January 14, 2006

Tea, Taxes and the American Revolution

Good post on Nutrition and Life Expectancy in Colonial American vs. Engand, on the very good 2Blowhards blog, talking about Robert Fogel's book The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. (Fogel is a ChicagoBoy). Michael Blowhard's post provoked a good discussion in the comments. I made the following contribution:

The American colonists were responding to changes in the way Britain sought to govern them. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 Parliament was supreme. Most of the colonies had been founded before that time. The colonies were governed by people who believed in an older model which focused on limitations on government power; they were descendents of people who had fled from over-reaching government power. They clung to a notion of limited government, with the King in particular being subject to limits on his power. The post-1688 British government, which prevails to this day in most ways, is in essence a parliamentary dictatorship. The British parliament, and now only the House of Commons, faces virtually no express limitations on its powers. The men who constituted the British House of Commons in the 1700s were a hard-nosed class who were interested in exploiting the territories under their control for economic advantage. They saw the American colonies as operating outside of their control, and they wanted to rectify that, to make them work for the benefit of Britain's elite. The American colonists saw accurately where all this was going. In the years before the revolution, they wanted to have their loyalty be to the King, but not the new all-powerful parliament, with their own legislatures being in effect the local equivalent of the British parliament. The British governing class rejected the legal arguments for this, which were compelling. They were having none of it. They wanted control.

Eventually, the Americans saw, they would have to strike out on their own, or become subject in every important respect to control from Britain, for the advantage of Britain, and lose all their rights as equal British subjects. They chose to fight instead. Had they not done so, or lost, we can get a good idea of what ongoing British rule would have looked like by looking at the fate of Ireland and India and the Caribbean islands during this era. A class of English landlords and businessmen, with a small body of British troops and a larger body of locally-raised police and troops, keep order by harsh means, denied legal and political rights to their subjects, and extracted the economic wealth of the places under their control with a high degree of ruthlessness.


It was not about a few pennies on a packet of tea. The British were clever. They wanted the Americans to admit the principle that they could be directly taxed, by starting small. But once the principal is admitted, you have given away absolutely everything. The Founders were mostly lawyers, many of them London-trained. They knew exactly what was going on -- their freedom, their charters, their own governments, their civil and political rights, all would be lost if they admitted that Parliament could tax their tea. They were legalistic men living in a legalistic age, but they were also men who sincerely believed in freedom and its value. Paradoxically this was particularly true of slave-owners, who knew firsthand what it was not to live in freedom, since they exercised mastery over human beings themselves, and preferred death to that condition for themselves. This is hard for we people of the year 2006 to get our heads around, but the past was a very different place.


My bottom line conclusion: The Americans were right to fight.


Good books on this subject include M. Stanton Evans, The Theme is Freedom (on the self-understanding of the American revolutionaries); Charles H. McIlwain, The American Revolution: A Constitutional Interpretation (an older book which takes seriously the Constitutional and legal arguments made by both sides in the run-up to the war); David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride (which has an excellent short discussion of the British ruling class and its worldview at the outbreak of the Revolution).


I've got the Fogel book at home. Some day I'll get to it.


Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.

(Incidentally, Michael Blowhard had a lengthy and very moving post about Townes van Zandt which I strongly commend to your attention.)

Posted by Lexington Green at January 14, 2006 08:54 PM
Comments

Yet the American Revolutionaries were always very clear that they were fighting the oppression of King George (who by European standards was a very unoppressive monarch). Compare this with the English Civil War where the Parliamentarians continued for rather longer than was possible to maintain that they were not fighting against Charles but merely against his advisers who had misled him.

Posted by: Neil Craig at January 15, 2006 12:27 PM

For quite some time the colonists insisted that they were fighting against the King's misguided ministers, specifically Lord North. What Paul Revere actually said on his ride was "The ministerial troops are coming". In New England, in fact, the War of Independence was seen as a replay of the English civil War by both sides; the rebels called the Redcoats the "Ministerial troops" and the Redcoats referred to the rebels as the "Congressional troops" (when they were being polite) on the model of the Civil War term "Parliamentary troops."

One of the long-term tensions in the early US came from the fact thhat the New Englanders, in general theocratic republicans who saw monarchy as blasphemy ("no King but Jesus"), saw the War as a replay of the English Civil War with themselves as the new Parliamentarians; the Middle States and Southerners saw it as a replay of the Revolution of 1688 with themselves as Whig gentlement. The non-New Englanders generally were more comfortable with the classical references of Roman Republicanism, which is how the US ended up with a "Senate", a "Capitol", and all the neoclassical architecture.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 15, 2006 03:05 PM

We think of King George as being the oppressive tyrant, but the colonists did not until they finally decided to declare independence. They constantly petitioned the King to save them from the depredations of Parliament. As late as May 26, 1775 they sent petitions to him. It was not until he declared them to be in rebellion against him at the end of 1775 that they sent his villification into overdrive

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at January 15, 2006 05:37 PM

And much of that rhetoric was recycled from 1649 and 1688, depending on which colony you were in. Some of the more paranoid New England commonwealth-men had started to see George III as a new James II, about to secretly impose Catholicism on the British Empire. The Quebec Act had gotten them going. (See Kevin Phillips' The Cousins' War on this point.)

Pretty absurd, if you know anything about George III. You can see the paradoid-conspiratorial strain in Anglosphere politics right up to today, with David Duke on the right and Democrats Under a Rock on the left.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 15, 2006 07:20 PM

There was also that they had become used to increasing self-governance, and efforts by the crown to reassert control were magnified in the public mind. To be perceived as taking something away, no matter how inconsequential, has always been seen as more infuriating than simply not granting something.

Also, from DHF, a large portion of the newer colonists were already disposed against English authority, which they expected to be relatively free of upon reach the colonies.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at January 16, 2006 07:36 AM

Exactly what I was thinking. The Scotch-Irish in the South didn't like the king or Parliment. They did not want anyone telling them what to do - still don't.

Posted by: Bram at January 16, 2006 10:55 AM

One has to wonder the "what if" the British king in the 1760-1770's had been someone of the mind-set of a William III, who might has seen the Colonies as a counterweight to Parliament. Someone more interested in geo-politics who might have seem the Colonies as a half-way point between Britain and the semi-alienated Hanoverian possessions; and actively courted, flattered and organized the separate colonial assemblies. It always amazed me that only a few MP ever visited the Colonies except as Royal Governors; and none of the royal princes or senior nobles ever visited.

(You probably would have needed a different American representative than Dr. Franklin as-well though.)

Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) at January 16, 2006 04:06 PM

"the standard accounts of this war [American War of Independence] are the most outstanding example of propaganda not merely triumphing over historical substance, but virtually obliterating it." Hugh Bicheno "Rebels & Redcoats" - a rattling good read.

Posted by: dearieme at January 16, 2006 08:16 PM

Ted B. --

Franklin (who was Colonial Agent for Pennsylvania, never for the whole colonies) spent a long time in London trying to sell a formula for colonial autonomy within the Empire to Parliament. He was very much a proto-Anglospherist who looked forward to America gradually gaining majority control within the Empire. he came back and endorsed independence as a second-bst measure when he concluded that Parliament was too corrupt to ever come to a reasonable compromise with the colonies.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 16, 2006 08:38 PM

"It always amazed me that only a few MP ever visited the Colonies except as Royal Governors; and none of the royal princes or senior nobles ever visited."

Well, remember - it wasn't like popping over on the Concorde. Crossing the Atlantic was still a dangerous, arduous voyage - it was only in the 1770s that the invention of the chronometer gave a reliable way to calculate longitude - once you left sight of land, you literally had no way of knowing how close you were to land, or if you were making any progress at all, except by primative dead reckoning. If I was a nobleman, with lands and family etc., you wouldn't catch me going on a fact finding mission to visit the primitives across the pond...

Posted by: jimbo at January 19, 2006 10:31 AM

Actually I do not think the colonials had sufficient arguements to fight back. I have thouroughly researched both sides. When i started i was neutral, leaning towards patriot. However after reading the arguemetns and reasons from both sides I realize how much better the loyalists and British ideas really were. The patriots complained of taxes. It may be interesting to know that the taxes on colonials were 1/26 the amount that British were being taxed. Some taxes were cut back, the sugar act was cut in half, from 6 shillings to 3. Yet the British still had to pay taxes, as the treasury was in debt 55 million shillings which were used in to defend colonials from French and Indian. Before 1763, colonials were least taxed in the western world, although even the poorest colonists were prospersous and wealthy compared to many other people in other countries.The sugar act was made to raise money for the army protecting the colonials from Indians, who had shown themselves to be violents without warning. Since the colonists would not obey quartering act, and would not feed or house soldiers, there had to be money rasied (through taxes) to pay. And colonists British rights were not abused or taken away. When colonials were in Britain they were told that some rights and taxes may be different due to distance and communication and traveling times from Britain to America. They were told that they may not have direct representation. Another point: British ended up finding a way to give representation, any white male landowner over 21 could bring his ideas to his local colonial legislature, who would present it to governor, and parliament would then discuss and vote on it. Jefferson's "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal..." If this is so true, then why were Indians treated and called savages, and why were blacks used as slaves, and given little or no chance for freedom. And even when (if) given freedom, they would still be treated terribly. Patriots treated loyalists, soldiers,and tax collectors like animals, who wree doing there job, and just standing up for what they believe, as Thomnas Paine said that patriots should be able to do, in his book 'Rights of Man'. Anything changed in your mind?

Posted by: Ali Densmore at February 8, 2006 06:28 PM

what exactly did the colonist think they were going to get after the American Revolution?

Posted by: abc at November 15, 2006 05:10 PM

I am sure there were many ideas on what would happen after the Revolution, but I believe firmly most of them felt, whether consciously or no, what Paine described as being an absurdity: an entire continent ruled by an island three thousand miles away. Perhaps they did not know, or could not yet fully comprehend what new system they were building, save that it was more important to first take down the old one.

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