The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter IV: Defining the Issue

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Mr. Jenyns’s pamphlet, which could be had for sixpence, was widely read, with much appreciation for its capital wit and extraordinary common sense; more widely read in England than Mr. James Otis’s “Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” or Daniel Dulaney’s “Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes on the British Colonies”; and it therefore did much more than these able pamphlets to clarify English opinion on the rights of Parliament and the expediency of taxing America. No one could deny that Government had yielded in the face of noisy clamor and forcible resistance. To yield under the circumstances may have been wise or not; but Government had not yielded on any ground of right, but had on the contrary most expressly affirmed, in the Declaratory Act, that “the King’s Majesty, by and with the advice of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make such laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the Crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.” Government had not even denied the expediency of taxing America, the total repeal of the Stamp Act and the modification of the Sugar Act having been carried on a consideration of the inexpediency of these particular taxes only. Taxes not open to the same objection might in future be found, and doubtless must be found, inasmuch as the troops were still retained in America and the Quartering Act continued in force there. For new taxes, however, it would doubtless be necessary to await the formation of a new ministry.

The formation of a new ministry was not an unusual occurrence in the early years of King George the Third. No one supposed that Lord Rockingham could hold on many months; and as early as July, 1766, all London knew that Mr. Pitt had been sent for. The coming and going of great men in times of ministerial crisis was always a matter of interest; but the formation of that ministry of all the factions which the Patriot King had long desired was something out of the ordinary, the point of greatest speculation being how many irreconcilables Mr. Pitt (the Earl of Chatham he was now) could manage to get seated about a single table. From the point of view of irreconcilability, no one was more eligible than Mr. Charles Townshend, at that moment Paymaster of the Forces, a kind of enfant terrible of English politics, of whom Horace Walpole could say, with every likelihood of being believed, that “his speech of last Friday, made while half drunk, was all wit and indiscretion; nobody but he could have made it, nobody but he would have made it if he could. He beat Lord Chatham in language, Burke in metaphors, Grenville in presumption, Rigby in impudence, himself in folly, and everybody in good humour.”

This gentleman, much to his astonishment, one day received the following note from Lord Chatham: “Sir: You are too great a magnitude not to be in a responsible place; I intend to propose you for Chancellor of the Exchequer, and must desire to have your answer by nine o’clock tonight.” Mr. Townshend was dismayed as well as astonished, his dismay arising from the fact that the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer was worth but 2700 pounds, which was precisely 4300 pounds less than he was then receiving as Paymaster of the Forces. To be a great magnitude on small pay had its disadvantages, and Mr. Townshend, after remaining home all day in great distress of mind, begged Mr. Pitt to be allowed to retain the office of Paymaster; which was no sooner granted than he changed his mind and begged Mr. Pitt to be allowed to accept the Exchequer place, which Mr. Pitt at first refused and was only persuaded to grant finally upon the intercession of the Duke of Grafton. The day following, Mr. Townshend accordingly informed the King that he had decided, in view of the urgent representations of the Earl of Chatham, to accept the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Majesty’s new ministry.

No one supposed, least of all himself, that this delightful man would have any influence in formulating the policies of the Chatham ministry. Lord Chatham’s policies were likely to be his own; and in the present case, so far as America was concerned, they were not such as could be readily associated with Mr. Townshend’s views, so far as those views were known or were not inconsistent. For dealing with America, the Earl of Shelburne, because of his sympathetic understanding of colonial matters, had been brought into the ministry to formulate a comprehensive and conciliatory plan; as for the revenue, always the least part of Lord Chatham’s difficulties as it was the chief of Mr. Grenville’s, it was thought that the possessions of the East India Company, if taken over by the Government, would bring into the Treasury sums quite sufficient to pay the debt as well as to relieve the people, in England and America at least, of those heavy taxes which Mr. Grenville and his party had thought necessarily involved in the extension of empire. It was a curious chapter of accidents that brought all these welllaid plans to nought. Scarcely was the ministry formed when the Earl of Chatham, incapacitated by the gout, retired into a seclusion that soon became impenetrable; and “even before this resplendent orb was entirely set, and while the western horizon was in a blaze with his descending glory, on the opposite quarter of the heavens arose another luminary, and, for his hour, became lord of the ascendant.” This luminary was Mr. Charles Townshend.

Mr. Townshend was the “delight and ornament” of the House, as Edmund Burke said. Never was a man in any country of “more pointed and finished wit, or (where his passions were not concerned) of a more refined, exquisite, and penetrating judgment”; never a man to excel him in “luminous explanation and display of his subject,” nor ever one less tedious or better able to conform himself exactly to the temper of the House which he seemed to guide because he was always sure to follow it. In 1765 Mr. Townshend had voted for the Stamp Act, but in 1766, when the Stamp Act began to be no favorite, he voted for the repeal, and would have spoken for it too, if an illness had not prevented him. And now, in 1767, Mr. Townshend was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and as such responsible for the revenue; a man without any of that temperamental obstinacy which persists in opinions once formed, and without any fixed opinions to persist in; but quite disposed, according to habit, to “hit the House just between wind and water,” and to win its applause by speaking for the majority, or by “haranguing inimitably on both sides” when the majority was somewhat uncertain.

In January, 1767, when Lord Chatham was absent and the majority was very uncertain, Mr. Grenville took occasion, in the debate upon the extraordinaries for the army in England and America, to move that America, like Ireland, should support its own establishment. The opportunity was one which Mr. Townshend could not let pass. Much to the astonishment of every one and most of all to that of his colleagues in the ministry, he supported Mr. Grenville’s resolution, declaring himself now in favor of the Stamp Act which he had voted to repeal, treating “Lord Chatham’s distinction between internal and external taxation as contemptuously as Mr. Grenville had done,” and pledging himself able, if necessary, to find a revenue in America nearly adequate to the proposed project. The Earl of Shelburne, in great distress of mind, at once wrote to Lord Chatham, relating the strange if characteristic conduct of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and declaring himself entirely ignorant of the intentions of his colleagues. It was indeed an anomalous situation. If Lord Chatham’s policies were still to be considered those of the ministry, Mr. Townshend might be said to be in opposition, a circumstance which made “many people think Lord Chatham ill at St. James’s” only.

Lord Chatham was not ill at St. James’s. He was most likely very well at St. James’s, being unable to appear there, thus leaving the divided ministry amenable to the King’s management or helpless before a factious Opposition. The opportunity of the Opposition came when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in February, proposed to continue the land tax at four shillings for one year more, after which time, he thought, it might be reduced to three shillings in view of additional revenues to be obtained from the East India Company. But Opposition saw no reason why, in view of the revenue which Mr. Townshend had pledged himself to find in America, a shilling might not be taken from the land at once, a proposal which Mr. Dowdeswell moved should be done, and which was accordingly voted through the influence of Mr. Grenville and the Duke of Bedford, who had formerly carried the Stamp Act, aided by the Rockingham Whigs who had formerly repealed it. If Lord Chatham was ill at St. James’s, this was a proper time to resign. It was doubtless a proper time to resign in any case. But Lord Chatham did not resign: In March he came to London, endeavored to replace Mr. Townshend by Lord North, which he failed to do, and then retired to Bath to be seen no more, leaving Mr. Townshend more than ever “master of the revels.”

Mr. Townshend did not resign either, but continued in office, quite undisturbed by the fact that a cardinal measure of the ministry had been decisively voted down. Mr. Townshend reasoned that if Opposition would not support the ministry, all difficulties would be straightened out by the ministry’s supporting the Opposition. This was the more reasonable since Opposition had perhaps been right after all, so far as the colonies were concerned. Late reports from that quarter seemed to indicate that the repeal of the Stamp Act, far from satisfying the Americans, had only confirmed that umbrageous people in a spirit of licentiousness, which was precisely what Opposition had predicted as the sure result of any weak concession. The New York Assembly, it now appeared, refused to make provision for the troops according to the terms of the Quartering Act; New York merchants were petitioning for a further modification of the trade acts; the precious Bostonians, wrangling refined doctrinaire points with Governor Bernard, were making interminable difficulties about compensating the sufferers from the Stamp Act riots. If Lord Chatham, in February, 1767, could go so far as to say that the colonies had “drunk deep of the baneful cup of infatuation,” Mr. Townshend, having voted for the Stamp Act and for its repeal, might well think, in May, that the time was ripe for a return to rigorous measures.

On May 13, in a speech which charmed the House, Mr. Townshend opened his plan for settling the colonial question. The growing spirit of insubordination, which must be patent to all, he thought could be most effectively checked by making an example of New York, where defiance was at present most open; for which purpose it was proposed that the meetings of the Assembly of that province be totally suspended until it should have complied with the terms of the Mutiny Act. As one chief source of power in colonial assemblies which contributed greatly to make them insubordinate was the dependence of executive officials upon them for salaries, Mr. Townshend now renewed the proposal, which he had formerly brought forward in 1763, to create an independent civil list for the payment of governors and judges from England. The revenue fox such a civil list would naturally be raised in America. Mr. Townshend would not, however, venture to renew the Stamp Act, which had been so opposed on the ground of its being an internal tax. He was free to say that the distinction between internal and external taxes was perfect nonsense; but; since the logical Americans thought otherwise, he would concede the point and would accordingly humor them by laying only external duties, which he thought might well be on various kinds of glass and paper, on red and white lead, and upon teas, the duties to be collected in colonial ports upon the importation of these commodities from England. It was estimated that the duties might altogether make about 40,000 pounds, if the collection were properly attended to; and in order that the collection might be properly attended to, and for the more efficient administration of the American customs in general, Mr. Townshend further recommended that a Board of Customs Commissioners be created and established in Massachusetts Bay. With slight opposition, all these recommendations were enacted into law; and the Commissioners of the Customs, shortly afterward appointed by the King, arrived in Boston in November, 1767.

At Boston, the Commissioners found much to be done in the way of collecting the customs, particularly in the matter of Madeira wines. Madeira wines were much drunk in the old Bay colony, being commonly imported directly from the islands, without too much attention to the duty of 7 pounds per ton lawfully required in that case. Mr. John Hancock, a popular Boston merchant, did a thriving business in this way; and his sloop Liberty, in the ordinary course of trade, carrying six pipes of “good saleable Madeira” for the coffeehouse retailers, four pipes of the “very best” for his own table, and “two pipes more of the best…for the Treasurer of the province,” entered the harbor on May 9, 1768. In the evening Mr. Thomas Kirk, tide-waiter, acting for the Commissioners, boarded the sloop, where he found the captain, Nat Bernard, and also, by some chance, another of Mr. Hancock’s skippers, young James Marshall, together with half a dozen of his friends. They sat with punch served by the captain all round until nine o’clock, when young James Marshall casually asked if a few casks might not as well be set on shore that evening. Mr. Kirk replied that it could not be done with his leave; whereupon he found himself “hoved down” into the cabin and confined there for three hours, from which point of disadvantage he could distinctly hear overhead “a noise of many people at work, a-hoisting out of goods.” In due time Mr. Kirk was released, having suffered no injury, except perhaps a little in his official character. Next day Mr. Hancock’s cargo was duly entered, no pipes of Madeira listed; and to all appearance the only serious aspect of the affair was that young James Marshall died before morning, it was thought from overexertion and excitement.

Very likely few people in Boston knew anything about this interesting episode; and a month later much excitement was accordingly raised by the news that Mr. Hancock’s sloop Liberty had been ordered seized for nonpayment of customs. A crowd watched the ship towed, for safe-keeping, under the guns of the Romney in the harbor. When the Commissioners, who had come down to see the thing done, left the wharf they were roughly handled by the incensed people; and in the evening windows of some of their houses were broken, and a boat belonging to a collector was hauled on shore and burnt on the Common. Governor Bernard at last informed the Commissioners that he could not protect them in Boston, whereupon they retired with their families to the Romney, and later to Castle William. There they continued, under difficulties, the work of systematizing the American customs; and not without success, inasmuch as the income from the duties during the years from 1768 to 1774 averaged about 30,000 pounds sterling, at an annual cost to the revenue of not more than 13,000 pounds. This saving was nevertheless not effected without the establishment at Boston, on the recommendation of the Commissioners, of two regiments of the line which arrived September 28, 1768, and were landed under the guns of eight men-of-war, without opposition. The cost of maintaining the two regiments in Boston was doubtless not included in the 13,000 pounds charged to the revenue as the annual expense of collecting 30,000 pounds of customs.

In spite of the, two regiments of the line, with artillery, Boston was not quiet in this year 1768. The soldiers acted decently enough, no doubt; but their manners were very British and their coats were red, and “their simple presence,” conveying every day the suggestion of compulsion, was “an intolerable grievance.” Every small matter was magnified. The people, says Hutchinson, “had been used to answer to the call of the town watch in the night, yet they did not like to answer to the frequent calls of the centinels posted at the barracks; …and either a refusal to answer, or an answer accompanied with irritating language, endangered the peace of the town.” On Sundays, especially, the Boston mind found something irreverent, something at the very least irrelevant, in the presence of the bright colored and highly secular coats; while the noise of fife and drum, so disturbing to the sabbath calm, called forth from the Selectmen a respectful petition to the general requesting him to “dispense with the band.”

These were but slight matters; but as time passed little grievances accumulated on both sides until the relation between the people and the soldiers was one of settled hostility, and at last, after two years, the tense situation culminated in the famous Boston Massacre. On the evening of March 5, 1770, there was an alarm of fire, false as it turned out, which brought many people into the streets, especially boys, whom one may easily imagine catching up, as they ran, handfuls of damp snow to make snowballs. For snowballs, there could be no better target than red-coated sentinels standing erect and motionless at the post of duty; and it chanced that one of these individuals, stationed before the Customs House door, was pelted with the close-packed missiles. Being several times struck, he called for aid, the guard turned out, and a crowd gathered. One of the soldiers was presently knocked down, another was hit by a club, and at last six or seven shots were fired, with or without orders, the result of which was four citizens lying dead on the snow-covered streets of Boston.

The Boston Massacre was not as serious as the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew or the Sicilian Vespers; but it served to raise passion to a white heat in the little provincial town. On the next day there was assembled, under the skillful leadership of Samuel Adams, a great town meeting which demanded in no uncertain terms the removal of the troops from Boston. Under the circumstances, six hundred British soldiers would have fared badly in Boston; and in order to prevent further bloodshed, acting Governor Hutchinson finally gave the order. Within a fortnight, the two small regiments retired to Castle William. Seven months later Captain Preston and other soldiers implicated in the riot were tried before a Boston jury. Ably defended by John Adams and Josiah Quincy, they were all acquitted on the evidence, except two who were convicted and lightly punished for manslaughter.

As it happened, the Boston Massacre occurred on the 5th of March, 1770, which was the very day that Lord North rose in the House of Commons to propose the partial repeal of the Townshend duties. This outcome was not unconnected with events that had occurred in America during the eighteen months since the landing of the troops in Boston in September, 1768. In 1768, John Adams could not have foretold the Boston Massacre, or have foreseen that he would himself incur popular displeasure for having defended the soldiers. But he could, even at that early date, divine the motives of the British government in sending the troops to Boston. To his mind, “the very appearance of the troops in Boston was a strong proof that the determination of Great Britain to subjugate us was too deep and inveterate to be altered.” All the measures of ministry seemed indeed to confirm that view. Mr. Townshend’s condescension in accepting the colonial distinction between internal and external taxes was clearly only a subtle maneuver designed to conceal an attack upon liberty far more dangerous than the former attempts of Mr. Grenville. After all, Mr. Townshend was probably right in thinking the distinction of no importance, the main point being whether, as Lord Chatham had said, the Parliament could by any kind of taxes “take money out of their pockets without their consent.”

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