Military history

CHAPTER 72

The Hollowness of Empire

1766

THE POPULAR demonstrations that greeted the repeal of the Stamp Act, both in America and in Britain, were scarcely less exuberant than those that had accompanied the Peace of Paris. In London fifty coaches, full of merchants, paraded to Westminster on March 18, to salute the king and the Lords. All day long church bells rang, and “houses at night were illuminated all over the city.” Merchant vessels on the Thames broke out their colors and immediately prepared to sail for the colonies. When they reached America with the news two months later, colonists everywhere celebrated with memorial sermons and bonfires, banquets and loyal healths, draining “many Barrels of Beer” in a delirium of relief. Assemblies ordered broadsides printed and distributed free, announcing the news to anyone who might not have heard it by word of mouth; legislators made speeches and legislatures sent letters of gratitude to the ministry and the monarch. At Charleston the assemblymen were so transported with joy that they commissioned memorial portraits of several of themselves and ordered a marble statue of Pitt—in a toga—from England.1

The common folk who belched ale and approval by bonfire light, like the gentlemen who exhaled their more refined satisfaction in toasts to the king and Pitt and Rockingham, anticipated not only the restoration of harmony among true Britons but the revival of prosperity within the empire. Petitioners and experts by the dozen had assured the House of Commons that the Stamp Act had caused the depression, and the Rockingham ministry had deliberately fostered the belief that repeal would end it. That was, of course, nonsense. Both the depression and the Stamp Act grew from causes rooted in the Seven Years’ War and the manner of its ending. But the truth that repeal could neither restore prosperity nor close the fissure that divided colonies from metropolis remained to be revealed only later, when events would undeceive Americans and Britons of the ministry’s glib and hopeful assurances. For the time being everyone was content to rejoice in the faith that all would once again be well.

That what had passed in the Commons debates would for the most part prove poor prophecy should not surprise us; hope is, after all, the currency of popular politics, and a coin surprisingly hard to devalue. Most of all, however, the predictable disjunction between rhetoric and reality should not divert our attention (as it diverted the attention of the colonists themselves) from the much more interesting things that the rhetoric revealed about British assumptions concerning the colonies. Anyone who wanted to understand the grounds on which Great Britain’s political elite reasoned about America needed to look no further than Pitt’s great speech of January 14.

If the Great Commoner was no profound thinker, he possessed the rarer ability to articulate common beliefs in compelling terms. During the war he had come to embody the dreams and fears of his fellow M.P.s and indeed the political nation as a whole, and in the repeal debates he similarly captured their understanding of the imperial relationship. These notions were not strictly logical, and thus did not take the form of an argument. Rather they consisted of three assumptions that, taken together, laid the foundation for virtually every possible British policy toward the colonies. First among them came Identity.

“I rejoice,” Pitt had said, “that America has resisted.” America opposed Parliament, not Americans, much less the seamen and artisans and apprentices who had thronged the city streets, or the politicians who sat uneasily in the colonial assemblies, or the Sons of Liberty, or speculators and squatters hungry for new land, or any of the other segments of a diverse, fragmented populace. America had resisted: a place, a political and geographical abstraction that existed in the minds of British politicians but that had little to do with the social reality of the colonies, and even less to do with the self-understanding of colonists who resisted not because they thought of themselves as Americans, but as British subjects with Englishmen’s rights.

Second was Sovereignty. “I maintain that the parliament has a right to bind, to restrain, America. Our legislative power over the colonies is sovereign and supreme. When it ceases to be sovereign and supreme, I would advise every gentleman to sell his lands, if he can, and embark for that country.” That Parliament was sovereign, of course, was a truism; but in the curious advice that followed Pitt revealed what the cliché actually meant. Why gentlemen should sell their lands in Britain and flee to America if Parliament ceased to be sovereign over the colonies puzzles us today far more than it did M.P.s who assumed that sovereignty, the state’s right to tax and take life, was also the source of political and social order. Sovereignty as an ultimate power could not be divided, for to fragment sovereignty was to destroy it: logically, by creating the absurdity of imperium in imperio, a state within a state; realistically, by inviting civil war. It was unthinkable for Parliament to resolve the crisis in America by recognizing the colonial assemblies as its equal in matters of taxation and legislation, and merely bound by common allegiance to the king. To abdicate authority in this way would be the same as recognizing the corporation of the most miserable borough in Wales as the equal of the House of Commons and would instantly end Parliament’s supremacy in Britain. At best such an abdication would re-create the Dark Ages, when barons attacked each other at will under the gaze of an impotent king. At worst it would cast Britain into the state of nature itself, a Hobbesian war of every man against his neighbor. The only rational response to such nightmares would be, of course, to get the hell out: or, as Pitt wryly suggested, to sell one’s lands and move to America, where the English were still men enough to hold their property and liberty sacred.

And last came Power itself. Pitt enunciated what was in effect an article of faith for the M.P.s when he said that “In a good cause, on a sound bottom, the force of this country can crush America to atoms.” It was only to remind them of his own role in creating this circumstance that he had added “I know the valour of your troops. I know the skill of your officers.” Every Englishman knew them. Great Britain led the world in naval and military power. A kingdom that could strip France of its empire and clip the wings of Spain as an afterthought could surely destroy America at will. The colonies posed no threat to such strength, except a moral one; which was why Pitt began by qualifying his assertion, “In a good cause.” Only indirectly—by “pull[ing] down the constitution with her”—could America harm Britain. Parliament alone could destroy political order in Britain, and it would inevitably do so if it persisted in trying to eradicate the rights of the colonists. Moral factors aside, the equation of power stood irreducibly in favor of the metropolis.

A unitary America, a sovereign Parliament, an invincible British military: this trinity of beliefs defined what amounted to a consensus among the men who ordered political life and exercised power in Britain, regardless of their specific views on colonial policy. But America had not resisted; a great many Americans had. What they had resisted was Parliament’s assertion of sovereignty over them—not because they denied Parliament’s authority, but because they believed that sovereignty asserted in absolute terms deprived them of their birthright of English liberty. As for the invincibility of British arms, the colonists, who never understated their own contributions to Britain’s victory over France, entertained other views. In truth America was more divided than Pitt and his contemporaries knew, Britain less omnipotent than they thought, and the rock of parliamentary sovereignty on which they assumed Britain’s constitution was founded might easily become the rock on which Britain’s empire would founder.

The Stamp Act crisis had shown that, given sufficient provocation, the colonists could overcome deep internal divisions to resist Britain’s power—in the name of English liberty. The history of the crisis might reasonably have suggested that the empire’s authority could be sustained, not by proclaiming parliamentary sovereignty and lending credence to the fears that had brought the colonists together, but rather by celebrating the colonists’ British character and cultivating their emotional identification with the metropolis—and quietly letting America’s intramural conflicts resume their natural course. But that message could not be read by anyone dazzled by the illusion of British military hegemony, and few Britons cared to blink away the brilliant vision of victories at Québec and Havana in order to contemplate the gloomier sight of Indian warriors annihilating redcoat garrisons at Michilimackinac and Venango while holding Detroit and Niagara hostage.

The simultaneous passage of the Declaratory Act and the Stamp Act Repeal resolved the crisis of empire without altering the trinity of beliefs on which British reasoning about America rested. Nor did the end of the crisis in any way reconcile colonial and British views of the imperial relationship—views the divergence of which had been made unmistakable by the combined pressures of war, depression, and George Grenville’s effort to bring order to the empire. Grenville’s program might lie in ruins, but all the problems he had tried to solve still stood, in forms reinforced by the passage of time, Indian rebellion, and the Stamp Act itself. The British government remained deep in debt and strapped for cash. Its army in the colonies was more expensive, and less effectual, than ever. The commercial depression had not ended, and public revenues, dependent on trade, would not increase until it did. The interior of North America remained ungoverned, and peace was sure to bring on a deluge of squatters that might well make it ungovernable. And finally, on top of everything else, the colonists’ enthusiasm for the empire, so powerful a cohesive force during the last years of the war and so apparently limitless at the war’s end, had been diminished by lingering, half-formed fears that in the highest circles of imperial power, men might yet plot to destroy the property and liberty of the colonists. Thus the Americans and their British kin had every reason to rejoice at the end of the Stamp Act crisis. But when at length they wiped the foam from their chins, their empire rang as hollow as the barrel that answered the last reveler’s wishful rap.

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