I’m teaching a course this fall on the “Causes of the American Revolution.” Not for a college. It’s for a local community center, but it’s a great program and the participants are well-read, experienced, inquisitive adults who keep me on my toes. Of all the things I do, I love teaching the most and I consider myself lucky to be able to fit this program into my schedule.
So, suffice it to say, I’ll probably have several entries in the near future relating to the start of the Revolution.
I am proud of Boston’s history and the role its citizens played in bringing about the American Revolution. “Cradle of Liberty” is an apt term. But it wasn’t really the Americans who caused the American Revolution. What Sam Adams, James Otis, John Hancock and all those Sons of Liberty did in the years leading up to 1775 was really just a reaction to what was happening in London. It was the effect, as it were. The cause was the complete bungling of the situation by Parliament. British politicians did more to bring about the Revolution than any of the Sons of Liberty.
This is not a new concept. But still, it’s one that is not often highlighted in histories and probably even less frequently taught. Most histories on this side of the Atlantic focus on the exciting, bold and sometimes shocking actions of mobs in Boston, or the eloquent and lofty speeches taking place in the Virginia House of Burgesses. But you don’t often read too much about the convoluted dance that was British politics at the time. I’ve been enjoying exploring this angle lately. In school we all learn about the endless Acts of Parliament–the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Tea Act. Taxes, taxes, taxes. But how much did we hear about the men who actually thought this was a good idea? Why did they do it? And why was it so poorly orchestrated?
Here’s where we come back to my staunch belief that most history is driven by personal politics. In the first ten years of his reign, King George III went through no fewer than seven Prime Ministers. This period, in British textbooks, is given the lofty title, “The Era of Ministerial Instability.” The term “soap opera” would apply as well. The fact is, there were two camps of politicians competing for power, one group who had been loyal to the previous monarch, George II, and the other group who had hitched their wagon to the new King. The backstabbing, the intense dislike that some of these men had for each other goes far in explaining why this period was so “instable.” Most of George III’s Prime Ministers during the 1760s lasted about a year.
One camp, the one that was primarily allied with young George III, happened to think that taxing the colonies was a brilliant idea. But men like Prime Minister George Grenville and especially Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, had absolutely no ability, or no desire, to gauge the colonists’ reaction to their policies. Ignorant, or indifferent, to the mayhem they were causing, they pushed forward with their legislation. Townshend is the one that really gets me. In 1767 and 1768 he sponsored a parade of new taxes really just to prove a point–that Parliament, as stated in the Declaratory Act, “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America … in all cases whatsoever.” Examining the Townshend Acts, one has to wonder if he was trying to infuriate the colonists. Like poking a bear with a stick. He took away their rights again and again just to prove a point.
So we’ve got the bungling British politicians. But let’s take a step back. Why were these taxes necessary in the first place?
Great Britain was just emerging from the Seven Years War (the American theater of which was known as the French and Indian War). The war had pushed the British nation deep into massive debt. Parliament needed to find new streams of revenue. In particular, politicians like Grenville were determined to fund the standing army of roughly 10,000 redcoats who manned the forts on the American frontier. This makes sense, actually, although the colonists did not agree. The standing army was for the defense of the colonies…they ought to pay for it. And Grenville’s taxation schemes would only have required the colonists to pay for less than half the cost of the army.
Take one more step back. Why was the standing army necessary?
The French and Indian War completely destroyed the balance of power that had existed around the Great Lakes between the French, the British and the Native Americans. With the French out of the picture, the Native Americans were now subjected to the intolerant policies of the British Empire which viewed them, and treated them, as a conquered people.
One man in particular was responsible for this post-war attitude towards the Native Americans–General Jeffrey Amherst. He was commander of British forces in North America at the close of the French and Indian War. He had a demonstrable disdain for Native Americans and wrote of his desire to “extirpate this execrable race” from the continent. His policies led to a war with Native Americans throughout the Great Lakes region known as Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763. This probably would have happened with or without Lord Jeff. But the fact is, he was the one in charge, and his attitude led to bloodshed.
Hence the need for the standing army in North America. And the need for taxes to support the army. Taxes led to riots, riots led to the occupation of Boston, British soldiers in Boston led to Revolution. You might say this all started with Lord Jeff.
Now, of course I say all this, to some degree, with tongue in cheek. The Revolution was inevitable and there were many factors. But there is a kernel of truth here. Lord Jeff was largely responsible for bringing things to a fever pitch. And the bungling politicians took it from there.
In case it seems like I’m unfairly picking on British politicians, I would quickly point out that the phenomenon was not unique to the King’s ministries of the 1760s. Just look at the prima donnas in Congress who led us down the path to the American Civil War.
But that’s a different story.