Monday, February 10, 2014

Why did the colonists revolt?

In the five centuries following the Magna Carta (1215), Englishmen had gradually gained individual rights, so that by the late eighteenth century, the English were beginning to exercise a degree of self-government. The King and nobility still wielded substantial power, but Parliament had gained increasing authority, especially the elected House of Commons. 

Toward the end of this period, the opinions of those outside the aristocracy were increasingly influenced by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the seventeen and eighteenth centuries. Enlightenment thinkers began to challenge existing religious, government, and social norms, and pushed for additional individual liberty and the free exercise of natural rights. They argued that mankind not only had a capacity for self-government, but that it was a natural right. Through an evolutionary process, Englishmen grew to enjoy an ever-increasing say over who made the laws that governed their lives. That is, those Englishmen who lived in England. If an Englishman happened to live in one of the British colonies, he was still a mere subject of the crown with no representation in Parliament.

United States history
Benjamin Franklin  before Lords in Council in Whitehall Chapel

This second-class citizenship chafed American colonists. They viewed themselves as English, and took an Englishman’s rights seriously. The irony is that even without representation in Parliament, the colonists enjoyed more personal liberty than their English counterparts. In order to have the colonies function effectively three thousand miles away from the mother country, the colonists were allowed to make many of their own rules through locally elected legislatures. The colonists had developed a strong history of self-government, and were used to being somewhat independent from the rulers of the British Empire.

The colonists grew increasingly annoyed with the palpable disrespect they received from London. Two examples will help illustrate this point. George Washington served honorably as a colonial officer in the French and Indian War, but despite incessant pleads, he could not secure a regular commission in the British Army. No matter how well they fought, colonists could never be the equal of an English officer. Washington suffered innumerable other slights from his British overlords until they eventually drove him to become a committed rebel. 

Benjamin Franklin also suffered poor treatment from the English. As relations grew tense between England and the colonies, Franklin, who had lived in London for eighteen years, tried to smooth things over as an unofficial envoy. He was so angered by his ill-treatment at a Privy Council session that it is rumored he told the British solicitor general, “I will make your master a little king for this.” Franklin made good on his word. Upon returning from England, he was appointed to the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence.

A Tax That Riled the Colonist

The view was different from London, of course. The rulers of the British Empire saw the colonists as getting a free ride. The great British Navy kept the seas safe for New England ships, and the mercantilist Parliament regulated trade so that the American maritime industry prospered. To keep the colonies safe from foreign invasion, England had built forts and posted troops throughout their North America holdings. The French and Indian War caused a major drain on the British treasury. Parliament looked at all of these costs and saw colonials acting like ungrateful, spoiled children who had grown large enough to pay their own way. So in 1765, Parliament passed the Duties in American Colonies Act, more commonly referred to as the Stamp Act.

American history
Colonial Funeral for the Stamp Act
This new act was relatively simple, but would pervade the colonies. Printed documents and materials were required to use paper manufactured in London with an embossed revenue stamp. The tax also had to be paid in scarce British currency, not colonial money, which had severe economic consequences. Because of protests and harassment of stamp tax officials, the tax was rescinded the next year. But Parliament simultaneously passed the Declaratory Act, stating that Parliament had unconstrained authority to pass legislation that would have the full force of law in the American colonies.

This throwing down of the gauntlet by Parliament ignited the phrase, "No taxation without representation," and put the two countries on the path to war.

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