Featuring 1776

”We cannot be happy without being free…”

Why the revolution? Part 4 of 8

1776 May Episode

One of the more notable examinations [of Britan’s failings] was Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies by John Dickinson who was actually more of a lawyer than a farmer. “We cannot be happy without being free,” he wrote, “that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property; that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away; that taxes imposed on us by Parliament do thus take it away.” Interestingly while Dickinson captured the legal argument against Britain’s right to tax, he was the major holdout on outright rebellion, abstaining when it came time to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In New England resentment centered on taxation and trade restrictions. On the frontier it was the barrier to expansion over the Alleghenies. In Virginia it was tobacco. Tobacco prices had remained disastrously low, and the large land holders of Virginia, who had long been living on credit from British merchants, could no longer bail themselves out by selling acreage because land prices, too, had plummeted. To ease the burdens of the landed gentry, the Burgesses had enacted a measure whereby they could pay their financial obligations by cash instead of tobacco at the rate of two pence per pound.

Politics, in addition to tobacco and horse racing, was a way of life in Virginia. The Tidewater plantations were producing thoughtful and questioning constitutionalists such as the unsung Richard Bland who minutely examined the British-American relationship and concluded: “The Colonies are subordinate to the authority of Parliament; subordinate, I mean, in degree, but not absolutely so.” The far more emotional Patrick Henry was raising eyebrows and the temperature by declaring “a king … from being a father of the people, to generate into a tyrant forefeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.” Henry was ahead of his countrymen south of Boston, but a consensus was slowly emerging.

In early 1773 the British East India Company was on the brink of bankruptcy. It had 17 million pounds, a seven years’ supply, of unsold tea rotting in London warehouses. Prime Minister Lord North was struck by a brilliant idea by which the company could have its tea and sell it, too. He would pass an act by which the company could ship tea into London, duty free, and then import it into the colonies with only a three pence a pound duty, thereby undercutting the price of tea smuggled in from the Netherlands and at the same time maintaining the principle of Parliamentary taxation. The Americans, he assumed, would be happy to be drinking tea even more cheaply than the English could.

The Americans were not happy.

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