Reasons for the Revolution
What Made the Colonists So Mad, Anyway?
You'll find reasons for the Revolution on this web site. Links to important historical documents are listed below. Read Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech, the Resolves of the first Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence to understand the colonists' disappointment with British policies. Find more documents on the Politics in Colonial Virginia page and read a summary of the colonists' frustrations and disappointments with King George III and Parliament.
Explore the colonial dateline and historical buildings, visit the Capitol, where many of these documents were debated, and the Raleigh Tavern, where the debates continued after Governor Dunmore dissolved the House of Burgesses.
- William Pitt's Speech against the Stamp Act
- Summary View of the Rights of British America
- Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress
- "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death"
- Virginia Declaration of Rights
- Declaration of Independence
The colonists' disappointment began shortly after the French and Indian War ended in 1763, when the British government tried to reduce the debt incurred during the war by collecting additional taxes and gaining more control over the colonies. The Stamp Act of 1765 was one such measure. It created an excise tax on newspapers, customs documents, licenses, college diplomas, and most legal documents.
Although the Stamp Act was widely popular in England where taxes were far higher than they were in the colonies, it was uniformly resented in the colonies. Nine colonial legislatures officially expressed their objections to this British tax, and civil disobedience to this Act was rampant throughout the colonies. The Stamp Act became increasingly unenforceable, and in March 1766 Parliament revoked it.
The colonists were grateful for the repeal of the Stamp Act and were eager to mend their relations with the mother country. At this point, a complete break from England remained unimaginable, but a precedent for colonial defiance had been created.
Despite the repeal of the Stamp Act, underlying philosophical differences remained. The British wanted the colonists to pay the greater part of the cost of royal government in the colonies, whereas the colonists resisted imperial taxation and limits on self-government.
A series of incidents that took place between 1765 and 1775 emphasized these differences. For example, the Townshend Duties of 1767, which taxed imports, led to nonimportation agreements (boycotts of British goods) that injured the British economy and caused the repeal of the Townshend Duties in 1770. Customs racketeering, in which greedy customs officials seized ships and their goods whether or not evidence of smuggling existed, led to widespread violence and to the British occupation of Boston in 1768. The British occupation itself led indirectly to the Boston Massacre of 1770, when an angry mob incited a soldier to fire into the crowd. The ensuing mayhem caused five deaths.
The Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the punitive British response solidified colonial fears that the Crown was attempting to limit traditional English liberties throughout North America. In response to these events, the first Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1774. (Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress included two of the original opponents of the Stamp Act, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry. George Washington was the third Virginia representative.) The delegates summarized their principles and demands in the Declaration of Rights, which conceded to Parliament the power to regulate colonial commerce, but argued that parliamentary efforts to impose taxes, enforce laws through admiralty courts, suspend assemblies, and unilaterally revoke charters were unconstitutional.
After these incidents, a break from England had become a distinct possibility (although still not a certainty.)
In Williamsburg in April 1775, on orders from the British ministry, Governor Dunmore directed British marines to remove guns and powder stored at the Magazine. A violent clash between the alarmed city residents and the British almost erupted. Dunmore soon fled to a British ship in the York River. Determined to regain control of the colony, the governor threatened to offer freedom to all slaves who ran away to the British side.
By July 1775, battles in what eventually became known as the American Revolution had already taken place in Massachusetts: Concord and Lexington in April, Bunker Hill in June. Despite this ominous turn of events, not all parties saw the Revolution as inevitable. For example, a majority of the second Continental Congress, which began meeting in May 1775, still opposed independence. Even Samuel Adams, among the most radical of the colonists, described himself as "fond of reconciliation."
In July 1775 the colonists' opinions were divided. Most colonists had hoped that their resistance would either convince the king to dismiss the ministers responsible for the repressive legislation or would jolt Parliament into renouncing its authority over all matters in the colonies except trade regulation. As it became clear that neither course would occur, some loyalist colonists accused their contemporaries of creating a rift, or at least inflaming existing problems. Their Revolutionary counterparts often browbeat clergymen who preached pro-British sermons, pressured their countrymen to boycott British goods, and coerced merchants to burn British imports.
King George III declared the colonies in rebellion on August 23, 1775. In November, Governor Dunmore signed his Emancipation Proclamation placing Virginia under martial law and granting freedom to all slaves and indentured servants who would bear arms for the king. Excerpts from Thomas Paine's Common Sense, which influenced many a fence-sitter, were published in the Virginia Gazette in February 1776, and the Declaration of Independence followed a few months later.