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Why Britain attempted to Tax American Colonists

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Prejudice

Some British politicians did point out that levying taxes on the unrepresented colonies was against the rights of every Briton, but there weren’t enough to overturn new tax legislation. Indeed, even when protests came in about the initial taxes from the Americans, many in Parliament ignored or patronisingly rejected them. This was partly because of the sovereignty issue and partly because of contempt for the colonists based on the French-Indian war experience. It was also partly due to prejudice, because some politicians believed the colonists were somehow subordinate, a child to the British motherland needing discipline, or a nation of social inferiors. The British government was far from immune to snobbery.

The 'Sugar Act'

The first post-war attempt to change the financial relationship between Britain and the colonies was the American Duties Act of 1764, known commonly as the Sugar Act for its treatment of molasses. This was voted in by a large majority of British MPs, and had three main effects: there were laws to make customs collection more efficient, including improving the lives of customs men and introducing a records system similar to that of Britain to reduce taxes; to add new charges on consumables in the US, partly to push the colonists into buying imports from within the British empire; and a change to existing costs, in particular the imports of molasses. The duty on molasses from the French West Indies actually went down, and an across the board 3 pence a ton was instituted.

Political division in America stopped most complaints about this act, which started among affected merchants and spread to their allies in assemblies, having any major effect. However, even at this early stage – as the majority seemed slightly confused as to how laws affecting the rich and the merchants could affect them – colonists heatedly pointed out that this expansion of tax was being carried out with no expansion of the right to vote in the British parliament which levied it. Some argued that they were in danger of being made into slaves, a powerful point given 17% of the colonist population were slaves (Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, p. 32).

The Stamp Tax

In February 1765, after only minor complaints from the colonists when the idea was floated due to confusion and disbelief, Grenville’s government imposed the Stamp tax. To him, this was just a slight increase in the process of balancing expenses and regulating the colonies. There was opposition in the British parliament, including Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Barré, whose off the cuff speech made him a star in the colonies and gave them a rallying cry as the “Sons of Liberty”, but not enough to overcome the government vote.

The Stamp Tax was a charge applied on every piece of paper used in the legal system and in the media. Every newspaper, every bill or court paper, had to be stamped, and this was charged for, as were dice and playing cards. The aim was to start small and allow the charge to grow as the colonies grew, and was initially set at two thirds of the British stamp tax. The tax would be important, not just for the income, but for the precedent it would set over sovereignty: Britain would start with a small tax, and maybe one day levy enough to pay for the colonies’ whole defence. The money raised was to be kept in the colonies and spent there. A second act followed, the Quartering Act. This dealt with where troops would be billeted if there were no rooms in barracks, and was watered down after discussions with colonial representatives. Unfortunately, its provisions included costs to the colonists that were open to interpretation as taxes.

America Reacts

Grenville’s Stamp Tax bill was designed to be subtle and ease the new Anglo-Colonial relationship in. He got it very wrong. Opposition was initially confused, but consolidated around the five Resolutions given by Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses, which were popularised and added to by newspapers. A mob gathered in Boston and used violence to coerce the man responsible for the Stamp’s application to resign. Brutal violence spread, and soon there were very few people in the colonists willing or able to enforce the law. When it came into effect in November it was effectively dead, and the American politicians responded to this anger by denouncing un-consented taxation and looked for peaceful ways to try and persuade Britain to scrap the tax while remaining loyal. Boycotts of British goods were put into place.

Britain Seeks a Solution

Grenville lost his position as developments in America were reported to Britain, and his successor, the Duke of Cumberland, decided to enforce British sovereignty by force. However, he suffered a heart attack before he could order this, and his successor resolved to try and find a way to repeal the Stamp tax but keep sovereignty intact. The government followed a twofold tactic: to verbally (not physically or militarily) assert sovereignty, and then cite the economic effects of the boycott to repeal the tax. The ensuing debate made it quite clear – to contemporaries as well as later historians – that British Members of Parliament felt the King of Britain had sovereign power over the colonies, had the right to pass laws affecting them, including taxes, and that this sovereignty overruled representation. These beliefs underpinned the Declaration Act. Then they agreed, somewhat expediently, that the Stamp Tax was damaging trade and they repealed it in a second act. People in Britain and America celebrated.

Consequences

The result was the development of a new voice and consciousness among the American colonies. This had been emerging during the French Indian War, but now issues of representation, taxation and liberty began to take centre stage. There were fears that Britain intended to enslave them. On Britain’s part, they now had an empire in America which was proving expensive to run and difficult to control. These contradictions would not be solved over the next few years without a new war, separating the two.

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