Front Porch Blog

Nature and the American Revolution

In discussing the causes of the American Revolution, we are all familiar with the American colonists desire to break away from an “oppressive” and “tyrannical” British grip over modern day New England. We ALL know about the Redcoats, the Boston Massacre, the Stamp Act, the Townsend Act, the tea parties, and the overriding trend of increasing democratization of American society. What a comprehensive modern understanding of the American Revolution often lacks however, is a general understanding or awareness of the importance of nature’s role in the conflict. It is often forgotten that man’s interaction with nature and nature’s impact on man are necessary factors in creating that class of hungry, dissatisfied peasants which are pre-requisite to any good revolution!
Native Americans inhabited North America in a relatively sustainable way for nearly 10,000 years. To say that they didn’t alter their landscape would be wrong entirely, but most Native populations had become well adapted to the opportunities and perils of their unique geographic areas. It would take Europeans just 200 years before their mal-adapted agricultural, ecological, and patriarchal systems would put a tangible strain on their ability to even maintain their own populations, let alone grow as a society. Colonial populations were simply beginning to outstrip their resources. We also see when looking at climactic date from this period that nature would waste no time in returning the favor…

Compared with the rest of the country, the New England clime was relatively cool from 1740 to 1776. The weather was terrible, and terribly inconsistent, alternating variably between very wet and very dry. Eastern Massachusetts farmers were stopped 17 times in this period by “killing frosts” in the late spring or early fall. Temperatures became so cold in the 1750s-60s that even Indian corn (noted by a colonist in 1701 as “the most useful grain in the world”) did not mature. Many crops were also destroyed by native and foreign pests, and forests had been leveled and transformed into increasingly lifeless agricultural fields. Having just faced 30 uncharacteristically cool years in the region, these hardnosed settlers were facing starvation, and the harsh climactic shift was only one problem.

The fact that New Englanders held “private property,” and the way in which they handled land holdings was also important. By the Revolution, significant landholdings were becoming increasingly hard to come by. In rural areas in the 1600s, all children would inherit some land. Estates were divided up by giving a double share to the elder sons, and then dividing the rest among the other children. You can imagine how, over a few generations, your land inheritance becomes about the size of the kitchen table.

Agricultural plots were becoming smaller and harder to come by as rural populations became increasingly dense. (not like that… 🙂 )

As populations grew, “squattable” land decreased and frontier-land became more difficult and dangerous to acquire. Many people who could find no place in these elaborate agricultural estate systems were being forced to leave the countryside. So families, and especially young singles, moved to the crowded New England cities.

 Increasingly from 1747 to 1771, young singles were moving into urban areas due in large part to the land crunch in rural areas. The percentage of single women immigrating to Boston during this time period went from 4% to 20%. The number of single men went up nearly 8-fold from 3% to 23.4%.  Cities such as Boston were becoming overcrowded, and were beginning to become net importers of goods, despite their tremendous export of goods to Europe and other colonies. The Malthusean Crunch was approaching, and things were changing.

By the mid-1700s, for example, land availability dictated that inheritance patterns were completely altered. Now the entire estate was handed down to the oldest son with the rest of the children left to fend for themselves. Over just 100 years, average landholdings had dwindled by nearly 80% in size, from 200-300 acres on average in the 1600s, to just 40-60 acres in the mid-late 1700s. “Country living” was becoming impossible.

By the Revolution, much of the New England forest had been decimated (lamented by Benjamin Franklin as early as 1745) and agricultural land claimed and committed to. Unsustainable monocropping agricultural techniques left soils barren and lifeless. Naturally fertile meadowland was rapidly becoming harder and harder to come by as old meadows were exhausted and no new ones were being created. Young New Englanders in the mid-late-1700s were finding it nearly impossible to survive in the manner of their forefathers, with winters often putting families in very real danger of starving, and moving to the cities wasn’t always a solution.

As often happens with swift urbanization, we see an increasingly absurd disparity of wealth. From 1687 to 1771, a few merchants and investors (the top 5%) pack their pockets like pigs in a sty, at the expense of everyone else. By 1771 these top 5% of the people own roughly 50% of the wealth in Boston. As you can imagine, these are the people who will want things to stay the way they are. People who are filthy rich tend to be the ones who are less likely to challenge the system as it exists.

As a side effect of this mass urban immigration, the poor are also becoming poorer. By 1771, the bottom 60% of Bostonians own just over 9% of the wealth. The bottom 30% own just 0.1% of the capital wealth of the city. Remember all those young singles who had to move in from the country because resources were exhausted and the climate was uncharacteristically harsh? This is them.

So NOW we have the ingredients for the American Revolution – a strained agricultural system, a tangible lack of natural resources, and an unruly, unsatisfied class of rustic clodhoppers crammed into cities and on the brink of starvation. These are the people with nothing to lose, and it will be they who will be causing a racket when the British try, four times from 1764-1773, to tax the colonists (…tonight the Union Jack will play the part of scapegoat.) 🙂

It was man’s interaction with “nature,” and nature’s impact on man, which put him in the societal pickle that these New Englanders found themselves in in the mid-late 1700s. William Baron and David Smith, after researching climactic causes of the American Revolution, likewise came to the conclusion that New England’s agrarian society was strapped for cash and luxuries, and henceforth far less likely to tolerate British attempts to govern or tax the colonies.  While historians rightly agree that Britain’s attempts to tax the colonists was a (arguably the) main cause of the war, we now see that man’s interaction with nature, and nature’s impact on man had a great deal to do with providing the social and political situation in which such an uprising was plausible, palpatable, and even preferable for many poor, discontented people. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight and the American Revolution behind us, we should thank both colonial man and colonial nature for shaping American history the way it did.

Thanks to Ted Steinberg and Timothy Silver





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