ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
Taxation Without Representation

*The Peace of Paris ended the French and Indian war for the French, but not for the Indians.  The war had, after all, begun over land claims, and settlers streamed into the back country and over the Appalachian Mountains even before the war was over--after all, D. Boon cilled a bar on a tree in 1760 in modern Washington County, Tennessee. 

*These settlers provoked the Indians living west of the mountains, and shortly after the French and Indian War ended, Indians attacked again under the leadership of an Ottawa chief named Pontiac who briefly united several tribes to attack British forts and settlements around the Great Lakes.  They killed around 2,000 soldiers and settlers before being put down by force of arms and gifts of blankets infected with small pox.

*To avoid future conflicts, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, creating the Proclamation Line, forbidding settlement west of the crest of the Appalachian Mountains or even trading with the Indians without the permission of the British government.  Although the British planned to eventually allow settlement of this area, they meant to do it in a slow and carefully managed way rather than in the haphazard manner of earlier settlement that had so often provoked Indian wars in the past.  The colonists who had fought to open this land to settlement, however, felt betrayed.  This was just the first of many misunderstandings between the British government and their American colonists.

*The fact was that the colonists saw themselves as completely British and were proud of it.  As members of the British Empire, they enjoyed more freedom and self-government than anyone else on earth, and they attributed this to traditions of liberty enshrined in the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689 and to a mixed government that combined the best aspects of the three basic forms of government.

*Many colonial leaders were well-educated in the classics, and familiar with the work of the Greco-Roman historian Polybius (or works based on his), who stated that mankind naturally starts in a state of chaos until a strong leader can unite the people behind him in a monarchy (rule by one).  Over the course of time, though, a single ruler or his heirs will be come corrupt, and a good monarchy will become a tyranny.  This, in turn, will be overthrown by the best men in society, creating an aristocracy (rule by the best).  However, as their power becomes entrenched, they will rule for their own self-interest rather than the good of all, and become an oligarchy (rule by the few).  Finally, the people as a whole will rise up against this corrupt elite using the power of democracy (rule by the people), but soon this will collapse into mere mob rule.  Eventually a strong leader would emerge from this chaos and the cycle would begin again.

*The British avoided this by having all three forms of rule combined:  the king was the monarch, the House of Lords was the aristocracy, and the elected House of Commons was the democracy, and each restrained the others.  Most importantly, the House of Commons had the power of the purse, being the only part of the government allowed to create new taxes. 

*In the American colonies, most colonial governments worked in much the same way, with an appointed Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, an appointed Council, and an elected Assembly, House of Burgesses, or other legislative body that had the power of the purse and used it to keep the governors relatively weak (if they even bothered to go to America at all--many remained in Britain and enjoyed the prestige and salary of a provincial governor with the inconvenience of actually sailing to America).

*Although only about 2% of British subjects in Britain could actually vote thanks to property qualifications and other restrictions, that was far more than in any other country, and the British often referred to the subjects of other monarchs (particularly the French) as slaves.  To be sure, some British, particularly some members of the Whig party, felt that the British monarch had too much power to appoint men to important offices and used this and other favours to bribe politicians and other influential men, and this undermined the virtue (a subordination of personal interests to the public good) necessary to a free society, but most British people had faith in their government, including the British colonists in America, who saw themselves as part of a great British tradition and were proud to be so.

*In Britain (and America) at this time, it was believed that liberty was based on property--only someone with enough property to be independent of anyone else's control could truly be free.  This was one reason Britain and her colonies had property qualifications to vote:  a man who did not own enough property to support himself was not truly free, because whoever had economic influence over him might influence his vote, too. 

*Under long-standing traditions and the newer contract theory of government, a just government could not just take a free person's property.  Taxes were, at least in theory, a gift from the people to the government.  Therefore, taxes could only be levied by a representative body such as Parliament or a colonial legislature because it represented the property-owners whose property was being given to the government in the form of taxes.  This is why the House of Commons and the elected colonial assemblies had the power of the purse, and they guarded that privilege jealously.

*However, some traditions of government had changed over the centuries that people of the mother country and the colonies had been apart.

*A theoretical division, at least in America, was drawn between internal taxes (levied on property, to raise revenue for the government) and external taxes (levied on trade, to regulate commerce in the name of mercantilism, which the colonists claimed to support even as they ignored it in practise through rampant smuggling). 

*The idea behind the mercantilist system (which all imperial powers used) was that the colonies ought to supply raw materials to Europe, who would in turn sell manufactured goods to the colonies.  Each set of colonies only supplied and bought from the mother country.  The idea was that each empire would be self-sufficient.  Indirect taxes that promoted this were seen as a reasonable part of keeping the empire running.  They also often helped the colonies, as products like tobacco were essentially subsidised by this system, which made sure Virginia tobacco could be sold in London, although under theories of mercantilism, colonial industry was officially discouraged in the colonies so that they would remain consumers of Britain's manufactured goods rather than competitors.

*Most British people felt the distinction between direct and indirect taxes was pointless.

*A theoretical division, at least in Britain, was drawn between actual and virtual representation.  Actual representation occurred when a man voted for a member of parliament and the MP then represented the specific interests of the constituency that elected him, but some political thinkers had come to feel that MPs also virtually represented all Englishmen (most of whom did not vote any way), because they naturally had certain sympathies with all members of the United Kingdom, even those who were not born in the same county they were.  Many Americans felt this was unrealistic, at least across the Atlantic, and felt that only actual representation of the voters' interests granted acceptable authority to create an internal tax.

*There were a number of external taxes in place before the 1760s (such as the Molasses Act of 1733), but most were not enforced, or at least not enforced well.  Many Americans (like John Hancock) grew rich off smuggling.

*After the French and Indian War, Britain needed to repay £125 million to £140 million of debt, had to police the Proclamation Line, and in general felt a need to bring her American colonies under closer supervision.  In April, 1763, George Grenville was named Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and set out to do just that, and to get the colonies to pay for it.

*One of his first laws was the Currency Act of 1764 strictly limited the conditions under which the colonies could issue paper money, because it was seen as a threat to the stability of the local economy (although the inability to coin money made paper money almost a necessity), but it was mainly done to protect British creditors and merchants who did not want to be paid in devalued paper money.

*The Sugar Act of 1764 cut the Molasses Act in half, but actually tried to enforce it, thereby giving British authorities more power for search and seizure of potentially smuggled sugar and sugar products (such as molasses).  Colonists did not see a need for more taxes and especially not for more bureaucracy now that peace had arrived.  Worse, violators of the law were tried by the appointed British Admiralty courts located in distant Britain, not by local juries. 

*In short, as the colonists saw it, Britain was changing the rules and threatening their rights as Englishmen.  Most colonists felt that, though perhaps not ideal, the Sugar Act was legal and within the traditional powers of Parliament, because it was an external tax meant to regulate the Empire.  However, George Grenville was not done.

*The Stamp Act was announced in 1764 but not put into force until 1765.  It was a tax on most printed documents, including legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and many other paper goods.  This was a direct tax levied against property in order to make money for the government.  Worse, it especially hurt newspapermen, businessmen, lawyers and legislators--the sort of people who could organise resistance.  It was also difficult for others, because, although the tax on individual items was not that high, it had to be paid in specie rather than colonial paper money, and hard money was scarce. 

*Loyal citizens such as Benjamin Franklin and Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts advised against the Act, but were ignored.  Agitation spread to several colonies, and Patrick Henry began his career by denouncing the Stamp Act in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  Pamphlets were written denouncing the Act, but were ignored by Parliament. 

*Eventually, representatives from nine colonies met in New York in 1764 to plan a cohesive resistance to this one act while remaining loyal to the king.  This was known as the Stamp Act Congress, although it did not accomplish much besides set an example of inter-colonial meetings to discuss resistance to British laws. 

*Other groups appeared as well, including the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and others, who served as vigilantes to harass anyone taking part in enforcing the Stamp Act.  By late 1765, all the officials supposed to sell the stamps were afraid to do their duty, and in 1766 the act was repealed and the Sugar Tax reduced, but Parliament passed the Declaratory Act saying they had the absolute right pass laws that were binding over the colonies, so the crisis was not over.

*In 1766, William Pitt returned as Prime Minister.  Once a friend of the colonies, he started to get sick of them quickly, feeling that they were complaining about the costs of being part of an empire that protected them and gave them access to the greatest markets on Earth.  His Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, also quickly became frustrated.  Townshend had what seemed like a great idea:  he would use indirect taxes, of the sort that the colonists claimed to approve of.  This led to a series of acts typically known as the Townshend Acts.

*The Townshend Acts of 1767 placed duties on certain imports, including glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea.  These were supervised by a board of customs commissioners headquartered in Boston, which was generally resented.  The taxes resulted in protests, boycotts and violence, as merchants (sometimes out of fear) signed non-importation agreements that hurt British merchants, who in turn complained to Parliament.  This violence reached a climax in Boston in 1770. 

*Following a long series of riots and other protests in Boston led by the Sons of Liberty, more British soldiers were sent in to keep the peace.  They were resented by the locals and frequently teased and taunted, and not allowed to respond.  On the night of 5 March, 1770, a crowd of about 60 Bostonians started harassing about 10 soldiers guarding the customs house.  One soldier was hit with a club and knocked down.  The crowd also threw rocks and chunks of ice at the soldiers.  Angry and afraid, the soldiers fired their muskets into the crowd and killed or wounded eleven civilians, including the mob's leader, a runaway slave named Crispus Attucks who died instantly.  The Sons of Liberty described this as the Boston Massacre, and an engraving by one of their members, Paul Revere, became an influential piece of propaganda. 

*Later, a trial found only two of the ten soldiers guilty thanks to their defence lawyer John Adams, and even those two were released after their hands were branded.

*Parliament tried to temper its policies.  King George III's friend Lord North replaced William Pitt as Prime Minister and repealed all the Townshend Duties except the one on tea.  In fact, this happened on the same day as the Boston Massacre.

*After this, not much happened, as the colonies were becoming more prosperous now, and most were willing to live with the tea tax and the old tax on molasses from the Sugar Act.  However, colonists opposed to the British kept in touch through letter-writing groups or Committees of Correspondence.

*In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act.  This gave a monopoly on tea importing to the East India Company (in which many MPs and royal officials owned stock), and let them bypass wholesalers.  It also eliminated all duties and taxes on tea except the Townshend Duty.  Therefore, the East India Tea Company could sell tea (even with the duty) cheaper than even the smugglers could.  The merchants, especially the middlemen, called it corruption and monopoly and the start of an insidious conspiracy!  They said the local merchants would be ruined, then the tea company would raise prices when it had no competition.  It supported unneeded bureaucrats and corrupt officials.  However, most colonists did not seem to care.  Tea was too popular--close to half the population drank it daily.  However, a few agitators again stirred up trouble.  The Sons of Liberty threatened merchants and tax officials, so that many resigned rather than be tarred and feathered or have boiling tea poured down their throats or even have their houses torn down.

*Finally, in Boston, a large shipment of tea arrived in the harbour.  Acting Governor Hutchinson said that since it was in the city, the taxes must be paid.  However, a mob at the docks would not let the ships unload or sell the tea, while the governor would not let them leave.  Finally, the captain of one ship went ashore and asks for help.  This is creatively misinterpreted by the Sons of Liberty, and sixty, dressed as Indians, went aboard and dumped £10,000 worth of tea into Boston Harbour while 2,000 locals stood around and cheered.

*There were other tea parties like this up and down the coast, and Parliament was not pleased.  In response, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, of 1774.  The Boston Port Act shut down Boston Harbour until all the taxes were paid and the tea itself was paid for; the Massachusetts Governor Act removed Hutchinson from office and replaced him with General Thomas Gage who had the power to appoint a council and forbid town meetings; the Administration of Justice Act ensured that royal officials charged with any crime would be tried in England (not the colonies), which theoretically could let them harass locals and get away with it; and the Quartering Act introduced more troops to enforce the laws, who had to be supported any way the military saw fit (even in private homes).  Parliament also passed the Quebec Act, which preserved Catholicism, the French language, and other traditions in Quebec while enlarging its borders down to the Ohio River under the authority of a Royal Governor who would not be restrained by an elected legislature.

*The Virginia House of Burgesses called for a day of prayer for Massachusetts and was disbanded by the governor, Lord Dunmore.  Reconvening nearby in the Raleigh Tavern, they called for a meeting of all the colonies to decide what to do next. 

*Twelve colonies (all but Georgia) sent a total of 55 delegates to Philadelphia, where they constituted the First Continental Congress (5 September, 1774-26 October, 1774).  Some of the delegates had to be sent from ‘reconstituted assemblies’ created illegally after 6 colonies had their assemblies dissolved by their royal governors.

*Some delegates, such as John and Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Patrick Henry were very radical and were starting to consider breaking from England.

*Other delegates are more conservative, notably John Dickinson and Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania.

*Together, the delegates supported the Suffolk Resolves (originally issued from Suffolk County, Massachusetts) that called for no obedience to the coercive acts because Parliament had no right to enact them.  Furthermore, Congress resolved that Parliament did not and could not represent the colonies.   Despite this, most colonists did not yet want independence.  They simply wanted a new relationship with Great Britain——perhaps united under one king, but with separate parliaments.  This was even suggested in Galloway's Plan of Union, in which all the colonies would be united into one colony with an elected president-general and a Grand Council that would be subservient to Parliament.  This plan failed by only one vote.

*Congress supported non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreements (except for rice, in order to get South Carolina’s co-operation).

*It created Committees on Public Safety, one per colony, to enforce boycotts, pass out fliers, protect people who supported Congress, and beat up people who did not.

*Relatively satisfied with their accomplishments, Congress adjourned, but decided to meet again the next year, in May, 1775.

*Many colonists thought Congress and the Committees on Safety and the reconstituted assemblies were going a bit too far, but they were willing to go along because the new system looked much like the old one with most of the same old respected men in charge.  People also knew that there are real problems, and saw that this is at least a relatively calm, rational way of approaching them.  Finally, people saw what was happening in Massachusetts, and feared it could happen to them next.  Consequently, boycotts were mostly followed and militia units begin to train seriously, particularly the Minutemen of New England who claimed to be able to fight at a minute’s notice.

This page last updated 4 August, 2018.
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