[For the first post in this series, go here.] Between 1660 and 1760, a dangerous gap developed between the guiding theory of the British Empire and imperial practice. According to the dominant economic theory of the era, mercantilism, the welfare of the mother country took precedence over that of her colonies. Empires were supposed to be self-sufficient, closed systems that had no need for raw materials possessed by actual or potential enemies. Though British officials in London seldom took a broad view of their empire, they nevertheless were strongly influenced by the doctrine of mercantilism and attempted to put it into practice.
In theory, then, the purpose of Britain’s colonies was to provide natural resources, receiving in return necessary manufactured goods and such luxuries as the more affluent colonists could afford. To achieve this, Parliament enacted a variety of laws regulating colonial commerce: raw materials needed in Britain were to be shipped there directly from the colonies; colonial manufacturing was to be restricted; and, in order to protect British creditors and maintain a sound currency, the colonies were prohibited from issuing paper money.
Generally speaking, these laws were not as harsh as many colonists, and some historians, believed. Laws regulating colonial trade brought benefits to the colonies that probably equaled disadvantages created by the system. Colonial manufacturing actually flourished, within some colonies if not throughout British North America, despite laws designed to discourage it. A number of colonies also issued paper money that passed as legal tender within each colony, although not acceptable for the payment of debts to British creditors. To secure hard money to repay those creditors, northern colonies engaged in a profitable though illegal trade with the Spanish and French West Indies. The southern colonies had fewer ships, so they attempted to secure gold and silver through land speculation.
The colonies generally were able to flout imperial regulations. British colonial custom officials were corrupt and inefficient, and bribery was widely practiced. Until the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, British officials in London also pursued a policy of “salutary neglect,” letting the colonials pretty much go their own way.
Politically, Parliament was supposed to be the supreme imperial legislature, the king the recognized head of the empire. Obviously, no British monarch could rule the colonies directly. Most of the colonies, including Georgia after 1752, were “royal colonies,” controlled, in theory at least, by a governor to whom the king delegated certain powers, assisted by a legislature, usually bicameral, the lower house elected by the colonists, and the upper house nominated by the governor and confirmed by the king.
Once again, however, there was a considerable gap between theory and practice. As the eighteenth century wore on, even able royal governors found they possessed insufficient powers to discharge their heavy responsibilities. Moreover, the colonists themselves, especially members of the lower houses of the legislatures, took an increasing role in governing the colonies. By 1763, all of the lower legislative houses, except those in Georgia and Nova Scotia, were politically dominant and able to speak with authority for their respective colonies.
A turning point in this developing schism came after the Seven Years War in 1763, during which Britain, with assistance from her American colonies, had driven her most persistent enemy, France, from the North American mainland. While victory increased British territory in North America tremendously, it also saddled Britain with a staggering war debt. In 1763, her immediate requirements were two-fold. First, the need to streamline the administration of the now greatly enlarged American colonies. The colonial customs service had consistently shown itself inefficient and corrupt; the legislatures continued to try, with some success, to augment their authority; and some British officials feared that the policy of “salutary neglect,” combined with Britain’s triumph against the French, might encourage the American colonists to strike for independence.
A serious related problem was the perceived need for the colonies to relieve Britain of some of her financial burden by paying at least part of the cost of their defense. This might entail tightening enforcement of customs laws, passing new taxes, or some combination of the two. Likewise, the greatly altered situation after the war also seemed to British officials to require the permanent stationing of troops in North America.
And yet—the colonies, suddenly freed by Britain’s victory from constant confrontations with the French (and the Spaniards) on their borders and economically and politically maturing, desired a greater degree of autonomy. They had already contributed men, money, and materiel to the common cause during the American phase of the Seven Years War, and, except for the continuing presence of Native American tribes on the frontiers, which colonists apparently believed they could handle themselves, there seemed no real threats to peace. Why, then, should Britain station troops in the colonies, let alone expect the Americans to pay for them?
Although many colonists at the time, and some historians since, refused to believe it, British colonial policy beginning in 1763 was not consciously formulated to impose “tyranny” on England’s American subjects. Misguided it certainly was, and in some respects selfish, but hardly “tyrannical.” The problem was that each side in the growing dispute approached successive crises with warped, preconceived notions about the opposition’s motives that seemingly were confirmed during the confrontations.
For example, in the aftermath of a short-lived but bloody Indian rebellion led by a chieftain named Pontiac, the British government temporarily excluded settlers from the lands west of the Appalachians in the Proclamation of 1763, which many colonists believed was designed to confine them permanently east of the mountains. Land speculators saw future profits from land sales in the trans-Appalachian territory going up in smoke.The following year, the new head of the British government, George Grenville, took several steps to increase centralization of the Empire. He reformed the customs service to ensure that the Treasury would receive as much revenue as possible under existing regulations. Next, Grenville turned to raising in the colonies 100,000 pounds, roughly one-third of the amount he estimated would be needed to support the 10,000-man British force to be stationed in various frontier posts and to pay salaries of the expanded customs service.
One solution to this problem was the Revenue (or Sugar) Act of 1764, the first direct tax ever levied on the North American colonies. It also imposed heavy penalties for violating customs laws, with cases tried in vice-admiralty courts, which operated without juries. In 1765, Grenville convinced Parliament to add a Stamp Act to the burdens of the American colonies. Englishmen in the mother country had been paying such a tax, stamps purchased and affixed to legal documents and other official papers, newspapers, and pamphlets, without protest since 1694, and it had been bringing into the Treasury almost 300,000 pounds annually. Stamp distributors were to be appointed in every colony, selected from local men of high standing rather than British officials or their relatives.
The Revenue Act was met in the colonies by protests, petitions, and public meetings. Colonists argued that it violated the principle that taxes could be levied only with the consent of the people, as expressed by their representatives in colonial legislatures (the colonists elected no members of Parliament). Moreover, they condemned the vice-admiralty courts as a violation of the right to trial by jury.
Yet, the colonists’ reaction to the Stamp Act made their outbursts against the Revenue Acts seem mild. Merchants entered into non-importation agreements, enforced by the newly-formed “Sons of Liberty,” to remain in effect until the repeal of the Stamp Act. Committees of Correspondence were organized in each colony to keep other colonies informed of the protest. The Sons of Liberty launched a campaign of intimidation against recently-nominated stamp distributors and, by November 1765, when the Stamp Act was to go into effect, every stamp distributor had resigned. Moreover, early in October, outraged delegates assembled in New York City in the “Stamp Act Congress,” which denounced the Stamp Act as a violation of the rights of Englishmen.Meanwhile, in Britain, events unconnected with the Stamp Act troubles led to the dismissal of George Grenville by King George III and his replacement by the Marquis of Rockingham, who favored repeal of the obnoxious measures and initiated a petitioning movement directed at Parliament by British merchants whose American trade had been disrupted by the colonial boycott. The King and Parliament, swayed by this pressure, agreed in March 1766 to repeal the Stamp Act, although coupling repeal with passage of the Declaratory Act, asserting that the King and Parliament had full power to make laws binding the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” So, Britain retreated but, by coupling the Declaratory Act with repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament indicated that colonial arguments about “taxation without representation” had not been convincing. American colonists writing against the Stamp Act had left an unfortunate impression lodged in the minds of influential Englishmen: while the colonists opposed “internal taxes,” those levied for the express purpose of raising revenue, they seemed to accept “external taxes,” those imposed on imported goods to regulate trade. And, in 1767, Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend took advantage of this supposed distinction, securing passage of acts bearing his name imposing additional import duties on various items used by the colonists, including tea, paints, paper, and lead.
These duties supposedly were “external taxes,” and, thus, acceptable to the Americans, but Townshend made no secret of his purpose in introducing the new duties: to raise revenue to pay the salaries of royal governors and other officials otherwise dependent upon colonial legislatures, and to support British troops stationed in North America. The Townshend Acts also established a new Board of Customs Commissioners in America to see that the new duties as well as those already on the statute books were paid.
When news of the Townshend Acts reached the colonies, the reaction was overwhelmingly hostile, but took different forms. For instance, John Dickinson, in his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, offered a moderate but firm rejection of the measures, arguing that Parliament had no right whatsoever to tax the colonies. This power lay in the colonial legislatures, Dickinson contended, the only bodies where the colonists themselves were actually represented. Dickinson limited the legislative authority of Parliament to matters affecting the Empire as a whole, not just the North American part of it. The colonists offered new petitions, pamphlets, and protests, and revived the non-importation agreements that had proved successful against the Stamp Act.
The Townshend Acts also unleashed a series of ugly incidents between the newly-created Board of Customs Commissioners and residents of Boston, which had, unfortunately, been chosen as the Board’s headquarters. British troops managed to keep order for almost two years, until, on March 5, 1770, tension exploded in the so-called “Boston Massacre,” that left four Bostonians dead and six wounded.Back in Britain, a new ministry had taken power, headed by Lord North. Though North’s later conduct would blacken his reputation in North America, upon taking office he charged that the Townshend Acts were an unmitigated disaster and had nearly touched off a colonial revolt. He secured repeal of all the measures except the tax on tea, which was kept at the King’s insistence, to assert the right of Parliament to tax the colonies.
Britain again had pulled back from the brink, and tranquility apparently returned to the colonies. Even the tea tax seemed to cause little trouble, for colonists could purchase smuggled Dutch tea more cheaply than the tea imported (and taxed) from Britain. So, the main British importer of tea, the British East India Company, soon faced bankruptcy. In 1773, the Company asked Parliament to bail them out of financial trouble. Lord North moved to take control of the Company operation’s and, by giving the East India Company a monopoly on the import and sale of tea in the colonies, enabled British tea bearing the Townshend tax to undersell the smuggled Dutch variety. Tea was a popular drink in the colonies, and the Tea Act seemed to promise that ardent colonial tea drinkers would take advantage of the cheaper tea, even if by so doing they were supporting Parliament’s claim that it could tax the colonies.
It was the Tea Act that led to a series of American “tea parties,” the most celebrated and destructive of which occurred in Boston, where tea valued at 10,000 pounds was ceremonially dumped into the harbor by patriots clumsily disguised as Native Americans. To punish the impudence of the Bostonians, Parliament passed the “Coercive Acts” in 1774, closing Boston harbor pending restitution for the drenched tea chests. Other colonies responded by sending supplies overland to Boston. Colonists also began calling for a general meeting to discuss a united plan of action. This gathering, when it convened in the autumn of 1774, adopted the name of “the United States in Congress Assembled,” or, more familiarly, the Continental Congress.
[End of Part II]
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)