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CHAPTER XI

The Revolution:
Opening Events and Causes

Introduction to the Opening Events and Causes
Otis and Henry | The Stamp Act | King George III
Continental Congress; Lexington | Notes


The American Revolution, viewed from its results, was one of the greatest movements in human history. The expenditure of life and treasure has often been exceeded, but the effect on the political life of the world is not easy to parallel. The chief result was the birth of the first successful federal government in history, a government that was destined to expand to the western ocean within a century and to grow into a nation of vast wealth and power and of still greater possibilities.

It is believed by many that the mild bond of union which held the American colonies to the mother country might have remained unbroken for an indefinite period, but for the unwise policy that brought about the resistance of the former; others are of the opinion that the child had come of age, and that nothing could have long delayed a political separation. Be that as it may, it is certain that for more than fifty years before the Seven Years' War there was a strong attachment between the two peoples, and that the thought of severing their bond of union was nowhere entertained. It is true that the royal governors were forever complaining to the Lords of Trade about the unruly spirit of the colonial assemblies; it is also true that the colonists were constantly annoyed by the Navigation Acts, and that they thought it not robbery to evade them when they could; but these were only ripples on a smooth sea. And America was happy; the people continued to hew away the timbers and to build cities and churches and schools, to delve the soil, to raise grain and tobacco and cattle; they had grown strong in battling with the forest, the Indians, and the wolves: but with all their growing strength, of which they could not have been unconscious, they did not long to escape the mother wings; their proudest boast was still that they were Englishmen.

It must be said, however, that a separation sooner or later was inevitable. It is true that there was no plot, no conspiracy in America looking to independence; but there were forces at work for many years that must eventually dissolve the political bond between the two peoples. It must be remembered that, while America was the child of England, it was not the child of the England of 1760, but rather of the England of 1600. The great Puritan immigration ceased with 1640, the Cavalier immigration ceased a few decades later, and in all the century that had passed since then the migration from England had been small. The English institutions, transplanted to America early in the seventeenth century, had developed on purely American lines, had been shaped by the social, political, and economic conditions peculiar to America. The result was that the two peoples unconsciously grew apart, so far apart that they were no longer able to understand each other; and when England now attempted to play the part of parent the fact was brought out that the relations of parent and child existed no longer between the two countries. The colonies had reached a point in their development where they could govern themselves better than they could be governed by a power beyond the sea. Writers who find in the Stamp Act, the tax on tea, and the like, the sole cause of the Revolution, fail to look beneath the surface. These were but the occasion; they hastened its coming, but the true causes of the separation had their roots in the far past.

Again, the conquest of Canada changed the relations between England and the colonies. So long as this old enemy hung on the north, both England and her colonies were held in check: the colonies felt a certain need of protection; England felt that a contest with the colonies might drive them to a coalition with the French. But now as this obstacle was removed both could be natural in their relations with one another; and this normal relationship soon revealed how far apart they stood. England then failed to recognize this divergence; she attempted to deal with America, not as a part of the empire, which it was, but as a part of the British realm, which it was not.1 But for this false assumption by the British government and an attempt to act in accordance with it, the old relations might have continued for years to come. But an evil day came. The sky had been specked with a little cloud here and there for many years. Why should so many criminals from the British prisons be forced upon the colonists? This was irritating, and had been so from the earliest period of their colonization. Why was the attempt of various colonies to preserve society by checking the African slave trade summarily crushed by the Crown, in order simply to enrich the English trader? This did not indicate a mother's affection for a child. Again, the overbearing hauteur of many of the royal governors, who were supposed to represent the king, was distasteful to a people who believed themselves as good as any other Englishmen. Still again, during the late war with the French, the British officers were ever ready to show their contempt for the provincial troops, and colonial officers were often replaced by British officers. All these things were at least unpleasant for the American-Englishman to contemplate; but they were not serious, and their effects would have passed away like a morning mist but for the greater events that were to follow.


Footnotes

1Snow's Administration of Dependencies," p.149. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XI p. 220-222. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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