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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 the age of the Whig oligarchy and the rotten borough, there was little to convince Englishmen that the American colonists were being unjustly treated by not being represented at Westminster. It is clear to us today; it was a very debatable point in the eighteenth century. As a matter of fart, the colonists themselves, except the Pennsylvanians, did not take a very liberal view of the franchise for a good many years after the Revolutionary War. The British have never been strong on political theory; they could hardly be expected to reali/e that across the Atlantic the doctrine of John Locke and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was believed more literally. Even less could they gaze into the future and divine that the course of the history of the next two centuries would vindicate the judgment of the American colonists. What they saw was a contumacious colony which paid less in taxes than they did, but would neither stand in arms to defend itself, nor pay for the mother country to do so.
Naturally the Americans objected to being taxed; we all do. They fought against the duties levied under the Sugar Act of 1764; the “non-importation” movement boycotted many English goods. The colonists objected even more strongly to an internal (that is, direct) tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, and justification for their position was found on constitutional grounds. The Townshend Acts then, in 1767, imposed a strong external (or indirect) tax, and this was resisted with equal, indeed memorable, vigor. What are we to say of the tea that was hurled into Boston Harbor? The tea had been exempted from the one shilling duty previously payable on transshipment in England and was taxed only threepence in the colonies. The same tea that cost an Englishman six shillings a pound cost the American only three. Yet John Adams wrote of the Boston Tea Party (1773): “Many persons wish that as many dead carcases were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea.” This is not the language of an oppressed people; it is the language of aggressive independence.
The plain fact is that the colonists believed (and events proved them right) that they were fully capable of managing their own alfairs; they did not want any control, financial or otherwise. They were equally opposed to any restriction on the way in which they coloni/ed the American continent. They had been made deeply apprehensive by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which emphasized trade with the Indians and sought to protect them from the territorial encroachment of the whites. Eut the colonists themselves wished to coloni/e. Nobody had yet coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” but the idea was there. If Britain was opposed, then freedom from Britain must be achieved.
This determination of the colonists to be Jree was scarcely understood in Britain; indeed their rapidly growing capacity to determine their own fate was lamentably underestimated in London. This explains the failure of the British government either to prepare lor Avar or to make a settlement acceptable to the Americans. For it is probable that up to a very late hour a loose federation with George HI as titular sovereign would have been acceptable to the Americans, provided that it carried with it full self-government.
Meanwhile the British made no serious preparation. In 1774, at a time when General Thomas Gage in Boston was asking Tor twenty thousand men, there were actually reductions both in the Army and Navy. In 1775, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Lord Howe were given the incompatible functions of Commissioners of Conciliation as well as commanders in chief. Inevitably the attack was not vigorously pressed for fear of prejudicing the conciliation: this at a time when George Washington was complaining of the spirit of the men under his command and the totally insufficient arrangements for supplying them. In 1776, Sir Guy Carleton with superior numbers trapped the American forces that had invaded Canada, but deliberately allowed them to escape, believing that a display of magnanimity might show them, as he put it, that “the way to mercy is not yet shut.” Though the British were already making use of the Loyalists and the restless frontier Indians, who had long regarded the colonists as their principal enemy, the fighting continued to have some of the characteristics of a civil war; but this first phase was fast coming to an end. By July, 1776, German mercenaries were reaching New York in substantial numbers, and Teffcrson, busy with his draft of the Declaration ol independence, referred with horror to their coming.