The relationship between Great Britain and its North American Colonies began to show signs of strain in the early 1700s. Until then, England's preoccupation with civil conflict and ongoing war with France allowed the Colonies to carry on domestic and foreign trade with little interference from British authorities. In addition, since their founding, the Colonies had been managing many of their own affairs. The Colonists, as a result, developed a sense of independence. When England began enforcing restrictions on Colonial trade and taking other actions that suggested Colonists did not have the same rights as British citizens in England, the Colonists began to take stock of their own identity and question Great Britain's authority over them.
Unequal Balance of Trade
Great Britain viewed the Colonies as both a source of raw materials, such as lumber, furs, tobacco, sugar and iron, and a market for England's goods, such as silk, linens and tea. The Colonies typically did not sell enough raw materials to England to cover the cost of imports and were expected to make up the shortfall in gold and silver. England profited from this mercantile system while the Colonies accumulated debt. To increase their profits, Colonial merchants often resorted to carrying on illegal trade, or smuggling, with other countries. England's passage of the Navigation Acts and Staples Act in the 1600s and the Molasses Act in 1733 curtailed the Colonies' ability to trade with other countries and established vice-admiralty courts to punish smugglers. Colonial merchants resented these restrictions, which they saw as prohibitive to carrying on profitable trade.
Rebuffed and Resentful
Although the French and Indian War technically had the Colonies and Great Britain fighting on the same side, the conflict gave rise to tensions between Colonists and the British government. The Colonists volunteered to raise their own armies to defend themselves against the French and the various Native American tribes aligned with them, but the British government made it clear it preferred to have British soldiers leading any armed conflict. Great Britain's refusal to allow Colonial militia to fight in defense of their own land insulted the Colonists and made them feel as though they were not wholly Englishmen and equal citizens of the British Empire.
Closing the Frontier
The French and Indian War concluded in 1763, much to the relief of Colonists anxious to settle western territory formerly held by France. Many Colonists had already begun settling in western Ohio after the French abandoned Fort Duquesne in 1758. The Colonists' plans for expansion were thwarted with the British government's Proclamation of 1763, which banned settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains and required settlers to give up any already established settlements. The British set up military posts along the proclamation line to enforce the border, protect Native American land holdings and promote British fur-trade interests. The British told Colonists that the posts were set up to protect them from attack by Native Americans and would be maintained at the expense of the Colonies. The Colonists felt the British government was interfering with their right to freely expand, forcing them to pay for military protection they had not requested.
Creating Irreconcilable Differences
Beginning in 1764, the British government passed a series of acts designed to assert its authority and raise revenue from the Colonies. The Colonists believed, however, that levying taxes was a right reserved for their representative Colonial legislatures. When the Colonists' opposition to the Stamp Act effected its repeal, they used similar means to oppose the Townshend Acts, this time boycotting British goods and harassing customs officials. A clash between British soldiers and Boston citizens in 1770 -- known as the Boston Massacre -- claimed the lives of five Bostonians. The Tea Act of 1773 again raised ire among Colonials who destroyed tea shipments in Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party. The British government answered this action with the closure of Boston Harbor and the revocation of Massachusetts' Colonial charter. Instead of inducing subservience, however, each step the British government took to diminish the Colonies' liberties brought them a step closer to war.
- USHistory.org: American Government: The Colonial Experience
- University of Houston: Digital History: British Mercantilism and The Cost of Empire
- Library of Congress: The American Revolution, 1763 to 1783: British Reforms and Colonial Resistance, 1767 to 1772
- The Mariners Museum: Overview of The State of Pre-Revolutionary American Maritime Commerce
Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.