The Revolutionary War saw the 13 North American colonies break their links with Britain over eight painful years of fighting between 1775 and 1783. For decades prior to the war, Britain and the colonies had enjoyed a good relationship, but the situation deteriorated from the mid-1760s onward. While many colonists resented British attempts to control them, the British believed the colonies remained under their authority.
The 13 colonies enjoyed a good level of income combined with a very low rate of taxation. In 1763, for example, British taxpayers paid an average of 26 shillings a year to the government, in comparison with just one shilling paid by colony residents. Britain experienced a £122 million budget deficit in the mid-1760s and decided to increase taxation in the North American colonies to bring tax rates up to a level closer to those levied in Britain. As a result, the Westminster Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, but the act was rejected by most colonial assemblies.
The protests against increased taxation included civil unrest and a commercial boycott of British-made goods, and led Britain to act to reassert its control over the colonies. As the Library of Congress puts it, the British felt that “Parliament must exercise unchallenged authority in all parts of the empire.” When, in 1767, protests erupted over changes in customs duty, British authorities moved troops into Atlantic seaports, like Boston, where the protests had taken place. Following the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the British closed the port of Boston and imposed radical changes to the justice system and regulations regarding public assembly throughout Massachusetts through the so-called Intolerable Acts.
For the British, acts of self-assertion on the part of the American colonies were nothing less than rebellion. King George III issued a proclamation in 1775 in which he declared that the colonies were in “open and avowed rebellion” and gave his military permission to “exert their utmost endeavors to suppress such rebellion.” The proclamation turned the king’s North American subjects into traitors.
British military commanders had more on their minds in the 1770s than fighting patriots in the American colonies. The Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763, had seen Britain and France compete for control of territory in North America and across the Caribbean. The Treaty of Alliance, signed in 1778, brought France into the Revolutionary War on the patriots’ side, meaning Britain was again at war with her old enemy. From a British point of view, the French aspects of the Revolutionary War made it just one episode in an ongoing rivalry with their European neighbor.
- Library of Congress: John Bull and Uncle Sam, The American Revolution
- BBC History: British History, The American War of Independence, The Rebels and the Redcoats
- National Army Museum: The War For America, Loyalists and Patriots
- BBC History: British History, Was The American Revolution Inevitable?
- Massachusetts Historical Society: The Coming of the American Revolution, The Coercive Acts
- Massachusetts Historical Society: The Coming of the American Revolution, By the King A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition
- National Archives: Today’s Document
- History.com: Seven Years’ War
- Department of State: Office of the Historian, Milestones 1776-1783
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images