Monday, August 5, 2013

Suffering under Tyranny

The inhabitants of North America suffered in many ways prior to 1775. As John Locke had noted a century earlier, people endure a lot of abuse before they finally rise up against their oppressors. The long string of mistreatment would, however, eventually be sufficient to start a revolution.

Although there were already injustices in the 1600's, the first three-quarters of the 1700's would prove to be an era of one insult or provocation after another. In the process of enduring this abuse, those living in the thirteen colonies would become all the more perceptive, learning to detect in each new tax or regulation the hand of tyranny. George III, king of England, was not the only tyrant; among several others was George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain from April 1763 to July 1765. Historian Les Standiford writes:

Though the mother country had never levied any tax directly on its American dependency, various trade duties had been applied over the years. Earlier in 1764, in fact, Grenville had pressed for passage of the Sugar Act, a modification of a piece of 1733 legislation imposing a duty on molasses imported into the colonies from Britain. The new Sugar Act actually reduced the levy on molasses from 6 pence to 3 pence per gallon, a tactical move that Grenville hoped would find favor among colonists who had responded to the original act by smuggling most of their molasses past British customs agents - those few they were unable to bribe, that is.

England's economy was in a slump in the years after the French and Indian War. That war had ended in 1763. England and France were at odds with each other anyway, but the war was initiated when Prussia's Frederick the Great attacked Austria's Empress Maria-Theresa. The English were dragged into that European war because they were pledged allies of the Prussians, and the French likewise were pledged allies of the Austrians. With the English and the French fighting each other in Europe, it took little incentive to get English colonies in North America to fight against French colonies in North America. The land in the Ohio River valley area - desired by both sides - was more than enough motive. The Indians - the native Americans - fought from time to time as mercenaries for both sides. The English won the war, but at great financial cost. Wartime debts now had to be repaid. This burdened the British economy; Parliament sought to raise taxes to pay the debts, but taxes only made the economy worse.

Such taxation was doubly harmful to the residents of North America. First, they were taxed, which is detrimental in any circumstance; second, they were taxes by a representative body to which they were not allowed to elect any representatives! Les Standiford explains:

The "new" tax was roundly descried as onerous by the colonists, however, as their own economy suffered in direct proportion to the downturn in Great Britain. Trade with the distressed mother country was down, and with the war over and its associated free spending dried up, prospects were grim. Moreover, a theoretical objection was also raised by opponents to the measure when it was noted that the British Constitution excepted its subjects from "taxation without representation." Previous revenue-producing measures imposed by the British had been cloaked in the rhetoric of "trade regulation," but colonists argued that the Sugar Act was a bald-faced tax. And although the citizens of England might rightly be themselves taxed by the members of a Parliament that they themselves had elected, the colonists had no representatives in that body.

No less a luminary than Benjamin Franklin was sent to London to plead the colonial case. While the demand of the colonies was well-founded, based on the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Parliament chose expediency over justice.

Each of the thirteen colonies employed a liaison to Parliament, an envoy - as was Franklin - sent across the Atlantic to lobby for its part of thirteen different sets of interests, but that was not the same thing as having a properly apportioned voting membership on the floor. "No taxation without representation" would of course become a rallying cry for the colonists, justifying a wide range of future actions. But whether it was the 3-penny sugar tax itself or the principle of the thing that sent the colonists inching down the road toward rebellion is an issue that has had historians wrangling ever since.

From this situation, it would become clear that nothing less than proper representation would constitute justice, and it would also slowly become clear that the thirteen colonies would need to begin working together as a unit. The British government could sometimes play the colonies against each other as long as they were thirteen uncoordinated colonies. The colonies had two evils inflicted against them, two injustices which they had to overcome: first, that they were taxed; second, that they were taxed without representation.