Top 10 Things That Tipped Off Revolutionary War

Top 10 Things That Tipped Off Revolutionary War
Elizabeth Frantz/The Concord Monitor via AP
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On April 19, 1775, the first battles of the American Revolution were fought in Lexington and Concord between soldiers of the British Empire and American rebels. How did the British Empire, the most powerful, wealthy, and politically sophisticated polity in the world at the time, manage to alienate its most prosperous North American colonies? Here are 10 reasons:

10. Abolition and slavery. There has been a long-running narrative in leftist circles that the American rebels only left so they could protect slavery from the enlightened British Empire, which was collectively beginning to see the errors of its ways in regards to the slave trade. There is a kernel of truth to this argument, at least when it comes to the southern colonies, but it’s also not as strong as leftists make it sound. The Caribbean colonies, which were heavily dependent on slave labor, stayed in the empire and had nothing to do with the rebellion. This might have been the case because the Caribbean colonies were dependent on British protection from Spain and pirates, but it’s a pertinent counterpoint to use when discussing history with far leftists.

9. Taxes. RCH recently covered the Stamp Act, and the analysis on taxes is that they rose in the colonies because the colonies agitated for a war of territorial expansion. When the war ended, the colonists were shocked - SHOCKED! - that London raised their taxes to pay off its war debt.

8. Piracy and impressment. The empires of the world in 1775, as well as plenty of local polities, had not managed to make the high seas safe for commerce. Piracy, whether independent of political units or as a clandestine part of them, were the scourge of the oceans and American ships were often juicy targets, mostly because the British did not protect American ships, which London believed were capable of protecting themselves, very heavily. In addition to piracy, there was a ruthless, but common, practice called impressment that was in use at the time. Impressment was what official military ships did to commercial ships at the former's convenience, which was capture any number of sailors from the commerce vessel and impress them into military service. American ships, again for the same reason outlined above, were often favorite targets, not just of non-British military ships but British ones as well.

7. Refusal to grant representative rights, and the abolition of local legislatures. Adam Smith, as well as most of the Whigs in the U.K.’s parliament at the time of Lexington and Concord, pointed out numerous times in writing tracts and in the halls of parliament itself that the North American colonies could be saved if only London would grant them representation. Alas. London also began to govern the colonies more heavy handedly, in that it began to take liberties overriding local legislatures that had initially been permitted, and even encouraged, to develop indigenously. It was as if Washington suddenly began to take control over California’s century-old legislature, and the colonists were having none of it.

6. Prohibition of trade to the non-British world. The North American colonies that rebelled against London were tired of only being allowed to trade with other parts of the Empire. Some colonies, like those that were located in what is now Canada (or the Caribbean), benefitted from the United Kingdom’s mercantile system, while others, like those found in what is now the United States, felt robbed. The rebels of 1776 were free traders, though when the republic was officially established in 1789, interests diverged.

5. The continued quartering of British soldiers. Imagine, for a moment, an Iraqi household being forced to give room and board to an American or a Polish soldier in 2005. That’s not quite what happened in the North American colonies but it’s not a far cry, either. The colonists of North America considered themselves to be British subjects of the Crown, and most were proud to be. (In fact, a little further down the list, you’ll see why the Americans, as rebels, were so adamant about liberalizing citizenship laws.) A much better analogy would be to imagine the LAPD or the Texas National Guard forcing households to give quarter to soldiers. The analogy is better, but the picture is still a frightening one.

4. Republicanism and libertarianism. The American rebels wanted to go further than the British Whigs, who wanted a weak monarchy and a powerful parliament. Bernard Bailyn, in his magnificent 1992 classic, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, traces how the rebels wanted to, among other things, build off of the British model and make it more republican, and thus more libertarian, in character. The great irony here is that the presidential system put into place by the ratifiers of the 1789 constitution has given the executive branch much more power than the parliamentary systems put into place by the various British colonies that did not rebel against London (Canada, Australia, India, etc.).

3. Native Americans. The empires of the 18th century had sophisticated diplomacy tactics, especially by today’s standards. London and Paris were adept at using indigenous actors - who were much more powerful and influential than a generation of left-wing scholars have made them out to be - for their own purposes (and vice-versa). The Declaration of Independence cites British encouragement of Native violence as one of its reasons for rebellion, but the truth here is that the British had treaties with Natives along the frontier and the colonists were violating said treaties. When hostilities began, London then utilized its Native allies.

2. Immigration and naturalization. The British North American colonies were rich in land at the time of the American Revolution, and local legislatures made a handsome profit by having liberal immigration laws. A pauper from what is now Germany or Sweden could easily move to the colonies, gain citizenship within the British Empire, receive a stipend from a local legislature, and establish a farm on the frontiers of the British New World. London did not approve of this, for any number of reasons (see, especially, No. 3 above), and began, once the Seven Years’ War ended, to restrict immigration and naturalization policies enacted by the colonies.

1. Trial by Jury. Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the best book on America, ever, spilled much ink on the peculiar English institution of the trial by jury. It was, in part, an institution that helped turn subjects into citizens, and, in another part, an institution that serves as a vital check on despotism. He was not wrong, and London’s attempts at curbing the trial by jury was easily one of, if not the, most important reasons why the American colonists rebelled against the United Kingdom. Remember that the next time you get your jury summons in the mail!

Further thoughts

Don’t forget to read the entire Declaration of Independence for yourself, and here is an interesting 1988 essay by the British journalist Henry Fairlie in The New Republic on what Europeans thought of the Declaration of Independence.

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