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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter III: The Rights of a Nation

British subjects, by removing to America, cultivating a wilderness, extending the domain, and increasing the wealth, commerce, and power of the mother country, at the hazard of their lives and fortunes, ought not, and in fact do not thereby lose their native rights.–Benjamin Franklin.

It was the misfortune of Grenville that this “interweaving,” as Pownall described it, should have been undertaken at a most inopportune time, when the very conditions which made Englishmen conscious of the burden of empire were giving to Americans a new and highly stimulating sense of power and independence. The marvelous growth of the colonies in population and wealth, much commented upon by all observers and asserted by ministers as one principal reason why Americans should pay taxes, was indeed well worth some consideration. A million and a half of people spread over the Atlantic seaboard might be thought no great number; but it was a new thing in the world, well worth noting–which had in fact been carefully noted by Benjamin Franklin in a pamphlet on “The Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.”–that within three-quarters of a century the population of the continental colonies had doubled every twenty-five years, whereas the population of Old England during a hundred years past had not doubled once and now stood at only some six and a half millions. If this should go on–and, considering the immense stretches of free land beyond the mountains, no one could suppose that the present rate of increase would soon fall off–it was not unlikely that in another century the center of empire, following the course of the sun, would come to rest in the New World. With these facts in mind, one might indeed say that a people with so much vitality and expansive power was abundantly able to pay taxes; but perhaps it was also a fair inference, if any one was disposed to press the matter, that, unless it was so minded, such a people was already, or assuredly soon would be, equally able not to pay them.

People in new countries, being called provincial, being often told in effect that having made their bed they may lie in it, easily maintain their self-respect if they are able to say that the bed is indeed a very comfortable one. If, therefore, Americans had been given to boasting, their growing wealth was not, any more than their increasing numbers, a thing to be passed over in silence. In every colony the “starving time,” even if it had ever existed, was now no more than an ancient tradition. “Every man of industry has it in his power to live well,” according to William Smith of New York, “and many are the instances of persons who came here distressed in their poverty who now enjoy easy and plentiful fortunes.” If Americans were not always aware that they were rich men individually, they were at all events well instructed, by old-world visitors who came to observe them with a certain air of condescension, that collectively at least their material prosperity was a thing to be envied even by more advanced and more civilized peoples. Therefore any man called upon to pay a penny tax and finding his pocket bare might take a decent pride in the fact, which none need doubt since foreigners like Peter Kalm found it so, that “the English colonies in this part of the world have increased so much in…their riches, that they almost vie with old England.”

That the colonies might possibly “vie with old England,” was a notion which good Americans could contemplate with much equanimity; and even if the Swedish traveler, according to a habit of travelers, had stretched the facts a point or two, it was still abundantly clear that the continental colonies were thought to be, even by Englishmen themselves, of far greater importance to the mother country than they had formerly been. Very old men could remember the time when English statesmen and economists, viewing colonies as providentially designed to promote the increase of trade, had regarded the northern colonies as little better than heavy incumbrances on the Empire, and their commerce scarcely worth the cost of protection. It was no longer so; it could no longer be said that two-thirds of colonial commerce was with the tobacco and sugar plantations, or that Jamaica took off more English exports than the middle and northern colonies combined; but it could be said, and was now being loudly proclaimed–when it was a point of debate whether to keep Canada or Guadeloupe–that the northern colonies had already outstripped the islands as consumers of English commodities.

Of this fact Americans themselves were well aware. The question whether it was for the interest of England to keep Canada or Guadeloupe, which was much discussed in 1760, called forth the notable pamphlet from Franklin, entitled “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” in which he arranged in convenient form for the benefit of Englishmen certain statistics of trade. From these statistics it appeared that, whereas in 1748 English exports to the northern colonies and to the West Indies stood at some 830,000 pounds and 730,000 pounds respectively, ten years later the exports to the West Indies were still no more than 877,571 pounds while those to the northern colonies had advanced to nearly two millions. Nor was it likely that this rate of increase would fall off in the future. “The trade to our northern colonies,” said Franklin, “is not only greater but yearly increasing with the increase of the people …. The occasion for English goods in North America, and the inclination to have and use them, is and must be for ages to come, much greater than the ability of the people to buy them.” For English merchants the prospect was therefore an inviting one; and if Canada rather than Guadeloupe was kept at the close of the war, it was because statesmen and economists were coming to estimate the value of colonies in terms of what they could buy, and not merely, as of old, in terms of what they could sell. From this point of view, the superiority of the continental over the insular colonies was not to be doubted. Americans might well find great satisfaction in this disposition of the mother country to regard her continental colonies so highly and to think their trade of so much moment to her; all of which, nevertheless, doubtless inclined them sometimes to speculate on the delicate question whether, in case they were so important to the mother country, they were not perhaps more important to her than she was to them.

The consciousness of rapidly increasing material power, which was greatly strengthened by the last French war, did nothing to dull the sense of rights, but it was, on the contrary, a marked stimulus to the mind in formulating a plausible, if theoretical, justification of desired aims. Doubtless no American would say that being able to pay taxes was a good reason for not paying them, or that obligations might rightly be ignored as soon as one was in a position to do so successfully; but that he should not “lose his native rights” any American could more readily understand when he recalled that his ancestors had without assistance from the mother country transformed a wilderness into populous and thriving communities whose trade was now becoming indispensable to Britain. Therefore, in the summer of 1764, before the doctrine of colonial rights had been very clearly stated or much refined, every American knew that the Sugar Act and also the proposed Stamp Act were grievously burdensome, and that in some way or other and for reasons which he might not be able to give with precision, they involved an infringement of essential English liberties. Most men in the colonies, at this early date, would doubtless have agreed with the views expressed in a letter written to a friend in England by Thomas Hutchinson of Boston, who was later so well hated by his compatriots for not having changed his views with the progress of events.

“The colonists [said Hutchinson] claim a power of making laws, and a privilege of exemption from taxes, unless voted by their own representatives…. Nor are the privileges of the people less affected by duties laid for the sake of the money arising from them than by an internal tax. Not one tenth part of the people of Great Britain have a voice in the elections to Parliament; and, therefore, the colonies can have no claim to it; but every man of property in England may have his voice, if he will. Besides, acts of Parliament do not generally affect individuals, and every interest is represented. But the colonies have an interest distinct from the interest of the nation; and shall the Parliament be at once party and judge?…

“The nation treats her colonies as a father who should sell the services of his sons to reimburse him what they had cost him, but without the same reason; for none of the colonies, except Georgia and Halifax, occasioned any charge to the Crown or kingdom in the settlement of them. The people of New England fled for the sake of civil and religious liberty; multitudes flocked to America with this dependence, that their liberties should be safe. They and their posterity have enjoyed them to their content, and therefore have endured with greater cheerfulness all the hardships of settling new countries. No ill use has been made of these privileges; but the domain and wealth of Great Britain have received amazing addition. Surely the services we have rendered the nation have not subjected us to any forfeitures.

“I know it is said the colonies are a charge to the nation, and they should contribute to their own defense and protection. But during the last war they annually contributed so largely that the Parliament was convinced the burden would be insupportable; and from year to year made them compensation; in several of the colonies for several years together more men were raised, in proportion, than by the nation. In the trading towns, one fourth part of the profit of trade, besides imposts and excise, was annually paid to the support of the war and public charges; in the country towns, a farm which would hardly rent for twenty pounds a year, paid ten pounds in taxes. If the inhabitants of Britain had paid in the same proportion, there would have been no great increase in the national debt.”

Nor is there occasion for any national expense in America. For one hundred years together the New England colonies received no aid in their wars with the Indians, assisted by the French. Those governments now molested are as able to defend their respective frontiers; and had rather do the whole of it by a tax of their own raising, than pay their proportion in any other way. Moreover, it must be prejudicial to the national interest to impose parliamentary taxes. The advantages promised by an increase of the revenue are all fallacious and delusive. You will lose more than you will gain. Britain already reaps the profit of all their trade, and of the increase of their substance. By cherishing their present turn of mind, you will serve your interest more than by your present schemes.

Thomas Hutchinson, or any other man, might write a private letter without committing his country, or, with due caution to his correspondent, even himself; but for effective public and official protest the colonial assemblies were the proper channels, and very expert they were in the business, after having for half a century and more devoted themselves with singleness of purpose to the guardianship of colonial liberties. Until now, liberties had been chiefly threatened by the insidious designs of colonial governors, who were for the most part appointed by the Crown and very likely therefore to be infected with the spirit of prerogative than which nothing could be more dangerous, as everyone must know who recalled the great events of the last century. With those great events, the eminent men who directed the colonial assemblies–heads or scions or proteges of the best families in America, men of wealth and not without reading–were entirely familiar; they knew as well as any man that the liberties of Englishmen had been vindicated against royal prerogative only by depriving one king of his head and another of his crown; and they needed no instruction in the significance of the “glorious revolution,” the high justification of which was to be found in the political gospel of John Locke, whose book they had commonly bought and conveniently placed on their library shelves.

More often than not, it is true, colonial governors were but ordinary Englishmen with neither the instinct nor the capacity for tyranny, intent mainly upon getting their salaries paid and laying by a competence against the day when they might return to England. But if they were not kings, at least they had certain royal characteristics; and a certain flavor of despotism, clinging as it were to their official robes and reviving in sensitive provincial minds the memory of bygone parliamentary battles, was an ever-present stimulus to the eternal vigilance which was well known to be the price of liberty.

And so, throughout the eighteenth century, little colonial aristocracies played their part, in imagination clothing their governors in the decaying vesture of old-world tyrants and themselves assuming the homespun garb, half Roman and half Puritan, of a virtuous republicanism. Small matters were thus stamped with great character. To debate a point of procedure in the Boston or Williamsburg assembly was not, to be sure, as high a privilege as to obstruct legislation in Westminster; but men of the best American families, fashioning their minds as well as their houses on good English models, thought of themselves, in withholding a governor’s salary or limiting his executive power, as but reenacting on a lesser stage the great parliamentary struggles of the seventeenth century. It was the illusion of sharing in great events rather than any low mercenary motive that made Americans guard with jealous care their legislative independence; a certain hypersensitiveness in matters of taxation they knew to be the virtue of men standing for liberties which Englishmen had once won and might lose before they were aware.

As a matter of course, therefore, the colonial assemblies protested against the measures of Grenville. The General Court of Massachusetts instructed its agent to say that the Sugar Act would ruin the New England fisheries upon which the industrial prosperity of the northern colonies depended. What they would lose was set down with some care, in precise figures: the fishing trade, “estimated at 164,000 pounds per annum; the vessels employed in it, which would be nearly useless, at 100,000 pounds; the provisions used in it, the casks for packing fish, and other articles, at 22,700 pounds and upwards: to all which there was to be added the loss of the advantage of sending lumber, horses, provisions, and other commodities to the foreign plantations as cargoes, the vessels employed to carry the fish to Spain and Portugal, the dismissing of 5,000 seamen from their employment,” besides many other losses, all arising from the very simple fact that the British islands to which the trade of the colonies was virtually confined by the Sugar Act could furnish no suffcient market for the products of New England, to say nothing of the middle colonies, nor a tithe of the molasses and other commodities now imported from the foreign islands in exchange.

Of the things taken in exchange, silver, in coin and bullion, was not the least important, since it was essential for the “remittances to England for goods imported into the provinces,” remittances which during the last eighteen months, it was said, “had been made in specie to the amount of 150,000 pounds besides 90,000 pounds in Treasurer’s bills for the reimbursement money.” Any man must thus see, since even Governor Bernard was convinced of it, that the new duties would drain the colony of all its hard money, and so, as the Governor said, “There will be an end of the specie currency in Massachusetts.” And with her trade half gone and her hard money entirely so, the old Bay colony would have to manufacture for herself those very commodities which English merchants were so desirous of selling in America.

The Sugar Act was thus made out to be, even from the point of view of English merchants, an economic blunder; but in the eyes of vigilant Bostonians it was something more, and much worse than an economic blunder. Vigilant Bostonians assembled in Town Meeting in May, 1764, in order to instruct their representatives how they ought to act in these serious times; and knowing that they ought to protest but perhaps not knowing precisely on what grounds, they committed the drafting of their instructions to Samuel Adams, a middle-aged man who had given much time to the consideration of political questions, and above all to this very question of taxation, upon which he had wonderfully clarified his ideas by much meditation and the writing of effective political pieces for the newspapers.

Through the eyes of Samuel Adams, therefore, vigilant Bostonians saw clearly that the Sugar Act, to say nothing of the Stamp Act, was not only an economic blunder but a menace to political liberty as well. “If our trade may be taxed,” so the instructions ran,” why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands, and everything we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves. It strikes at our British privileges which, as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our fellow-subjects who are natives of Great Britain. If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?” Very formidable questions, couched in high-sounding phrases, and representing well enough in form and in substance the state of mind of colonial assemblies in the summer of 1764 in respect to the Sugar Act and the proposed Stamp Act.

Yet these resounding phrases doubtless meant something less to Americans of 1764 than one is apt to suppose. The rights of freemen had so often, in the proceedings of colonial assemblies as well as in the newspaper communications of many a Brutus and Cato, been made to depend upon withholding a governor’s salary or defining precisely how he should expend a hundred pounds or so, that moderate terms could hardly be trusted to cope with the serious business of parliamentary taxation. “Reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves” was in fact hardly more than a conventional and dignified way of expressing a firm but entirely respectful protest.