Thursday, March 01, 2007

The American crisis

The posts on America owe a great deal to the standard histories of the period, notably Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People (Oxford, 1989).

The American Colonies

In 1763 the British Empire in North America had emerged from a triumphant war with spectacular new gains. The whole continent to the east of the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay was under British authority. Yet within 12 years hostilities had broken out with the mother country, ans when Britain finally accepted American independence in 1783, all that remained of its North American Empire was Quebec and Nova Scotia. Why?

The thirteen British colonies in America were remarkably diverse, with little sense of unity, though many of them were bound together by a common Dissenting tradition, which differentiated them in many respects from the mother country. There was a general assumption in Britain that the King-in-Parliament at Westminster was sovereign over the colonies and that it enjoyed the right of taxing them. But this right was increasingly challenged by the colonists.

The Seven Years’ War inflicted serious damage on Britain’s relations with her colonies. The war had ensured British rule in Canada but the territorial gains made in the war had to be protected and consolidated; there were 80,000 French settlers in Canada, and an unreconciled Native American presence around the Great Lakes and the Ohio basin. In October 1763 a royal proclamation prohibited the colonists from further settlement west of the Alleghenies in order to prevent Indian unrest – a restriction that was offensive to the land-hungry colonists and was largely ignored. Furthermore, the insecurity of British rule in North America meant that troops were constantly needed. Britain believed that it was only reasonable for the colonists to pay for their protection, but the colonists objected on the principle of ‘No taxation without representation’.

The Stamp Act
When George Grenville took office in 1763 he found that the National Debt had doubled during the war to almost £143 million and that the estimated cost of defending America and Canada amounted to at least £300,000 pa. The most controversial measure of his administration was the Stamp Act, enacted in March 1765 - an impost on legal transactions, newspapers and dice imposed on the American colonies. Though it was to acquire great historical significance, it was a minor piece of taxation (part of a general raft of colonial measures) and would bring in no more than £60,000 p.a at a time when there was no immediate threat either from the French or the Indians. In parliamentary terms it was not controversial and it was opposed by only a handful of opposition MPs. However, it was the clearest possible assertion of the right to tax, and America,was already irritated by earlier taxes. Colonial legislatures promptly protested and their agents in London lobbied against the enforcement of the Act. They were met with surprise and incomprehension. British public opinion was not sympathetic to the Americans’ plea to be spared the burden of taxation. The British were paying an average of 26s a year, and the new taxes would cost the Americans only an extra 1s a year.

In May 1765 the Virginia Assembly passed a series of resolutions condemning the Stamp Act on constitutional grounds. This news was broadcast over the other 12 colonies and imitated by one legislature after another. In August 1765 the Massachusetts Stamp Distributor’s home in Boston was attacked by a mob. In fear of his life he resigned his position and a wave of riotous attacks spread over the northern colonies. The Governor of Massachusetts complained that he was the prisoner of the people and the British Crown proved unable to defend him. The tiny North American garrison (6,000 strong) was situated on the western frontiers and Canada, far from the trouble spots.

In October the Stamp Act Congress met in New York, declared ‘taxation without representation’ unconstitutional, instituted a boycott of British goods and talked about the American people arming themselves to defend their liberties. By this time Grenville had been replaced by Rockingham. The new ministry was slow to realise that it had a major crisis on its hands, but in January 1766 it proposed a twin solution. The ministry presented the Commons with a formula: repeal of the Stamp Act but this to be accompanied by a face-saving Declaratory Act, which uncompromisingly asserted Parliament’s right to legislate for the American colonies. In the debates that followed Pitt (soon to be earl of Chatham) made his last great Commons speech, attacking the Stamp Act and the taxation of the colonies in general (though he idiosyncratically asserted Britain’s right to control the commerce of the colonies). An ingenious campaign of persuasion was mounted in the House. The case was skilfully orchestrated by Edmund Burke, then Rockingham’s private secretary, making his political debut. In the crucial division of 22 February repeal was carried 275/167. This was followed by tumultuous scenes in the lobbies. It seemed to satisfy most of the British political nation: the ending of a damaging dispute, and the reaffirmation of parliamentary sovereignty. But the colonists for the most part chose to ignore the Declaratory Act and the issue of colonial taxation remained unresolved.

The Townshend duties
The Chatham ministry, formed in July 1766, soon identified as one of its priorities how to find some way of taxing America in view of the spiralling costs of the garrison (the estimates climbed to over £575,000 by 1767). Since the Americans had declared that internal taxation was unconstitutional, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, declared his intention to exploit customs tariffs to raise the necessary revenue. This involved the taxing of a number of commodities imported into the colonies from Britain: lead, glass, paint, paper and tea. But the Americans themselves had now moved on and many were now questioning Britain’s right to legislate for them under any circumstances whatsoever. Townshend further exacerbated the situation by taking advantage of Chatham’s frequent bouts of mental illness to alter the purpose of the tariffs from funding the garrison to funding imperial administration in America. They thus threatened to emancipate colonial governors and other imperial administrators from the control of the colonial legislatures which up till then had paid their salaries. The duties were formally enacted in June 1767.

In February 1768 the Massachusetts Bay Assembly protested in the strongest terms against Townshend’s Act and circulated other colonies with a request for joint action. In September 1768 there were new disturbances in Boston. This time the ministry was ready to use coercion and in Boston was occupied by a force of regular soldiers and a small naval squadron. The Americans were taken by surprise and their resistance was temporarily cowed.

In October 1768 Chatham resigned. The new Grafton ministry offered as a magnanimous gesture to suspend the tariffs provided the colonial legislatures explicitly accepted Westminster’s right to tax and legislate for America. This provoked a more militant trade boycott among the Americans. On 1 May 1769 the Cabinet decided by the narrow majority of 5/4 to suspend all duties except for tea in order to assert Parliament's right to tax. The ground for the final clash between Britain and its American colonies was thereby laid out.

Lord North
In January 1770 Grafton was replaced by Frederick, Lord North (1732-92). North has been abused as a stock cliché - ‘the worst prime minister since Lord North’. Yet in 1804, looking over his reign, George III decided that he had been his best prime minister to date. Later prime ministers have envied him his 12 year period of office! Historians more recently have been concerned to rehabilitate him. He was the eldest son of Francis North, 3rd Baron Guildford and godson (and namesake) of Frederick Prince of Wales, and he was to inherit his father’s title in 1790. In the general election of 1754 he entered parliament (unchallenged) for the family seat of Banbury. His parliamentary debating skills and the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle secured his appointment to the Treasury Board in 1759 (under the leadership of his relation, Henry Legge, the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and a salary of £1,400, which enabled him to settle some of his debts. During the debates on the Wilkes affair he spoke eloquently and even ferociously for the government in spite of some private misgivings. In January 1764 he moved the Commons vote for the expulsion of Wilkes. With the fall of the Grenville ministry in July 1765 he resigned.

In July 1766 he became one of the two Paymasters General in the Chatham Administration. In October 1767 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, following the death of Townshend. In January 1768 he became Leader of the House of Commons.

When he became Prime Minister, North was determined to follow Grafton’s policy and not give way on the tea duty - the final token of Britain’s right to tax and legislate for the colonies

The Boston massacre
By 1770 Boston had become the heart of colonial resistance. Five weeks into North’s administration, troops occupying the city fired on rioters, killing five of them, in the ‘massacre’ of 5 March 1770. The real significance lay not in the small number of casualties but in the propaganda gift to the rebellious leaders, notably Sam Adams. Paul Revere was soon selling his colour prints of ‘The Bloody Massacre’ from his print shop in Boston – two other artist-engravers also issued prints that year. However, the British soldiers were acquitted after a defence by John Adams and by 1771 the American situation seemed calm enough for North to declare ‘the American disputes are settled, and there is nothing much to interrupt the peace and prosperity of the nation’.

The Boston tea-party
The tea duties had proved very useful to Britain as they financed the salaries of the governors of New York and Massachusetts, but for this reason they were very unpopular with American ‘patriots’.

In 1773 the government reduced the duties on tea in an attempt to aid the East India Company and to undercut the cost of smuggled goods. The Sons of Liberty saw this as an affront and on 16 December, dressed as Mohawks, they boarded the first tea shops to arrive in Boston harbour, and dumped their cargo in the harbour.

The Coercive Acts
Technically, this act was a breach of the East India Company’s private property. From the British point of view it was the last straw and caused a wave of public indignation. In 1774 North introduced the Coercive Acts (known to the Patriots as the Intolerable Acts) which were carried overwhelmingly in both Houses. Boston harbour was to be closed until reparation was paid and the Massachusetts Charter was remodelled, with the elected council being replaced by a nominated one. This simply convinced the Americans that there was a conspiracy to destroy their liberties. British goods were boycotted throughout the colonies.

Both sides were now locked into a cycle of action and over-reaction.

The Quebec Act
American opinion was further outraged by the Quebec Act (1774) which, among other controversial clauses recognized French civil law and the Roman Catholic establishment in Quebec, and permitted it to collect tithes. North further proposed to extend the Quebec frontier to include the region between the Ohio and the Mississippi, and this aroused the indignation of the colonists who wanted to extend into these territories themselves. This was cited as further evidence of the administration’s malign intent to subvert both Protestantism and the common law.

In autumn 1774 a Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia to coordinate resistance. That autumn in Britain saw a general election with little sense of ideological conflict. But the opposition drew comfort from Burke’s return for Bristol. Did this mean there was popular support for the colonists?

The Outbreak of War
The reports from America were discouraging. In April 1775 continuing unrest in New England caused General Gage, commander in Boston, to attempt the seizure of an arms depot and the arrest of the 'rebels' Samuel Adams and John Hancock. But they were alerted by Paul Revere, who rode from Boston to Lexington Massachusetts to warn them.. The result was the historical battle of Lexington on 19 April (‘the shot that rang around the world’) followed by the engagement at Concord in which ‘Minute Men’ forced British troops back to Boston. In a European setting these would have been minor skirmishes, but the effect in America was enormous. For the first time American blood had been deliberately shed by British hands.

When the Second Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia in May 1775 George Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected commander-in-chief of the Continental Army (15 June). On 17 June after receiving reinforcements, Gage attacked the American entrenchments at Bunker Hill outside Boston, taking them on the third attempt.

On 23 August 1775 the Patriots issued a Proclamation of Rebellion. On 4 March 1776 Washington occuped Dorchester Heights commanding Boston Harbour and the British evacuated to Halifax.

On 4 July 1776 Declaration of Independence was drawn up in Philadelphia.

The British reaction
The Americans had far more to lose than the British. If they lost, they were traitors, if they won, they were entering uncharted territory. Moreover, North’s government continued to enjoy widespread support. Public opinion divided according to existing political positions, reflecting the relative strengths of government and opposition, Church and Dissent. The old Tory language of passive obedience enjoyed a revival, with the Americans portrayed as anarchists and ‘enthusiasts’. On the other side were those that petitioned against war with America, but they were hampered by the Whig ideology of parliamentary sovereignty; the issue did not concern the royal prerogative, but the right of parliament to legislate for the colonies. In 1775 the mercantile interest was solidly in favour of confronting the Americans - it was established economic orthodoxy that Britain could not survive without the captive colonial market. The appearance of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations did not immediately shake their instinctive mercantilism. It was also reasoned that the conflict would be a short one, as Britain had not lost a war for 110 years. What was ignored was the fact that Britain had won her previous wars with the help of European allies, whom she had deserted in 1762-3. In 1775 she was diplomatically isolated, with both France and Spain eager for revenge.