The Genesis of the Revolutionary War

by J MW

The Genesis of the Revolutionary War

by Henry Clapham McGavack

The erroneous impression of the Revolutionary War prevailing in America today is due to two causes; ignorance of Colonial history; and an absolute lack of knowledge regarding the political and commercial policy of eighteenth century England.

The Revolution was not, as is fondly imagined in these parts, the spontaneous outburst of a collected and united people against the misgovernment and tyranny of a diabolic power across the Atlantic; it was not fought with glorious patriotism, self-denial and valor by any great number of the colonists; it was not brought to a successful conclusion by any army or group of armies on American soil. It was, on the other hand, the outgrowth of sordidness and greed and pigheadedness and general incompetence all around; the major share of which attributes must be apportioned to the colonists.

The problem of colonial defense is the genesis of the Revolution. England chartered divers and sundry colonies from Massachusetts Bay to Virginia—and they were divers and sundry. Some were free commonwealths, like Massachusetts, others fiefs of Lords Proprietors like Maryland, others Crown Colonies like Virginia. They had little in common except their allegiance to the King of Great Britain and Ireland. They were openly jealous of one another. They were always squabbling over boundaries, and endeavoring to knife each other commercially. In case of war England was in duty bound to protect them; her navy was the bulwark behind which they traded and bartered, quarreled and bickered among themselves. In return they carried on all foreign trade with her or through her alone. This was the price of protection, and they paid it gladly, unquestioningly; for the economics of the eighteenth century were neither advanced nor scientific. For local defense they maintained, or prevented to maintain, militia; supported by taxes levied by authority of their own legislative assemblies.

The French and Indian War was fought, in America, for their security. Yet, such was their love of money and gain that they smuggled provisions to the French troops in Canada, and to the French ships in the West Indies, giving aid thus to the forces of the enemy when the English naval power had effectually barred to those forces help from France herself; so keeping alive a struggle which their own advantage demanded should be decided favorably at once. So far did greed take them, that the British army under Amherst lacked food because of their illegal and treasonable exportations to the enemy. Again, when called upon for their quota of men and supplies for the campaign, every colony held back; one fearing lest it do a little more a little sooner than the rest. The result was no men, no money; no transport, no defense save by the British Redcoat. Indians might burn and slay down to the very gates of Philadelphia itself, but the sacred principle that Pennsylvania could raise no more troops than New York might not be infringed upon.

In 1754 the British Government had called together the Albany Conference for the purpose of encouraging the Colonies to unite in matters of local defence. The conference came to naught because our revered ancestors could agree upon no plan of working together. So, in desperation, realising the terrible conditions along the frontiers due to Indian raids, the London Cabinet resolved to send British regulars to America for the purpose of checking inroads which the colonists seemed incapable of making any headway against.

The cost of this expedition, the English Government thought, could be very equitably and justly borne by the American themselves; for, in the first place, the people of the British Isles were undergoing exceedingly heavy taxation on account of previous wars, and in the second place, it did not appear that a prosperous community, such as America, would find an onerous burden in its own protection.

But the colonists thought very differently indeed—or rather, some of them did; upstarts and men on the make like Hancock and Adams, for instance. The result was the cry “No taxation without representation”, and ultimately, the War of Independence.

Now the English were logically and legally right. In the first place, the colonies had demonstrated both their unwillingness and their inability to protect themselves. In the second place, England had made all preparations to render their protection herself. In certainly was only just that the Americans pay the material cost. So much for logic.

The legal aspect of the case is even stronger. The colonies, under the demagogic influence of men like Adams, declared that taxation was not repulsive to them; what they demanded was that they be represented at the source of taxation. They forgot, in the first instance, that they had been given an opportunity to form a union for defence at the Albany Conference and had neglected to avail themselves of it; and, in the second instance, they failed to recognise that the British Parliament, as inheritor of all the ancient prerogatives of the Crown, was through each and every charter granted, no matter in what form, to each and every colony the sovereignty is the power of taxation; hence to deny the right of the Parliament to levy taxes was to deny its sovereignty. Yet the colonies acknowledged the sovereign supremacy of the British Parliament, putting themselves thereby in an impossible position.

Moreover, the Parliament did not propose to levy internal taxes; customs duties formed the question at issue. Now, by all the precedents and all the charters and all the contemporary colonial policies, a mother country’s control over the commerce of her satellites throughout the world was absolute and inviolable—and up till now the Americans had recognised that fact. Consequently, in attempting to levy duties at ports of ingress and egress on the Atlantic seaboard of the American Colonies, Great Britain was clearly within her rights; was only acting as any other colonial power of the time might have acted and did act; and was, moreover; levying these duties not for her own aggrandizement, but for the purpose of defending her colonies from their enemies.

Nevertheless the break came. It came because the colonies had possessed all of the benefits of separate existence without any of the responsibilities. The Empire had always protected them; they had never been called upon to defend the Empire except in a small, local way. When they were finally asked to share in imperial defence they balked. The commercial system of the age, entailing as it did colonial dependence upon the mother country; had made them myopic and selfish. Immersed in the petty details of provincial existence, they became blind to the vast expanse of the imperial life.

This commercial system, coupled with the pigheadedness of the eighteenth century political attitude and the stubborn colonial sordidness of spirits, sundered the Anglo-Saxon race.

This essay was first published in the July 1917 issue of The Conservative 

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