The last four decades of the eighteenth century marked a decisive turning point in the history of Western Civilization. Before 1760, divine-right monarchy and aristocratic society were accepted as normal; after 1800, ever stronger voices would speak for civil liberties and constitutions. This age of revolution was nevertheless a culmination of earlier trends. As we have seen, developing European capitalism, expanding population, growing cities, and a rising middle class had partially undermined traditional monarchies by 1760. Eighteenth-century revolutions can be explained by two sets of circumstances in their past.
One of these was the momentous social change that outmoded institutions, disrupted traditional ways of life, and brought hardships or injustices. Such conditions became especially prevalent after the Seven Years’ War in the 1760s. A second source of revolution can be found in ideas, some recently generated by the Enlightenment, and others, even older, and derived from English precedents. While the English parliamentary system became increasingly conservative in the eighteenth century, converging economic, social, and intellectual forces pointed in an opposite direction.
Sugar and slavery were transforming the European and American economies, encouraging the growth of cities and expanding populations. Finally, and most importantly for the immediate future, the costs of imperial competition created serious problems for European maritime states. The most obvious source of such problems was the great Anglo-French colonial war, which ended with the Peace of Paris in 1763. The war left both France and Britain burdened with unprecedented debts. Since the international financial system was centered in the Netherlands, Dutch neutrality aroused more tensions.
In addition, the elimination of a common French enemy in Canada generated new frictions between Britain and the American colonies. The British had a debt in 1763 roughly double that of 1756, the government had to manage an empire that had tripled in size during those same years. The cost of administering the North American colonies alone rose to 135,000 a year in 1763 – five times what it had cost in 1756. Colonials were determined to resist new taxation and were intent on occupying western lands held by former Indian allies of the French.
The tribes were restless and difficult to pacify since many had fought on both sides and did not know what to expect from British rule; Pontiac’s rebellion, between 1763and 1766, kept the northwestern colonial frontier in a state of near-anarchy. Restoring order to this vast land promised to be a long and expensive process, involving many differences between the crown and its colonial subjects. This trouble at home was less serious, in the long run, than that provoked in the American colonies.
George Grenville (1712-1770), the king’s chief minister after 1763, devised a comprehensive plan to settle problems in North America. He forbade colonial settlement beyond the Appalachians, put Indian affairs under English superintendents, established permanent garrisons of English troops for maintenance of order on the frontiers, issued orders against smuggling, sent an English fleet to American waters, assigned English customs officials to American ports, and had Parliament impose new taxes on the colonies.
The Sugar Act of 1764 increased duties on sugar, wines, coffee, silk, and linens. The Stamp Act of 1765 required that government stamps be placed on practically every kind of American document, from college diplomas to newspapers. Grenville’s program aroused an almost universal colonial protest.