Was The American Revolution Really Over Taxes?
Causes Of The American Revolution
The Revolutionary War is frequently referred to as a war started because of “taxation without representation.” The Pennsylvania colony sent Benjamin Franklin as their representative to petition the king for representation in Parliament. The truth, however, is that the colonies told Benjamin Franklin to stop before he even began. Did the people really want representation at all? If the people did not revolt because of this, then why did they do so?
Many people point their finger at the Seven Years War, a war fought between the French, the British, American colonists, and Native Americans. This was practically a world war that was centrally fought over the Ohio River valley, but eventually overtook all of the British colonies around the world. This war created a huge national debt for Britain that forced them to tax the American people. Americans were swept up by the phrase, “no taxation without representation.” The people rose and formed groups called the Sons of Liberty to protest taxation by the British government. While economic and political issues were a dominant theme, the intellectual undercurrent that galvanized the American mindset was founded on established ideals that were within English documents and the writings and discoveries of the intellectual writers of the day. Americans came to believe in inherent god given rights that guaranteed their ways of life. With a solid foundation of literacy, scientists and intellectual writers could better convey their radical ideas to the bulk of the American people in this time. The coupling of literacy with these new ideas became the wood that fired the American people’s hearts for change.
The standard belief that everything just happened because God made it so, and that the king was chosen by God was pushed aside by modern thinkers of the day. Isaac Newton founded a uniform set of laws to guide the universe and established modern physics. He established the law of universal gravitation, and used “rules of reasoning in philosophy that emphasized rational thought” (Gillispie 9:76, 77). Gottfried Leibnitz invented the modern scientific method and argued that there were two kinds of truth: one based on facts and one based on logical reasoning. He argued that “nothing is without a reason,” giving credence to new ideas about the way of life (Gillispie 7: 155). These men along with others affected a trend in society to look to science for answers instead of divine intervention.
The philosophical beliefs for government changed as well. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, encouraged a general skepticism toward rulers. He believed the only absolutes in life were those experienced personally. Collier’s Encyclopedia writes that Hume “puts…all upon a common evidential footing; it lays down the rules by which evidence is to be evaluated, and it exempts no authority from such testing” (12:353,354). John Locke, another philosopher of the time, discussed the nature of rights, describing them as the “right to life, liberty, and property” (Miskelly 195). He wrote that people were capable of maintaining peace without force from government, and that the people were ruled only because they allowed it (Miskelly 195). European’s enlightened opinions toward government flourished in the American colonies. These new ideas caused colonists to take a long hard look at their king and to question his authority.
In many cases, the American people were already better educated than the average Englishman. The literacy rate, at this time, was already higher than Britain’s. Armed with better education, better communication because of the rising popularity of newspapers, and a new skepticism from modern thinkers, colonists looked to English documents that established certain basic rights. The Magna Charta, an English document that was written hundreds of years earlier, said that all people were under the law, including the king. The Petition of Right, another English document written during the Glorious Revolution, gave the people the right to representative government, affirming the right of the people to a parliament with the power to control taxation. The English Bill of Rights contained laws that prevented the king from committing atrocities that prevented colonists from life, liberty, and property. It contained many rights and liberties that we recognize in our own Bill of Rights. Among these were trial by jury, the right to petition, and many inherent rights that the people construed directly from the writings of John Locke. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” was aptly named, as these beliefs became ingrained in the minds of the people.
While the Seven Years War, and subsequent taxation by the British can certainly be attributed to be the spark that started the fire, there is little argument that a spark placed on wet wood will never catch. The intellectual aspects of this period are clearly the main contribution to the Revolutionary War. The environment was ripe for change, as Americans were less likely to identify themselves as English anymore. Like a child reaching their maturity, the American colonies knew they were ready to strike out on their own and carve a new nation founded on new radical ideals that would turn the world upside down.
Brett A. Wood
Collier, P., ed. Collier’s Encyclopedia. New York: P.F. Collier, 1995.
Gillispie, Charles, ed. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981.
Miskelly, Matthew and Jaime Nore, ed. Political Theories for Students. MI: The Gale Group, Inc., 2002.