Niall Ferguson

The projected revenue was not immense: £110,000, nearly half of it coming from the West Indies. But the tax proved so unpopular that the minister who introduced it, George Grenville, was forced to resign and by March the following year it had been scrapped. From now on, it was accepted, the Empire would tax only external trade, not internal transactions. Two years later, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, tried again, this time with a range of new customs duties. In the hope of sweetening the pill, the duty on one of the most popular articles of colonial consumption, tea, was actually cut from one shilling to threepence per pound. It was no good. Samuel Adams drafted a circular for the Massachusetts Assembly calling for resistance even to these taxes. In January 1770 a new government in Britain, under the famously unprepossessing Lord North, lifted all the new duties except the one on tea. Still the protests in Boston continued.

Everyone has heard of the 'Boston Tea Party' of 16 December 1773, in which 342 boxes of tea worth £10,000 were tipped from the East India tea ship Dartmouth into the murky waters of Boston harbour. But most people assume it was a protest against a hike in the tax on tea. In fact the price of the tea in question was exceptionally low, since the British government had just given the East India Company a rebate of the much higher duty the tea had incurred on entering Britain. In effect, the tea left Britain duty free and had to pay only the much lower American duty on arriving in Boston. Tea had never been cheaper in New England. The 'Party' was organized not by irate consumers but by Boston's wealthy smugglers, who stood to lose out. Contemporaries were well aware of the absurdity of the ostensible reason for the protest. 'Will not posterity be amazed', wrote one sceptic, 'when they are told that the present distraction took its rise from the parliament's taking off a shilling duty on a pound of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?'

On close inspection, then, the taxes that caused so much fuss were not just trifling; by 1773 they had all but gone. In any case, these disputes about taxation were trivial compared with the basic economic reality that membership of the British Empire was good—very good—for the American colonial economy. The much-maligned Navigation Acts may have given British ships a monopoly over trade with the colonies, but they also guaranteed a market for North American exports of agricultural staples, cattle, pig iron and, indeed, ships. It was the constitutional principle—the right of the British parliament to levy taxes on the American colonists without their consent—that was the true bone of contention.

For more than a century there had been a tacit tug of war between centre and periphery—between royal authority in London, as represented by the centrally appointed colonial governors, and the power of the colonists' elected assemblies. It had been a distinctive feature of the early British settlements in America, particularly those in New England, that [hey had nurtured representative institutions (here was another important difference between North and South America). By comparison, the attempts to plant European-style hereditary aristocracies had comprehensively failed. From 1675 onwards, however, London sought to increase its influence over the colonies, which in their early years had been to all interns and purposes autonomous. Until that time only Virginia had been designated a 'crown colony.' But in 1679 New Hampshire was declared a royal province and five years later Massachusetts became the 'Domimon of New England.' New York came under direct royal authority when its own proprietor became King in 1685, and Rhode Island and Connecticut accepted royal takeovers in rapid succession thereafter.

To be sure, these centralizing tendencies came to a halt when the Stuarts were driven from power in 1688. Indeed, the 'Glorious Revolution' encouraged the colonists to regard their own assemblies as equivalent in status to the Westminster Parliament; a number of colonial assemblies passed laws rehearsing Magna Carta and affirming the rights of those they represented. By 1739 it seemed to one royal official that the colonies were effectively 'Independent Common Wealths,' with legislatures that were effectively 'absolute within their respective Dominions' and barely 'accountable for their Laws or Actions' to the crown.

But this proved to be the cue for a fresh wave of centralizing initiatives from London before, during and after the Seven Years War. It is in this constitutional context that the debates over taxation in the 1760s need to be understood. The heavy-handed attempt by Lord North's government to bring the unruly legislators of Massachusetts to heel after the Tea Party by simply closing the port of Boston and imposing military rule was merely the last of many affronts to colonial legislators. In repealing the Stamp Act in 1766, Parliament had emphatically declared that it 'had, hath and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America'. That was what the colonists disputed.

Perhaps there was also an element of colonial chippiness at work. Once, lamented Franklin, there had been 'not only a respect, but an affection, for its fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Britain were always treated with particular regard; to be an Old England-man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.' But the colonists were treated in return not as subjects but as 'subjects of subjects'; as a 'republican race, mixed rabble of Scotch, Irish and foreign vagabonds, descendants of convicts, ungrateful rebels etc.' as if they were 'unworthy the name of Englishmen, and fit only to he snubb'd, curb'd, shackled and plundered'. John Adams expressed the same feeling of inferiority more strongly. 'We won't be their Negroes,' he snarled, writing as 'Humphry Ploughjogger' in the Boston Gazette. 'I say we are as handsome as old English folks, and so should he as free.'

In this increasingly acrimonious atmosphere, the first Continental Congress was held at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1774, bringing together the more rebellious elements in the various colonial assemblies. Here, for the first time, resolutions were passed to withhold all taxes from the British government, if necessary by forcible resistance. Yet Samuel Adams's famous slogan 'No taxation without representation' was not a rejection of Britishness, but rather an emphatic assertion of Britishness, What the colonists said they were doing was demanding the same liberty enjoyed by their fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic. At this stage, they saw themselves as no more than transatlantic Britons who wanted real, local representation, not the 'virtual' representation they were being offered in the distant House of Commons. In other words, they wanted their assemblies to reformed, quasi-federal Empire. As Lord Mansfield put it in 1775, the colonists 'would stand in relation to Great Scotland stood towards England, previous to the treaty of Union.'

Some far-sighted thinkers in Britain—among them the great economist Adam Smith and the Dean of Gloucester, Josiah Tucker—saw this kind of imperial devolution as the answer. While Smith envisaged an imperial federation, with Westminster merely at the apex of a devolved empire. Tucker proposed a prototype Commonwealth, in which only the sovereignty of the monarch would unite the empire. Moderate colonists like Joseph Galloway also sought a compromise: he proposed the establishment of an American legislative council, its members chosen by the colonial assemblies, but under a president-general appointed by the crown. The government in London ruled out all such solutions. The issue had become quite simply 'the supremacy of Parliament.' Lord North's government was now caught between two equally assertive legislatures, each convinced it was in the right. The most he could offer was that Parliament would put aside (though still reserving) its right of taxation if a colonial assembly were prepared to raise and contribute the required amount to imperial defence, as well as paying for its own civil government. It was not enough. Even the Elder Pitt's plea that the troops be withdrawn from Boston was thrown out by [he House of Lords, By this time, in Benjamin Franklin's view, the government's 'Claim of Sovereignty over three Millions of virtuous sensible People in America, seem[ed] the greatest of Absurdities, since they appear'd lo have scarce Discretion enough to govern a Herd of Swine.' That was fighting talk.

It took just over a year after the first shots at Lexington for rebellion to turn into outright revolution. On 4 July 1776, in the austere chamber normally used by the Pennsylvania assembly, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by representatives of the thirteen secessionist colonies at the Second Continental Congress. Only two years before, its principal author, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, had still addressed George III in the name of 'your subjects in British America.' Now the transatlantic or 'continental' Britons had become American 'Patriots.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.