Keeping it straight

A disadvantage to this plan of proceeding from topic to topic in short sections, from most recent to less recent, is that a series of closely linked events may make little sense if sketched without their immediate background, but may involve tedious repetition if the background is sketched in, only to be repeated in detail in the next section. So, it may be worthwhile to take a fast look at the sequence. Here in a nutshell is how the British government managed to turn total victory over the French in 1763 into the American revolution in just a few years.

Consider the whole subject of Parliament taxing America. Would you throw away a continent to avoid retiring a few army officers? Or to prove that you had the right to legislate taxes that you couldn’t enforce? Or just to show that you could make the colonists obey you? Parliament did all those things, and in the process threw away the first British empire. Sometimes governments make monumentally stupid decisions for reasons that seem, to them at the time, perfectly sensible.

The Americans of the day believed that these measures were part of a dark purpose. It would be rash of us to assume that dangers seen by so many eminent practical men – New Englanders, southerners, and men of the middle colonies alike — were totally nonexistent. The danger lay more in the tendency than in the intent, perhaps, but that didn’t make things less dangerous. Nonetheless, we in our day can see how great were the elements of chance involved in the drama.

Here was the sequence: First came victory over the French in 1763, a victory so total as to free the North American colonies from military danger. Then came the need to pay for that war. Then came “practical” measures to obtain the revenue by taxing the colonies. Then came resistance, and insistence, and an escalation of tensions and suspicions, and within a dozen years of victory, the two halves of the empire were at each other’s throats, and within a couple years more, France was exacting its revenge, forcing its hated rival to make a peace that cost it the most populous part of its empire.

And it started as a way to prevent some army officers from losing their positions.

In the wake of Britain’s victory over the French in 1763, the ministry of the Earl of Bute decided to keep 10,000 British regulars in the American colonies. Why? To avoid having to demobilize 1,500 politically connected officers. Just that!

It was politically impossible to maintain a large standing army in the home islands. (Britain historically looked for protection to its navy, not its army.) So, Bute’s brilliant idea was to station the army in the colonies, and the prime minister after Bute, George Grenville, made the even more brilliant decision to tax the colonies to pay to maintain the army, since it was there for their defense. But after the peace of 1763, Americans saw no need for British troops, and they weren’t willing to pay for them.

What made things worse was the means proposed. First came the Sugar Act of 1764, an import levy that was largely avoided by smuggling. But then came the Stamp Act of 1764. Great Britain had had its own Stamp Act since 1712, taxing newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, etc. – even commercial bills and advertisements, but in 160 years, Parliament had never directly taxed the North American colonies. It had regulated colonial trade, but it had not imposed taxes. (Americans had contributed to the cost of their defense by providing colonial militias and sometimes by voting funds to help maintain British troops.)

Next came the Townshend Acts — the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act — designed to make the governors and judges independent of colonial legislatures, to suppress smuggling (that is, to enforce compliance with trade regulations), to punish New York for failing to comply with the Quartering Act of 1765,  and to establish that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies.

When widespread resistance to these acts showed that they were impractical, Parliament repealed all but the tax on tea, which was just enough to keep the pot boiling, because it told the colonists that Parliament was still intent on taxing them at its will, regardless of the fact that it included no American representation.

Naturally, the British government attempted to deal with the colonies separately, on the theory of divide and conquer. This very effectively taught the colonists the need for increased coordination, and so came into being the Committees of Correspondence. Those committees were one of the roots of the call for a Continental Congress, in response to the Boston Tea Party and the retaliatory acts that followed.

It’s fascinating, really, to watch. It tempts you to conclude that ministerial stupidity of such magnitude can only have come by way of divine providence, in the sense of the old saying, “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

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