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Causes of the Revolution in the South

By Phil Norfleet

The standard textbook reason given for the outbreak of the American Revolution is summed up in the short phrase: "No taxation without representation!" This, of course, refers to the unhappiness caused in the British Colonies by the actions of the British Parliament in London, during the years 1763-1775, following the end of the French and Indian War, to levy taxes on the colonists which had never been authorized by the various colonial legislatures.

I agree that the above described taxation issue was a major cause for political discontent in all thirteen of the British colonies. However, I also believe there were other factors, some not quite so honorable, which led the ruling classes of Virginia and the Carolinas to call for revolution and support political independence from Great Britain.

My lifetime of experience in dealing with men of many different nationalities and socio-economic groups, has led me to conclude that people are motivated almost exclusively by self-interest. Even though these same people may claim to be acting on the basis of high moral and ethical principals, they usually are found to be acting in the anticipation of some sort of tangible, material gain which will accrue to them personally. Accordingly, I believe that at least three factors (including the taxation issue) were major causes of the Revolution, at least in Virginia and the Carolinas:

1.  Parliamentary Taxation Policies

By the end of the French and Indian War, the debt of the British Government had almost doubled in size from what it had been at the War’s beginning, from £73 million to £137 million. This may seem like a modest sum by today’s standards, but you must remember that the annual income of the British Treasury at the time was only £8 million. This means that the National Debt was more than 17 times greater than the National Income! Payment of just the interest on the debt required £5 million of the total £8 million of income! [1] Furthermore, the level of taxation in England was several times more than in the American colonies. Since much of the war expenditure had been in support of the 30,000 man army sent to North America, that had finally defeated the French and made the area safe for the British colonies, Parliament believed it not unreasonable to increase the tax burden on the colonists. Accordingly, in early 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act which required that all legal documents in the colonies would require a stamp which had to be purchased from British Agents. However due to bitter resistance on the part of the colonists, the Act was repealed about one year later. Subsequently, other revenue generating measures (such as the tax on tea) were passed by Parliament, applicable to the colonies, but they all met with fierce colonial resistance. Relations between the British colonies and the Mother Country rapidly deteriorated.

2.  Colonial Dissatisfaction with the Indian and Land Policies of the British Government

On 07 October 1763, King George III signed the famous Royal Proclamation of 1763 that established a boundary line from Canada to Florida beyond which no white settlement was permitted. The line ran roughly along the Appalachian Divide, all land drained by watercourses which flowed westward into the Mississippi River, not eastward into the Atlantic Ocean, was to be reserved for the Indians. The net effect was that most of the land gained from the French in the recently concluded Seven Years War (called the French and Indian War in the colonies) was excluded from white settlement.

The Proclamation of 1763 was intended to systematize Indian affairs and set a clear and enlightened policy governing the acquisition of Indian lands. [2] Four new provinces/colonies were established from the lands ceded to Great Britain by the French and Spanish at the end of the French and Indian War. These provinces were Quebec, East Florida, [3] West Florida [4] and the island of Grenada. All French and Spanish ceded land, lying outside the three new mainland provinces, was to be reserved for the Indians.

Because I consider the Proclamation of 1763 to be of fundamental importance in understanding the British Government’s land and Indian policies in the years just prior to the Revolution, an extensive excerpt from the proclamation follows:

"Whereas we have taken into our royal consideration the extensive and valuable acquisitions in America secured to our Crown by the late definitive treaty of peace concluded at Paris the 10th day of February last; … we have thought fit, with the advice of our Privy Council, to issue this our Royal proclamation, …

" … And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest and the security of our colonies, that the several nations or tribes of Indians with whom we are connected, and who live under our protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of such parts of our dominions and territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their hunting-grounds; we do therefore, with the advice of our Privy Council, declare it to be our royal will and pleasure, that no Governor or commander in chief, in any of our colonies of Quebec, East Florida, or West Florida, do presume, upon any pretence whatever, to grant warrants of survey, or pass any patents for lands beyond the bounds of their respective governments, as described in their commissions; as also that no Governor or commander in chief of our other colonies or plantations in America do presume for the present, and until our further pleasure be known, to grant warrants of survey or pass patents for any lands beyond the heads or sources of any of the rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the west or northwest; or upon any lands whatever, which not having been ceded to or purchased by us, as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians, or any of them. [emphasis added by author]

"And we do further declare it to be our royal will and pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our sovereignty, protection, and dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the land and territories not included within the limits of our said three new governments, or within the limits of the territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company; as also all the land and territories lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea from the west and northwest as aforesaid; and we do strictly forbid, on pain of our displeasure, all our loving subjects from making, or taking possession of any of the lands above reserved, without our special leave and license for that purpose first obtained.

"And we do further strictly enjoin and require all persons whatsoever, who have either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any lands within the countries above described, or upon any other lands which not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such settlements. [emphasis added by author]

"And whereas great frauds and abuses have been committed in purchasing land of the Indians, to the great prejudice of our interests, and to the great dissatisfaction of the said Indians; in order, therefore, to prevent such irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our justice and determined resolution to remove all reasonable cause of discontent we do, with the advice of our Privy Council, strictly enjoin and require, that no private persons do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any lands reserved to the said Indians within those parts of our colonies where we have thought proper to allow settlement; [emphasis added by author] but that if at any time any of the said Indians should be inclined to dispose of said lands, the same shall be purchased only for us, in our name, at some public meeting or assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that purpose by the Governor or commander in chief of our colony respectively within which they shall lie: and in case they shall lie within the limits of any proprietary government, they shall be purchased only for the use and in the name of such proprietaries, conformable to such directions and instructions as we or they think proper to give for that purpose. …

"Given at our Court at St. James’s, the 7th day of October 1763, in the third year of our reign."

This denial of white settlement upon the lands lying on the western waters caused great dissatisfaction among the wealthy planters of colonial Virginia and North Carolina. Many of these "great men of affairs," including people such as George Washington in Virginia and the Blount brothers in North Carolina, were land speculators, who had assumed that the annexation of the French territories would result in a financial bonanza to them derived from sales of the western lands.

The Proclamation also infuriated the many small subsistence farmers and hunters, who lived on the Frontier. These people included many squatters, Of course the squatter element, already being a lawless group, simply ignored the Proclamation and moved onto the lands of the western waters before the ink on the document was even dry! The more law abiding and responsible people on the frontier obeyed the proclamation, but they didn’t like it!

The historian, Bernard Knollenberg, who made an extensive study of the causes of the American Revolution in the 1950’s and 1960’s, tells us that:

" … When the Crown deferred opening the West to settlement and used British troops to keep white settlers out of the western territory, the proclamation’s restriction of settlement became a source of acute discontent in several of the North American colonies." [5]

After the Indian treaties of Fort Stanwix and Hard Labour were concluded in 1768, the British Government did agree to move the Proclamation Line westward into the region of the upper Ohio River. This was done primarily to appease the great land speculators, who included not only Americans but also Britons (such as Lord Dunmore, the last Royal Governor of Virginia). [6] In 1772, Lord Dunmore approved grants of western land to veterans of the French and Indian War, including a grant of over 20,000 acres to George Washington. [7] In 1774, in an action euphemistically called Lord Dunmore’s War, the Virginia militia defeated the Shawnee Indians and forced them to agree to the white occupation of Kentucky. Basically, Governor Dunmore had provoked the war [8] to assure access to Kentucky for land speculation purposes, from which he expected to make a substantial profit. Unfortunately for Dunmore, the coming of the American Revolution dashed his hopes for a western financial bonanza!

The above concessions notwithstanding, the Virginia and Carolina colonists were never satisfied with the official British Indian and land policies. It was widely believed that removal of British authority would open the floodgates of westward migration.

3.  Heavy Debt Burden of the Great Tidewater Planters

In spite of their enormous land holdings, most of the great Tidewater planters of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina were chronically in debt to British merchants. The well-known historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger, tells us that:

"The wealthy planter employed the London or Glasgow merchant as a sort of commission merchant, to dispose of his tobacco or rice and to lay out the probable proceeds in goods of one kind or another, to be delivered at the planter’s wharf in the following season. This system resulted in careless and wasteful management on the part of the merchant in England, high commissions and freight rates, and chronic overbuying on the part of the colonist.

"For ordinary trading purposes, the British merchant maintained an agent or ‘factor’ in the colonies, who kept up a stock of merchandise the year round, worked up business, and acted as financial agent and confidential advisor of his employer. The factors were almost altogether ‘foreigners,’ as the local vernacular termed them—that is, natives of Scotland. They had the reputation of being shrewd, hard business men, veritable Shylocks; and from the point of view of their patrons they undoubtedly were, for they demanded, from as wasteful a race of gentlemen-farmers as ever lived, punctual payment for goods sold or money loaned.

"Here again, there were large profits for the British dealers and ship owners, and lavish buying on the part of the colonist.

"The British capitalist advanced money and gave generous credit to the planter, but this merely served to complicate matters; the planter continually operated on borrowed capital and found his next crop mortgaged before it was planted. …

"The result of this financial system in its various ramifications, was the economic bondage of the planting class to the British merchants." [9]

I am personally convinced that a major factor causing many of the wealthy planters to embrace the Whig cause was the delightful prospect of renouncing all their debts to the Scottish factors, as the result of a successful War of Independence! In 1804, the American historian and essayist, Oliver Wolcott, wrote that:

"It is a firmly established opinion of men well versed in the history of our revolution, that the whiggism of Virginia was chiefly owing to the debts of the planters." [10]


1.  John Mack Faragher, Editor, The Encyclopedia of Colonial and Revolutionary America (1990), page 367.

2.  Page Smith, A New Age Begins (1976), pages 166-167.

3.  This province encompassed all of the modern State of Florida, as far west as the Apalachicola River.

4.  This province included the region between the Apalachicola and Mississippi Rivers, from the Gulf of Mexico to 31 degrees North Latitude.

5.  Bernard Knollenberg, Origin of the American Revolution 1759-1766 (1960), page 105.

6.  R. C. Simmons, The American Colonies from Settlement to Independence (1976), page 323.

7.  Bernard Knollenberg, George Washington The Virginia period, 1732-1775 (1964), page 95.

8. Sanford Wexler, Westward Expansion: An Eyewitness History (1991), page 5.

9.  Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution 1763-1776 (1957), pages 35-36.

10.  Ibid., page 39.