Economic causes of the Revolutionary War

By Marc Schulman

Embroiled in wars with other European countries, Britain was too busy to pay much attention to the American colonies for the first part of the eighteenth century. By necessity, Britain followed a general policy of salutary neglect, in which the British mercantilist laws were poorly enforced, and the colonists were able to run their political and economic systems with a large degree of autonomy. When Britain emerged victorious from the Seven Years' War with heavy war debts, Parliament turned its attention to the colonies. In 1763, Parliament brought an end to the era of salutary neglect by adopting a new, more controlling attitude toward the colonies. Britain's new policies attempted to exert more control over the colonies, forcing the Americans to respect British mercantilist laws, as well as taxing the colonists so that they would help pay for the imperial defense by which they were protected. Old laws designed to benefit British mercantilists were enforced with more severity than ever before, and a series of new laws, designed to shape American economic activities to benefit Britain, were passed.

Among the existing laws that were newly enforced were the Navigation Acts and the Writs of Assistance. The Navigation Acts, a collection of laws restricting trade, required the colonists to ship goods only in British and colonial ships, to export certain goods only to Britain, and to pay duties on anything imported from anywhere but Britain and her colonies. These laws were intended to benefit British merchants, manufacturers, and shipbuilders, as well as colonial shipbuilders. The Writs of Assistance, which were sparsely before 1763, were court orders which gave British officials the right to search colonial homes, buildings, and ships for smuggled goods. Officials could search anywhere and seize any smuggled goods, as opposed to the later American search warrant, which only allowed officials to look on a specified place for a particular item. In 1763, Prime Minister George Grenville sent a larger number of royal customs collectors, inspectors, and naval patrols to better enforce the Navigation Acts, and British officials began using the Writs of Assistance more extensively than before 1763.

The new laws were mostly tax acts, including the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The Sugar Act reduced the duties on colonial imports of sugar from non-British sources, but called for their strict enforcement. The Stamp Act was more powerful in arousing widespread anger among the colonists than any of the previous laws. This was because it was the first tax to directly affect a large portion of colonists, as opposed to the relatively small merchant population which had previously borne British taxes and duties. The law levied the first internal tax on the colonies, requiring a stamp to be placed on all printed materials, including legal documents, almanacs, pamphlets, and newspapers. Most affected among the colonists were lawyers, clergymen, and printers.

Outraged colonists protested the tax. Patrick Henry made a moving speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses. The Sons of Liberty were organized in Boston. Twenty-eight delegates from nine colonies convened in New York City in the fall of 1765 for the Stamp Act Congress. Colonial merchants signed nonimportation agreements, binding them to maintain a boycott of British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. As a result of this hue and cry, Parliament did repeal the law, but issued the Declaratory Act in 1766, which articulated the supremacy of the crown and Parliament over the colonies. Then, in 1767, perhaps to punctuate this declaration of authority "in all cases whatsoever," Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in 1767, which placed taxes on colonial imports of tea, paper, glass, and paint.

Two other new laws caused dissent among the American colonists: the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quartering Act of 1765. The Proclamation forbade colonists to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Proclamation was intended to leave the western region to Native Americans, thus protecting the fur trade and preventing Native American uprisings. It also served to keep British colonists within the geographic sphere of British authorities. The Quartering Act required colonists to provide food and shelter for British soldiers. Viewing it as a tax, the colonists were angry that they had to support the redcoats. The soldiers were supposed to protect the colonists from Native Americans in exchange for room and board. In reality, however, most of the soldiers were stationed in populous cities such as New York and Boston, and not on the frontier, where clashes with Native Americans were credible concerns.

This surfeit of tension and animosity between Parliament and many of the colonists was bound to come to a head before long. In Britain, merchants and Members of Parliament claimed that the new British policies toward the colonies worked to the advantage of the colonies. They asserted that British armed forces were committed to protecting colonial shipping and frontier settlements. Mercantilism also helped foster the growth of the shipbuilding industry and naval stores production, two of the most important industries in the American colonies. In addition, they asserted that the laws allowed the colonies to trade freely with Britain and the British West Indies and, by requiring British merchants to buy tobacco only from British colonies, promoted trade and industry. Merchants and Members of Parliaments were generally convinced that the colonies had their place in the mercantilist system, which was in the service of the mother country.

By that time, however, a large number of colonists had rejected idea that colonies existed to serve the interests of the mother country. Merchants were angry about the hampering of trade and industry by English mercantilist laws. Plantation owners and frontiersmen resented the limitations on Western expansion. Professionals disliked the Stamp Act because it made paper, and thus, newspapers, pamphlets, and legal documents expensive. Consumers hated the high cost of living, due to import duties. Few people cared for the British soldiers packed into the cities and accomplishing little beyond asserting Britain's supremacy.