Causes of the American Revolution
Britain and its colonies had outgrown Eighteenth Century techniques of governance. Unfortunately, both England and America lacked the sophistication to make drastic changes smoothly.
George Washington in Philadelphia
Philadelphia remains slightly miffed that Washington was so enthusiastic about moving the nation's capital next to his home on the Potomac. The fact remains that the era of Washington's eminence was Philadelphia's era; for thirty years Washington and Philadelphia dominated affairs.
Two troubling questions persist long after the American Revolution has mostly faded into the past: Why was New England so much more rebellious than the rest of the colonies? And, whatever was George III thinking when he blundered into losing an empire? No doubt, he would have answered in a different, unreflective tone in 1776, but the following is what he had to say about it after the war was lost. He seems to emerge as a far more literate and reflective person than the colonists believed of him.
"America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow? Or have we resources that may repair the mischief? What are those resources? Should they be sought in distant Regions held by precarious Tenure, or shall we seek them at home in the exertions of a new policy?
"The situation of the Kingdom is novel, the policy that is to govern it must be novel likewise, or neither adapted to the real evils of the present moment or the dreaded ones of the future.
"For a Century past the Colonial Scheme has been the system that has guided the Administration of the British Government. It was thoroughly known that from every Country there always exists an active emigration of unsettled, discontented, or unfortunate People, who fail in their endeavors to live at home, hope to succeed better where there is more employment suitable to their poverty. The establishment of Colonies in America might probably increase the number of this class, but did not create it; in times anterior to that great speculation, Poland contained near 10,000 Scotch Pedlars; within the last thirty years not above 100, occasioned by America offering a more advantageous asylum for them.
"A people spread over an immense tract of fertile land, industrious because free, and rich because industrious, presently became a market for the Manufactures and Commerce of the Mother Country. Importance was soon generated, which from its origin to the late conflict was mischievous to Britain, because it created an expense of blood and treasure worth more at this instant if it could be at our command, than all we ever received from America. The wars of 1744, of 1756, and 1775, were all entered into from the encouragements given to the speculations of settling the wilds of North America.
"It is to be hoped that by degrees it will be admitted that the Northern Colonies, that is those North of Tobacco, were, in reality, our very successful rivals in two Articles, the carrying freight trade, and the Newfoundland fishery. While the Sugar Colonies added above three million a year to the wealth of Britain, the Rice Colonies near a million, and the Tobacco ones almost as much; those more to the north, so far from adding anything to our wealth as Colonies, were trading, fishing, farming Countries, that rivaled us in many branches of our industry, and had actually deprived us of no inconsiderable share of the wealth we reaped by means of the others. This comparative view of our former territories in America is not stated with any idea of lessening the consequence of a future friendship and connection with them; on the contrary it is to be hoped we shall reap more advantages from their trade as friends than ever we could derive from them as Colonies; for there is reason to suppose we actually gained more by them while in actual rebellion, and the common open connection cut off, then when they were in obedience to the Crown; the Newfoundland fishery took into the Account, there is little doubt of it.
"The East and West Indies are conceived to be the great commercial supports of the Empire; as to the Newfoundland, fishery time must tell us what share we shall reserve of it. But there is one observation which is applicable to all three; they depend on very distant territorial possessions, which we have little or no hopes of retaining from their internal strength, we can keep them only by means of a superior Navy. If our marine force sinks, or if in consequence of wars, debts, and taxes, we should in future find ourselves so debilitated as to be involved in a new War, without the means of carrying it on with vigor, in these cases, all distant possessions must fall, let them be as valuable as their warmest panegyrists contend.
"It evidently appears from this slight review of our most important dependencies, that on them we are not to exert that new policy which alone can be the preservation of the British power and consequence. The more important they are already, the less are they fit instruments in that work. No man can be hardy enough to deny that they are insecure; to add therefore to their value by exertions of policy which shall have the effect of directing any stream of capital, industry, or population into those channels, would be to add to a disproportion already an evil. The more we are convinced of the vast importance of those territories, the more we must feel the insecurity of our power; our view, therefore, ought not to be to increase but preserve them."
In short, King George III of England sounds like a thoughtful, insightful man. Not a heedless, vindictive power freak as portrayed by frenzied revolutionaries, the King expressed a pretty reasonable assessment of his colonies. What he most lacked was a recognition that centralized if not one-man rule blocked growing expectations of greater self-rule; expectations propelled by an even bigger revolution, the Industrial Revolution. A Machiavelli or a Bismarck would have seen that Virginia mostly wanted access to Ohio land, while New England wanted maritime dominance; the Quaker colonies were quite satisfied with what they had. It would have been comparatively simple to play one region against another, giving each a little of what it wanted while encouraging cultural diversities which kept them jealous and separate. But His Majesty, yielding to the financial strains of the Seven Year War, and the urgings of his Teutonic mother, united thirteen of his colonies in common rebellion against taxes, military occupation, and high-handedness. The colonies did not want to unite; George III united them. Without unity, their rebellion had no chance.
Originally published: Thursday, December 07, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019
|Posted by: comfort | Oct 20, 2008 11:40 AM|