What Caused the Colonies to Break With England?

What Caused the Colonies to Break With England?

The first seeds of revolution on American shores were swept in by a great storm at sea off the coast of Virginia in 1620. The pilgrims intended to land at the British colony of Virginia, but the storm forced them to land several hundred miles north at modern day Cape Cod. Massachusetts was not British territory, so the pilgrims formed the Mayflower compact, a plan for self-government. Although Massachusetts later became a British colony, the habits of self-rule had taken root.

1 Early Self Government

Although officially ruled by governors appointed by England, the colonies were so far away and so vast that it was hard for England to exercise tight control. America also was sparsely populated in the 1600s. It was mainly useful as a landing place for religious dissidents who otherwise might contribute to the ongoing strife between Protestants and Catholics in England. To keep the peace in the colonies, the British regulated trade while allowing American colonists to set their own taxes. This uneasy system worked well so long as America remained a minor part of the British empire.

2 Rising Tensions

With abundant farmland and vast natural resources, the economic potential of the American colonies became obvious in the early 1700s. By mid-century, tensions began to break out as England sought to take firmer control of its very productive colonies and the colonies resisted. England was irritated by the frequent smugglers up and down the coastline who evaded trade regulations to sell their goods to other countries. It sought colonial help in cracking down on the smugglers, but colonial legislatures did not co-operate. England responded by enacting the "Sugar Tax" in 1764, the first direct tax levied on Americans by the British. Colonists had become accustomed to running their own affairs through colonial legislatures. When England cracked down with direct taxes without approval of the colonial legislatures and instructed governors appointed by the king to take firm control, colonists protested. A cycle of more taxes, followed by more serious colonial resistance, caused tensions to continue mounting over the next decade and a half.

3 Failed Negotiations

Colonists thought of themselves as British subjects. From the time the dispute became openly hostile in the early 1760s, colonial leaders tried to negotiate with England to get direct representation in the English Parliament or to enhance the authority of colonial legislatures back to traditional levels. Although there were advocates for the American cause in Parliament, the hardliners prevailed. In 1765, Parliament passed the "Quartering Act," which meant sending British troops to America to force compliance with various new taxes being imposed. Relations between colonists and British soldiers degenerated beyond repair after the Boston Massacre in early 1770 when a street fight between colonists and soldiers left three colonists dead and eight wounded.

4 Independence Declared

In 1773, frustrated colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians, swam out to ships delivering heavily taxed English tea and dumped it all in Boston Harbor. Many colonial leaders concluded that the only way they could get their old system of self-government back was to declare independence. The legislatures began to speak openly of this possibility while quietly planning for it. On July 4, 1776, a formal Declaration of Independence was issued and the colonists prepared for war.

Joe McElroy has been writing on politics and culture since 1983. His articles have appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the "Chicago Daily Observer" and "Immaculata" magazine. McElroy works occasionally as a strategic consultant to federal candidates. He majored in American history at Northwestern University.