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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter II: The Burden of Empire

With singularly little debate, honorable and right honorable members were ready to vote this new Sugar Act, having the minister’s word for it that it would be enforced, the revenue thereby much improved, and a sudden stop put to the long-established illicit traffic with the foreign islands, a traffic so beneficial to the northern colonies, so prejudicial to the Empire and the pockets of planters. Thus it was that Mr. Grenville came opportunely to the aid of the Spanish authorities, who for many years had employed their guarda costas in a vain effort to suppress this very traffic, conceiving it, oddly enough, to be injurious to Spain and highly advantageous to Britain.

It may be that the Spanish authorities regarded the West Indian trade as a commercial system rather than as a means of revenue. This aspect of the matter, the commercial effects of his measures, Mr. Grenville at all events managed not to take suffciently into account, which was rather odd, seeing that he professed to hold the commercial system embodied in the Navigation and Trade Acts in such high esteem, as a kind of “English Palladium.” No one could have wished less than Grenville to lay sacrilegious hands on this Palladium, have less intended to throw sand into the nicely adjusted bearings of the Empire’s smoothly working commercial system. If he managed nevertheless to do something of this sort, it was doubtless by virtue of being such a “good man of business,” by virtue of viewing the art of government too narrowly as a question of revenue only. For the moment, preoccupied as they were with the quest of revenue, the new measures seemed to Mr. Grenville and to the squires and planters who voted them well adapted to raising a moderate sum, part only of some 350,000 pounds, for the just and laudable purpose of “defraying the necessary expences of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America.”

The problem of colonial defense, so closely connected with the question of revenue, was none of Grenville’s making but was a legacy of the war and of that Peace of Paris which had added an immense territory to the Empire. When the diplomats of England and France at last discovered, in some mysterious manner, that it had “pleased the Most High to diffuse the spirit of union and concord among the Princes,” the world was informed that, as the price of “a Christian, universal; and perpetual peace,” France would cede to England what had remained to her of Nova Scotia, Canada, and all the possessions of France on the left bank of the Mississippi except the City of New Orleans and the island on which it stands; that she would cede also the islands of Grenada and the Grenadines, the islands of St. Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago, and the River Senegal with all of its forts and factories; and that she would for the future be content, so far as her activities in India were concerned, with the five factories which she possessed there at the beginning of the year 1749.

The average Briton, as well as honorable and right honorable members of the House, had known that England possessed colonies and had understood that colonies, as a matter of course, existed to supply him with sugar and rice, indigo and tobacco, and in return to buy at a good price whatever he might himself wish to sell. Beyond all this he had given slight attention to the matter of colonies until the great Pitt had somewhat stirred his slow imagination with talk of empire and destiny. It was doubtless a liberalizing as well as a sobering revelation to be told that he was the “heir apparent of the Romans,” with the responsibilities that are implied in having a high mission in the world. Now that his attention was called to the matter, it seemed to the average Briton that in meeting the obligation of this high mission and in dealing with this far-flung empire, a policy of efficiency such as that advocated by Mr. Grenville might well replace a policy of salutary neglect; and if the national debt had doubled during the war, as he was authoritatively assured, why indeed should not the Americans, grown rich under the fostering care of England and lately freed from the menace of France by the force of British arms, be expected to observe the Trade Acts and to contribute their fair share to the defense of that new world of which they were the chief beneficiaries?

If Americans were quite ready in their easy going way to take chances in the matter of defense, hoping that things would turn out for the best in the future as they had in the past, British statesmen and right honorable members of the House, viewing the question broadly and without provincial illusions, understood that a policy of preparedness was the only salvation; a policy of muddling through would no longer suffice as it had done in the good old days before country squires and London merchants realized that their country was a world power. In those days, when the shrewd Robert Walpole refused to meddle with schemes for taxing America, the accepted theory of defense was a simple one. If Britain policed the sea and kept the Bourbons in their place, it was thought that the colonies might be left to manage the Indians; fur traders, whose lure the red man could not resist, and settlers occupying the lands beyond the mountains, so it was said, would do the business. In 1749, five hundred thousand acres of land had been granted to the Ohio Company “in the King’s interest” and “to cultivate a friendship with the nations of Indians inhabiting those parts”; and as late as 1754 the Board of Trade was still encouraging the rapid settling of the West, “inasmuch as nothing can more effectively tend to defeat the dangerous designs of the French.”

On the eve of the last French war it may well have seemed to the Board of Trade that this policy was being attended with gratifying results. In the year 1749, La Galissomere, the acting Governor of Canada, commissioned Celoron de Blainville to take possession of the Ohio Valley, which he did in form, descending the river to the Maumee, and so to Lake Erie and home again, having at convenient points proclaimed the sovereignty of Louis XV over that country, and having laid down, as evidence of the accomplished fact, certain lead plates bearing awe-inspiring inscriptions, some of which have been discovered and are preserved to this day. It was none the less a dangerous junket. Everywhere Blainville found the Indians of hostile mind; everywhere, in every village almost, he found English traders plying their traffic and “cultivating a friendship with the Indians”; so that upon his return in 1750, in spite of the lead plates so securely buried, he must needs write in his journal: “All I can say is that the nations of those countries are ill disposed towards the French and devoted to the English.”

During the first years of the war all this devotion was nevertheless seen to be of little worth. Like Providence, the Indians were sure to side with the big battalions. For want of a few effective garrisons at the beginning, the English found themselves deserted by their quondam allies, and although they recovered this facile allegiance as soon as the French garrisons were taken, it was evident enough in the late years of the war that fear alone inspired the red man’s loyalty. The Indian apparently did not realize at this early date that his was an inferior race destined to be supplanted. Of a primitive and uncultivated intelligence, it was not possible for him to foresee the beneficent designs of the Ohio Company or to observe with friendly curiosity the surveyors who came to draw imaginary lines through the virgin forest. And therefore, even in an age when the natural rights of man were being loudly proclaimed, the “Nations of Indians inhabiting those parts” were only too ready to believe what the Virginia traders told them of the Pennsylvanians, what the Pennsylvania traders told them of the Virginians–that the fair words of the English were but a kind of mask to conceal the greed of men who had no other desire than to deprive the red man of his beloved hunting grounds.

Thus it was that the industrious men with pedantic minds who day by day read the dispatches that accumulated in the office of the Board of Trade became aware, during the years from 1758 to 1761, that the old policy of defense was not altogether adequate. “The granting of lands hitherto unsettled,” so the Board reported in 1761, “appears to be a measure of the most dangerous tendency.” In December of the same year all governors were accordingly forbidden “to pass grants…or encourage settlements upon any lands within the said colonies which may interfere with the Indians bordering upon them.”

The policy thus initiated found final expression in the famous Proclamation of 1763, in the early months of Grenville’s ministry. By the terms of the Proclamation no further grants were to be made within lands “which, not having been ceded to, or purchased by us, are reserved to the said Indians”–that is to say, “all the lands lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea from the west or the northwest.” All persons who had “either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves” on the reserved lands were required “forthwith to remove themselves”; and for the future no man was to presume to trade with the Indians without first giving bond to observe such regulations as “we shall at any time think fit to…direct for the benefit of the said trade.” All these provisions were designed “to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our justice and determined resolution to remove all reasonable cause of discontent.” By royal act the territory west of the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, from Florida to 50 degrees north latitude, was thus closed to settlement “for the present” and “reserved to the Indians.”

Having thus taken measures to protect the Indians against the colonists, the mother country was quite ready to protect the colonists against the Indians. Rash Americans were apt to say the danger was over now that the French were “expelled from Canada.” This statement was childish enough in view of the late Pontiac uprising which was with such great difficulty suppressed–if indeed one could say that it was suppressed–by a general as efficient even as Amherst, with seasoned British troops at his command. The red man, even if he submitted outwardly, harbored in his vengeful heart the rankling memory of many griefs, real or imaginary; and he was still easily swayed by his ancient but now humiliated French friends, who had been “expelled from Canada” only indeed in a political sense but were still very much there as promoters of trouble. What folly, therefore, to talk of withdrawing the troops from America! No sane man but could see that, under the circumstances, such a move was quite out of the question.

It would materially change the circumstances, undoubtedly, if Americans could ever be induced to undertake, in any systematic and adequate manner, to provide for their own defense in their own way. In that case the mother country would be only too glad to withdraw her troops, of which indeed she had none too many. But it was well known what the colonists could be relied upon to do, or rather what they could be relied upon not to do, in the way of cooperative effort. Ministers had not forgotten that on the eve of the last war, at the very climax of the danger, the colonial assemblies had rejected a Plan of Union prepared by Benjamin Franklin, the one man, if any man there was, to bring the colonies together. They had rejected the plan as involving too great concentration of authority, and they were unwilling to barter the veriest jot or tittle of their much prized provincial liberty for any amount of protection. And if they rejected this plan–a very mild and harmless plan, ministers were bound to think–it was not likely they could be induced, in time of peace, to adopt any plan that might be thought adequate in England. Such a plan, for example, was that prepared by the Board of Trade, by which commissioners appointed by the governors were empowered to determine the military establishment and to apportion the expense of maintaining it among the several colonies on the basis of wealth and population. Assemblies which for years past had systematically deprived governors of all discretionary power to expend money raised by the assemblies themselves would surely never surrender to governors the power of determining how much assemblies should raise for governors to expend.

Doubtless it might be said with truth that the colonies had voluntarily contributed more than their fair share in the last war; but it was also true that Pitt, and Pitt alone, could get them to do this. The King could not always count on there being in England a great genius like Pitt, and besides he did not always find it convenient, for reasons which could be given, to employ a great genius like Pitt. A system of defense had to be designed for normal times and normal men; and in normal times with normal men at the helm, ministers were agreed, the American attitude towards defense was very cleverly described by Franklin: “Everyone cries, a Union is absolutely necessary, but when it comes to the manner and form of the Union, their weak noddles are perfectly distracted.”

Noddles of ministers, however, were in no way distracted but saw clearly that, if Americans could not agree on any plan of defense, there was no alternative but “an interposition of the authority of Parliament.” Such interposition, recommended by the Board of Trade and already proposed by Charles Townshend in the last ministry, was now taken in hand by Grenville. The troops were to remain in America; the Mutiny Act, which required soldiers in barracks to be furnished with provisions and utensils by local authorities, and which as a matter of course went where the army went, was supplemented by the Quartering Act, which made further provision for the billeting and supplying of the troops in America. And for raising some part of the general maintenance fund ministers could think of no tax more equitable, or easier to be levied and collected, than a stamp tax. Some such tax, stamp tax or poll tax, had often been recommended by colonial governors, as a means of bringing the colonies “to a sense of their duty to the King, to awaken them to take care of their lives and their fortunes.” A crown officer in North Carolina, Mr. M’Culloh, was good enough to assure Mr. Charles Jenkinson, one of the Secretaries of the Treasury, backing up his assertion with sundry statistical exhibits, that a stamp tax on the continental colonies would easily yield 60,000 pounds, and twice that sum if extended to the West Indies. As early as September 23, 1763, Mr. Jenkinson, acting on an authorization of the Treasury Board, accordingly wrote to the Commissioners of Stamped Duties, directing them “to prepare, for their Lordships’ consideration, a draft of an act for imposing proper stamp duties on His Majesty’s subjects in America and the West Indies.”

Mr. Grenville, who was not in any case the man to do things in a hurry, nevertheless proceeded very leisurely in the matter. He knew very well that Pitt had refused to “burn his fingers” with any stamp tax; “and some men, such as his friend and secretary, Mr. Jackson, for example, and the Earl of Hillsborough, advised him to abandon the project altogether, while others urged delay at least, in order that Americans might have an opportunity to present their objections, if they had any. It was decided therefore to postpone the matter for a year; and in presenting the budget on March 9, 1764, the first minister merely gave notice that “it maybe proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations.” Of all the plans for taxing America, he said, this one seemed to him the best; yet he was not wedded to it, and would willingly adopt any other preferred by the colonists, if they could suggest any other of equal efficacy. Meanwhile, he wished only to call upon honorable members of the House to say now, if any were so minded, that Parliament had not the right to impose any tax, external or internal, upon the colonies; to which solemn question, asked in full house, there was not one negative, nor any reply except Alderman Beckford saying: “As we are stout, I hope we shall be merciful.”

It soon appeared that Americans did have objections to a stamp tax. Whether it were equitable or not, they would rather it should not be laid, really preferring not to be dished up in any sauce whatever, however fine. The tax might, as ministers said, be easily collected, or its collection might perhaps be attended with certain difficulties; in either case it would remain, for reasons which they were ready to advance, a most objectionable tax. Certain colonial agents then in England accordingly sought an interview with the first minister in order to convince him, if possible, of this fact. Grenville was very likely more than ready to grant them an interview, relying upon the strength of his position, on his “tenderness for the subjects in America,” and upon his well-known powers of persuasion, to bring them to his way of thinking. To get from the colonial agents a kind of assent to his measure would be to win a point of no slight strategic value, there being at least a modicum of truth in the notion that just government springs from the consent of the governed.

“I have proposed the resolution [the minister explained to the agents] from a real regard and tenderness for the subjects in the colonies. It is highly reasonable they should contribute something towards the charge of protecting themselves, and in aid of the great expense Great Britain has put herself to on their account. No tax appears to me so easy and equitable as a stamp duty. It will fall only upon property, will be collected by the fewest officers, and will be equally spread over America and the West Indies…. It does not require any number of officers vested with extraordinary powers of entering houses, or extend a sort of influence which I never wished to increase. The colonists now have it in their power, by agreeing to this tax, to establish a precedent for their being consulted before any tax is imposed upon them by Parliament; for their approbation of it being signified to Parliament next year…will afford a forcible argument for the like proceeding in all such cases. If they think of any other mode of taxation more convenient to them, and make any proposition of equal efficacy with the stamp duty, I will give it all due consideration.”

The agents appear at least to have been silenced by this speech, which was, one must admit, so fatherly and so very reasonable in tone; and doubtless Grenville thought them convinced, too, since he always so perfectly convinced himself. At all events, he found it possible, for this or for some other reason, to put the whole matter out of his mind until the next year. The patriotic American historian, well instructed in the importance of the Stamp Act, has at first a difficulty in understanding how it could occupy, among the things that interested English statesmen at this time, a strictly subordinate place; and he wonders greatly, as he runs with eager interest through the correspondence of Grenville for the year 1764, to find it barely mentioned there. Whether the King received him less coldly today than the day before yesterday was apparently more on the minister’s mind than any possibility that the Stamp Act might be received rather warmly in the colonies. The contemporaries of Grenville, even Pitt himself, have almost as little to say about the coming great event; all of which compels the historian, reviewing the matter judiciously, to reflect sadly that Englishmen of that day were not as fully aware of the importance of the measure before it was passed as good patriots have since become.

There is much to confirm this notion in the circumstances attending the passage of the bill through Parliament in the winter of 1765. Grenville was perhaps further reassured, in spite of persistent rumors of much high talk in America, by the results of a second interview which he had with the colonial agents just before introducing the measure into the House of Commons. “I take no pleasure,” he again explained in his reasonable way, “in bringing upon myself their resentments; it is my duty to manage the revenue. I have really been made to believe that, considering the whole circumstances of the mother country and the colonies, the latter can and ought to pay something to the common cause. I know of no better way than that now pursuing to lay such a tax. If you can tell of a better, I will adopt it.”

Franklin, who was present with the others on this occasion, ventured to suggest that the “usual constitutional way” of obtaining colonial support, through the King’s requisition, would be better. “Can you agree,” asked Grenville, “on the proportions each colony should raise?” No, they could not agree, as Franklin was bound to admit, knowing the fact better than most men. And if no adequate answer was forthcoming from Franklin, a man so ready in expedients and so practiced in the subtleties of dialectic, it is no great wonder that Grenville thought the agents now fully convinced by his reasoning, which after all was only an impersonal formulation of the inexorable logic of the situation.

Proceeding thus leisurely, having taken so much pains to elicit reasonable objection and none being forthcoming, Grenville, quite sure of his ground, brought in from the Ways and Means Committee, in February, 1765, the fifty-five resolutions which required that stamped paper, printed by the government and sold by officers appointed for that purpose, be used for nearly all legal documents, for all customs papers, for appointments to all offices carrying a salary of 20 pounds except military and judicial offices, for all grants of privilege and franchises made by the colonial assemblies, for Licenses to retail liquors, for all pamphlets, advertisements, handbills, newspapers, almanacs, and calendars, and for the sale of packages containing playing cards and dice. The expediency of the act was now explained to the House, as it had been explained to the agents. That the act was legal, which few people in fact denied, Grenville, doing everything thoroughly and with system, proceeded to demonstrate also. The colonies claim, he said, “the privilege of all British subjects of being taxed only with their own consent.” Well, for his part, he hoped they might always enjoy that privilege. “May this sacred pledge of liberty,” cried the minister with unwonted eloquence, “be preserved inviolate to the utmost verge of our dominions and to the latest pages of our history.” But Americans were clearly wrong in supposing the Stamp Act would deprive them of the rights of Englishmen, for, upon any ground on which it could be said that Englishmen were represented, it could be maintained, and he was free to assert, that Americans were represented, in Parliament, which was the common council of the whole Empire.

The measure was well received. Mr. Jackson supposed that Parliament had a right to tax America, but he much doubted the expediency of the present act. If it was necessary, as ministers claimed, to tax the colonies, the latter should be permitted to elect some part of the Parliament, “otherwise the liberties of America, I do not say will be lost, but will be in danger.” The one notable event of this “slight day” was occasioned by a remark of Charles Townshend, who asked with some asperity whether “these American children, planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms,” would now be so unfilial as to “grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy burden under which we lie?” Upon which Colonel Isaac Barre sprang to his feet and delivered an impassioned, unpremeditated reply which stirred the dull House for perhaps three minutes

“They planted by YOUR care! No; your oppression planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated, inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable …. They nourished up by your indulgence! They grew by your neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule them in one department and another, who were, perhaps, the deputies of deputies to some members of this house, sent to spy out their liberties, to misrepresent their actions, and to prey upon them; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil within them…. They protected by your arms! They have nobly taken up arms in your defense; have exerted a valor amidst their constant and laborious industry, for the defense of a country whose frontier was drenched in blood, while its interior parts yielded all its little savings to your emolument.”

A very warm speech, and a capital hit, too, thought the honorable members of the House, as they settled comfortably back again to endure the routine of a dull day. Towards midnight, after seven hours of languid debate, an adjournment was carried, as everyone foresaw it would be, by a great majority–205 to 49 in support of the ministry. On the 13th of February the Stamp Act bill was introduced and read for the first time, without debate. It passed the House on the 27th; on the 8th of March it was approved by the Lords without protest, amendment, debate, or division; and two weeks later, the King being then temporarily out of his mind, the bill received the royal assent by commission.

At a later day, when the fatal effects of the Act were but too apparent, it was made a charge against the ministers that they had persisted in passing the measure in the face of strong opposition. But it was not so. “As to the fact of a strenuous opposition to the Stamp Act,” said Burke, in his famous speech on American taxation, “I sat as a stranger in your gallery when it was under consideration. Far from anything inflammatory, I never heard a more languid debate in this house…. In fact, the affair passed with so very, very little noise, that in town they scarcely knew the nature of what you were doing.” So far as men concerned themselves with the doings of Parliament, the colonial measures of Grenville were greatly applauded; and that not alone by men who were ignorant of America. Thomas Pownall, once Governor of Massachusetts, well acquainted with the colonies and no bad friend of their liberties, published in April, 1764, a pamphlet on the “Administration of the Colonies” which he dedicated to George Grenville, “the great minister,” who he desired might live to see the “power, prosperity, and honor that must be given to his country, by so great and important an event as the interweaving the administration of the colonies into the British administration.”

The Eve of the Revolution


The Eve of the Revolution
by Carl Lotus Bekcer


The Declaration of Independence:
A Study in the History of Political Ideas
by Carl Lotus Becker

Beginnings of the American People
by Carl Lotus Becker

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