The colonies had been children, and were now restless adolescents, rapidly coming of age. Parental Britain could ask for obedience, even expect it, but it was ever harder to demand it. It was simply not realistic to assume that a land of 2,500,000 people (Britain had about 10 million) would remain content as an exploitable natural resource forever. As Captain William Glanville Evelyn of the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment wrote home from Boston: ” in my opinion the true causes of it [the rebellion] are to be found in the nature of mankind; and (I think) that it proceeds from a new nation, feeling itself wealthy, populous and strong … ”
It is clear in hindsight that British leaders were sorely lacking in knowledge of their North American colonies. Simple geography militated against harmony as the Atlantic Ocean got in the way of clear communication and control of the colonies. Irish political thinker and member of Parliament Edmund Burke saw this clearly: “In large bodies, the circulation of power must be less vigorous at the extremities. Nature has said it. The Turk cannot govern Egypt, and Arabia, and Kurdistan as he governs his [own] place … The Sultan gets such obedience as he can. He governs with a loose rein, that he may govern at all.” At a time when Britain wished to govern more, she could only govern less. “I doubt whether it is possible to protect a System of Government in which a colony 3,000 miles distant from the parent state shall enjoy all the Liberty of the parent state,” said Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson. But the colonies desired that liberty.
There was always the British army as an ultimate enforcer, although the longer troops stayed in America, the more its men acquired American wives or land or both, as its commander, Thomas Gage, had done. Gage himself warned London there was trouble ahead in 1774 after the Boston Tea Party. But he failed to stress to the home office that the main obstacle to using military force was practical, not legal. The Americans were armed, as the subject Scots and Irish were not. Britain was paying for an army when a navy, imposing a tight blockade, was the only effective weapon of force against the edge of a continent. Few British legislators had firsthand knowledge of the colonies and they tended to be arrogant in their view of the colonials, underestimating their intelligence and resourcefulness. Most likely, the Brits even misunderstood the harsher climate, hotter summers and colder winters than they had ever experienced themselves.
After a century of dynastic wars, Britain was alone in a hostile Europe. She could not risk turning her back for a prolonged blockade of America for fear that Bourbon Spain and France would strike. “We know not how to advance,” said Burke when the crisis had been reached. “They [the Americans] know not how to retreat.” King George, himself, was in a similar bind. To suppress the colonies would impose yet another huge load on the treasury. Conciliation, on the other hand, jeopardized the rich source of those very revenues. His ministers reacted by muddling. By repealing the Stamp Act in the face of colonial uproar, the government pursued a fatal illogic. Either the act was legal, therefore enforceable, or it was not nor was any other parliamentary taxation. Parliament attempted to find a middle ground resulting in a Declaratory Act to the Repeal of the Stamp Act declaring its primacy over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Charles Stedman, an 18th century English historian, described the waffling precisely: “To end it in such a manner as to leave the pretensions on both sides open, is weak and dastardly policy; it is a temporary expedient pregnant with future mischief.”
Amen. Attitudes are more elusive than taxes or Kings, Grenville, meanwhile, had been removed from office by an angry George III for neglecting to include the Queen Mother in the Royal succession should the King be incapacitated. George found Grenville a crashing bore, anyway, a talker, not an orator. “When he has wearied me for two hours, he looks at his watch to see if he may not tire me for an hour more,” said the King. Grenville was succeeded by Lord Rockingham who in turn was succeeded by Pitt, a man detested by the King even though Pitt had created the Empire. Pitt was sym- pathetic to the colonies but naively chose as his Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, a muddler of such dexterity that he had voted both for the Stamp Act and its repeal.
Townshend has attracted a following of adjectives over the years including unscrupulous, irresponsible, amusing, wealthy, brilliant, “probably epileptic and certainly egocentric.” While an Army paymaster, he had invested unexpended funds for himself, a proper fringe benefit of the time. He had long felt that the Royal executives in the colonies should be financially independent of the legislatures by means of a tax covering their salaries and had no doubt “all the Provinces will, I am certain, approve and certainly pay.” He never changed his mind. Townshend ultimately decided to levy customs duties on colonial imports including glass, silk, lead, paper, paints and, significantly, tea. The measure would raise an estimated £40,000 a year, enough to keep the colonial governors reasonably independent of the increasingly hostile legislatures. The King signed the measure on June 29, 1767. Two months later Townshend suddenly died, age 42, gone but not forgotten.
The first fallout of Champagne Charlie’s demise was that it brought in as his replacement Frederick Lord North, later Second Earl of Guilford and Eighth Baron North who served, against his better judgment, throughout the Revolution. Also a new third secretary of state was created for Colonial Affairs. “The two secretaries are doing nothing else so a third was appointed to help them,” quipped Edmund Burke. Lord Hillsborough, of whom the King said he did not know “a man of less judgment,” got the job. Overseas the reaction to the Townshend Acts was predictably spirited. The Massachusetts Assembly sent a letter protesting the measure to the other colonies which avoided the issue for the time being. The House of Burgesses in Williamsburg did open the letter and then declared it had sole authority to tax Virginians. The New York Assembly still refused to house the redcoats, defying the Mutiny Act, and Hillsborough ordered four regiments to Boston where there had been more riots.
On August 1, 1768, Boston merchants agreed not to import British goods, beginning the colonial pushback of the Townshend Acts. New Yorkers followed on August 27 and Philadelphians in March of 1769. When 92 Massachusetts delegates refused to take back their letter, Charlestonians toasted them beneath their Liberty Tree with 92 glasses of wine. Americans once again turned to their own resourcefulness instead of British imports. Within a year of the nonimportation agreements, a single town in Massachusetts produced 80,000 pairs of women’s shoes and was exporting them to the southern colonies and the West Indies. When Luke Flint of Windham, Connecticut wed Miss Mary Slate of Mansfield, the Connecticut Gazette boasted that: “The bride and two of her sisters appeared in very gentile-like gowns … with sundry silk handkerchiefs &c, entirely of their own manufacture.” A Carolina planter boasted he had made every stitch he wore except his hat which a neighbor had produced.
Washington sent off his yearly list of supplies, which could have stocked a shopping mall as well as Mount Vernon, to his London agent but warned him to send nothing unless the Townshend duties had been repealed in the meantime. The boycott would have failed if colonial women had not rolled up their sleeves to produce more of their own cloth and to find substitutes for other luxury items commonly imported from England. Two Philadelphians who had ordered a Cheshire cheese and a hogshead of porter from Britain were beset by patriots. The pair “made a gallant stand … They cursed and swore, kicked, and cuffed, and pulled noses; but the catastrophe was that … prisoners were regaled with the cheese and porter.”
In England “the whole trading interest of this Empire crowded into the lobbies” of Parliament, Edmund Burke reported, as imports to the colonies sunk from £2,157,218 in 1768 to £1,336,122 by the end of 1769. William Pitt who had a soft spot for the colonies urged a self-interested statesmanship “by measures of lenity and affection to allure them [the Americans] to their duties; act the part of a generous and forgiving parent. A period may arrive when this parent may stand in need of every assistance she can receive from a grateful and affectionate offspring.” Pressured at home and abroad, Lord North gave in. The Townshend duties were repealed. Except the tax on tea, retained by one vote “as a mark of supremacy of Parliament, and an efficient declaration of their rights to govern the Colonies.” The date was March 5, 1770.
That same night in Boston, an argument between a British sentinel and a colonist precipitated a snowball fight that became increasingly violent. Eventually a squad of British soldiers fired on the assembled mob. Five Bostonians were killed. The Boston Massacre outraged New Englanders and shocked the other colonials. Blood, however, can be wiped up, and tempers temporarily subsided, leading to two years of relative calm in New England. But the underlying muddling of the English Ministry continued apace.
In the 1760s the trade deficit of the colonies with Britain had skyrocketed. New England was on the wrong end of a three-to-one imbalance. In the middle colonies it was six-and-a-half to one in favor of Britain. Lacking hard money to pay the deficit, the American traders smuggled to and from illegal markets breeding and feeding a growing contempt for any system of control by the mother country. The Townshend Acts had been a folly, providing resentment far beyond their revenues. In the two-and-a-half years of their existence, the duties returned £21,000, far below the £40,000 a year forecast by their author.
The mercantile system had simply been outdated by the growth of the colonies, although the Ministry refused or was incapable of recognizing it. Americans were studiously and seriously weighing their position within the imperial structure. In science and philosophy, the Age of Enlightenment propelled the winds of change. Diderot was writing in France: “Everything must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection.” Linnaeus was systematizing the world’s flora and fauna. Newton had demonstrated order in the physical universe. One should apply reason and find system, not chaos or caprice. And America was producing such rational, practical thinkers: Franklin, a printer; John Adams, a lawyer; Jefferson, a farmer, architect, politician; Mercy Otis Warren, poet and playwright. Ministers in the pulpit and printers in their shops, linked in a slowly improving intercolonial network, were also examining Britain and finding her wanting.