American war for Independence: Early Causes



England at the close of the war -- at the close, in fact, of four wars within seventy years -- found herself burdened with a debt of one hundred and forty million pounds; and as it was necessary now to keep a standing army in her colonies, to defend and maintain her late conquests, the scheme of colonial taxation to provide a regular and certain revenue began again to be agitated. Already England feared the growing power and independence of her colonies, and even at one moment hesitated as to whether it were not wiser to restore Canada to France, in order that the proximity of a powerful rival might keep them in check and secure their dependence on the mother-country. As far as the colonists themselves were concerned, we are assured by their earlier historians that the majority had no idea of or wish to separate themselves from England, and that the utmost which they contemplated by the conquest of Canada was the freedom from French and Indian wars, and that state of tranquil prosperity which would leave them at liberty to cultivate and avail themselves of the productions and resources of an affluent land. The true causes which slowly alienated the colonies from the parent state may be traced back to the early encroachments on their civil rights and the restrictive enactments against their commerce.

The Americans were a bold and independent people from the beginning. They came to the shores of the New World, the greater and better part of them, republicans in feeling and principle. "They were men who scoffed at the rights of kings, and looked upon rulers as public servants bound to exercise their authority for the benefit of the government, and ever maintained that it is the inalienable right of the subject freely to give his money to the crown or to withhold it at his discretion." Such were the Americans in principle, yet were they bound to the mother-country by old ties of affection, and by no means wished to rush into rebellion. It was precisely the case of the son grown to years of discretion, whom an unreasonable parent seeks still to coerce, until the hitherto dutiful though clear-headed and resolute son violently breaks the bonds of parental authority and asserts the independence of his manhood. The human being would have been less worthy in submission; the colonies would have belied the strong race which planted them, had they done otherwise.

England believed that she had a right to dictate and change the government of the colonies at her pleasure, and to regulate and restrict their commerce; and for some time this was, if not patiently submitted to, at least allowed. The navigation acts declared that, for the benefit of British shipping, no merchandise from the English colonies should be imported into England excepting by English vessels; and, for the benefit of English manufacturers, prohibited exportation from the colonies, nor allowed articles of domestic manufacture to be carried from one colony to another; she forbade hats, at one time, to be made in the colony where beaver abounded; at another, that any hatter should have above two apprentices at one time; she subjected rum, sugar, and molasses to exorbitant duties on importation; she forbade the erection of iron-works and the preparation of steel, or the felling of pitch and whitepine trees unless in enclosed lands. To some of these laws, though felt to be an encroachment on their rights, the colonies submitted patiently; others, as, for instance, the duties on sugar and molasses, they evaded and opposed in every possible way, and the British authorities, from the year 1733, when these duties were first imposed, to 1761, made but little resistance to this opposition. At this latter date, however, George III. having then ascended the throne, it was determined to enforce this law, and "writs of assistance," in other words, search-warrants, were issued, by means of which the royal custom-house officers were authorized to search for goods which had been imported without the payment of duty. The people of Boston opposed and resented these measures; and their two most eminent lawyers, Oxenbridge Thacher and James Otis, expressed the public sentiment in the strongest language. Spite of search-warrants and official vigilance, the payment of these duties was still evaded, and smuggling increased to a great extent, while the colonial trade with the West Indies was nearly destroyed.





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