The Background Of The Contest
Nature of the causes.—While British statesmen were working out a system of government for the newly acquired domains, in the empire forces of disintegration were at work which brought on the American Revolution. The causes of that convulsion cannot be traced to a group of events or laws. Through a long period social, political, and economic forces were at work which gradually brought thirteen of the mainland colonies into open rebellion. Because this opposition is more evident after the French and Indian War, and because the economic is the most obvious phase of the struggle, historians have sometimes concluded that the laws passed by parliament between 1763 and 1776 were the cause of the Revolution. The policy pursued by the British government no doubt hastened it, but alone does not account for it.
A mixed population.—For more than a century the colonies had been receiving new elements which were producing a society in many respects different from that of England. America had been the recipient of many of the radicals, the down-trodden, and the discontented from the mother country. The acquisition of New Netherlands had brought under British control a considerable number of Dutch, Swedes, and Finns. The Huguenot migration which followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had added another element. The German and Scotch-Irish influxes had brought in thousands. Welsh, Scotch, Irish, and Jews were also to be found in the colonies. America, then as now, was a melting pot of the nations.
Lack of American nationality.—Influenced largely by climatic and physiographic conditions, distinct industrial systems had developed. In the northern colonies the small farm prevailed, in the South the plantation system. The North produced the seamen, fishermen, and merchants, while few of the southerners were seafarers. The frontier with its foreign elements, its scattered settlements, and freedom from restraint had produced a society which differed from the tide-water region. The fur-trader, the cattleman, the lumberman, and the small farmer were distinctly different in speech, dress, habits, and point of view from the Boston merchant, the Philadelphia Quaker, or the Virginia planter. Separatist tendencies were stronger than those of coalescence. A Virginian was a Virginian and not an American. There was little in common between the New Englander and the southern planter, or between the people of the Hudson Valley and the Quakers.
Class distinctions.—In individual colonies society was continually growing in complexity. Though the great mass of the population continued to be rural, town life was becoming an important factor. Members of an aristocracy, of which the governor was usually the central social figure, were inclined to rear their heads above their fellows. The merchants and lawyers, ever increasing in numbers, found themselves outside the social pale of the official aristocracy, a source of silent mortification which was a real force in producing radicals.
Evolution of English society.—English as well as American society had also undergone a rapid evolution. Puritan England had passed away; the Stuarts, the Hanoverians, and foreign conquests had transformed the viewpoint of the Englishman. Little was there in common between John Milton and Horace Walpole, or between a Cromwell and a Newcastle. The sudden greatness that had come through the Seven Years' War well-nigh turned the heads of Englishmen. To acquire wealth, to wield power, and to live gaily seemed to be the ideals of the upper class Englishman of the reign of George III. The colonial who still considered the mother country as the traditional England of Magna Carta, the Puritan Revolution, and the Bill of Rights, had as little understanding of a Townshend as had a Townshend a comprehension of the colonial.
The assemblies control the purse.—The governmental institutions of the colonies had gradually evolved toward a common type, whose constituent parts were the governor, council, and assembly, the governor and council, except in Connecticut and Rhode Island, representing imperial or proprietary authority, and the assembly the will of the colonial inhabitants. The power of the assemblies to control the purse had been steadily growing, until the colonies considered the principle established both by precedent and by inherent rights guaranteed by the English constitution. By controlling the budgets and the salaries of the governors, the assemblies held the whip hand over the executives.
English and colonial ideas of representation.—The meaning of the term representation differed in England and the colonies. To the Englishman parliament represented the British Empire and legislated for the whole of it, allowing the colonies to handle local matters within their chartered rights. Parliament was regarded as representing the three estates or classes of society, rather than individuals. The idea that every Englishman was represented by a man in whose selection he had had a voice had not become a part of the English political system. Members of parliament were frequently chosen in rotten boroughs. A few thousand men at most chose the entire parliamentary body. The king's ministers, selected from the party which could command a majority in the House of Commons, directed public policy and enforced their will upon a subservient commons. In America the suffrage was usually restricted by a property or church qualification, but every member of an assembly actually represented a colonial community and a known constituency. When the colonial orator declared for no taxation without representation, he was talking in the terms of a system that had grown up in America, but which England did not begin to adopt until the Reform Bill of 1832.
The causes of the development of nationalism.—French political philosophers and observant travelers had predicted that the removal of French power from America would cause the colonies to seek independence. Franklin ridiculed the idea, for he believed that colonial jealousies were too strong to allow united action, a view which was also held by Pitt. After the French and Indian War the English government, by enforcing and extending the colonial system, quickened public opinion, overthrew separatist tendencies, and brought many of the colonists to think and act together in opposition to English policy. When this was attained, a national consciousness had come into existence which gradually developed into open rebellion.
Illicit traffic during the French and Indian War.—Since the reign of Anne England had not enforced the trade laws strictly. The Molasses Act of 1733 had been practically a dead letter from the date of its passage and the other navigation acts had been frequently violated. Smuggling was winked at by governors and customs officials, who in many cases profited from the traffic. During the French and Indian War the colonies traded extensively with the French West Indies. This was especially galling to England, whose chief weapon against France was control of the seas. Though the colonies in 1756 were forbidden to trade with the French, the colonial skippers evaded the command by shipping goods to the Dutch ports of Curaçoa and St. Eustatius, or to the French West Indies. In 1757 parliament forbade the exportation of food stuffs from the colonies to foreign ports, but the colonials continued to make shipments to the French or Dutch colonies and to bring back cargoes of molasses, sugar, and rum. To stop Dutch trade with the French colonies, Dutch merchant vessels were seized. As the English navy gradually isolated or captured the French West Indies, the colonials found a new method of circumventing the regulations by shipping to Monte Cristi, a Spanish port in Española near the French boundary. A commerce of less importance but of similar nature was also maintained with Florida and Louisiana. In 1760, when the English navy had gained the upper hand, the illicit commerce diminished but did not entirely cease. When Spain entered the war a considerable increase occurred. The naval and military authorities did all in their power to end the traffic with the enemy, for they considered that its continuance meant a prolongation of the war.
Writs of assistance.—To prevent smuggling English officials resorted to the issuance of writs of assistance. These were general search warrants which enabled the holder to search any house, ship, or other property where smuggled goods might be stored. The writs naturally aroused great opposition among the merchants, who claimed that they were illegal. In 1761 when the Boston customs officers applied for the writs, the merchants objected to them. When the merchants' cause was presented before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, James Otis argued that the writs, being general, were illegal and struck at the liberty of the individual. "No acts of parliament can establish such a writ.... An act against the constitution is void." The courts upheld the legality of the writs but Otis's speech did much to arouse and formulate public opinion.
The Parson's Cause.—In Virginia Patrick Henry performed a similar function in formulating public opinion. The speech which made him the leader of the Virginia radicals was delivered in connection with a suit brought by one of the Virginia clergy. Tobacco was the medium of exchange in the Old Dominion and ministers were paid annually 17,000 pounds of tobacco. In 1755 and 1758, the burgesses passed acts which allowed debts to be redeemed at two pence for each pound of tobacco. This worked a hardship upon the ministers, who naturally desired the benefit of the high price of tobacco to compensate them for the hard years when prices were low. The acts were disallowed by the crown in 1759, and the ministers attempted to recover their losses. In a suit brought in 1763 by Reverend James Maury, Patrick Henry appeared for the vestry. Realizing the weakness of his legal position, Henry resolved to carry the jury by an emotional attack upon the king's prerogative. He argued that the act of 1758 was a law of general utility consistent with the original compact between ruler and ruled, upon which government was based, and that the king, by disallowing this salutary act, became a tyrant and forfeited his right to the obedience of his subjects.
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