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The Famous Tax Included, Tea Was Still Cheaper Here
An Englishman re-examines certain stereotyped attitudes on the American Revolution
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
In one way an Englishman’s view of the Revolutionary War does not greatly differ from an American’s. Our historians, in the main, agree with yours that the American colonies were lost through the mistakes and obstinacy of George III and Lord North and that the whole episode, whether regarded politically or militarily, is one of the most depressing in British history.
It is at this point that the historians, and even more the ordinary readers, tend to part company. The Englishman, if he overcomes his reluctance to study the period at all, looks at it soberly and objectively and observes how hardly the imperial lesson was learned. Americans, on the other hand, very naturally regard the Revolution with the greatest enthusiasm as the starting point in a series of developments that led to the foundation of a federal republic unique in constitutional history, and to the remarkable political and economic expansion of the nineteenth century. The extraordinary later success of the United States, both in the economic and political sense, has to some extent led Americans to read their history backward and find in the Revolutionary War more signs and portents of a splendid future than were at that time apparent. This provides admirable material for July Fourth oratory, but stretches at places the fabric of history. After all, history is more than an ornamental garden, laid out with hindsight by teachers and historians; it is rather a jungle where living forces were once at work, and the reconstruction of this jungle is our real business if we wish to understand the past.
The first point that I want to suggest is that the conventional picture of the American colonists as a band of gallant pioneers oppressed by a tyrannous government in London is a true one only if looked at through the eyes of a nineteenth or twentieth century democrat. The eighteenth century could have no inkling that the course of history would dictate that colonies in general should become self-administering and finally independent; indeed it was the shock of the American Revolutionary War that first began to teach that lesson. The eighteenth century regarded colonies as existing for the benefit of the mother country, with which, of course, the well-being of the colonies themselves was identified. Adam Smith, no enemy of the colonists, was the classic proponent of this theory. It is sometimes overlooked that the mother country accepted restraints on her own trade or agriculture in the interests of the colony, even if these restraints were of a less onerous character. For example, tobacco growing, although possible, was forbidden in Britain. Foreign produce, which was shipped via Britain, was cheap in the colonies, as duty had been paid by the British taxpayer. Adam Smith commented: “Parliament, in attempting to exercise its supposed right of taxing the Colonies, has never hitherto demanded of them anything which even approached to a just proportion to what was paid by their fellow subjects at home.” To this very day, the British subject in the United Kingdom pays taxes at a much higher rate than any resident of the modern British colonies pays to his local administration.
Take next the question of defense. I quote again from Adam Smith: “Jf any of the provinces of the British Empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole Empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war …” The peace of 1763 had freed the colonists from the fear of attack by the French or Indians, and they naturally felt a greater degree of independence from the mother country. Jn Britain, however, the legacy of victory was a burden of debt and a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the meager contribution, in men and money, that the colonists had made to their own defense. There was angry talk of contraband trade with the French in time of war. A particular grievance was that most colonies were reluctant even to provide adequate quarters for the British troops. This grievance had emerged even before the suspicion that the troops were more likely to be used against the colonists themselves.
When all this has been said, the fact remains that the British government acted with extraordinary stupidity. There was no settled policy of trying either to conciliate the colonists or to exert sufficient force to coerce them while it was still possible. The point I have tried to establish, however, is that the British acted within the framework of the accepted political and economic theory of the day and not out of some feeling of special animosity or desire to oppress the colonists. It is true that “no taxation without representation” was a political principle that many Britons had given their lives to affirm; but here again we are in danger of using hindsight in our interpretation of the word “representation.”
England in the eighteenth century was not a democracy; it was an oligarchy, in which no practical politician, however liberal, seriously considered that all men had an equal right to elect the government that ostensibly represented them. A say in the government of the country was the privilege of those whose ownership of property and contribution to its greatness justified their claim. From this point of view a rotten borough in the hand of a great landowner was a way of ensuring that his contribution to the political and economic life of the nation received its due weight.