Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Causes of the American Revolution
Britain and its colonies had outgrown Eighteenth Century techniques of governance. Unfortunately, both England and America lacked the sophistication to make drastic changes smoothly.

Lexington, Concord, and All That

Captain Parker, Minuteman

American schoolchildren today, and maybe a majority of Americans even at that time, have found it bewildering that we declared independence fifteen months after the battles at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, well after George Washington besieged the British in Boston, or Benedict Arnold dragged the captured cannons of Ticonderoga over the mountains to save the day. Just who started our Revolution, and why; and for that matter, when, have been at issue for a long time.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson exchanged hot correspondence for fifty years along these lines. Adams was miffed that Jefferson claimed all the credit for a defiant public resolution they both had a hand in writing, when real men in Boston had been getting shot and killed for Liberty years earlier, and Admiral Howe's fleet had even set sail for Staten Island long before that Declaration was printed. To which scolding, might well be added that Abraham Lincoln reached back to "all men are created equal" when he wanted to find Constitutional justification for what was only 3/5 true in 1787, and not true at all on Virginia plantations in 1776. And, of course, was a phrase not echoed in the Constitution. Yes, John Adams had a point, and Thomas Jefferson had other points. But weren't they both in Philadelphia at the same time, working on the same document? Jefferson and Adams were rather probably raking over the coals of the bitter 1800 election, where Jefferson turned Adams out of the White House, and Adams wouldn't even stay around for appearance sake to attend the inauguration of his successor. On another level, they were both likely thinking about the Constitution more than the Declaration of Independence, anyway. Jefferson never liked the Constitution, had been in France when it was written and preferred to submerge its precedence to a level of temporary revisions to the Declaration of Independence, which stressed unalienable human rights rather than a strengthened central government. It seems unfortunately true that politicians were introducing what is now called "spin". To the extent debate was heated rather than analytical, it could easily become immaterial whether 1774 was before or after 1776.

New England eased into rebellion with the Crown without a great deal of documentation of serious grievances; they must mostly be supposed. The fact that resentments were wide-spread lends substance to the idea that subjects of a remote monarchy had grown a little presumptuous, just as unsupervised Governors dispatched to rule them may have strutted authority unwisely. Successive generations of native-born colonists can be expected to have decreasing allegiance to the mother country, particularly after the need for protection from the French subsided, but irritation at quartering British troops persisted. Mercantilism is not intended to be fair; when imposed on foreigners there is more danger of provoking war when imposed on colonists, appeals to patriotism are mocked as self-serving. Unfortunately, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the two main leaders of Massachusetts dissension, were not terribly clear about economics, and Hancock was definitely involved in some smuggling. Doctor Joseph Warren was more precise, but unfortunately died rather early. We assume competition in fishing off Newfoundland, and dominance in West Atlantic maritime trade seemed paramount to a region somewhat unsuited to agriculture. The English civil war left vivid memories of how quarrels could get out of hand. More than anything else, it would seem likely the British ministry decided to become more authoritarian, at a time when the colonists were drifting toward feeling more independent. They tested each other, and matters got out of hand.

The Old Dominion of Virginia had an established landed aristocracy, better able than in Massachusetts to say what the ruling class wanted, and what the state was going to do. Tobacco had started to wear out the Virginia soil, and people like Washington were anxious to acquire land in Ohio. This was blocked by a British prohibition of white men settling to the west of the Proclamation Line of 1763 along the Appalachian watershed, a separation intended to reduce friction with the Indians, concentrate English settlements along the seaboard for mercantile reasons, and direct further English immigration to Florida and Canada to hold back Catholic influences. The effect of the Proclamation on Virginians was varied, amounting at the least to feel they might just as well have lost the French and Indian War. The southern colonies were not in competition with England on manufacturing, but as agricultural exporters, were in frequent conflict with English merchants and bankers. Power and wealth were concentrated in fewer hands in the South, so personalities played a larger role in public policy.

The colonies were all growing rapidly, with a general sense that governance was getting cumbersome across a wide ocean. Benjamin Franklin was particularly ambitious for more level American versions of the United Kingdom, with Englishmen in the colonies of equal stature in Parliament and elsewhere. With skill, this could be the richest and most powerful nation on earth. As early as the Congress of Albany in 1754, Franklin was proposing a union of the colonies as a step toward full partnership with the British Isles in a transatlantic nation. He continued to pursue that sort of goal for twenty years. Variations of this idea were heard in Parliament. As a mechanism for riding the crest of the Industrial Revolution, this would have been a powerful arrangement for world domination, possibly but not necessarily including visions of world peace. In the Quaker colonies before 1774, Independence from England held little attraction, and merger with New England had less. After all, New England squabbles with Old England about Atlantic maritime trade brought attention to what most of it consisted of rum and slaves. Philadelphia Quakers had rallied around John Woolman to see the evil of slavery, and had largely succeeded in abolishing it locally. And Philadelphia Quakers were well aware that Quaker Abraham Redwood of Newport, Rhode Island had devised the famous triangular trade of slaves, molasses and rum. Pressure had built up within Quakerism to expel Redwood when he refused to free his slaves, no matter that he was probably the largest philanthropist of the colonies. Before that, relations between the Puritans and Quakers had often been difficult. Quakers believed in freedom of religion for everybody; the Puritans hanged Quakers. The Congregationalists of Connecticut had actually invaded the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, three different times, the last of which was when Washington's army was wintering in Valley Forge. Furthermore, if we must attribute everything to economics, there was no land hunger in Pennsylvania. The Penn family, almost exclusively devoted to selling land, owned thirty million acres; by the time of the Revolution, they had only sold five million. The Penn family got along just fine with the Monarchy. The grievances up in New England were not entirely clear. Perhaps the Puritans should learn how to settle their differences in a more peaceful, and effective, way.

And then, Admiral Howe with a huge fleet of warships, and his brother General Howe with a huge army appeared at the beaches of New Jersey. They had orders to impose disciplined governance on every one of the colonies, right away.

Originally published: Monday, May 25, 2009; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dear Sirs,
this painting from Admiral Howe hungs in my living-room. With certificate from U.K. from 1868.
How much is it worth?

best regards
Daniela Volkmann / Germany
Posted by: Mrs. Daniela Volkmann   |   Jan 7, 2010 7:09 AM