Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines a question from the naturalization test that immigrants must pass to become US citizens.
Question of the day: Name one reason why Americans declared independence from Britain.
The American Revolution receives so much attention in our primary and secondary education that most know, at least, a basic understanding of why the colonists officially declared independence from Britain. These causes are many and most stemmed from the well-known fiscal measures imposed by the British Crown, and they were significant, especially after the country incurred a massive debt following the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.
Not only was the settlers’ resentment tied to the payment of taxes themselves, but it deepened the debate over whether this was an excess of governance on Britain’s part.
Indeed, this larger question of how much authority the Crown was allowed was more important than how much money American colonists were obligated to pay. Yet their problems with the Crown government went beyond tax laws. The most important laws regulated the territorial limits within which settlers could settle. A passage in the Declaration of Independence, in fact, deals with this.
The conclusion of the Seven Years’ War resulted in British victory over French and Spanish rivals, with the Crown extending its colonial domain into North America. In addition to financial debt, however, the British rulers still faced a complex situation involving settlement patterns in and around their new territory. Tensions between settlers and native occupation remained endemic, with frequent land disputes.
Yet the Crown was unable to invest its depleted resources in full-scale warfare with the tribal peoples and instead opted for efforts to maintain friendly relations. So King George III issued a decree in 1763, eight months after the Treaty of Paris ended the war. This was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, intended as a formal agreement between British subjects and Indigenous peoples regarding allotted territory.
More importantly, the proclamation imposed a line delineating permitted settlement patterns between settlers and indigenous populations. Under this measure, settlers were prohibited from any settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, which the Crown attributed to the Aboriginal peoples. Disregard of this law put the settlers at risk of losing the rights to which British citizens were entitled. These rights included access to basic needs like food, as well as protections against possible tribal attacks. The proclamation was well-intentioned on the surface in an effort to appease all parties, but the Crown also faced a difficult task of attempting to resolve a problem surrounded by a seemingly irreconcilable solution.
On the one hand, the native populations remained strongly hostile to the fact that the colonists occupied lands which they had occupied and which they still believed legitimately belonged to them. There was also the flip side of the colonists’ desire for permanent settlement without massive obstacles to achieving it. The rulers of European nations had common motives for promoting colonization, including the commodification of new resources for economic growth and the extension of their political influence via tactics such as the religious conversion of indigenous peoples.
The settlers had their own set of causes for fleeing their homeland. Their motives were many, but one of the most important was to obtain land ownership at little or no cost, which often proved difficult in eighteenth-century Britain. Besides the threat of native attacks, an increased presence of land speculators, often accompanied by increased settlement in claimed territories, undermined hopes of achieving this goal.
For the settlers, the 1763 proclamation interfered with the prospects of westward settlement if they got to a point where it seemed like a more viable solution to their ultimate mission. Additionally, American settlers’ bitterness toward the Crown intensified at the prospect of losing protections for unauthorized resettlement across the assigned demarcation line. Many settlers responded by deliberately defying the order and crossing west of Appalachia. This led to a series of conflicts, including the notable Pontiac War of 1763-1766 in which tribes in the Great Lakes region launched a coalition against British control with attempts to drive out troops and settlers undesirables in the area.
Another notable incident occurred in late 1763 around the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania when the group of settler vigilantes called the Paxton Boys moved into tribal lands. Here they openly opened raids with violent attacks on homes in Conestoga, a local tribal village, killing around 20 people. They claimed that these attacks were in retaliation for alleged frequent Native raids on their homes during Pontiac’s War. Additional attacks ensued against colonial government officials, believed to be sympathetic to the tribal people, and led to the eventual arrest of the Paxton Boys. In any case, events like these represented the immediate backlash against the proclamation line.
It is undeniable that the various tax laws of the Crown played an important role in the desire of American colonists to secede from the British Empire.
What is probably less well known is that the Royal Proclamation of 1763 fueled an already tense territorial dispute between the native peoples and the settlers into a wider conflict between the settlers and Britain.
Among many additional grievances expressed against the Crown in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserted: “He stirred up national insurrections among us, and endeavored to bring the inhabitants of our borders, the ruthless Indian savages, whose the known rule of war, is indiscriminate destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.
There is a long list of reasons why Americans declared independence from Britain, but settlement patterns are one of the most important, yet forgotten.
Kevin Kipers holds a Ph.D. candidate for the history department at Washington State University in Pullman. This article is part of a partnership between Spokesman Review and the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.