Road to Rebellion

Jacob Leisler statue in New Rochelle, NY

From the Interregnum to the American Revolution, there were a few major long-term factors that led to the rebellion of the 13 colonies.

Historians have often used the term “salutary neglect” when discussing the colonial period in North America up to 1763. There is a lot of truth to this given that the American colonies were producing raw materials and supplying markets for the Empire. The economic system that functions in this way, with the purpose of the colonies being to exist for the enrichment of the Mother Country, is known as “mercantilism.” This defines the nature of 17th- and 18th-century economics in the Atlantic World.


After the English Civil War and the rise to power of Oliver Cromwell, it was felt that in order to be competitive in the competition of empires, the British needed to get control of shipping between the Mother Country and the colonies. The Anglo-Dutch Wars were part of this effort, and laws were passed to try and control trade with the colonies.

The “Navigation Acts” was the general term for this legislation. Acts passed in 1651 and 1660 were attempts by first Cromwell and the Charles II to ensure that there would be no imports into England from foreign countries or on non-English ships or ships with non-English crews. Because sailors were such a motley lot, hailing from all over the world, this latter restriction was modified. The 1660 Act restricted specifically products produced by slaves in the Empire to being transported only by English ships. The Staple Act of 1663 dealt with imports into the colonies, restricting those to English ships as well.

On wooden sailing ships at sea and horse transportation on land, the Atlantic World was a big place and enforcing these Acts was a problem. In 1675 the Lords of Trade were created to enforce in London, but it was not until the reign of the “bourgeois king,” William and his Queen Mary that serious enforcement was attempted in the colonies by the Board of Trade. Created in 1796, the Board exerted control and enforcement of mercantilist policies in certain areas, and this gave them power to establish Admiralty Courts, or military tribunals. But enforcement was still a problem in the “wild west” environment of the colonies. The colonists grew accustomed to more or less having their way regarding trade, and smuggling became routine.

In the 18th century, another series of Acts were passed by King-in-Parliament, the new form of government ushered in after the Glorious Revolution. These Acts, targeting textiles, iron, and hat manufacturing in the colonies, were designed to minimize competition with manufactures in the Mother Country. Colonists could not make cloth, iron products, or hats for sale although they could make them for their own use. All of these acts rubbed many colonists the wrong way, but certainly not to the point of revolution.

There was something of a revolution in England in 1688 — the aforementioned Glorious Revolution. in that year, the wife of King James II, formerly the Duke of York and brother of Charles II, gave birth to a son who was baptized a Catholic. An older daughter, a Protestant, had been next in line for the throne, but this shifted the line to the male heir. Many in Parliament and in England felt this was unacceptable and invited Prince William of Orange in the Netherlands, to assume the throne with his wife Mary, sister of James II and a Protestant.

Not that some were not willing to seize opportunities to enhance democracy in the colonies. By using the term “democracy,” it should be noted that this is a reference to bottom-up rule, with the voting citizenry deciding most if not all issues. An example of this is opportunism is found in a movement led by German Jacob Leisler, a colonist in New York. When news of the “Glorious Revolution,” reached the colonies, there was a division along class lines. Some working class Dutch in New York colony feared that the new monarch William would send an army to slaughter them. The recruited Leisler, a popular officer in the colonial army, to lead them.

Leisler reluctantly undertook this endeavor and with his followers seized the fort that was located at modern-day Battery Park in lower Manhattan. He then sent troops to Albany to protect that town against the French and Indians who were well aware of the colonies vulnerability after the deposing of James. Leisler continued as de facto governor until his arrest in 1790, when he was charged with treason and murder along with his son-in-law. The charges were, many contemporaries and historians believe, unfair and proffered by Leisler’s enemies, who also sat in judgement at his trial. Both were convicted and executed in 1791.

During the middle decades of the 18th century, a religious revival movement swept through England and the colonies. Led by George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, this movement introduced what was known at the time as “enthusiasm” to church services. Today, we refer to this phenomenon as “hellfire and brimstone.” Passion and fear loomed large in their sermons, and people came from miles around to hear them. This represented something of a reform movement, as the colonies were known for their debauchery, as many saw it, particularly regarding the consumption of strong drink. This movement led to the founding of a number of modern-day Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Princeton. It also represented another level of democratization of Christianity — moving away from a professional priesthood of both Catholicism and Anglicanism.

John Peter Zenger, in 1733, published in the newspaper he edited – the New York Weekly-Journal, a number of poems and comments critical of political candidates supported by the colonial Governor William Crosby. This criticism of power was seen as a threat by Crosby and he had Zenger arrested and charged with seditious libel. In a jury trial, Zenger’s lawyer Andrew Hamilton argued that the truth is not libelous. In other words, material critical of people in positions of power can be published as long as it is true. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and freedom of the press made a big stride forward in the colonies — a freedom that would be critical in the 1760s and ’70s.

In 1754, the Philadelphia printer Benjamin Franklin, while at a treaty meeting in Albany known as the Albany Congress, proposed a “Plan of Union,” one of several proposed at that important meeting between colonists and the Indians. This proposal called for a unified colonial government. Nine colonies expressed an interest initially, but it was ultimately rejected, chiefly because it was thought the Crown would never agree to such power among its colonies. But it was the first time such a union was seriously discussed by the colonies.

In North America during the 18th century, wars of empire raged on and off between, primarily, England and France. King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, and King George’s War all involved global fighting between these two empires and their allies. In North America, Indian groups such as the Iroquois were torn apart, colonists fought bloody battles in places like Pennsylvania and Canada, and naval battles raged around the world.

These wars, in North America, would culminated in the French-Indian War and the Treaty of Paris of 1763. This would not end strife between the various powers be the European, Native American, or Anglo American. Wars of Empire would continue and break out again in the 20th century.


  1. Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! (New York: Norton, 2010).