In honor of the 4th of July: Carl Becker
Today is the Fourth of July, and in the USA, we celebrate the birth of our country, 235 years ago.
There can be a tendency, with the passage of time, to take the human elements out of history.
Today, I share with you an excerpt from a 1918 work by noted historian Carl Becker. It’s Chapter Four of The Eve of the Revolution, entitled Defining the Issue.
It starts with Americans celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act…not with stately 18th Century “hear, hears”, but with John Hancock opening a pipe (over 100 gallons) of wine for all comers and “Paaaarrrttttttttaaaayyyyyyyy!”
You get the sense of how politics worked (and still works)…while you might picture people in powdered wigs listening with all seriousness to arguments pro and con, what you get is the influence of effectively lobbyists and “corporate” interests:
“Honorable members were more disposed to listen to Mr. Pitt than to vote with him; and were doubtless less influenced by his hot eloquence than by the representations of English merchants to the effect that trade was being ruined by Mr. Grenville’s measures.”
I also really like the information about Soame Jensyns, who appears to be a satirical commentator…sort of a Jon Stewart of the period. He doesn’t have basic cable and YouTube…his medium is pamphlets. It seems many people enjoy it, and some don’t get it, just like today. One person suggests he take public office…sort of like wanting Jon Stewart for President.
I hope you have an enjoyable Fourth of July, even if it’s just a day on the calendar where you are. I hope also that you enjoy this excerpt, and how it shows that people are people…even when they are part of history.
CHAPTER IV. Defining The Issue
A pepper-corn, in acknowledgement of the right, is of more
value than millions without it.—George Grenville.
A perpetual jealousy respecting liberty, is absolutely
requisite in all free states.—John Dickinson.
Good Americans everywhere celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act with much festivity and joyful noises in the streets, and with "genteel entertainments" in taverns, where innumerable toasts were drunk to Liberty and to its English defenders. Before his house on Beacon Hill, Mr. John Hancock, on occasion a generous man, erected a platform and placed there a pipe of Madeira which was broached for all comers. At Colonel Ingersoll's, where twenty-eight gentlemen attended to take dinner, fifteen toasts were drunk, "and very loyal they were, and suited to the occasion"; upon which occasion, we are told, Mr. Hancock again "treated every person with cheerfulness." Throughout the land men with literary gifts, or instincts, delivered themselves of vigorous free verse, founded upon the antithesis of Freedom and Tyranny, and enforcing the universal truth that "in the unequal war Oppressors fall, the hate, contempt, and endless curse of all." In New York, on the occasion of the King's birthday, an ox was roasted whole in the Fields, and twenty kegs of beer were opened for a great dinner at the King's Arms; and afterwards, through the generosity of the Assembly of that province, there was erected on the Bowling Green a mounted statue—made of lead but without present intention of being turned into bullets representing His Majesty King George the Third, of ever glorious memory, the Restorer of Liberty.
The joyful Americans could not know how little King George aspired to be thought the Restorer of Liberty. In reality he was extremely sulky in his silent, stubborn way over the repeal of the Stamp Act, and vexed most particularly at the part which he himself had been forced to play in it. The idea of a Patriot King, conceived by Lord Bolingbroke (one-time Jacobite exile) and instilled into the mind of the young Hanoverian monarch by an ambitious mother, had little to do with liberty, either British or colonial, but had much to do with authority. The Patriot King was to be a king indeed, seeking advice of all virtuous men of whatever connections, without being bound by any man or faction of men. It was not to restore liberty, nor yet to destroy it, but to destroy factions, that the King was ambitious; and for this purpose he desired a ministry that would do his bidding without too much question. If Mr. Grenville did not satisfy His Majesty, it was not on account of the Stamp Act, in respect to which the King was wholly of Mr. Grenville's opinion that it was a just law and ought to be enforced. In July, 1765, when Mr. Grenville was dismissed, there had indeed as yet been no open resistance in America; and if the King had been somewhat annoyed by the high talk of his loyal subjects in Virginia, he had been annoyed much more by Mr. Grenville, who was disposed, in spite of his outward air of humility and solemn protestations of respect, to be very firm with His Majesty in the matter of ministerial prerogative, reading him from time to time carefully prepared pedantic little curtain lectures on the customs of the Constitution and the duties of kings under particular circumstances.
Unable to endure Mr. Grenville longer, the King turned to Mr. Pitt. This statesman, although extremely domineering in the House, was much subdued in the presence of his sovereign, and along with many defects had one great virtue in his Majesty's eyes, which was that he shared the King's desire to destroy the factions. The King was accordingly ready to receive the Great Commoner, even though he insisted on bringing "the Constitution," and Earl Temple into the bargain, with him to St. James's Palace. But when it appeared that Earl Temple was opposed to the repeal of the Stamp Act, Mr. Pitt declined after all to come to St. James's on any terms, even with his beloved Constitution; whereupon the harassed young King, rather than submit again to Mr. Grenville's lectures, surrendered himself, temporarily, to the old-line Whigs under the lead of the Marquis of Rockingham. In all the negotiations which ended in this unpromising arrangement of the King's business, the Stamp Act had apparently not been once mentioned; except that Mr. Grenville, upon retiring, had ventured to say to His Majesty, as a kind of abbreviated parting homily, that if "any man ventured to defeat the regulations laid down for the colonies, by a slackness in the execution, he [Mr. Grenville] should look upon him as a criminal and the betrayer of his country."
The Marquis of Rockingham and his friends had no intention of betraying their country. They had, perhaps, when they were thus accidentally lifted to power, no very definite intentions of any sort. Respecting the Stamp Act, as most alarming reports began to come in from America, His Majesty's Opposition, backed by the landed interest and led by Mr. Grenville and the Duke of Bedford, knew its mind much sooner than ministers knew theirs. America was in open rebellion, they said, and so far from doing anything about it ministers were not even prepared, four months after disturbances began, to lay necessary information before the House. Under pressure of such talk, the Marquis of Rockingham had to make up his mind. It would be odd and contrary to well-established precedent for ministers to adopt a policy already outlined by Opposition; and in view of the facts that good Whig tradition, even if somewhat obscured in latter days, committed them to some kind of liberalism, that the City and the mercantile interest thought Mr. Grenville's measures disastrous to trade, and that they were much in need of Mr. Pitt's eloquence to carry them through, ministers at last, in January, 1766, declared for the repeal.
Now that it was a question of repealing Mr. Grenville's measures, serious attention was given to them; and honorable members, in the notable debate of 1766, learned much about America and the rights of Englishmen which they had not known before. Lord Mansfield, the most eminent legal authority in England, argued that the Stamp Act was clearly within the power of Parliament, while Lord Camden, whose opinion was by no means to be despised, staked his reputation that the law was unconstitutional. Mr. Grenville, in his precise way, laid it down as axiomatic that since "Great Britain protects America, America is therefore bound to yield obedience"; if not; he desired to know when Americans were emancipated. Whereupon Mr. Pitt, springing up, desired to know when they were made slaves. The Great Commoner rejoiced that America had resisted, and expressed the belief that three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be made slaves would be very fit instruments to make slaves of all Englishmen.
Honorable members were more disposed to listen to Mr. Pitt than to vote with him; and were doubtless less influenced by his hot eloquence than by the representations of English merchants to the effect that trade was being ruined by Mr. Grenville's measures. Sir George Seville, honorable member for Yorkshire, spoke the practical mind of business men when he wrote to Lord Rockingham: "Our trade is hurt; what the devil have you been doing? For our part, we don't pretend to understand your politics and American matters, but our trade is hurt: pray remedy it, and a plague of you if you won't." This was not so eloquent as Mr. Pitt's speech, but still very eloquent in its way and more easily followed than Mr. Pitt's theory that "taxation is no part of the governing or legislative power."
Constitutional arguments, evenly balanced pro and con, were not certain to change many minds, while such brief statements as that of Sir George Seville, although clearly revealing the opinion of that gentleman, did little to enlighten the House on the merits of the question. That members might have every opportunity to inform themselves about America, the ministers thought it worth while to have Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer and Friend of the Human Race, brought before the bar of the House to make such statements of fact or opinion as might be desired of him. The examination was a long one; the questions very much to the point; the replies very ready and often more to the point than the questions. With much exact information the provincial printer maintained that the colonists, having taxed themselves heavily in support of the last war, were not well able to pay more taxes, and that, even if they were abundantly able, the sugar duties and the stamp tax were improper measures. The stamps, in remote districts, would frequently require more in postage to obtain than the value of the tax. The sugar duties had already greatly diminished the volume of colonial trade, while both the duties and the tax, having to be paid in silver, were draining America of its specie and thus making it impossible for merchants to import from England to the same extent as formerly. It was well known that at the moment Americans were indebted to English merchants to the amount of several million pounds sterling, which they were indeed willing, as English merchants themselves said, but unable to pay. Necessarily, therefore, Americans were beginning to manufacture their own cloth, which they could very well do. Before their old clothes were worn out they "would have new ones of their own making."
Against the Stamp Act, honorable members were reminded, there was a special objection to be urged. It was thought with good reason to be unconstitutional, which would make its application difficult, if not impossible. Troops might no doubt be sent to enforce it, but troops would find no enemy to contend with, no men in arms; they would find no rebellion in America, although they might indeed create one. Pressed by Mr. Townshend to say whether the colonies might not, on the ground of Magna Carta, as well deny the validity of external as internal taxes, the Doctor was not ready to commit himself on that point. It was true many arguments had lately been used in England to show Americans that, if Parliament has no right to tax them internally, it has none to tax them externally, or to make any other law to bind them; in reply to which, he could only say that "at present they do not reason so, but in time they may possibly be convinced by these, arguments."
Whether the Parliament was truly enlightened and resolved by statistical information and lofty constitutional argument is not certainly known; but it is known that the King, whose steady mind did not readily change, was still opposed to the repeal, a fact supposed to be not without influence in unsettling the opinions of some honorable members. Lord Mansfield had discreetly advised His Majesty that although it was contrary to the spirit of the constitution to "endeavour by His Majesty's name to carry questions in Parliament, yet where the lawful rights of the King and Parliament were to be asserted and maintained, he thought the making His Majesty's opinion in support of those rights to be known, was very fit and becoming."
The distinction was subtle, but perhaps not too subtle for a great lawyer. It was apparently not too subtle for a Patriot King, since certain noble lords who could be counted on to know the King's wishes conveyed information to the proper persons that those who found it against their conscience to vote for the repeal would not for that reason be received coldly at St. James's Palace. In order to preserve the constitution as well as to settle the question of the repeal on its merits, Lord Rockingham and the Earl of Shelburne obtained an interview with the King at which they pointed out to him the manifest irregularity of such a procedure, and in addition expressed their conviction that, on account of the high excitement in the City, failure to repeal the Stamp Act would be attended with very serious consequences. Whether to preserve the Constitution, or to allow the repeal to be determined on its merits, or for some other reason, the King at last gave in writing his consent to the ministers' measure. On February 22, by a vote of 275 to 167, Mr. Conway was given leave to bring in the bill for a total repeal of the Stamp Act. The bill was accordingly brought in, passed by both houses, and on March 18 assented to by the King.
In the colonies the repeal was thought to be a victory for true principles of government, at least a tacit admission by the mother country that the American interpretation of the Constitution was the correct one. No Englishman denied that the repeal was an American victory; and there were some, like Pitt and Camden, who preferred the constitutional theories of Daniel Dulaney * to those of George Grenville. But most Englishmen who took the trouble to have any views on such recondite matters, having in general a poor opinion of provincial logic, easily dismissed the whole matter with the convincing phrase of Charles Townshend that the distinction between internal and external taxes was "perfect nonsense." The average Briton, taking it for granted that all the subtle legal aspects of the question had been thoroughly gone into by Lord Mansfield, was content to read Mr. Soame Jenyns, a writer of verse and member of the Board of Trade, who in a leisure hour had recently turned his versatile mind to the consideration of colonial rights with the happiest results. In twenty-three very small pages he had disposed of the "Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies" in a manner highly satisfactory to himself and doubtless also to the average reading Briton, who understood constitutional questions best when they were "briefly considered," and when they were humorously expounded in pamphlets that could be had for sixpence.
*Daniel Dulaney, of Maryland, was the author of a pamphlet
entitled "Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes
on the British Colonies." Pitt, in his speech on the repeal
of the Stamp Act, referred to in this pamphlet as a masterly
Having a logical mind, Mr. Jenyns easily perceived that taxes could be objected to on two grounds: the ground of right and the ground of expediency. In his opinion the right of Parliament to lay taxes on America and the expediency of doing so at the present moment were propositions so clear that any man, in order not to bring his intelligence in question, needed to apologize for undertaking to defend them. Mr. Jenyns wished it known that he was not the man to carry owls to Athens, and that he would never have thought it necessary to prove either the right or the expediency of taxing our American colonies, "had not many arguments been lately flung out... which with insolence equal to their absurdity deny them both." With this conciliatory preliminary disclaimer of any lack of intelligence on his own part, Mr. Jenyns proceeded to point out, in his most happy vein, how unsubstantial American reasoning really appeared when, brushing aside befogging irrelevancies, you once got to the heart of the question.
The heart of the question was the proposition that there should be no taxation without representation; upon which principle it was necessary to observe only that many individuals in England, such as copyholders and leaseholders, and many communities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, were taxed in Parliament without being represented there. If Americans quoted you "Lock, Sidney, Selden, and many other great names to prove that every Englishman ... is still represented in Parliament," he would only ask why, since Englishmen are all represented in Parliament, are not all Americans represented in exactly the same way? Either Manchester is not represented or Massachusetts is. "Are Americans not British subjects? Are they not Englishmen? Or are they only Englishmen when they solicit protection, but not Englishmen when taxes are required to enable this country to protect them?" Americans said they had Assemblies of their own to tax them, which was a privilege granted them by charter, without which "that liberty which every Englishman has a right to is torn from them, they are all slaves, and all is lost." Colonial charters were, however, "undoubtedly no more than those of all corporations, which empower them to make bye-laws." As for "liberty," the word had so many meanings," having within a few years been used as a synonymous term for Blasphemy, Bawdy, Treason, Libels, Strong Beer, and Cyder," that Mr. Jenyns could not presume to say what it meant.
Against the expediency of the taxes, Mr. Jenyns found that two objections had been raised: that the time was improper and the manner wrong as to the manner, the colonies themselves had in a way prescribed it, since they had not been able at the request of ministers to suggest any other. The time Mr. Jenyns thought most propitious, a point upon which he grew warm and almost serious.
"Can any time be more proper to require some assistance from our colonies, to preserve to themselves their present safety, than when this country is almost undone by procuring it? Can any time be more proper to impose some tax upon their trade, than when they are enabled to rival us in their manufactures by the encouragement and protection which we have given them? Can any time be more proper to oblige them to settle handsome incomes on their governors, than when we find them unable to procure a subsistence on any other terms than those of breaking all their instructions, and betraying the rights of their Sovereign?... Can there be a more proper time to force them to maintain an army at their expence, than when that army is necessary for their own protection, and we are utterly unable to support it? Lastly, can there be a more proper time for this mother country to leave off feeding out of her own vitals these children whom she has nursed up, than when they are arrived at such strength and maturity as to be well able to provide for themselves, and ought rather with filial duty to give some assistance to her distresses?"
Americans, after all, were not the only ones who might claim to have a grievance!
It was upon a lighter note, not to end in anticlimax, that Mr. Jenyns concluded his able pamphlet. He had heard it hinted that allowing the colonies representation in Parliament would be a simple plan for making taxes legal. The impracticability of this plan, he would not go into, since the plan itself had nowhere been seriously pressed, but he would, upon that head, offer the following consideration:
"I have lately seen so many specimens of the great powers of speech of which these American gentlemen are possessed, that I should be much afraid that the sudden importation of so much eloquence at once would greatly endanger the safety of the government of this country.... If we can avail ourselves of these taxes on no other condition, I shall never look upon it as a measure of frugality, being perfectly satisfied that in the end, it will be much cheaper for us to pay their army than their orators."
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 well laid 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."
Duties on glass and tea certainly would take money out of their pockets without their consent, and therefore it must be true that taxes could be rightly laid only by colonial assemblies, in which alone Americans could be represented. But of what value was it to preserve the abstract right of taxation by colonial assemblies if meanwhile the assemblies themselves might, by act of Parliament, be abolished? And had not the New York Assembly been suspended by act of Parliament? And were not the new duties to be used to pay governors and judges, thus by subtle indirection undermining the very basis of legislative independence? And now, in the year 1768, the Massachusetts Assembly, having sent a circular letter to the other colonies requesting concerted action in defense of their liberties, was directed by Lord Hillsborough, speaking in his Majesty's name, "to rescind the resolution which gave birth to the circular letter from the Speaker, and to declare their disapprobation of, and dissent to, that rash and hasty proceeding." Clearly, it was no mere question of taxation but the larger question of legislative independence that now confronted Americans.
A more skillful dialectic was required to defend American rights against the Townshend duties than against the Stamp Act. It was a somewhat stubborn fact that Parliament had for more than a hundred years passed laws effectively regulating colonial trade, and for regulating trade had imposed duties, some of which had brought into the Exchequer a certain revenue. Americans, wishing to be thought logical as well as loyal, could not well say at this late date that Parliament had no right to lay duties in regulation of trade. Must they then submit to the Townshend duties? Or was it possible to draw a line, making a distinction, rather more subtle than the old one between internal and external taxes, between duties for regulation and duties for revenue? This latter feat was undertaken by Mr. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, anonymously, under the guise of a simple but intelligent and virtuous farmer whose arcadian existence had confirmed in him an instinctive love of liberty and had supplied him with the leisure to meditate at large upon human welfare and the excellent British Constitution.
Mr. Dickinson readily granted America to be dependent upon Great Britain, "as much dependent upon Great Britain as one perfectly free people can be on another." But it appeared axiomatic to the unsophisticated mind of a simple farmer that no people could be free if taxed without its consent, and that Parliament had accordingly no right to lay any taxes upon the colonies; from which it followed that the sole question in respect to duties laid on trade was whether they were intended for revenue or for regulation. Intention in such matters was of primary importance, since all duties were likely to be regulative to some extent. It might be objected that "it will be difficult for any persons but the makers of the laws to determine which of them are made for regulation of trade, and which for raising a revenue." This was true enough but at present of academic importance only, inasmuch as the makers of the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend duties had conveniently and very clearly proclaimed their intention to be the raising of a revenue. Yet this question, academic now, might soon become extremely practical. The makers of laws might not always express their intention so explicitly; they might, with intention to raise a revenue, pass acts professing to be for regulation only; and therefore, since "names will not change the nature of things," Americans ought "firmly to believe... that unless the most watchful attention be exerted, a new servitude may be slipped upon us under the sanction of usual and respectable terms." In such case the intention should be inferred from the nature of the act; and the Farmer, for his part, sincerely hoped that his countrymen "would never, to their latest existence, want understanding sufficient to discover the intentions of those who rule over them."
Mr. Dickinson's "Farmer's Letters" were widely read and highly commended. The argument, subtle but clear, deriving the nature of an act from the intention of its makers, and the intention of its makers from the nature of the act, contributed more than any other exposition to convince Americans that they "have the same right that all states have, of judging when their privileges are invaded."
"As much dependent on Great Britain as one perfectly free people can be on another," the Farmer said. Englishmen might be excused for desiring a more precise delimitation of parliamentary jurisdiction than could be found in this phrase, as well as for asking what clear legal ground there was for making any delimitation at all. To the first point, Mr. Dickinson said in effect that Parliament had not the right to tax the colonies and that it had not the right to abolish their assemblies through which they alone could tax themselves. The second point Mr. Dickinson did not clearly answer, although it was undoubtedly most fundamental. To this point Mr. Samuel Adams had given much thought; and in letters which he drafted for the Massachusetts Assembly, in the famous circular letter particularly, and in the letter of January 12,1769, sent to the Assembly's agent in England, Mr. Dennys De Berdt, Mr. Adams formulated a theory designed to show that the colonies were "subordinate" but not subject to the British Parliament. The delimitation of colonial and parliamentary jurisdictions Mr. Adams achieved by subordinating all legislative authority to an authority higher than any positive law, an authority deriving its sanction from the fixed and universal law of nature. This higher authority, which no legislature could "overleap without destroying its own foundation," was the British Constitution.
Mr. Adams spoke of the British Constitution with immense confidence, as something singularly definite and well known, the provisions of which were clearly ascertainable; which singular effect doubtless came from the fact that he thought of it, not indeed as something written down on paper and deposited in archives of state, but as a series of propositions which, as they were saying in France, were indelibly "written in the hearts of all men." The British Constitution, he said, like the constitution of every free state, "is fixed," having its foundation not in positive law, which would indeed give Parliament an ultimate and therefore a despotic authority, but in "the law of God and nature." There were in the British Empire many legislatures, all deriving their authority from, and all finding their limitations in, the Constitution. Parliament had certainly a supreme or superintending legislative authority in the Empire, as the colonial assemblies had a "subordinate," in the sense of a local, legislative authority; but neither the Parliament nor any colonial assembly could "overleap the Constitution without destroying its own foundation." And therefore, since the Constitution is founded "in the law of God and nature," and since "it is an essential natural right that a man shall quietly enjoy and have the sole disposal of his property," the Americans must enjoy this right equally with Englishmen, and Parliament must be bound to respect this right in the colonies as well as in England; from which it followed irresistibly that the consent of the colonies to any taxation must be sought exclusively in their own assemblies, it being manifestly impossible for that consent to be "constitutionally had in Parliament."
It was commonly thought in America that Mr. Adams, although not a judge, had a singular gift for constitutional interpretation. Far-sighted men could nevertheless believe that a powerful party in England, inspired by inveterate hatred of America and irretrievably bent upon her ruin, would pronounce all his careful distinctions ridiculous and would still reply to every argument by the mere assertion, as a fact behind which one could not go, that Parliament had always had and must therefore still have full power to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever. If Britain would not budge from this position, Americans would soon be confronted with the alternative of admitting Parliament to have full power or denying it to have any.
With that sharp-set alternative in prospect, it would be well to keep in mind the fact that arguments lost carrying power in proportion to their subtlety; and in the opinion of so good a judge as Benjamin Franklin the reasoning of Mr. Adams and Mr. Dickinson was perhaps not free from this grave disadvantage.
"I am not yet master [he was free to confess] of the idea these... writers have of the relation between Britain and her colonies. I know not what the Boston people mean by the "subordination" they acknowledge in their Assembly to Parliament, while they deny its power to make laws for them, nor what bounds the Farmer sets to the power he acknowledges in Parliament to "regulate the trade of the colonies," it being difficult to draw lines between duties for regulation and those for revenue; and, if the Parliament is to be the judge, it seems to me that establishing such a principle of distinction will amount to little. The more I have thought and read on the subject, the more I find myself confirmed in opinion, that no middle ground can be well maintained, I mean not clearly with intelligible arguments. Something might be made of either of the extremes: that Parliament has a power to make ALL LAWS for us, or that it has a power to make NO LAWS for us; and I think the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty, than those for the former."
The good Doctor had apparently read and thought a great deal about the matter since the day when Mr. Grenville had called him in to learn if there were good objections to be urged against the Stamp Act.
Practical men were meanwhile willing to allow the argument to take whatever direction the exigencies of the situation might require, being ready to believe that Mr. Dickinson counseled well and that Mr. Franklin counseled well; being nevertheless firmly convinced from past experience that an Englishman's ability to see reason was never great except when his pocket was touched. Practical men were therefore generally of the opinion that they could best demonstrate their rights by exhibiting their power. This happily, they could do by bringing pressure to bear upon English merchants by taking money out of THEIR pockets—without their consent to be sure but in a manner strictly legal—by means of non-importation agreements voluntarily entered into.
As early as October, 1767, the Boston merchants entered into such an agreement, which was however not very drastic and proved to be of no effect, as it was at first unsupported by the merchants in any other colony. In April, 1768, the merchants of New York, seeing the necessity of concerted action, agreed not to import "any goods [save a very few enumerated articles] which shall be shipped from Great Britain after the first of October next; provided Boston and Philadelphia adopt similar measures by the first of June." Philadelphia merchants said they were not opposed to the principle of nonimportation, but greatly feared the New York plan would serve to create a monopoly by enabling men of means to lay in a large stock of goods before the agreement went into effect. This was very true; but the objection, if it was an objection, proved not to be an insurmountable one. Before the year was out, in the late summer for the most part, the merchants in all the commercial towns had subscribed to agreements, differing somewhat in detail, of which the substance was that they would neither import from Great Britain any commodities, nor buy or sell any which might inadvertently find their way in, until the duties imposed by the Townshend act should have been repealed.
The merchants' agreements were, for whatever reason, much better observed in some places than in others. Imports from Great Britain to New York fell during the year 1769 from about 482,000 pounds to about 74,000 pounds. Imports into New England and into Pennsylvania declined a little more than one half; whereas in the southern colonies there was no decline at all, but on the contrary an increase, slight in the case of Maryland and Virginia and rather marked in the Carolinas. In spite of these defections, the experiment was not without effect upon English merchants. English merchants, but little interested in the decline or increase of trade to particular colonies, were chiefly aware that the total exportation to America was nearly a million pounds less in 1769 than in 1768. Understanding little about colonial rights, but knowing only, as in 1766, that their "trade was hurt," they accordingly applied once more to Parliament for relief. The commerce with America which was "so essential to afford employment and subsistence to the manufactures of these kingdoms, to augment the public revenue, to serve as a nursery for seamen, and to increase our navigation and maritime strength"—this commerce, said the Merchants and Traders of the City of London Trading to America, "is at present in an alarming state of suspension"; and the Merchants and Traders of the City of London therefore humbly prayed Parliament to repeal the duties which were the occasion of their inconveniences.
The petition of the London merchants came before the House on March 5, 1770, that being the day fixed by Lord North for proposing, on behalf of the ministry, certain measures for America. No one, said the first minister, could be more free than himself to recognize the importance of American trade or more disposed to meet the wishes of the London merchants as far as possible. The inconveniences under which that trade now labored were manifest, but he could not think, with the petitioners, that these inconveniences arose from "the nature of the duties" so much as "through the medium of the dissatisfaction of the Americans, and those combinations and associations of which we have heard"—associations and combinations which had been called, in an address to the House, "unwarrantable," but which he for his part would go so far as to call illegal. These illegal combinations in America were obviously what caused the inconveniences of which the merchants complained. To the pressure of illegal combinations alone Parliament ought never to yield; and ministers wished it clearly understood that, if they were about to propose a repeal of some of the duties, they were not led to take this step from any consideration of the disturbances in the colonies.
On the contrary, the duties which it was now proposed to repeal—the duties on lead, glass, and paper—were to be repealed strictly on the ground that they ought never to have been laid, because duties on British manufactures were contrary to true commercial principles. Last year, when ministers had expressed, in a letter of Lord Hillsborough to the governors, their intention to repeal these duties, some members had been in favor of repealing all the duties and some were still in favor of doing so. As to that, the first minister could only say that he had not formerly been opposed to it and would not now be opposed to it, had the Americans, in response to the Earl of Hillsborough's letter, exhibited any disposition to cease their illegal disturbances or renounce their combinations. But the fact was that conditions in America had grown steadily worse since the Earl of Hillsborough's letter, and never had been so bad as now; in view of which fact ministers could not but think it wise to maintain some tax as a matter of principle purely. They would therefore recommend that the tax on tea, no burden certainly on anyone, be continued as a concrete application of the right of Parliament to tax the colonies.
In so far as they were designed to bring pressure to bear upon the mother country, the merchants' agreements were clearly not without a measure of success, having helped perhaps to bring Parliament to the point of repealing the duties on lead, glass, and paper, as well as to bring ministers to the point of keeping the duty on tea. Americans generally were doubtless well pleased with this effect; but not all Americans were able to regard the experiment in non-importation with unqualified approval in other respects. Non-importation, by diminishing the quantity and increasing the price of commodities, involved a certain amount of personal sacrifice. This sacrifice, however, fell chiefly on the consumers, the non-importation not being under certain circumstances altogether without advantage to merchants who faithfully observed their pledges as well as to those who observed them only occasionally. So long as their warehouses, well stocked in advance, contained anything that could be sold at a higher price than formerly, non-importation was no bad thing even for those merchants who observed the agreement. For those who did not observe the agreement, as well as for those who engaged in the smuggling trade from Holland, it was no bad thing at any time, and it promised to become an increasingly excellent thing in exact proportion to the exhaustion of the fair trader's stock and the consequent advance in prices. As time passed, therefore, the fair trader became aware that the non-importation experiment, practically considered, was open to certain objections; whereas the unfair trader was more in favor of the experiment the longer it endured, being every day more convinced that the non-importation agreement ought to be continued and strictly adhered to as essential to the maintenance of American liberties.
The practical defects of non-importation were likely to be understood, by those who could ever understand them, in proportion to the decay of business; and in the spring of 1770 they were nowhere better understood than in New York, where the decay of business was most marked. This decrease was greatest in New York, so the merchants maintained, because that city had been most faithful in observing the agreement, importation having there fallen from 482,000 pounds to 74,000 pounds during the year. It is possible, however, that the decay of business in New York was due in part and perhaps primarily to the retirement, in November, 1768, of the last issues of the old Bills of Credit, according to the terms of the Paper Currency Act passed by Parliament during Mr. Grenville's administration. As a result of this retirement of all the paper money in the province, money of any sort was exceedingly scarce during the years 1769 and 1770. Lyon dollars were rarely seen; and the quantity of Spanish silver brought into the colony through the trade with the foreign islands, formerly considerable but now greatly diminished by, they, stricter enforcement of the Townshend Trade Acts, was hardly sufficient for local exchange alone, to say nothing of settling heavy balances in London, although, fortunately perhaps, there were in the year 1769 no heavy London balances to be settled on account of the faithful observance of the non-importation agreement by the merchants. The lack of money was therefore doubtless a chief cause of the great decay of business in New York; and some there were who maintained that the faithful observance of the non-importation agreement by the merchants was due to the decay of trade rather than the decay of trade being due to the faithful observance of the non-importation agreement.
Whatever the true explanation of this academic point might be, it was an undoubted fact that business was more nearly at a standstill in New York than elsewhere. Accordingly, in the spring of 1770, when money was rarely to be seen and debtors were selling their property at one-half or one-third of its former value in order to discharge obligations long overdue, the fair trading merchants of New York were not disposed to continue an experiment of which, as they said, they had borne the chief burden to the advantage of others and to their own impending ruin. Zealous Sons of Liberty, such as Alexander MacDougall and John Lamb, popular leaders of the "Inhabitants" of the city, were on the other hand determined that the non-importation agreement should be maintained unimpaired. The hard times, they said, were due chiefly to the monopoly prices exacted by the wealthy merchants, who were not ruined at all, who had on the contrary made a good thing out of the non-importation as long as they had anything to sell, and whose patriotism (God save the mark!) had now suddenly grown lukewarm only because they had disposed of all their goods, including "old moth-eaten clothes that had been rotting in the shops for years."
These aspersions the merchants knew how to ignore. Their determination not to continue the non-importation was nevertheless sufficiently indicated in connection with the annual celebration, in March, of the repeal of the Stamp Act. On this occasion the merchants refused to meet as formerly with the Sons of Liberty, but made provision for a dinner of their own at another place, where all the Friends of Liberty and Trade were invited to be present. Both dinners were well attended, and at both the repeal of the Stamp Act was celebrated with patriotic enthusiasm, the main difference being that whereas the Sons of Liberty drank a toast to Mr. MacDougall and to "a continuance of the non-importation agreement until the revenue acts are repealed," the Friends of Liberty and Trade ignored Mr. MacDougall and drank to "trade and navigation and a speedy removal of their embarrassments."
In the determination not to continue the old agreement, the Friends of Liberty and Trade were meanwhile strongly confirmed when it was learned that Britain was willing on her part to make concessions. By the middle of May it was known that the Townshend duties (except the duty on tea) had been repealed; and in June it was learned that Parliament had at last, after many representations from the Assembly, passed a special act permitting New York to issue 120,000 pounds in Bills of Credit receivable at the Treasury. It was thought that concession on the part of Great Britain ought in justice to meet with concession on the part of America. Accordingly, on the ground that other towns, and Boston in particular, were more active "in resolving what they ought to do than in doing what they had resolved," and on the ground that the present non-importation agreement no longer served "any other purpose than tying the hands of honest men, to let rogues, smugglers, and men of no character plunder their country," the New York merchants, on July 9, 1770, resolved that for the future they would import from Great Britain all kinds of commodities except such as might be subject to duties imposed by Parliament.
The New York merchants were on every hand loudly denounced for having betrayed the cause of liberty; but before the year was out the old agreement was everywhere set aside. Yet everywhere, as at New York, the merchants bound themselves not to import any British teas. The duty on British teas was slight. Americans might have paid the duty without increasing the price of their much prized luxury; ministers might have collected the same duty in England to the advantage of the Exchequer. That Britain should have insisted on this peppercorn in acknowledgement of her right, that America should have refused it in vindication of her liberty, may be taken as a high tribute from two eminently, practical peoples to the power of abstract ideas.
The original piece was first published in 1918 in the United States, which puts it into the public domain in the USA. This post, including the introduction by Bufo Calvin, originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.