Death or Taxes: Was the American Revolutionary War Really Britain’s Fault?

Holistic History is back, and while the finishing touches are being put on Phil’s returning post, here’s something that should break the formula a little. It’s a guest post – this blog’s first – and definitely longer, more detailed and more formal than you might be used to seeing. It’s a great introduction to the complexities of American Revolutionary Politics, and a really great argument against the idea that the loss of the American colonies was necessarily a failure of the British government. If you’re a teenager thinking of taking history to A-Level or University level, it’s also an example of the kind of work you’ll be doing, so I recommend giving it a look. -Phil


The British colonies in America on the eve of revolution.

The early part of the 1760s was a period of drastic change in the Americas, with the Seven Years War (or the French and Indian war) ending in victory for the British in 1763; borders shifted and the crippling debt left behind became evident. Britain’s national debt had increased from £72 million before the war to £132 million by its end and the interest rate alone on the money they had borrowed for the war took up half of their national budget. In the build-up to the War of Independence (1763-1775) stark changes to the governance of the American colony were made. The British wanted a stronger hold on both their subjects at home and abroad, attempting to clamp down on the security of the empire from within and turning their focus away from outside threats, such as France and Spain. Whilst the changes made to the way the British governed the colony were certainly significant in the way they demonstrated a change in direction and attitude to governance in the continent, these changes may have actually caused the crisis leading to the War of Independence. Lord North asserted that, “The Americans, by their subsequent behaviour, have not deserved any particular indulgence from this country.”For the crisis to have been averted some leeway was required on either side, since none was forthcoming a self-perpetuating situation, in which the actions of governance led to the actions of the colonials and vice versa, was created.

In order to assess whether or not the loss of the American colony to the British Empire was due to Britain’s poor management and governance, we need to examine the key reasons for the War of Independence. These can be thematically approached as: economic, instigators of opposition towards the British, a crisis of national identity to the empire and logistical difficulties. Once these causes have been established we can assess whether they are as a result of British governance; if so, whether they could have avoided it, or if not, whether they could have handled it more effectively.

Economic policy was very significant to the reasons that the colonials themselves gave for declaring independence. The most significant economic cause of the revolution was the Proclamation of 1763, the first major point of dispute between the British governing forces and the colonials following the Seven Years War, as it restricted colonial expansion of territory into Native Indian land. The colonials disagreed with this policy for a few reasons: firstly, they had just fought a war in order to gain these lands from the French and Spanish; secondly, there was an extremely prejudicial attitude among the colonials towards the Natives, which meant that few people saw taking their land as a moral infringement.

The colonials saw the victory in the Seven Years War as an opportunity for expansion and to increase their prosperity. Although the British had mostly funded the war and provided troops and equipment, the colonials had also invested some input and the war had been fought on their homeland. From their perspective, their men had died at war and the British were denying them the spoils of territory for their victory; their kinsmen had died for no gain, only to lose out on territory to a race that had been fighting against them and had posed a threat since their ancestors had arrived on the continent.

The French and Indian War shook the British government’s faith in their previously loyal Native American population.

The reasons for the British implementing the Proclamation however were well founded. Firstly, the Natives needed protection from the colonials, who, it seemed, were doing their best to entirely eradicate the Natives, taking their land for their own. While this moral justification is wholly admirable, it wasn’t however the primary reason for the Proclamation. During the Seven Years War, the Natives had been mostly allied with the French, who treated them better than the British; now that the French had left, the British felt that a degree of appeasement was necessary in order to prevent frequent attacks and general attempts to undermine their regime. Although the British believed that this policy would save them money, avoiding the costs of defending against the Indians, in fact they had to invest in militarising the borders in order to prevent colonials from crossing them and settling on the other side in native territory.

Despite the inflammatory nature of the Proclamation and its subsequent contribution to bringing about the revolution and war, at the time it was a necessary policy which was vital to establishing peace on the continent in a time when the British couldn’t afford to continue fighting wars. The Proclamation’s success in appeasing the Native Indians was proved to be beneficial in the long run when many of them, such as the Mohawk tribe, joined the British side during the War of Independence. On balance it was a policy which was more beneficial than detrimental.

Although the Proclamation went some way towards gaining the allegiance of the Natives, the colonials mistreatment of them up to that point and the British administration’s failure to prevent this had made them sceptical that joining the loyalists’ side during the war would be to their benefit. Their allegiance, although tentatively achieved, was a significant success for the British administration.

In order to decrease the financial pressure and establish a more stable government attempts were made to increase revenue from the colony. Arguably the British placed too large a tax burden on the colonials in an attempt to regain a closer control over the continent, after having spent so much on defending it as part of the empire. However some taxes implemented by the British,which the colonials strongly protested against,actually reduced their financial burden.The First Lord of the Treasury (between 1763 and 1765) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Grenville,  tried to clamp down on the enforcement of taxes and on the 5thof April 1764 these attempts manifested themselves in the Sugar Act, a revised version of the Molasses Act of 1733. This act actually decreased the rate of tax placed on tea from six pence per gallon, as stated in the Molasses Act of 1733, to three pence per gallon. Although the act decreased tax, it also largely increased the naval force tasked with preventing smuggling and tightened up procedures of trade in a variety of other goods on top of tea. So the effect of the act, although decreasing the legal price of tea, actually increased the price that most colonials paid. Furthermore, many colonials claimed they were being undercut by British prices, which they were unable to compete with due to Britain’s large manufacturing and trading base which gave it the benefits of economies of scale.


A satirical cartoon on taxes from the period.

The necessity of such an increase in the enforcement of these taxes is debatable. Some historians, such as Oliver M. Dickerson in, “The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution” believed that unlawful trade following the war was relatively small, however Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labaree in “Empire or Independence” argue to the contrary: “according to one conservative computation, in the years 1760-6 the colonists consumed annually about 1,200,000 lb. of tea: as only 275,000 lb. were imported from England, the balance- more than three quarters of the total consumption- was smuggled.”Based purely on colonial reaction to the Tea Act, Christie and Labaree’s assertion seems more plausible than Dickerson’s. If the extent of illegal trade was indeed to this extent then surely some action was required. Either nothing could be done; in which case the colonials would remain disrespectful of English law, but in the short term would be less moved to revolution; or the English could clamp down, in which case more revenue could be collected, attempts at a solution to the crisis of national identity could be made and if the colonials did respond (as they indeed did) with opposition and aggression, then adjustments, enforcements and repressions could be implemented. After all, Britain was an economic and military force to be revered during this period. In this respect therefore, an increase in enforcement was entirely justifiable and doesn’t constitute a failure in Britain’s management of its empire, but, in the short term perspective, an effective management of economic affairs.

The decision to implement the Sugar Act for this purpose may not have actually been the sole responsibility of Lord Grenville however. Although he actually implemented the act it was Lord Newcastle’s treasury, preceding Grenville’s term as First Lord of the Treasury, which had begun investigations into the lack of revenue being collected from colonial trade as a result of insufficient enforcement of regulations. Newcastle saw this issue as a priority and set measures in motion before the end of the war. Then after 1763, the Secretary of State, William Pitt and the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Lord Anson, were the ones who pushed for the suppression of smuggling in America and the Caribbean. They saw this decision as an essential step for compensation for the Seven Years War. Therefore, whether the increase in the enforcement of taxes on trade was necessary or not, it could be argued that it wasn’t a failure of effective governance of Britain at the time, but rather a direction of policy which had already been set in motion before the crisis had developed to any notable level. Newcastle’s treasury had set this direction of policy during the war, when funds were required in order to secure victory; Thus, had acts such as the Sugar Act gone through earlier, the policy wouldn’t have been too strongly opposed by the colonials because victory was in their best interests in order to protect their territory. In the first half of the decade following the Seven Years War, William Pitt and George Lord Anson were pushing the borders of what came under their jurisdiction by pressing for an increase in enforcement.A slight overlap in the definition of their jurisdiction meant that they were able to press their own priorities through. George Lord Anson for instance had the responsibility, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, to prevent crime at sea, such as piracy, or more importantly smuggling. This meant that he was effectively able to intervene in the making of economic policy, which was officially the responsibility of Lord George Grenville before 1765.

1700s parliament

William Pitt addresses the British Parliament in Westminster

Britain’s failure therefore was not from a direct decision from the man appointed to make such decisions (about the enforcement of an economic policy which would insight unrest, leading to revolution) but in a failure of governmental structure: a structure in which bureaucracy led to key figures in government becoming detrimentally fractious and a government which was unable to effectively adapt its policies quickly enough from a direction set in motion during a period when contemporary issues (the developing crisis leading to American Independence) had not yet arisen.

Furthermore, between 1763 and 1782 Britain had been through four different Lords of the Treasury. Grenville’s office was brought to a sharp end in 1765 by King George III, who replaced him as First Lord of the Treasury, or “Prime Minister”, with the Marquess of Rockingham, who lasted for one year. By the time that Lord North took office in 1770, controversy in parliament over the crisis in America was rife. Sporadic changes in power was a limitation to the effectual governance and management of the American colonies, as each Lord of the Treasury would lead the management in a different direction. While Grenville believed the economic issues in America required more immediate attention,“nothing could be worse than the inactivity of the present ministry”, North took a more relaxed approach to the issue. Peter D. G. Thomas argues that the latter was actually a wiser choice, “The American trade boycotts collapsed by the end of 1770, and little was heard of troubles in the colonies for some years. Not until 1773 did parliament again debate America.”Although I would agree with this assertion to the extent that, at least in the short term, this policy would stabilise the crisis, I would fall short of the judgement that this policy would have been the most effective in the long term; the end of the Seven Years War had already brought about a change in the way both British governance and American colonials viewed the situation of international rule. George III’s direct role in the administration of the empire was strictly limited, his only real involvement being his reception of letters and petitions from aggrieved colonials. However his petty toying with Britain’s domestic political structure caused a lack of continuity throughout the period, which may have been one of the most detrimental contributions to the cause of the crisis.

However, due to the debt and the threat of revolt in England, it could be argued that the British had no choice but to increase revenue from America, they could have implemented these taxes more effectively. Had the British been consistent with their policies, following through their legislation by effectively and consistently enforcing policies such as the Stamp Act of 1765, then the colonials may have taken them more seriously. By not following through with taxes, mostly repealing them after opposition was shown, the British demonstrated weakness, giving the colonials the impression that protesting would get them what they wanted. Ian R. Christie and Benjamin W. Labree point out that, “By the early 1760s the experience of half a century had shown that the machinery for enforcing the laws of trade in the colonies was inadequate, that illegal traffic was considerable, that the law could be violated almost with impunity, and if most colonial trade still flowed in lawful channels, this was due to convenience and complaisance, not to fear of coercion.” This judgement seems well supported in light of their statistic that more than three quarters of the colonies’ total consumption of tea was smuggled.

bloody code

The Bloody Code saw execution for minor crimes such as petty theft.

From the perspective of the British, they were completely within their rights and entirely morally justified to implement more taxes on the colonials because the Seven Years War had been fought for their benefit, in order to prevent their lands from being taken by the French. Furthermore, the British people were already being taxed to the point of revolt. From 1688 to 1776 the Bloody Code saw the number of crimes punishable by death in England quadrupled. This epitomises the stance that the British government were taking over this period. Although the crime rate wasn’t particularly high, the emergence of the landowning classes as the true rulers of the country meant that the law was influenced by their invested interests i.e. the strong protection of property. The higher classes feared what they perceived (incorrectly) as an increasing crime rate, as the population grew and rural community culture faded. This fear of revolt also extended to the wider empire.

Ultimately the British were short sighted in their use of the American colony for gaining profit. Rather than helping its economy to develop and then taking an administrative role from which they could gain revenue, they tried to step into the market themselves as a monopoly power. Graham Greene comments in “Our Man in Havana”, “What accounted for the squalor of British possessions? The Spanish, the French and the Portuguese built cities where they settled, but the English just allowed cities to grow.” This observation, although made in response to the “squalor” of a city of the British Empire hundreds of years after the American Revolution, captures the British attitude towards its empire in the west throughout its life time.

So although it can be concluded that the British had no choice but to begin implementing stronger enforcement of taxes in order to regain both control over the colony and revenue lost in the war (a decision which can be considered a success), the way in which they went about trying to achieve these goals was their primary failure. A slower transition was required, something which was holistically over looked by the bureaucratic, cross intentioned and motivated, British governance.

The USA is arguably the most militantly capitalist nation on earth, its foundations strongly rooted in a free market economy, with the “American Dream” based on a laissez faire attitude and rugged individualism. Although this could be construed as an example of Whig History, this is indicative of the primary reason for both the revolution and the War of Independence, instigated by the white, rich upper classes who, not by coincidence, remained rich and upper class after independence was achieved. The motives of the key revolutionaries therefore were somewhat ambiguous. Were they merely campaigning for the colonials’ rights against a tyrannical rule, or were they making a well calculated business decision in order to cut out a monopoly in the markets?

founding fathers

Many of the future Founding Fathers in the Constitutional Congress.

Although economic policy and the reactions to these policies were the primary cause of the crisis leading to the War of Independence, other factors played a key role in increasing the tensions. Significant instigators of opposition towards the British caused a wider awareness of revolutionary movements and of the actions of the British, deemed by many to be; in the earlier part of the decade, detrimental to the English constitution; then later on as suppression from a foreign tyrannical rule. These instigators were exceptionally intelligent men, often following professions such as lawyers or publicists; they were usually skilled with rhetoric, well financially supported and in good positions of power and respect in order to convincingly spread the revolutionary word. Although many colonials felt they were being economically suppressed by the British, this general feeling would not have materialised into any sort of opposition, besides minor gossip and grumbling, had there not been a select few, highly educated men, to lead the revolution, inspire and lead the people and establish a new nation. Men like George Washington were key military leaders against the British, while figures like Patrick Henry inspired the general populace through memorable speeches to support the revolution and the war. In this respect there wasn’t a lot the British could have done in order to suppress such opposition, short of suppressing free speech and other liberties which would have only added fuel to the revolutionary fire.

On the other hand, these men were unquestionably motivated, at least in part, by the increasing financial burden placed on them by the British, perhaps Britain’s failure was not in allowing these figures of opposition to utilise their influence, but in giving them motivation to do so. Furthermore, key figures in America, such as Patrick Henry, were inciting the crowds with powerful rhetoric, “give me liberty or give me death!” No such prominent figures emerged to rouse the spirits of the public in support of the British; either of colonial nationality, or appointed by the British. So not only had the British failed in their governance by giving such intelligent and influential men cause to oppose them, but they had also failed to provide any impassioned counter movement to anywhere near the level of vigour demonstrated by these key revolutionaries.

Between the years of 1765 and 1776 the colonial’s respect, depicted in their letters and petitions to the king, George III, deteriorated.It is clear that over this period the colonials started thinking of themselves less as British and more as American. This was a very significant change and arguably the one that was most influential among the causes of the crisis leading to the War of Independence. Whilst before they had been fighting for a change to the regime under which they lived, therefore without the intention of doing it harm, when they decided that they were no longer British, they began fighting against Britain rather than for it.


The Treaty of Paris, formal end of the American Revolutionary War – the defeated British delegation refused to pose.

Bernard Bailyn asserts that the colonists were not exclusively fighting for their own freedom, but for the protection of the English constitution from corruption. In this interpretation the colonists didn’t actually see the British as the oppressors, but likewise victims of a conspiracy against their liberty; which should have been guaranteed to them under the English constitution. Whilst I would agree with this judgement to a certain extent, the changing nature of the tone in many letters sent from colonials to the king demonstrate that Bailyn’s judgement was only true for a decade or so after the Treaty of Paris.

We can conclude therefore that, since prior to the end of the Seven Years War British parliament had managed to maintain the colonists’ sense of nationality, heritage and loyalty to their rulers, that it was the fault of the more recent government, from Grenville onwards, that this patriotic feeling was lost. J.H. Elliot supports Bailyn’s view, but neglects to go as far as to distinguish that this motivation didn’t continue right up until the Proclamation of 1763. He affirms that, “it was precisely because they saw themselves as British that the Americans would stand up for their rights.” By applying too much economic pressure on the colony the British administration had highlighted to the colonials the disparity between the way they were treated and the way which British citizens were treated in Britain.

Many colonials at the time even argued that the new taxes would have been justifiable, had the subjects of the taxes been treated like and given the same rights as British citizens living in Britain. The colonials’ main demand in this respect was representation in parliament, leading to the popular revolutionary slogan, “No taxation without representation”.Britain’s failure to allow the colonials a stake in the empire, by granting their wish of a vote or at least some form of representation in parliament, may well have been the deciding factor in the change of their self-perceived nationality. Representation was essential to maintaining the peace and unity of the empire; if the colonials weren’t British then they were being occupied by a foreign power.

The flag of the Constitutional Congress - the original flag of the United States displaying a mixed identity.

The flag of the Constitutional Congress – the original flag of the United States displaying a mixed identity.

Yet increasingly even some hope of representation wouldn’t have been enough to satisfy the aspirations of many colonials, “There is no longer any room for hope”. It is possible that a model similar to that used for Scotland, in which representatives were sent to the Westminster parliament, would have been accepted by the British administration in return for subordination to the implementation of British tax. Benjamin Franklin, however, as Pennsylvania’s agent in London, was of the belief that even this level of appeasement would no longer be enough. Since it was plain that a more lenient policy of appeasement in regards to representation was not possible; as the Scottish, who were geographically so much closer than the Americans, were unable to attain more than what the colonials had, we can infer from Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that most colonials were already set on a path of intention towards independence. John Green points out that the American Revolution and War of Independence were separate events, with the revolution preceding but overlapping with the War of Independence. This meant that before the war had even begun, the colonials were already a self-governing nation, with a strong sense of a separate nationality. On September 5th 1774, Continental Congress met for the first time in Philadelphia. This was effectively the first American government, creating and enforcing policies. If this is the point at which we start to consider the Americans as a separate nationality to the British then the War of Independence was lost long before the fighting had ended, or the declaration in 1776. Whilst economic factors may have been the earthquake under the ocean, the subsequent crisis of national identity was the tidal wave which carried the revolutionary crisis.


The use of civilian militia known as “Minute Men” gave the Revolutionary Army a significant advantage over the slow-reinforcing British Army.

As important as it was to maintain the colonials’ perception of themselves as British, it could be argued that the British had no choice in the firm stance they took against giving the colonials representation in parliament. A strategy of appeasement on the matter of representation in parliament could have been dangerous, as it may have given an impression of weakness, not only towards the colonials, but more importantly towards British citizens on the verge of revolt. Whilst the Bloody Code may have been due to the disillusionment of the upper landowning classes, the precarious economic situation following the war meant that it was particularly important to tread a careful line in order to please the British population, who, after all, had to take priority over the nation’s colonial citizens.  Lord North took a relatively firm stance on repealing taxes as a result of colonial demonstration, “I never will be driven to repeal a duty by downright force.”He even went as far as to claim that had the Stamp Act not been repealed it would have been in effective operation.The historian J.H Elliot on the other hand disagrees, “Already aware of the logistical problems in the way of reinforcing from England the army in America to levels which would enable it to contain the rising tide of disorder, the administration rightly came to the conclusion that the act was unenforceable.”Elliot’s judgement is more convincing given their financial state following the Seven Years War, thus creating these “logistical” problems of enforcing the act.

When the British realised how the colony was drifting further from its control and identity, its subsequent attempts to reaffirm its position and dominance actually caused the colonials to realise themselves how separate the two nations had become. In this instance Britain’s failure is the same as for its economic strategy: too much too fast.

The simple logistical issues regarding distance made effective governance of the American colonies all the more difficult. Technology was not at an advanced enough stage to cope to the extent required for communications and supplies over the distance separating the Americas and Britain of over 3000 miles. These logistical issues could have been managed better however, had the British invested properly in establishing a controllable and powerful enough sub-body of government, based in the colony itself, in order to help reduce reaction time and better improve informed decision making, based on more specific local knowledge. Those left to run British affairs on the American continent were not given the necessary assistance, “Local customs officials were too few on the ground. Often they received little or no support from colonial governors.”This lack of support perhaps even increased the tensions leading to the Boston Massacre, undermining the Bostonians’ reverence of British authority.

Ultimately the crisis leading to the revolution and War of Independence was due to the ineffectual management of a necessary movement towards a more unified and controlled empire. The colony was lost due to desperate attempts to keep hold of it. In opposition to Lord Grenville, Charles Townsend observed that, “if parliament were to ever give up the right of taxing America, then he must give up the word “colony”- for that implies subordination.” This definition of a colony, requiring “subordination”, was a limitation to the duration of time for which the British could rule. Had the colony been viewed as more of an extension of Britain itself, then arguably it may still be part of Britain today.

Lord North - the final agitator or just the last straw?

Lord North – the final agitator or just the last straw?

“Men in London were more alert, perhaps, than those in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, to the fact that what had been won had to be held.”Whilst this interpretation is certainly correct in reference to men such as Lord George Grenville, it is not a description which can be attributed to men such as Lord North. Some members of the British administration therefore were successful in the sense that they realised that there was a crisis brewing, although they failed to prevent it. Whilst in contrast other members of parliament, although less aware of an ensuing crisis, actually did less to inflame it as a result. Lord North even fell asleep during a Parliamentary discussion about the levying of taxes in relation to the developing crisis and although the Declaration of Independence happened during his term in office, the policies which had caused the crisis were inherited from Newcastle, Grenville and Rockingham.

The aim of parliament and George III at the time was to maintain the Americas as a colony of Britain, making its loss a failure in this sense; it could also be argued that the loss of the Americas was in fact beneficial at the time and for the nation’s future welfare. The cost of maintaining a colony so far away, especially one so hotly contested by other colonial powers, was running Britain into the ground; despite contradictory intentions on Britain’s part, the crisis that led to America’s independence may well have been an overall success rather than a failure. France’s choice to financially prioritise their affairs in America was a significant factor in bringing about their own revolution, deposing the monarchy. Had the British been as tenacious, a similar consequence may have occurred.