In 1750 the population of the English colonies in North America was approximately 1,750,000; the population of England and Wales was some 6,140,000.93 As the rate of growth in the colonies was much higher than in the mother country, it was only a matter of time when the offspring would rebel against the parent. Montesquieu had predicted this in 1730, even to specifying that the break would be caused by British restrictions on American trade. The Marquis d’Argenson, about 1747, foretold that the colonies would rise against England, form a republic, and become one of the great powers. Vergennes, soon after England had taken Canada from France in the Seven Years’ War, told an English traveler: “England will soon repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection. She will call upon them to contribute to the burdens they have helped to bring upon her, and they will answer by striking off all dependence.”94
The British Crown claimed authority to veto laws passed by the colonial assemblies. It did not often use that power; but when the Assembly of South Carolina, “sensible of the great social and political danger arising from the enormous multiplication of Negroes in the colony,” passed a law imposing a heavy duty upon the importation of slaves, the law was rescinded by the Crown, for “the slave trade was one of the most lucrative branches of English commerce.”95 In economic matters Parliament assumed the right to legislate for all the British Empire, and usually its acts favored the motherland at the expense of the colonies. Its aim was to make America a source of articles not readily produced in England, and a market for British manufactured goods.96 It discouraged the growth of colonial industries that would compete with England’s. It forbade the colonists to manufacture cloth, hats, leather wares, or iron products;97 so the Earl of Chatham, otherwise so friendly to the colonies, declared that he would not allow a single nail to be made in America without the permission of Parliament.98 The colonies were forbidden to set up steel furnaces or rolling mills.
Many checks were put upon American merchants. They could ship goods only in British vessels; they could sell tobacco, cotton, silk, coffee, sugar, rice, and many other articles only to British dominions; they could import goods from the European Continent only after these had first been landed in England, had paid a port duty, and had been transferred to British vessels. To protect the export of English woolens to American colonies, colonial merchants were prohibited from selling colonial woolens outside the colony that had produced them.99 A heavy tax was laid by Parliament (1733) upon American imports of sugar or molasses from any but British sources. The colonists, especially in Massachusetts, evaded some of these regulations by smuggling, and by secret selling of American products to foreign nations, even to the French during the Seven Years’ War. Of 1,500,000 pounds of tea imported yearly into the American colonies, only some ten per cent conformed to the requirement of passing through English ports.100Much of the whiskey produced by the sixty-three distilleries of Massachusetts in 1750 used sugar and molasses smuggled in from the French West Indies.101
In justification of the restrictions, the British pointed out that other European nations, to protect or reward their own people, laid similar restraints upon their colonies; that many American products enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the English market through their exemption from import dues; and that England deserved some economic return for the cost of the protection which her navy gave to colonial shipping, and which her armies gave to the colonists against the French and the Indians in America. The expulsion of French power from Canada, and of Spanish power from Florida, had freed the English from dangers that had long troubled them. England felt warranted in asking America to help her pay off the enormous debt—£ 140,000,000—which Great Britain had incurred in the Seven Years’ War. The colonists replied that they had furnished twenty thousand troops for that war, and had themselves incurred a debt of £ 2,500,000.
In any case England decided to tax the colonies. In March, 1765, Grenville proposed to Parliament that all colonial legal documents, all bills, diplomas, playing cards, bonds, deeds, mortgages, insurance policies, and newspapers be required to bear a stamp for which a fee would have to be paid to the British government. Patrick Henry in Virginia, Samuel Adams in Massachusetts, advised rejection of the tax on the ground that by tradition—Magna Carta, the Great Rebellion against Charles I, the “Bill of Rights”—Englishmen could justly be taxed only with their consent or the consent of their authorized representatives. How, then, could English colonials be taxed by a Parliament in which they had no representation? Britons answered that difficulties of travel and communication made American representation in Parliament impracticable; and they pointed out that millions of adult Englishmen had for centuries loyally accepted taxation by Parliament though they had had no vote in electing it; they felt what Americans should feel—that they were virtually represented in Parliament, because its members considered themselves as representing the whole British Empire.
The colonists were not convinced. Since Parliament had retained the power of taxing as the fulcrum of control over the king, so the colonies defended their exclusive right to tax themselves as the only alternative to financial oppression by men whom they had never seen, and who had never touched American soil. Lawyers evaded the requirement to use stamped documents; some newspapers carried a death’s head where the stamp should have appeared; Americans began to boycott British goods; merchants canceled orders for British products, and some refused payment of their debts to England till the Stamp Act should be repealed.102 Colonial maidens pledged themselves to accept no suitors who would not denounce the Stamp Act.103 Popular resentment rose to the pitch of rioting in several cities; in New York the governor (appointed by the King) was hanged in effigy; in Boston the home of the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, was burned down; the distributors of the stamps were forced, under threat of hanging, to resign their offices. Feeling the boycott, British merchants called for a repeal of the act; petitions were sent to the government from London, Bristol, Liverpool, and other cities, stating that without repeal many English manufacturers would be ruined; already thousands of workers had been dismissed because of lack of orders from America. Perhaps it was in recognition of these appeals that Pitt, after a long illness, made a dramatic return to Parliament, and declared (January 14, 1766), “It is my opinion that this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies.” He ridiculed the “idea that the colonies are virtually represented in the House.” When George Grenville interrupted and implied that Pitt was encouraging sedition, Pitt answered defiantly, “I rejoice that America has resisted.”104
On March 18 Lord Rockingham persuaded Parliament to repeal the stamp tax. To appease “the King’s Friends” he added to the repeal a “declaratory act” reaffirming the authority of the king, with the consent of Parliament, to make laws binding on the colonies, and the authority of Parliament to tax the British colonies. The Americans accepted the repeal, and ignored the declaratory act. Reconciliation now seemed possible. But in July the Rockingham ministry fell, and in the Grafton ministry that followed it the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, renewed the attempt to make the colonies pay for the administrative and military forces needed to protect them against internal disorder or external attack. On May 13, 1767, he proposed to Parliament that new duties be laid upon glass, lead, paper, and tea imported into America. The revenue from these imposts was to be used by the King to pay the salaries of the governors and judges appointed by him for America; any surplus would be directed to maintain the British troops there. Parliament approved. Townshend died a few months later.
The Americans resisted the new duties as disguised taxation. They had kept the royal troops and governors under control by making them largely dependent for their sustenance upon funds voted by the colonial assemblies; to surrender this power of the purse to the King would be to yield the direction of the American government to royal authority. The assemblies united in urging a renewed boycott of British goods. Efforts to collect the new duties were violently resisted. Lord North sought a compromise by canceling all the Townshend imposts except for a threepence-per-pound duty on tea. The colonies relaxed their boycott, but resolved to drink only such tea as had been smuggled in. When three ships of the East India Company tried to land 298 chests of tea at Boston, half a hundred irate colonials, disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded the vessels, overpowered the crews, and emptied the cargoes into the sea (December 16, 1773). Riots in other American ports frustrated further efforts to bring in the company’s tea.
The rest of the story belongs mostly to America, but the part played in it by British statesmen, orators, writers, and public opinion forms a vital element in the history of England. Just as in America a numerous and active minority called for loyalty to the mother country and its government, so in England, while the public generally supported the martial measures of Lord North’s ministry, a minority, represented in Parliament by Chatham, Burke, Fox, Horace Walpole, and Wilkes, labored for peace on terms favorable to America. Some saw in this division of English opinion a revival of the opposition between Royalists and Parliamentarians in 1642. The Anglican Church fully supported the war against the colonies; so did the Methodists, following Wesley’s lead; but many other Dissenters regretted the conflict, for they remembered that a majority of the colonists had come from Dissenting groups. Gibbon agreed with Johnson in condemning the colonies, but David Hume, nearing death, warned Britain that the attempt to coerce America would lead to disaster.105 The business interests veered to support of the King as war orders brought them profits. War, Burke mourned, “is indeed become a substitute for commerce. … Great orders for provisions and stores of all kinds … keep up the spirits of the mercantile world, and induce them to consider the American war not so much their calamity as their resource.”106
The liberals feared that the war would strengthen the Tories against the Whigs, and the King against Parliament; one liberal, the Duke of Richmond, thought of moving to France to escape royal despotism.107 George III gave some excuse for such fears. He took full charge of the war, even of its military details; Lord North and the other ministers, often against their private judgment, obeyed the royal lead. The King felt that if the Americans succeeded England would face revolt in other colonies, and would finally be confined to its island. The Earl of Chatham, however, warned Parliament that the forcible suppression of America would be a victory for the principles of Charles I and James II. On November 20, 1777, when British armies had suffered many defeats in America, and France was sending subsidies to the colonies, Chatham, coming to the House of Lords as if from the grave, heard with mounting impatience the ministerial “address from the throne,” and rose to make one of the greatest speeches in the records of British eloquence. Here history and literature unite:
I rise, my lords, to declare my sentiments on this most solemn and serious subject.... I cannot concur in a blind and servile address which approves, and endeavors to sanctify, the monstrous measures that have heaped disgrace and misfortune upon us—that have brought ruin to our doors. This, my lords, is a perilous and tremendous moment! It is not a time for adulation. The smoothness of flattery cannot now avail.... It is now necessary to instruct the throne in the language of truth. … This, my lords, is our duty; it is the proper function of this noble assembly, sitting upon our honors in this House, the hereditary council of the Crown. And who is the minister—where is the minister—that has dared to suggest to the throne the contrary, unconstitutional language this day delivered from it? The accustomed language from the throne has been application to Parliament for advice. … But on this day, and in this extreme momentous exigency, no reliance is reposed on our constitutional counsels, no advice is asked from the sober and enlightened care of Parliament, but the Crown, from itself and by itself, declares an unalterable determination to pursue measures … dictated and forced upon us, … which have reduced this late flourishing Empire to ruin and contempt. “But yesterday, and England might have stood against the world; now none so poor to do her reverence.” . . .
My lords, you cannot conquer America. … You may swell every expense and every effort still more extravagantly; pile and accumulate every assistance you can buy or borrow; traffic and barter with every little pitiful German prince that sells and sends his subjects to the shambles . . .; your efforts are forever vain and impotent—doubly so from this mercenary aid on which you rely, for it irritates, to an incurable resentment, the minds of your enemies.... If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms—never—nevernever!108
Burke used all his powers of reasoning in the effort to dissuade Parliament and the ministry from a policy of force against America. From 1774 to 1780 he represented in Parliament the city of Bristol, whose merchants at first opposed war with America;109 he was also at this time a salaried agent of the state of New York.110 He did not, like Chatham, deny the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and he did not support the appeal of the colonists to abstract theories of “natural right.” He brought the question down to where hardheaded men of action could understand him: Was it practical to tax America? In his speech on American taxation (April 19, 1774) he condemned not only the Townshend Acts but the threepence tax on tea; he warned that if taxes were added to the industrial and commercial restrictions already laid upon America the colonists would persist in a revolt that would break up the nascent British Empire and tarnish the prestige of the Parliament.
Beaten on this issue, he renewed, on March 22, 1775, his plea for conciliation. He pointed out that trade with America had grown tenfold between 1704 and 1772, 111 and he asked was it wise to disrupt, perhaps sacrifice, that commerce with war. He feared that war with the colonies would leave England open to attack by a foreign enemy; this happened in 1778. He agreed that American representation in Parliament was made impracticable by the sea; opposuit natura; he asked only that England rely not upon taxation but upon voluntary grants from the colonial assemblies; such grants might well exceed the proceeds of direct taxation after the costs of forcible collection had been deducted.112
His motion to this effect was rejected 270 to 78, but he had the solace of winning to his cause the eloquence and skill of Charles James Fox; so began a friendship cemented by the American Revolution and sundered by the French. Gibbon called Fox’s speech of October 31, 1776, the most masterly that he had ever heard, and Horace Walpole declared it “one of his [Fox’s] finest and most animated orations.”113 Walpole ranged himself on the side of conciliation; he deplored the collapse of British statesmanship under Lord North; and on September 11, 1775, he wrote to Horace Mann:
The Parliament is to meet on the 20th of next month and vote 26,000 seamen. What a paragraph of blood is there! With what torments must liberty be preserved in America! In England what can save it? Oh, mad, mad England! What frenzy, to throw away its treasures, lay waste its empire of wealth, and sacrifice its freedom, that its prince may be the arbitrary lord of boundless deserts in America, and of an impoverished, depopulated, and thence insignificant island in Europe!114
Not the fervor of Chatham, Burke, and Fox, but the victories and diplomacies of the colonies persuaded the English people, and then their government, to thoughts of peace. Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga (October 17, 1777) was the turning point; for the first time England appreciated Chatham’s warning, “You cannot conquer America.” When France recognized the “United States of America,” and joined in war against England (February 6, 1778), the judgment of French statesmen confirmed Chatham’s, and the weight of French arms and of a restored French navy was added to the burden borne by the British nation. Lord North himself lost heart, and begged permission to resign; the King, loading him with gifts, bade him stay on.
Many prominent Englishmen now felt that only a government led by the Earl of Chatham could win the colonies back from the French alliance to union with England. But George would not hear of it. “I solemnly declare,” he told North, “that nothing shall bring me to treat personally with Lord Chatham.”115 The Earl came to the House of Lords for the last time on April 7, 1778, supported by crutches and his son William, his face ghastly with the nearness of death, his voice so weak as to be barely heard. Again he counseled conciliation, but stood out “against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy” by a grant of independence to America.116 The Duke of Richmond answered that only by such a grant could America be won away from France. Chatham tried to rise and speak again, but he collapsed in an apoplectic fit. He died on May 11, 1778. Parliament voted him a public funeral, with a tomb and monument in Westminster Abbey. He was, by general consent, the greatest Englishman of his time.
Events hurried to complete the catastrophe that he had predicted. In June, 1779, Spain joined France in war against England; it laid siege to Gibraltar, and sent its fleet to share in the attack upon British shipping. In August a combined flotilla of sixty French and Spanish vessels entered the English Channel; England feverishly prepared to resist invasion; sickness disabled the hostile fleet and compelled it to retire to Brest. In March, 1780, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden united in a “Declaration of Armed Neutrality,” which vowed to resist England’s practice of boarding neutral vessels in search of enemy goods; soon other neutrals signed the declaration. English search of Dutch vessels continued; it found evidence of secret agreements between the city of Amsterdam and an American negotiator. England demanded the punishment of the Amsterdam officials; the Dutch government refused; England declared war (December, 1780). Now almost all the Baltic and Atlantic states were allied against the England that only recently had ruled the seas.
The mood of Parliament reflected the multiplication of disasters. Resentment was mounting against the King’s frustration of his minister’s desire to end the war. On April 6, 1780, John Dunning had offered to the House of Commons a motion declaring “that the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”; the motion was approved by a vote of 233 to 215. On January 23, 1781, the younger Pitt took his seat in the House; in his second speech he denounced the war with America as “most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust, and diabolical.”117 Fox joyfully welcomed Pitt to the ranks of the opposition, not foreseeing that this youth was soon to be his strongest foe.
On October 19, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. “Oh, God, it is all over!” exclaimed Lord North, but the King insisted that the war must go on. In February and March, 1782, news came that Minorca had been taken by the Spaniards, and several West Indian islands by the French. Public meetings throughout England clamored for peace. North’s majority in the Commons fell to twenty-two, to nineteen, to one—on a motion “that the House could no longer repose confidence in the present ministers” (March 15, 1782); this set an historic precedent for Parliament’s procedure in forcing a change of ministry. On March 18 North wrote to George III a letter telling him, in effect, that both the royal policy toward America and the attempt to establish the supremacy of the king over Parliament had failed.
Your Majesty is well apprized that in this country the Prince on the throne cannot, with prudence, oppose the deliberate resolution of the House of Commons. … The Parliament have uttered their sentiments, and their sentiments, whether just or erroneous, must ultimately prevail. Your Majesty … can lose no honor if you yield.118
On March 20, 1782, after twelve years of patient service and submission, Lord North resigned. George III, his spirit broken, wrote a letter of abdication, but did not send it. He accepted a ministry of triumphant liberals: Rockingham, the Earl of Shelburne, Charles James Fox, Burke, and Sheridan. When Rockingham died (July 1), Shelburne succeeded him as first lord of the treasury. Fox, Burke, and Sheridan, disliking Shelburne, resigned. Shelburne proceeded to arrange a treaty of peace (Paris, November 30, 1782; Paris and Versailles, January 20 and September 3, 1783) that surrendered Minorca and Florida to Spain, and Senegal to France, and acknowledged not only the independence of the American colonies but their right to all the territory between the Alleghenies, Florida, the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes.
The English people had been eager for peace, but they resented the cession of so much terrain to the colonies. Criticism of Shelburne reached such bitterness that he submitted his resignation (February 24, 1783). As the quarrel between Shelburne and Fox had divided the liberal Whigs into factions neither of which was strong enough to control Parliament, Fox agreed to form a coalition ministry with his old enemy Lord North. Burke again became paymaster of the forces. Sheridan, who was always in debt, was made secretary of the treasury. Both Fox and Burke had for some time been studying the behavior of Englishmen in India, and that country now replaced America as the most urgent problem in British politics.