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). Friedrich von 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 Albion’s Seedlings

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

7 thoughts on “Tea, Taxes and the American Revolution”

  1. Here’s another take on the same events. Prior to the French and Indian War, also known as the 7 Years War (SYW) in Europe, the American colonies were generally treated with benign neglect. Largely a place to dump the dissidents or to engage in a bit of property and material speculation. The SYW could probably be considered the original First World War. Operations were not only in the traditional territories of European conflict, but included India, the Caribbean, and North America. England had its first global projection and then sought to cognizantly consolidate its holdings. That meant imposing control or rule over people it had previously been left to their own devices. These weren’t native in a remote region simply trading one master for another, rather free born Englishman and aware of it too. The reaction of the colonists was not one of independence in the beginning, in fact efforts were made by parties of both sides to reach a reconciliation. What the colonist sought was a status of ’antebellum’. That is the autonomy and neglect they enjoyed prior to the most recent dust up with the French. The War for Independence was a reactionary response to ‘New World Order’ London sought to establish with all its recent gains. Taxes were just the focal point, but it was simply the manifestation of power by Parliament which was the problem. They repeal the onerous taxes, but they still got the rebellion.

  2. ” The post-1688 British government, which prevails to this day in most ways, is in essence a parliamentary dictatorship.”

    “Parliamentary dictatorship” the guys over at Samizdata would really like that one.

  3. Well, truly & righteously said. You have succinctly & eloquently captured the essence of the American Revolution & the US Constitution. I would much like this essence to be taught to every high school student.

  4. One other point. It seems to me that the Framers have been proved right. Parliament has, or is in the process of, abolishing most of the traditional liberties associated with the English-speaking peoples. The right to silence, trial by jury, presumption of innocence — all are close to lost. I am reminded of Churchill’s famous aphorism:

    “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”

    I fear that Britain is sinking in to squalor and tyranny. It will take a second “Glorious Revolution” to restore its ancient liberties.

  5. ” It will take a second “Glorious Revolution” to restore its ancient liberties.”

    We may get it John. I’ve noticed increasing calls from conservatives(traditionally defenders of the 1688 revolution and its consequences) calling for a written constitution on the grounds that Blair has shown no respect for our unwritten one. Added to which judicial activism has led to an increasing perception that parliament is not supreme, a concept which most Britons have previously never questioned.

  6. I’ve been thinking for some time that the Seven Years War was the first true World War. And, to an extent, it was a vestige of the Hundred Years War, which itself was a settling of the Normans’ accounts in France. The entire struggle for power in the English system, too, dates back to the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Funny what 1000 years of history reveals, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.