Louis Hacker Suggests Economic and Social Causes of the American Revolution (1937)

As Curtis P. Nettels has so justly insisted, American scholars for more than a generation have been led astray by George Louis Beer's erroneous interpretation of the motives that prompted Pitt in 1763 to demand Canada instead of the sugar islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, from vanquished France. The Beer argument runs as follows.

Pitt had great visions of empire; this dream and the imperial policies that stemmed from it prepared the way for conflict between colonies and mother country. For a mighty western empire, based as yet on a wilderness, demanded the formulation of a wise program with regard to the Indian problem—hence the shutting off of the lands beyond the crest of the Alleghenies to further settlement and the checks placed on the exploitation of the Indians by colonial traders. It demanded a system of defense—hence the dispatching of a British army to the colonies and provisions for its quartering and maintenance. It demanded a revenue—hence all those methods used by a hard-pressed home government to develop new sources of financing. Thus the chain of circumstances was complete; it had to snap at its weakest link—the raising of funds through tax measures among a liberty-loving and individualistic colonial people which too long had been permitted to go its own way. So Mr. Beer, and after him virtually every American scholar.

The events of 1763–75 have no meaning unless we understand that the character of English imperial policy never really changed: that Pitt and his successors at Whitehall were following exactly the same line that Cromwell had laid down more than a century before. The purpose of their general program was to protect the English capitalist interests which now were being jeopardized as a result of the intensifications of colonial capitalist competition. . . . If in the raising of a colonial revenue lay the heart of the difficulty, how are we to account for the quick repeal of the Stamp Tax and the Townshend Acts and the lowering of the molasses duty? . . . The struggle was not over high-sounding political and constitutional concepts: over the power of taxation or even, in the final analysis, over natural rights. It was over colonial manufacturing, wild lands and furs, sugar, wine, tea, and currency, all of which meant, simply, the survival or collapse of English mercantile capitalism within the imperial-colonial framework of the mercantilist system.

The revenue acts of 1764 and later were used as a screen to conceal the work of compressing the economy of colonial mercantile capitalism within even narrower limits and reducing it to an even more dependent status. . . .

But it was exactly this new Tea Act which clearly revealed the intention of London that not only was the economic vassalage of the American colonies to be continued but the interest of colonial enterprisers was to be subordinated to every British capitalist group that could gain the ear of Parliament.

[From Louis M. Hacker, The Triumph of American Capitalism (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), pp. 159–160, 161, 162, 163.]

The English Mercantilist System, in its imperial-colonial relations, following the triumph of English merchant capital in the Puritan Revolution, was based on the economic subservience of the colonies. . . .

Following in the footsteps of the English themselves, colonials looked to public authority to aid in the development of native industries. In the best mercantilist tradition, therefore, colonial statute-books came to be filled with legislation which offered bounties to enterprises, extended public credit to them, exempted them from taxation, gave them easy access to raw materials and in their behalf encouraged the location of new towns. . . .

Thus, at the very time in England when the domestic system was rapidly being converted into the factory system and great advances were being made in the perfection of machinery exactly because the existence of a growing market was demanding more efficient methods of production, in the colonies methods of production remained at a hopelessly backward level because English and colonial capital could not enter manufacturing. . . . The colonial capitalist economy, therefore, was narrowly restricted largely to land speculation, the dealing in furs and the carrying trade. When English mercantilism, for the protection of its home merchant capital, began to narrow these spheres then catastrophe threatened. The American Revolution can be understood only in terms of the necessity for colonial merchant capital to escape from the contracting prison walls of the English Mercantilist System.

. . . Beginning with 1760, imperial England began to tighten the screws with stricter enforcement of the Acts of Trade and Navigation; from thence on, particularly after France had been compelled to sue for peace in 1763, England embarked on a systematic campaign to wipe out the trade between the Northern Colonies and the foreign West Indies. Northern merchant capital, its more important lifeline cut off, was being strangulated; it is not difficult to see why wealthy merchants of Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Newport and Providence should be converted into revolutionists. . . .

Utilizing the tax measures of 1764 and later (presumably designed to raise a revenue for the defense of the colonies) as a screen, Parliament imposed limitation after limitation upon the activities of the merchants.

[From Louis M. Hacker, "The American Revolution: Economic Aspects," Marxist Quarterly 1 (1937): 46–37.]
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