Serials: 101 Featuring 1776

What of the colonial take on the mother country?

Why the Revolution? Part 2 of 8

1776 May Episode

With the debt of 129 million pounds hanging over Britain’s head and ongoing discord on the continent, Prime Minister George Grenville had to act. He was brave and stubborn as well as miserly, believing “a national savings of two inches of candle was worth more than all of Pitt’s victories.” He faced an enormous problem of former Prime Minister Pitt’s making: comfort-loving Pitt had marshalled England’s forces as prime minister in the French and Indian War, bringing Britain both her new empire and her massive debt which stood exactly at 129,586,789 pounds.

When Grenville considered the financial evidence that Americans paid fewer taxes than any Europeans except the Poles; that Britain remained under wartime tax levels while the American colonies had been reimbursed with £1,072,784 for their share of the fighting; that an increase in the British cider tax at home had led to rioting; that in the preceding 30 years the Molasses Act had brought in only £21,652 and the average annual customs revenue for the same period for all the colonies was £ 1,900 collected at a yearly cost of £7,600; that smuggling in New England alone cost £100,000 in lost revenue, the accountant in George Grenville screamed “enough!”

He figured to raise £60-100,000 by the Stamp Act, levying fees ranging from two pounds on diplomas to half a penny on newspapers and included dice and playing cards. He also sent eight warships and 12 armed sloops to America to clamp down on smuggling, smuggling that was a result of all the efforts of Parliament to control colonial trade. Grenville figured to raise more by the Revenue Act of 1764 which added such items as hides, potash, logs, etc., to the enumerated list of goods exported only to England. He figured to stop more smuggling by enforcing the White Pine Act which forbade cutting trees desired for ships’ spars on American Crown lands. He figured his Stamp Act would pass Parliament, which it did 205 to 49 in 1763. He probably did not figure on the resulting turmoil.

And what of the colonial take on the mother country? It was complicated and it changed over time. When the colonial leaders first grumbled, they considered themselves transplanted Englishmen. They read English books, followed English political practices, adopted English education, imitated English architecture, sang English songs, wore English styles, all at the expense of developing their own culture. The separate colonies levied discriminatory tariffs against each other and lacked uniform currencies. “They all loved much more [England] with which they had so many connections and ties of blood, interest and affection,” said Franklin in 1760, “than they loved one another.”

Despite their complaints, the thirteen colonies experienced significant economic growth after the ‘French and Indian War.’ The colonies developed a commerce a third the size of Britain’s. While British citizens were paying 26 shillings in taxes per capita during the 1760s, Americans in Massachusetts, for instance, paid only one shilling a year. After the French and Indian War, the colonists learned from their agents in London about the widespread corruption of England’s Parliamentary system. Bribery was common. So called “rotten” boroughs consisted of a small minority of property owners whose vote could easily be bought. At home Americans resented that almost all of their governors were of British origin who imported the honored British practice of nepotism along with their luggage. A little knowledge can be dangerous thing.

Historians have noted the irony of the colonists depicting the government of Great Britain as tyrannical when, in fact, these same colonists had become more prosperous, enlightened, and experienced politically than any other group of colonists in the 18th century. Even Britain allowing colonists to make remarks about tyranny indicates that these colonists had considerable freedom. Cries of tyrannical interference came somewhat hollowly from colonies that regulated their own rates for wharfage, lodging, public transportation, milling, public slaughtering and set standards for consumables from firewood to leather. Each colonial assembly was elective with the franchise granted all males with nominal property holdings. And land was more easily available in America than in Britain. The system was far more representative than Britain’s. That said, Royal governors in the colonies approved all laws, held veto power and were usually advised by an appointive Council which could sit as a court of appeals and bring charges against the governor.

There were other swirling currents. The colonial cities Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston had developed their own dynamic: American not British. The cities gradually devised new systems of self- governance as well inventing techniques for managing new cargoes and absorbing and creating innovative ideas along the way. Colonial urban citizens were proud of their self-sufficiency and irritated by curbs on their trade from London. Of necessity, these port cities shared information with each other on best and worst practices for dealing with British controls over trade.

Just as Philadelphia and the other cities grew to be more independent of Britain and more interdependent within the colonies, the frontier folk also had bones to pick with the British, particularly the army that was supposed to be protecting them. The army on the frontier was relatively small and mobile, fighting off Native American tribes in scattered skirmishes. No sooner had they finished one encounter, the army moved to a new line of battle, leaving behind riled up tribes and defenseless frontier families.

Other currents swept across the Atlantic to the thirteen colonies.

“Champagne” Charles Townshend, later Chancellor of the Exchequer, had supported the Stamp Act measure, describing Americans as “children of our own, planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence.” Colonel Isaac Barre, who has given his name to a number of American towns, exploded: “Children planted by your care! No! Your oppression planted them in America … They nourished by your indulgence! They grew by your neglect of them … They protected by your arms! They have nobly taken up arms in your defense … ” said the Colonel who had fought with the Americans in the French and Indian War. In the colonies, reaction was as eloquent. A young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses rose to address the delegates in 1765: ” in former times Tarquin and Julius had each their Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third (“Treason,” shouted the Speaker) may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it,” Henry boomed after introducing seven resolves against the Stamp Act. The last three resolves were so radical that even fiery James Otis Jr. thought Henry was indeed making treason. An eyewitness recorded that in the ensuing uproar over his speech, Henry rose and apologized to the House if his vehemence offended anyone.

Groups formed calling themselves the Sons of Liberty and rioted in Boston. In New York, Governor Cadwallader Colden ordered Major Thomas James of the Royal Artillery to “cram the stamps down the throats” of a mob, then stood by helplessly while they destroyed his elegant carriage and hanged him in effigy.

A more sober group, delegates from nine of the colonies, met on October 7, 1765 in New York at what is now Federal Hall. This Stamp Act Congress finally passed a Declaration of The Rights and Grievances of the Colonists in America stating that as Englishmen the colonists could only be taxed by themselves or their representatives in Parliament. Since they had no such representatives in Britain, the legality of the Stamp Act was in doubt and so was its provision permitting trial of trade act violators before Admiralty Courts in Halifax instead of in front of American juries.

The 1765 Congress approved a petition saying on the one hand that Americans gloried “in being subjects of the best of Kings having been born under the most perfect form of government.” On the other hand, they said they would just stop importing British goods for a while. Americans shunned eating mutton in order to raise more sheep for wool to weave their own clothes. Tailors agreed to work for less if the fabric were American. Harvard seniors agreed to graduate in homespun. Even in the Bahamas, citizens dug a grave and put the stamp agent beside it and threatened him with live burial if he did not resign, which he did. British merchants soon felt the pinch and clamored for Parliament to rescind the act. Parliament did so in March 1766, and then added the fatal Declaratory Act indicating that Parliament’s taxing authority was the same at home and in America, just to show who still wore the crown.

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