Revolutionary Myth #4: All was well before the war

Posted on June 15, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

Part four of our series on 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War dwells on the pre-war period.

In the shorthand version of American history, the colonial period is one of peace and prosperity right up to the 1770s. But especially in New England, the 17th and 18th centuries were strewn with political conflict and open war.

Canada and New England ended up acting out the wars between France and England over and over from 1689 through 1763. In 1689, New Englanders overthrew the Dominion imposed on them by James II. From 1689-1697, New England was a battlefield in King William’s War. Just five years later, word came to New England that they were at war with Canada once again, for in 1702, Queen Anne’s War began. This war lasted until 1711. The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-42) involved New Englanders recruited to fight in the Caribbean, most notably in the attempt to take Cartagena (in what is today Colombia). 65% of the 4,183 Americans who went to fight for Cartagena died.

In 1745 and 1758, New Englanders went to Louisbourg, the major French fort guarding Canada from the sea, successfully capturing it in 1745 only to have Great Britain return it to France in their peace treaty. Harried by French-sponsored Native American attacks from 1748-58, New Englanders retook the fort at great cost in 1758 (it was destroyed in 1760).

So we see that New England was in a state of almost constant turmoil in its colonial years, turmoil almost always caused by England’s wars with France. England spared few troops for North America, focusing on the naval battles in Europe, and more than once promised to send soldiers to back up New England, then failed to do so. This caused great anger and bewilderment in New England, which felt it was being deliberately endangered by its mother country.

Of course, the last in this series of wars between France and Britain in America was the French and Indian War, 1756-63. The road to revolution was taken the next year, when the Sugar Act was passed.

No wonder New England was the hotbed of revolution against England by 1764. A sense of betrayal and separateness had been forged by all those battles against France that New Englanders fought without British help. It would not be until 1815, when the War of 1812 ended, that New England breathed several decades’ worth of peace.

Next—our final myth!

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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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The French and Indian War and the American Revolution

Posted on May 18, 2008. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , |

I had finished taking some friends from England through a historical house in my town that saw action on the first day of the Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775) when one of them asked, in all sincerity, “What started that war? I mean, what really was the cause?”

Immediate answers came to mind, sort of starting with the last straws and moving backward: the “Intolerable Acts” (see a fantastic post on why we could stop using this term at Boston 1775), the refusal of Parliament to seat American members, Stamp Tax, Sugar Act—all the tax acts—the tireless activism of Samuel Adams and his mechanics… all the way back to the English Civil War itself and its effects on American-English relations (as covered in What caused the Revolutionary War?). But rather than go into all that back story with my friends, who wanted to hear something about history on American soil, I pulled out the French and Indian War.

All those tensions between England and America described in “What caused the Revolutionary War?” created a constant atmosphere of difference and distance between America and England.  But if I had to set a date for when that tension Americans felt shifted to demands for outright separation from England, I’d say the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Americans had supported the war. In fact, they had basically demanded that England remove the perceived French threat to the western frontier. So long as they didn’t have to pay for it, Americans wanted the war to be fought, and took part on a strictly voluntary basis. 

With each shared victory, Americans celebrated heartily. And at the practical end of the war—the capture of Montreal—the Pennsylvania Gazette put it this way on September 11, 1760: “We now have the Pleasure to congratulate our Countrymen upon the most important Event, as we apprehend, that has ever happened in Favour of the British Nation . . . the War in Canada is at an End: The Governor, has surrendered the Country to the British General Amherst without Bloodshed. The Subjects of France are to be sent Home, all that remain of the French are to swear Allegiance to His Majesty, and retain their Possessions.”

“Our Countrymen.” We still felt that way about the British in 1760. But when the war was officially over, and Britain’s taxpayers were reeling under the expense, the British moved that Americans should share the burden of that expensive war fought for their benefit at their request. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

A lot of maybes come into play at that point. Maybe if the British had invited American representatives to discuss the taxes there would have been no protests in America. Maybe if the British had required the Americans to share the burden of expenses during the war (even just feeding and quartering soldiers) there would have been no heavy taxes after the war.

As it is, the taxes went through without American input and the people of Boston in particular were hit hard. The people of Boston protested most forcibly and, in the end, led the charge to revolution.

It was a little awkward for me to privately think, as I spoke to those English friends, that in 1775 the people of Boston were just about the only ones ready to fight.  That it would take a long time to get other Americans on board. That the other colonies were very content to watch and wait and let Massachusetts fight.

So I just answered their question with my on-the-spot response: It was the French and Indian War that pulled the trigger on the Revolutionary War. All the little irritations of being in a colonial relationship were enlarged and rendered insufferable by the taxes that came due to pay for that war. All the statues of King George III that Massachusetts colonists had erected in 1763 to celebrate the victory over the French were pulled down by the same colonists and melted into bullets in 1775.

After that point, it was just a matter of framing the arguments for war, which took many years. But the ball was rolling, and the French and Indian War was what sent it downhill.

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