Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
Summary & Analysis
Happiness = Property (?)
Independence was not simply an abstract concept derived from Enlightenment-era philosophers and their theories about the nature of humans. One of its most potent supports came the same year as the Declaration itself, when the Scottish "Father of Modern Economics," Adam Smith, published his enormously influential An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The book—known since as The Wealth of Nations—was a work of economic theory with myriad real-world implications. In other words, the American Revolution was as much about the right to trade freely and acquire goods like sugar, tea, and paper in the competitive marketplace as it was about Lockean concepts of social contracts and the inherent rights of man. Smith's 1776 work anticipated this economic aspect of the Revolution; it attacked the British policy of mercantilism as a "manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind," on the grounds that legislation like the Navigation Acts of the 1660s had ensured a favorable trade balance for England at the expense of the colonists, who could not therefore maximize their production, efficiency, and profits. By anchoring the free market to loftier concepts such as the inalienable rights of mankind, Smith proposed a kind of declaration of independence for the economy itself; independence, that is, from government controls or regulations.
Such ideas carried a unique effectiveness when circulated amongst the colonists, who had been suffering from a currency shortage as a direct result of the trade imbalance. When they tried to print paper currency to make everyday purchases, British creditors and merchants complained because of the paper's rapid depreciation, so Parliament, in London, forbade paper money in the colonies. Americans felt that their interests and well-being had been subordinated to the interests of the British. During the century of salutary neglect from about 1660 onward, when it turned out that the English government was not really enforcing the Navigation Acts, the colonists had learned to subvert or blatantly disregard Parliament. Then Britain reversed course and sought to mandate strict controls and extra taxes on the colonies after the French and Indian War. All of the government's lax policies up until 1763 had enabled the colonists to enjoy an economic freedom that they took for granted by the time it was torn away from them.
As subjects of the crown, the colonists did benefit from the protection provided by British troops. Those who made ship parts received generous bounties from England, despite the fact that they were competing with British ship-makers. Virginia tobacco planters held a monopoly over their market in England. Yet Americans remained heavily dependent on British creditors and agents, and they felt, fairly, that their economic freedoms were constrained under the mercantilist system.
Thus when Americans began to revolt and declare their independence, economic tactics took a prominent place in their rebellion. They passed non-consumption and non-exportation acts against the British to deny the mother country the benefits that it had been so controversially and strenuously demanding right up until the outbreak of the Revolution. Colonial women took the time and effort out of their already packed schedules to produce clothing from "homespun," rather than the vogue imported fashions from Europe. Merchants, lawyers, printers, and others suffered the financial and professional burden of boycotting the printed matter and legal documents included in the Stamp Act. A classic example of economic protest occurred on 16 December 1773, the night that a group of colonists disguised as Indians boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and threw some 300 chests of tea into the water. The Boston Tea Party was a demonstration of public protest against the notion that Britain had the right to tax the colonies.