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The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict

Taxation Without Representation


The American Revolution: Causes of Conflict

Join, or Die by Benjamin Franklin

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

American Revolution 101 | Next: Opening Campaigns

Effects of the French & Indian War

On February 10, 1763, the French & Indian War (Seven Years' War) came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Defeated by Britain and its allies, France was forced to cede all of Canada in exchange for the return of Guadeloupe and Martinique. In addition, Spain obtained French Louisiana in exchange for Florida which was given to the British. While triumphant, the war had badly stressed Britain's finances plunging the nation into debt. In an effort to alleviate these financial burdens, the government in London began exploring various options for raising revenues.

Proclamation of 1763

On October 7, 1763, King George III issued a royal proclamation which forbade American colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains. This was intended to stabilize relations with the Native American population, most of which had sided with France in the recent conflict, as well as reduce the cost of colonial defense. In America, the proclamation was met with outrage as many colonists had either purchased land west of the mountains or had received land grants for services rendered during the war. Almost immediately, settlers began ignoring the "Proclamation Line" and colonial leaders began lobbying London to move the line further west. These lobbying efforts met with some success and the line was adjusted through treaties in 1768 and 1770.

Rise of Liberalism and Republicanism

As tensions regarding colonial lands and taxation increased during the 1760s and 1770s, many American leaders were influenced by the liberal and republican ideals espoused by Enlightenment writers such as John Locke. Key among Locke's theories was that of the "social contract" which stated that legitimate state authority must be derived from the consent of the governed. Also, that should the government abuse the rights of the governed, it was the natural responsibility of the people to rise up and overthrow their leaders. The ideas of Locke and other similar writers contributed to the American embrace of "republican" ideology in the years before the Revolution. Standing in opposition to tyrants, republicanism called for the protection liberty through the rule of law and civic virtue.

While many of the Founding Fathers may have had contact with the writings of European thinkers, many other Americans came to their republican beliefs through dissenting churches such as the Puritans and Presbyterians. Through religious study, men like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, were taught key tenets such as that all men are created equal, that there is no divine right of kings, and wicked laws should be disobeyed. Across the colonies, these philosophies were preached by Revolutionary clergy in their sermons which brought the ideals of republicanism to the masses.

The Navigation Acts & Writs of Assistance

Since the mid-1600s, British trade had been regulated through a set of laws known as the Navigation Acts. Operating on the philosophy of mercantilism, these laws required that all trade between British territories be carried on British ships and routed through Britain to ensure that proper duties were paid. While these laws were modified over the next century, they were widely flouted by colonial traders who wished to reduce costs and shipping time.

In an effort to increase revenues during the latter years of the French & Indian War, the British government began cracking down on American smugglers. Customs officials were empowered with writs of assistance (transferable, open-ended search warrants), which permitted them to search warehouses, homes, and ships on a whim without cause. Angered by this trampling of their rights, colonial merchants voiced their disapproval. In 1761, Boston lawyer James Otis challenged the legality of the writs in court arguing that they violated the constitutional rights of the colonists. Though defeated, Otis' performance set the stage for increased colonial defiance of British policy.

New Taxes & Boycotts

As the British government assessed methods for generating funds, it was decided to levy new taxes on the colonies with the goal of offsetting some of the cost for their defense. Passed on April 5, 1764, the Sugar Act placed a tax of three pence per gallon on molasses as well as listed specific goods which could be exported to Britain. While this tax was half of that stipulated by the 1733 Sugar and Molasses Act, the new Sugar Act called for active enforcement and struck the colonies during an economic downturn. The passage of the Sugar Act led to outcries from colonial leaders who claimed "taxation without representation," as they had no members of Parliament to represent their interests.

The economic situation in America was made worse later that year with the implementation of the Currency Act which prohibited the colonies from printing paper money. As many American businesses engaged in credit sales with Britain, they were crippled when several financial crises gripped London in the 1760s and 1770s. These forced British merchants to call in their debts. Unable to generate any form of liquid currency, American businesses were frequently ruined and the colonial economy damaged. Outraged by these new laws, and the Quartering Act which required colonial citizens to house and feed British troops, the American colonies began to systematically boycott British goods.

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