Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sugar, Taxes, and Currency

In the "long train of abuses and usurpations" which caused intolerable hardship in North America's thirteen colonies during the 1700's, and which finally caused the American independence movement, a variety of harms were inflicted on the residents of North America by the king, by the Parliament, and by both. It is a significant interpretive question, whether one holds the crown, the Parliament, or both guilty of the violations which led to the American Revolution. In any case, both the human rights and the civil rights of the colonists were violated. Again, the question is open whether it was the actual misery caused by the taxes, or whether it was the principle that such taxes were enacted in a legislative body which contained no representatives from the thirteen colonies, which ultimately provoked the colonists to action. Historian Les Standiford writes that

In any case, at the same time that Parliament approved the Sugar Act (which also added other duties and allocated funds for the upgrading of the British customs service), Grenville warned that there might be further measures proposed in the following session of Parliament, among them a tax for appending an official stamp on most legal documents, newspapers, and magazines used in the colonies. Such a tax, in Grenville's eyes, was nonregressive and would affect no specific group unduly. Furthermore, a number of such taxes had been levied by Parliament upon its citizens to no particular uproar.

George Grenville, who had become prime minister in 1763, was overly blunt in his manner. He made no effort to soothe or assuage the colonists, but merely informed them that they would have to pay this tax, and that they would likely have to pay even more in the future. Had Grenville attempted in any way to persuade the colonists to accept the tax - rather than merely telling them that it would be levied - he might have had a chance of getting them to go along with it. But his abrupt manner did nothing to persuade the colonists to accept the taxation. Grenville falsely reasoned that, if the British citizenry went along with such taxes, the colonists should too. Grenville ignored the fact that the British citizens had elected representatives to the House of Commons, while the residents of North America had not.

Each of the thirteen colonies had sent representatives to London, who were free to listen to the proceedings, and to sometimes to lobby members of Parliament, but who had no vote in Parliament. Among those representatives was Benjamin Franklin. Taxation seemed inevitable. The French and Indian War had been costly. Those bills needed to be paid. The ongoing defense of North American colonies, subject to attacks by the French or by the Spanish or by the Native Americans, would also be costly.

To Franklin and a number of his fellow colonial envoys, the prospect of some tax being levied seemed inescapable. After all, the recent rebellion of tribesmen led by Chief Pontiac in the just-acquired territories of New France had reminded most responsible officials on both sides of the divide that someone would need to pay for maintaining a peacekeeping force on the colonial frontier. One knotty question remained, whoever: who?

The colonists in North America offered two facts for consideration: first, it was necessary to note that the officials sent from London to oversee taxation and regulation in North America were men of little or no ethical standards; second, the colonists could defend themselves better, and at lower cost, than the soldiers being sent to colonies from England.

Part of the colonists' antipathy to the revenue-boosting measures was attributable to a growing distrust of those who were sent from England to handle their principle affairs. As one American who had been living in London for a time wrote in a 1758 letter, "most of the places in the gift of the Crown have been filled out with broken Members of Parliament, of bad if any principles, pimps, valets de chambre, electioneering scoundrels, and even livery servants. In one word, America has been for many years made the hospital of Great Britain for her decayed courtiers, and abandoned, worn-out dependents." Paying for necessary services was bad enough, but the prospect of turning over one's hard-earned pennies to schemers and incompetents was to most colonists simply beyond the pale.

Although the colonial militiamen were capable of defending the colonies, their expertise was ignored by the British army. Why should the colonists be content to have their abilities ignored, while being ruled over by officials so corrupt that London had seen fit to send them to America as a way of getting them out of England?

Likewise, the concept of paying for a permanent garrison of 10,000 British troops on the borders of Canada and the bayous of New France raised hackles among many. The prevailing sentiment was that colonial militiamen, among them a certain George Washington, had proved themselves to be as capable as, if not more able than, the king's troops in the sort of irregular actions that had characterized much of the fighting on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Yet for all the ability of the colonial fighters, it was nearly impossible for a colonial militiaman to obtain a commission in the king's army.

If historians are divided as to whether the blame properly lies with the king, with the Parliament, or with both, it is an even more obscure question about how much of the blame, if any, lies with the population of Britain. Did the ordinary farmer or tradesman in England have knowledge of, influence on, or an opinion about, what was happening in North America? And to which degree? To a middle- or lower-class citizen of a town like Ringwood or Manchester, North America must have seemed infinitely far away, and the policies concerning it either abstract, or filled with unintelligible minutia, or both. Ordinary Englishmen might have resented the colonists, because Englishmen had traveled uncomfortably far from home to defend the colonies, and some Englishmen had died there. But ordinary Englishmen might have felt some kinship with the colonists - colonists who were, after all, Englishmen who'd simply been transplanted. Les Standiford continues:

From the opposite standpoint, few Britons gave the colonies much thought at all. The primary political concern of the nation was outmaneuvering its traditional rivals: Holland, France, Spain, Prussia, Germany, and Russia. Where the colonies registered at all, it was primarily among the merchant class. There was a fair amount of profitable trade with the colonies, though the perception was that the colonies were certainly on the receiving end, there only to be profited from. In short, in the minds of most Britons, the colonies existed primarily for the benefit of the mother country, and the colonists who sent there should be pleased at whatever benefits they might accrue from association with the most powerful nation in the world.

The question to be investigated, then, is whether the Parliament and the king accurately represented the English citizenry in oppressing the colonists. In any case, however, the egregious violations against the colonists inevitably provoked the revolution. Taxation was inhumane, both in principle and in practice: in principle, because the colonists lacked representation in Parliament; in practice because it amounted, simply, to the government stealing the property of ordinary citizens.