Causes of the American Revolution

Many countries have undergone a complete revolution and dramatic constitutional change in the last two or three centuries. This has resulted in countries splitting up, the formation of new countries, and the independence of former colonies from their rulers. The United States of America was perhaps the first country to go through this change, winning its independence from Great Britain and becoming the first modern constitutional liberal democracy as a result of the American War of Independence. This was the culmination of a revolution in the second half of the 18th century.

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    What were the causes of the American Revolution, and why did it lead to the American War of Independence? Let's take a look and find out!

    American Revolution Summary

    The American Revolution is the name given to the period of political and ideological change in the British American colonies from 1765 to 1791. Until the 1760s, the colonies had a significant degree of autonomy from the British government. During the Seven Years' War, the colonial militia had been funded by local taxes, so at the conclusion of the war, the Colonies unsurprisingly expected taxes to go down as the need for defence decreased. However, the British government had accumulated such astronomical debt that British taxpayers demanded a drop in spending, and so the people of British America were expected to pay for their own defence entirely. This meant that taxes actually went up in the Thirteen Colonies.

    Causes of the American Revolution Map of the Thirteen Colonies StudySmarterFig. 1. Map of the Thirteen Colonies.

    With the colonists already disgruntled by this, the British government then began to impose its own taxes on the Colonies throughout the 1760s despite them not having any representation in the British Parliament, fuelling discontent and increasing opposition to the British. Thus began a cycle of punitive laws and taxes imposed by the British and ever-escalating resistance in the Thirteen Colonies.

    This culminated in the American Revolutionary War or American War of Independence, which lasted from 1775 to 1783. A year into the war, on 4 July 1776, the Colonies signed the Declaration of Independence and formed independent states. They defeated the British in the Revolutionary War and gained full independence from the Crown with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

    Key terms

    British North AmericaThe British colonial possessions in North America, including the Thirteen Colonies and also Quebec (taken from France after the Seven Years' War), Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland.
    The Thirteen ColoniesThese were thirteen British colonies in America that eventually sought their independence:
    1. New Hampshire
    2. Massachusetts
    3. Connecticut
    4. Rhode Island
    5. New York
    6. New Jersey
    7. Pennsylvania
    8. Delaware
    9. Maryland
    10. Virginia
    11. North Carolina
    12. South Carolina
    13. Georgia.
    Vermont also rebelled against Great Britain but, due to land disputes with New York and New Hampshire, was not recognised until 1791, when it became the 14th state of the United States.
    The Seven Years' War (1756-63)This was a global conflict in which Great Britain and Prussia fought against Austria, France, and Russia across Europe, the Americas, and India. In North America, it was known as the French and Indian War (1754-63), originally a separate conflict which escalated into the Seven Years' War and was fought mainly between French and British American colonists and their respective Native American allies.

    American Revolution Timeline

    1763The end of the Seven Years' War.
    1765The Stamp Act is passed by the British Parliament.
    1766The Declaratory Act is passed.
    1767The Townshend Acts are passed.
    1770The Boston Massacre takes place.
    1773The Tea Act is passed, leading to the Boston Tea Party in December.
    1774The Intolerable Acts are passed. The First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia the same year.
    1775The battles of Lexington and Concord outside Boston mark the start of the American War of Independence.
    1776The Declaration of Independence is passed by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
    1783The Treaty of Paris: the end of the American War of Independence. Great Britain recognises the United States.

    Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

    There were two main ideologies behind the American Revolution - you will see that they are essentially the opposite ideals of what the Colonies had under British rule. They were unhappy with the imposition of taxes and laws without their consent, and with the permanent ruling class of Great Britain.

    Liberalism and Republicanism

    Liberalism is the idea that governments require the consent of the governed. It is often attributed to philosopher John Locke, who believed that as all humans were created equally free, a ruling class could not encroach on that freedom without the consent of those under their rule. There was a belief among the Founding Fathers that people had a natural right to overthrow their leaders if they abused their positions. Therefore, as the British were imposing taxes and other laws on the Colonies without their consent they could rise up and overthrow them.

    The Founding Fathers were a group of men who are considered to be instrumental in the founding of the modern United States and led the Revolutionary War against the British. They also helped establish how the new United States would be run and authored its original Constitution.

    Republicanism is the idea that a government representational of the people is elected for a pre-defined fixed term. Furthermore, republics (from the Latin 'res publica' or 'the public thing') typically write a constitution or set of basic rights which are guaranteed for all citizens and which cannot be altered by the government.

    Causes of the American Revolution John Locke's Treatises of Government 1690 StudySmarterFig. 2. John Locke's Treatises of Government (1690)

    The Political Causes of the American Revolution

    A series of acts passed by the British Parliament including the Townshend Act, Tea Act, and Intolerable Acts led to increased unrest and dissatisfaction in the Thirteen Colonies and are considered as main causes of the American Revolution. Opposition to British political and economic control over the Colonies could not be resolved peacefully and would lead to the Battles of Concord and Lexington.

    Stamp Act 1765

    This was an Act passed by Great Britain imposing a direct tax on the American Colonies and also required many materials to be printed on special stamped paper produced in London. It was incredibly unpopular amongst the Colonists as they considered it a violation of their right not to be taxed without their consent; the slogan "no taxation without representation" was born. The Stamp Act lasted only a year until its repeal under pressure from the Colonists. The American Colonies Act of 1766, or Declaratory Act, was passed with the repeal of the Stamp Act and asserted the subservience of the Thirteen Colonies to Britain and the British Parliament's power to legislate for the Colonies. This included the right to impose taxes, regardless of the views of the Colonies:

    That the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain; and that the King's Majesty [...] had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.1

    Townshend Acts 1767-68

    These are a series of Acts named for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend. The repeal of the Stamp Act had quelled the Colonial anger to an extent, but these new laws fuelled the start of major widespread opposition to British rule. The Acts were passed in order to punish the Province of New York for refusing to follow earlier laws imposed on them, to create more effective ways to enforce trade rules and to raise money to pay Governors' and Judges' salaries. It further entrenched the British position that they had absolute authority over the Colonies.

    Rather than leaving the Colonies to pay their own Governors and Judges, if Britain paid the salaries, they could pay more to those who supported the Crown and less to those who were critical; it was, in essence, a form of bribery.

    • There is slight disagreement as to what exactly is included under the umbrella of the Townshend Acts, but generally, it is accepted that at least these five are included:
      • New York Restraining Act 1767
      • Revenue Act 1767
      • Indemnity Act 1767
      • Commissioners of Customs Act 1767
      • Vice-Admiralty Court Act 1768

    The Townshend Acts sparked fury in the Colonies - unrest caused the British to land troops to control the outrage, ultimately leading to the Boston Massacre in 1770, a riot that saw British troops fire at civilians who were throwing rocks, killing five. Although at this point, the Townshend Acts were partially repealed, the British government insisted on retaining a duty on tea to assert their dominance over the Colonies. Although it was a minimal amount, they failed to realise that the Colonies' opposition was to the very idea of taxes imposed on them by the British without their consent.

    Boston Tea Party and Intolerable Acts

    This idea that American Colonists were opposed to the British imposition of taxes themselves rather than the amount was entrenched by the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The British had passed the Tea Act several months earlier in order to undercut Dutch smugglers who were costing the East India Company vast amounts of money.

    The East India Company was the powerhouse of the British economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, exporting tea around the world. Its near-collapse at the start of the 1770s led to the Tea Act, reducing the cost of tea legitimately imported into Colonies by the Company in an attempt to draw trade back from the illegal smugglers.

    Causes of the American Revolution Flag of the British East India Company, likely to have inspired the flag of the United States StudySmarterFig. 3. Flag of the British East India Company, likely to have inspired the flag of the United States.

    Although the Tea Act lowered the cost of tea, it was the last straw for Colonists in Massachusetts, who, unlike other Colonies, could not persuade importers to resign or to return the tea to Britain. Colonial importers were also undercut by the East India Company due to the Tea Act. On 16 December 1773, between 30 and 130 men disguised themselves as Native Americans and threw 342 cases of tea overboard from three ships in the Boston harbour. This was the Boston Tea Party.

    The British government responded by imposing five Intolerable Acts designed to punish Massachusetts and recoup the cost of the tea. This was a key turning point in the American Revolution and can be considered a major factor in starting the American War of Independence in 1775.

    Ultimately, the tension precipitated by these Acts of the British Parliament led to extreme points of resistance, particularly in Boston, which had been the site of the Tea Party. This opposition to Britain's political and economic control of the Colonies reached such heights that the only action the Colonists felt they could take was to begin a military uprising against the British. These Acts were the spark for the Battles of Lexington and Concord, which many consider the true genesis of the American Revolution.

    American Revolutionary War

    The passing of the Intolerable Acts saw the closure of Boston's port until the cost of the destroyed tea had been repaid and the abolition of the Massachusetts Government - the Colony was placed under direct British rule. This greatly upset the Colonists, and the Colonies promptly rallied around Massachusetts. Twelve of the thirteen colonies sent representatives to form the First Continental Congress and coordinate resistance to the British government in 1774. The Congress was content to attempt to compromise, agreeing on the non-importation and exportation of British goods rather than a declaration of independence.

    The Second Continental Congress, which met shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, declared King George III a tyrant, and fighting began in April 1775. Parliament rejected the so-called Olive Branch Petition sent by the Colonies to try and find a peaceful solution in July 1775, and in August, the British declared that the Colonies were in a state of rebellion. The Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776, and the American Revolutionary War continued until 1783.

    The origins of the First Continental Congress lie in the British blockade of Boston Harbour and the passing of the Five Intolerable Acts. While it may be easy to assume that Congress had a simple goal, it became clear that not all the delegates agreed on exactly why they were there. Indeed, Loyalist support outweighed the separatists in Georgia, so they didn't even send a delegate.

    The Congress was modelled on the Albany and Stamp Act Congresses, which had taken place in 1754 and 1765 and were the first meetings of the Colonists to determine a unified response to perceived overreach by the British. The First Continental Congress, however, was the first real meeting of the colonies to oppose the British.

    Causes of the American Revolution - Key takeaways

    • There were two key principles behind the Revolution - Liberalism and Republicanism - these were ideas that favoured rule by consent of the people and a country governed by fixed-term leaders bound by a charter of basic rights (in the US, the Constitution).
    • After the end of the Seven Years' War, Colonists were unhappy that their taxes did not go down due to the new requirement to pay for their own defence.
    • They were made even angrier by the constant imposition of taxes and punitive laws on them by Britain, even though they had no representation in the British Parliament.
    • The last straw for the Colonists was the harsh punishment of Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party in 1773, and they formed the First Continental Congress.
    • This led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776.


    1. The American Colonies Act (1766), 6 George III c. 12.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Causes of the American Revolution

    How did the American Revolution start and why? 

    The increased opposition to the British and their rule because of their imposition of new taxes and laws on the Colonies  without their consent

    What were the 3 main causes of the American Revolution?

    The three significant political causes of the American Revolution were:

    • the Stamp Act, 
    • the Townshend Acts,
    •  and the Intolerable Acts. 

    Other causes include the spread of liberal and republican ideals in the Thirteen Colonies, which led to resistance to British economic and political control over the Colonies.

    What are two factors that led to the origins of the American Revolution?

    The rejection of a rule without consent and a permanent ruling class; a desire for liberalism and republicanism

    Who benefited from the American Revolution?

    As far as most of the Colonists were concerned, they had! But not all of the Colonists were desperate to get rid of the British, there are always two sides of a story, but generally, the Colonists had achieved their aims and benefitted from being able to do their own thing without the British 

    What were the main causes of the American Revolution?

    The American Revolution was caused by

    • political and ideological disagreements between the British government and its colonial subjects in North America. 
    • A series of acts passed by the British Parliament including the Townshend Act, Tea Act, and Intolerable Acts led to unrest and dissatisfaction in the Thirteen Colonies. 

    Opposition to British political and economic control over the Colonies could not be resolved peacefully, despite the attempts of the First and Second Continental Congresses to negotiate with the British government, and violence broke out at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What area was France and Great Britain fighting over? 

    Benjamin Franklin came up with the Albany Plan of Union. What was the specific phrase he used and why is it important? 

    What did the Stamp Act do?


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