HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES
CAUSES OF THE REVOLUTION
By the middle of the eighteenth century American society had its own industrial basis. It had also developed its own political structure to correspond to this industrial base. In the course of this development the interests of the ruling classes of America and England had grown antagonistic.
The industrial revolution was in full swing in England. The steam engine, the power loom, the spinning jenny, and other great basic revolutionary inventions were just taking form. The French and Indian War had laid the foundation of British imperial capitalism. It had given England dominion over India as well as Canada, and had raised Prussia to the dominant position which made possible modern Germany.
This war had been conducted that English markets might be extended, that gold might flow to the mother country, in short, that the just arising capitalist class might prosper. The economic theory accepted by those who controlled British industry and government was what has been called the "Mercantile System." According to this theory one of the great objects of government was to pass laws that would insure a favorable "balance of trade." For this purpose legislation was shaped with a view of making the mother country the manufacturing center to which all other countries sent
raw materials, and from which they were forced to buy manufactured articles. Colonies, in particular, were expected to buy all the things they needed of the mother country. This theory, backed by the interests of the ruling class of England, is the explanation of the Navigation Laws, which are commonly given as one of the principal causes of the Revolution.
The recent war had left England with a crushing debt. This was an added reason for seeking to raise revenue in America and for confining American trade to British ports.
Each of the colonies had some especial interest that came into sharp conflict with the actions of the British government. New England, the head and front of the Revolution, had many very serious grievances, although some of them would hardly be looked upon as purely patriotic by those who fix opinions in present society. We have already seen how completely New England was dominated by commercial and fishing interests. Her "great men" were all merchants. But their trade was not conducted in a manner that is commonly supposed to carry social preeminence. David H. Wells, in his article on "American Merchant Marine" in Lalor's "Encyclopedia of Political and Social Science," describes these merchants and their trade as follows : -
"Nine-tenths of their merchants were smugglers. One quarter of all the signers of the Declaration of Independence were bred to commerce, the command of ships, and the contraband trade. Hancock, Trumbull (Brother Jonathan), and Hamilton were all known to be cognizant of contraband transactions, and approved of them. Hancock was the prince of contraband traders, and, with John Adams as his counsel, was appointed for trial before
the admiralty court of Boston, at the exact hour of the shedding of blood at Lexington, in a suit for $500,000 penalties alleged to have been incurred by him as a smuggler."
Like all smugglers, Hancock cared little for the forms of law, and trusted to bribery and violence to secure his ends. When his sloop, Liberty, was endeavoring to run the customs, he first tried to bribe the officials, and, this failing, locked up the guard in a cabin and unloaded the sloop under the protection of a gang of thugs secured for the occasion.1
For many years this smuggling had been winked at by British officials. The smugglers were not averse to dividing their profits to a limited extent with complaisant officials, and England was a long way off in the days of sailing vessels. Even in England there had been a laxity in the enforcement of smuggling laws, which now suddenly ceased. In England enforcement of the laws caused little more than a suppressed grumbling. In America it led to rioting and then to revolution.
In America the suppression of smuggling meant the suppression of the commercial life of New England. We have already seen that one of the principal items of commerce was the famous three-cornered rum-molasses-slaves trade. One of the first of the new taxes was a prohibitive tariff on the molasses from which the rum was made.
Those citizens of New England who were not concerned with commerce were generally
interested in fishing, and here again the new legislation struck fatal blows.
1. Charles Stedman, "The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War," London, 1794, Vol. I, p. 63.
trade with southern Europe was forbidden, and for a time the New England fishers were not permitted to use the Newfoundland Banks.
Another important and profitable article of smuggled commerce was tea. This was brought from Holland. Here the interests of the English governing classes came into direct and sharp conflict with the American smugglers. The East India Company had a monopoly of the tea trade. This company was owned by court favorites. It was threatened with bankruptcy. It had 17,000,000 pounds of tea stored in English warehouses. On this it was required to pay a shilling a pound before it could sell it in England. The English government proposed a scheme by which this tea could be sold in America for less than it would cost the Englishmen who paid the local tax.
The orthodox schoolbook histories assure us that this offer of cheap tea to Americans was an attempt to "bribe a nation," and that the Americans indignantly rejected the bribe and threw the tea into Boston Harbor in defense of a principle. This high-minded rejection of a bribe by John Hancock, the man who was mainly responsible for the famous Boston Tea Party, is scarcely in accord with what we have learned of his character. The fact is that had the tax not been reduced there would have been little objection. It was the reduction itself and not the principle which raised the famous riot. So long as the East India Company was compelled to pay the English tax, the American smugglers could undersell it and were not worried about questions of taxation, or patriotism. But when the tax was rebated the East India Company could undersell the smugglers. This
destroyed the profit in smuggling, something infinitely more effective in checking that crime than a whole fleet of gunboats. No wonder that Hancock, whose popular title was the "prince of smugglers," called a mass meeting and with the aid of Samuel Adams organized that glorious mob that dumped the tea in Boston Harbor and started the Revolution, - at least, so the textbooks tell us.
In the Middle colonies there was another specific grievance in addition to the fact that their trade with the West Indies, upon which they depended for specie, was interfered with when smuggling was restricted. New York and Pennsylvania had at least the beginnings of a manufacturing industry. Bishop, in his " History of American Manufactures," assures us that, "Even at the present day, many countries which were reckoned elders in the family of nations ere the ring of the ax was heard in the forests of America, are essentially less independent in regard to some products of manufacture than were the American colonies at the time of the Revolution."
According to the theory of the mercantile system, these budding manufactures were injurious to the mother country, except as the product was used by the makers, and laws forbidding them were passed by the British Parliament. There is little evidence that the laws against manufacturing were ever enforced, but the fact that the long disused smuggling acts were now being revived showed the possibility of similar action in regard to other laws.
There was another grievance which the Middle colonies shared with the South and which was much more important. In these two sections population was already pressing toward the West. There had been a rapid in-
crease in the number of slaves in the South and of workers in the Middle colonies. As a result, western lands were becoming valuable, and men prominent in colonial life were already deeply involved in western land schemes.
Here again English officials came into direct conflict with the interests of the dominant class in the colonies. Great fur trading companies had been organized by English merchants, and these companies naturally opposed western settlement. Furthermore, it was well recognized that the closer the colonies were kept to the seaboard, the easier they could be controlled.
The French and Indian War had been precipitated largely by these land
speculators.1 They embraced the most prominent men in the colonies.
Washington was especially active along this line. He had used his position as
royal surveyor to locate lands within the limits which he was supposed to
preserve from settlement. He had helped to maintain what would now be called a
"land lobby" in London to push his schemes. When Parliament, by the Quebec Act,
extended the jurisdiction of Canada over the western country, his interests were
directly threatened, and had the Revolution not occurred, he would have lost some
30,000 acres of land. It would be foolish to say that Washington became a
revolutionist because of his western land interests. On the other hand, it has
been worse than foolish to depict him
1 Herbert B. Adams, "Maryland's Influence upon Land Cessions," in Johns Hopkins' University Studies in History and Political Science, Vol. III ; Winsor, "Westward Movement," pp. 34-61; Sumner, "The Financier and Finances of the Revolution," Vol. II, Chap. XXXIII ; "Old South Leaflets," Nos. 16, 27, 163; Hunt, "Life of Madison," pp. 46-50; T. Watson, "Life and Times of Thomas Jefferson," PP. 150-153 ; Schouler, "History of United States," Vol. I, pp. 216-218.
as a whole-souled superman unmoved by human considerations. There was another cause which was more widespread than any of these, and which undoubtedly did more to make the Revolution a popular movement than any one of those previously mentioned. This was the paper money question. With regard to England all the colonies were debtors, and throughout history the debtor class has sought to depreciate the currency.
All the colonies had issued paper money in large quantities. In all save Pennsylvania it had greatly depreciated in value. In some colonies it had become practically valueless, and there had been successive issues, or "tenors," as they were called, each of which had been used to redeem the previous one, and all of which were almost equally worthless. The English merchants who did business in the colonies were compelled to accept this paper money in payment for the goods they sold, as all of the colonies had enacted most stringent laws enforcing the legal tender character of the bills.
This antagonism reached a climax at the close of the French and Indian War. The British merchants had sent over large quantities of goods during this war, and were now pressing for settlement in something besides the depreciated paper money. The British Parliament backed them up in this demand, and enacted a law forbidding further paper money issues in the New England colonies, and restricting them or providing for early prohibition in the others.
This action served to bring an entirely new set of supporters to the cause of the Revolution. Paper money had already been a cause for continuous quarrels within
the colonies. The wealthy creditor class had opposed the paper money, and the country debtor class had favored it. Elections for the colonial legislatures had turned upon this issue, and the country districts with their debtor population had been almost universally victorious. This had also been true of the Southern colonies, which were little affected by the Navigation Acts and the laws restricting manufacture.1 Now all the fierce partisanship that had often broken out in riots against the "plutocrats" of the coast cities was skillfully turned against the British government. The orthodox histories say very little about this point, although contemporary writers, and especially English ones, place it almost in the front rank of causes of the Revolution. Those who have written our histories have been controlled largely by creditor class sympathies, and they are not particularly proud of the fact that one of the prime causes of the Revolution was the desire of a large number of the colonists to escape paying their debts. It was especially easy to manipulate the paper money sentiment into revolutionary action. In nearly every colony the legislative council, chosen by a more or less popular vote, was controlled by the debtor class and was in a perpetual fight with the royal governor. This fight usually took on a form that is strongly suggestive of a comic opera plot. Each year the legislature would prepare certain laws providing for paper money, western extension, protection against the Indians, or some other line of action to which there was royal objection.Then
1 This is treated in full in the thesis, "History of Economic Thought in Relation to Economic Conditions," by May Wood Simons, to which the Harris Prize was awarded by Northwestern University.
the governor would veto the laws. The legislature would then refuse to vote the governor's salary. He would haggle with them until his funds gave out or their desire for legislation was satisfied. Then he would sign the laws agreed upon and would receive his salary. Over and over again in almost every colony this process was repeated. The British government constantly sought to find some method by which the governor's salary would be assured without this bargain and sale process. The colonists steadfastly opposed all proposals to pay him from any income save the colonial treasury controlled by the legislature.
This perennial haggling had naturally divided the colonists into two parties, one of which clung to the governor, while the other followed the legislative body. As the governor was the representative of the king, it was easy to turn the adherents of the legislative body into revolutionists.
These legislatures constituted the germs of an independent government. For the colonists they were the government which represented colonial interests. When the industrial life of the colonies had reached the point where its ruling class needed a government to further its interests, that government was ready to its hand in the colonial legislatures.
The Stamp Act, which provided for the collection of money by a stamp to be placed upon all business papers, was hated, not so much because it was "taxation without representation," as because it provided that the funds obtained through its operation should be used for the payment of the salaries of the royal governors. If this were done, there would be an end to the bargain and sale
method of securing the governor's signature. This meant that paper money could no longer be issued, and that "stay laws," which prevented the collection of debts, could no longer be enacted.
Parliament not only forbade the issue of paper money, but aggravated the situation by passing the Navigation Laws at the same time. These closed the West India trade, the principal source of colonial specie.
At every point the industrial life of the colonies had reached the stage where it was hampered and restricted by its connection with England. Large classes of the population required an independent government to further their interests. Evolution along the lines already drawn could proceed only with independence. Those who stood for independence were the most energetic and far-sighted among the colonists. In these great basic facts and fundamental conflicts of interest do we find the causes of the Revolution, and not in petty quarrels over insignificant taxes and abstract principles of politics.