military outpost.[1] It is no accident that it was the aforementioned 13 colonies[2] that rebelled.

Over the previous 150 years the colonies had attracted an ever-increasing number of immigrants and grown steadily in themselves so that they now contained significant urban centres such as Philadelphia and Boston, a large population (free and slave) of 1,593,625 in 1770[3], an abundance of land (with the prospect of more to the west - now free bar the Indians) rapidly being more fully used by the growing population it attracted, and a growing number of manufacturing industries. These were significant because the traditional model of colonies had been to serve as exporters of raw materials and staple goods to Britain and purchasers of manufactured goods, all along the protected trading lines of the Navigation Act. But the mainland American colonies were increasingly less dependent, more able to stand on their own.

In Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History, Francis D. Cogliano points to the increasing heterogenity in the colonies (with many non-English British - Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants comprised 42.8% of the population in Pennsylvania - and numerous Germans from radical Protest sects[4]) as a factor in differences with Britain. The growing diversity of nationalities may have been seen as a part of the emergence of a set of colonies populous, wealthy and self confident in themselves, but most of the leaders in agitation were white English gentry. Notably, the New England colonies, which were at the heart of the resistance leading up to the revolution (especially Massachusetts), were 75% English.[5]

The English settlers who led the revolution were very conscious of claiming their rights as "free-born Englishmen." They were likely to have left...
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