What caused the Revolutionary War?

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America | Tags: , , , , |

I’ve been thinking about this question outside the context of New England, looking at the whole of the 13 American colonies (and even the British Caribbean) to figure out what led to revolution in the 18th century.

It’s easy to see how the Puritan New England colonies almost instantly developed a sense of their own nationhood, separate from England. Their religion and civil society were radically different from the ones in place in England. But what about the royal colonies of the Chesapeake, the Middle Colonies, and the South? What spurred them on when their religion was Church of England and their politics were, for the most part, in line with English demands?

I think it must come down to the important coincidence of the English Civil War breaking out just as most of the American colonies got started. Just 35 years after the founding of Virginia, the first North American colony, the English government devolved into civil war, which had many more immediate and long-term consequences for the colonies than we realize. Royalist and Parliamentary factions each turned to the colonies for support, trying to win the loyalty—and trade—of transplanted English people. Then, as Parliament consolidated its victory, it felt it had to build up a massive navy to protect its colonies from takeover by other nations looking to take advantage of the fledgling and conflicted English government. The massive navy led to many developments: increased English governmental meddling with/control over American trade, particularly in the Caribbean; war with the Dutch, which impacted not only trade (Holland being the largest trade partner of most colonies) but the Middle Colonies settled near Dutch holdings; and the new threat that colonies which did not hew to the political and religious dictates sent out from London would be blockaded and invaded by the English navy.

New England, supposed by the Puritan Parliament to be a natural ally, was exempted from the close scrutiny and interference with trade that the other royalist colonies experienced. But New England was cruelly disappointed by the new government, which came to support a religious toleration that was anathema to the American Puritans. New England offered no support to the new government, and its sense of being separate and even at odds with England itself grew even stronger.

Inside the colonies, there was conflict between groups supporting Parliament and those supporting the king. Even worse, men who had no real loyalty to either side used the opportunity to cause trouble. In Maryland, supposed devotion to the Puritan Parliament was the cover for ruining the religiously tolerant society created there by Catholics and Protestants, as Catholics were driven out.

By the time the Stuart line was restored in 1660, the American colonies had experienced almost 20 years of conflict with England. Moreover, those who had been born in England and gone to America felt that the country they had left behind, the king to which they pledged allegiance, the religion they had grown up in, were all gone. England was no longer home as it had been before, no longer the place they felt most comfortable, the place they wanted to re-create in the New World. England became a foreign land, run by people they did not know, embracing religions they did not like, and preventing the profitable trade they had come to depend on.

By the time James II imposed the Dominion of New England in 1686, it seemed like only the last in a series of provoking actions by a mostly alien government in London. When William and Mary were enthroned in 1689, the colonies all looked forward to improving relations with England, which in itself is telling: they saw England and its government almost as a foreign nation they had to establish diplomatic relations with. While William and Mary were popular throughout the colonies, the sense of division was impossible to fully overcome. Even while the colonies felt tied to England, and demanded their rights as English people, they felt they were not really part of England. And the English government felt the same way. A tie had been broken between them during the Civil War. The Americans were really the English-descended people of another nation by the mid-18th century, and as such would never be afforded full rights as English people by England.

If England had not gone through Civil War, I think things might have been very different. There would have been no reason for all but the Puritan colonies to feel alienated from England, or to feel that England itself as they knew and accepted it had ceased to exist. It was an unfortunate coincidence for England that its internal war had to happen just as its colonies were launching, severing the ties of home almost the moment they were stretched across the sea.

Continue the story—see how the French and Indian War triggered the Revolution.

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[…] Historic Present had a post at the beginning of the month in which it linked the American Revolution to the English Civil Wars: […]

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