Britain’s self-interest as regards her empire on the American continent in the 18th century was clearly to maintain her sovereignty, and for every reason of trade, peace and profit to maintain it with the goodwill and by the voluntary desire of the colonies. Yet, through the fifteen years of deteriorating relations that led up to the shot heard round the world, successive British ministries, in the face of constant warnings by men and events, repeatedly took measures that injured the relationship. However justifiable in principle, these measures, insofar as they progressively destroyed goodwill and the voluntary connection, were demonstrably unwise in practice, besides being impossible to implement except by force. Since force could only mean enmity, the cost of the effort, even if successful, was clearly greater than the possible gain. In the end Britain made rebels where there had been none.
The major issue, as we all know, was the right of Parliament as the supreme legislative body of the state—but not of the empire, according to the colonists—to tax the colonies. The mother country claimed the right and the colonists denied it. Whether this “right” did or did not constitutionally exist defies, even now, a definitive answer, and for purposes of this inquiry is essentially irrelevant. What was at stake was a vast territorial empire planted by a vigorous productive people of British blood. As a contemporary Laocoon, the unavoidable Edmund Burke, perceived and said, “The retention of America was worth far more to the mother country economically, politically and even morally than any sum which might be raised by taxation, or even than any principle so-called of the Constitution.” In short, although possession was of greater value than principle, nevertheless the greater was thrown away for the less, the unworkable pursued at the sacrifice of the possible. This phenomenon is one of the commonest of governmental follies.
Trouble arose out of the British triumph in 1763 over the French and Indians in the Seven Years’ War. With the cession by France of Canada and its hinterlands, Britain became possessed of the great trans-Allegheny plains in the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi populated by unruly Indian tribes and some 8000 or 9000 French-Canadian Catholics. Not entirely expelled from the continent, the French still held Louisiana and the mouth of the Mississippi, from where it was possible they might stage a comeback. Administration and defense of the new area would mean increased expense for the British over and above interest payments on the national debt, which the costs of the war had almost doubled from £72 to £130 million. At the same time, supply bills (the budget) had risen tenfold from £14.5 to £145 million.
The immediate necessity of victory was to establish an armed force, projected at 10,000 men, in North America for defense against Indian troubles and French resurgence and, at the same time, to raise revenue from the colonies to pay for it—for their own defense, as the British saw it. The mere whisper of a standing army, which carried in the 18th-century mind the worst connotations of tyranny, aroused the politically sensitive among the colonials to instant antagonized alert. They suspected the British of suspecting them, now that they were freed of threat from the French, of harboring intent to throw off the British yoke, and they thus believed the mother country was planning “to fix upon us a large number of Troops under pretense of our Defence but rather designed as a rod and check over us”; to keep them, as another colonial wrote, “in proper subjection.” While this thought was certainly not absent from some British minds, it does not seem to have been as primary or determining as the jumpy Americans believed. The attitude of the home government was not so much fear of colonial rebellion as a sense that colonial fractiousness and failure to give adequate support to defense must not be allowed to continue and that measures were needed to require the colonies to assume their share of the burden.
The prospect of taxation excited in the colonies even more pugnacity than the prospect of a standing army. Until now funds for local government in the several colonies had been voted and appropriated by their own assemblies. Except in the form of customs duties, which regulated trade for the benefit of Britain, America had not been subject to metropolitan taxation, and the fact that this had not been exercised gradually created the assumption that the “right” was lacking. Since they were not represented in Parliament, the colonials grounded their resistance on the principle of an Englishman’s right not to be taxed except by his own representatives, but the underpinning was the universal reaction to any new tax: we won’t pay. While acknowledging allegiance to the Crown, the colonies considered themselves independent of Parliament and their assemblies coequal with it. Rights and obligations of the relationship, however, were unformulated, and by dint of avoiding definition, the parties on either side of the ocean had managed to rumble along, though not always smoothly, without anyone being sure of the rules, but as soon as it was suggested, prospective taxation, like the standing army, was denounced in the colonies as a breach of their liberties, a creeping encroachment of tyranny. The ground for conflict was laid.
At this point, some notice of the limits, scope and hazards of this essay is required. What follows is not intended as yet another properly balanced account of developments precipitating the American Revolution, of which a superfluity already exists. My theme is narrower: a depiction of folly on the British side because it was on that side that policy contrary to self-interest was pursued. The Americans overreacted, blundered, quarreled, but were acting, if not always admirably, in their own interest and did not lose sight of it. If the folly we are concerned with is the contradiction of self-interest, we must in this case follow the British.
The first thing to be said about the British relation to America was that while the colonies were considered of vital importance to the prosperity and world status of Britain, very little thought or attention was paid to them. The American problem, even while it grew progressively more acute, was never, except during a brief turmoil over repeal of the Stamp Act, a primary concern of British politics until the actual outbreak of hostilities. The all-pervading, all-important problem that absorbed major attention was the game of faction, the obtaining of office, the manipulating of connections, the making and breaking of political alliances—in sum, the business, more urgent, more vital, more passionate than any other, of who’s in, who’s out. In the absence of fixed political parties, the forming of a government was more subject to personal maneuvering than at any time since. “The parliamentary cabals” which harassed the first twelve years of George III, wrote Lord Holland, nephew of Charles James Fox, “being mere struggles for favor and power, created more real blood and personal rancour between individuals than the great questions of policy and principle which arose on the American and French wars.”
The second interest was trade. Trade was felt to be the bloodstream of British prosperity. To an island nation it represented the wealth of the world, the factor that made the difference between rich and poor nations. The economic philosophy of the time (later to be termed mercantilism) held that the colonial role in trade was to serve as the source of raw materials and the market for British manufacture, and never never to usurp the manufacturing function. This symbiosis was regarded as unalterable. Transportation both ways in British bottoms and re-export of colonial produce by way of Britain to foreign markets were aspects of the system, which was regulated by some thirty Navigation Acts and by the Board of Trade, the most organized and professional arm of the British government. Enjoined under the Navigation Acts from exporting so much as a horseshoe nail as a manufacture and from trading with the enemy during Britain’s unending wars in the first half of the century, colonial merchants and ship captains resorted routinely to smuggling and privateering. Customs duties were evaded or ignored, producing barely £1800 a year for the British Treasury. A remedy for this situation offered hope of revenue to the depleted Treasury after the Peace of 1763.
Even before the end of the Seven Years’ War, an effort to augment revenue from the colonies evoked a cry of outrage that supplied the slogan of future resistance. To enforce the collection of customs duties, Britain issued Writs of Assistance, or search warrants, permitting customs officers to enter homes, shops and warehouses to search for smuggled goods. The merchants of Boston, who, like all of the eastern seaboard, lived by trade that evaded customs, challenged the Writs in court with James Otis as their advocate. His plea in a “torrent of impetuous eloquence” enunciated the basic colonial principle that “taxation without representation is tyranny.” The signal of trouble in America was plain from then on—to anyone who listened.
Otis did not invent it. Colonial governors—if not their principals at home, who did not suppose that provincials had or should have political opinions—knew well enough the strength of the American aversion to any taxes not imposed by themselves, and reported as far back as 1732 that “Parliament would find it no easy matter to put such an Act in Execution.” The indications were clear enough to Sir Robert Walpole, the presiding statesman of that time, who, when taxing America was suggested to him, replied, “No! it is too hazardous a measure for me; I shall leave it to my successors.” Proposed taxes grew more frequent during the Seven Years’ War in reaction to the stinginess of the colonies in providing men and funds to support the war, but none was adopted because the home government at that time could not risk alienating the testy provincials.
Six months after Otis’ plea, England took the first in what was to be her long train of counter-productive measures when the Attorney General in London ruled that the Writs of Assistance were legal to enforce the Navigation Acts. The resulting cost in alienation far outweighed the revenue collected from the ensuing duties and fines.
In the meantime the Peace Treaty of 1763 was divisive and fiercely opposed as too yielding by William Pitt, architect and national hero of Britain’s victories in the war. Under the celebrated thunders of his scorn, the House of Commons shook and ministers blanched, but nevertheless voted for the Peace Treaty by a majority of five to one, chiefly out of desire to return to peacetime expenditures and a reduced land tax. That proved illusory. Instead, Lord Bute, George Ill’s choice to replace Pitt, who had haughtily removed himself when overruled on the war issue, levied an excise tax in Britain on cider with calamitous effect. Like the Writs in America, the act empowered inspectors to visit premises, even live with owners of cider mills to keep count of the number of gallons produced. So loud was the English cry of tyranny at this invasion and so violent the protest that troops had to be called out in apple country, while at Westminster Pitt was inspired to his immortal statement of principle: “The poorest man in his cottage may bid defiance to all the force of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter; the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!” This was the voice that but for tragic flaws in the man might have prevented all the wrong turnings.
No one having calculated the expected return from the cider tax, it was not clear how much of the deficit it could make up before resentment would bring down the Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was a prominent rake, Sir Francis Dashwood, shortly to succeed as 15th Baron Le Despencer. A founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, which was given to exercises of debauchery in a reconstructed monastery, he was not a competent financier: his knowledge of accounts, said a contemporary, “was confined to the reckoning of tavern bills,” and a sum of five figures was to him “an impenetrable secret.” He seems to have discerned that the cider tax would not bring him glory. “People will point at me,” he said, “and cry, ‘There goes the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever appeared!’ ”
Consciousness of their inadequacy for the work of government commonly afflicted the noble lords who filled the offices, not least when rank was their only qualification. The extra importance of high rank was accepted by all classes in the 18th-century world from yeoman to King; the enlightenment of the age did not extend to egalitarianism. George III made it quite clear: “Lord North cannot seriously think that a private gentleman like Mr. Penton is to stand in the way of the eldest son of an Earl, undoubtedly if that idea holds good it is diametrically opposed to what I have known all my life.”
As a qualification for office, however, rank did not necessarily confer self-confidence. Regard for rank and riches propelled the Marquess of Rockingham and the Duke of Grafton to the premiership and the Duke of Richmond to office as Secretary of State in the 1760s. Rockingham, even when First Minister (the title Premier, though describing the office in fact, was not used), had the greatest difficulty in speaking on his feet, and Grafton complained regularly of feeling unequal to his task. The Duke of Newcastle, who inherited estates in twelve counties and an income of £40,000 a year, who served several times as First Minister and controlled political patronage for forty years, was timorous, anxious, jealous and probably the only Duke on record who went about always expecting to be snubbed. Lord North, who headed the government throughout the crucial decade of the 1770s protesting most of the way, and George III himself bemoaned their responsibilities as being beyond their capacities.
The cider tax provided the final tumult in unseating the hated Earl of Bute, who was suspected of subverting the King by Tory advocacy of the royal “prerogative.” He resigned in 1763, to be succeeded by Pitt’s brother-in-law, George Grenville. Although the cider tax had clearly failed and was repealed within two years, the Government in its search for revenue was to attempt the same method of taxation in America.
George Grenville, when he assumed the first office at 51, was a serious man, industrious among dilettantes, inflexibly honest among the venal, narrow-minded, self-righteous and pedantic. An economist by temperament, he made it a rule to live on his income and save his salary. Though ambitious, he lacked the graces that oil the way for ambition. Horace Walpole, the ultimate insider, considered him the “ablest man of business in the House of Commons.” Though not a peer or heir to a peerage, Grenville, through his background and family, was connected with the Whig ruling families who monopolized government office. His mother was a Temple, through whom his elder brother Richard inherited a title as Lord Temple; his maternal uncle Viscount Cobham was proprietor of Stowe, one of the most superb estates of the era. George followed the classic path through Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, studied law at the Inner Temple and was admitted to the Bar at 23, entered Parliament at 29 in 1741 for a family borough, which he represented until his death, pursued ministerial rank with the unusual intention of earning it by mastery of the business, served in most of the important offices under the aegis of Pitt, who had married his sister, while he himself had not neglected to marry a sister of the Earl of Egremont, a principal Secretary of State.
This was the pattern of the British minister. They came from some 200 families inclusive of 174 peerages in 1760, knew each other from school and university, were related through chains of cousins, in-laws, stepparents and siblings of second and third marriages, married each other’s sisters, daughters and widows and consistently exchanged mistresses (a Mrs. Armstead served in that role to Lord George Germain, to his nephew the Duke of Dorset, to Lord Derby, to the Prince of Wales and to Charles James Fox, whom she eventually married), appointed each other to office and secured for each other places and pensions. Of some 27 persons who filled high office in the period 1760–80, twenty had attended either Eton or Westminster, went on either to Christ Church or Trinity College at Oxford or to Trinity or Kings at Cambridge, followed in most cases by the Grand Tour in Europe. Two of the 27 were dukes, two marquises, ten earls, one a Scottish and one an Irish peer; six were younger sons of peers and only five were commoners, among them Pitt, the outstanding statesman of the time, and three who through the avenue of the law became Lords Chancellor. As the only professional education open to peers’ younger sons and gentlemen-commoners (the army and clergy could be entered without training) law was the path for the ambitious.
Peers and other landowners of comfortable estate enjoyed annual incomes of £15,000 or more from the rent-rolls, mines and resources of their properties. They managed great households, farms, stables, kennels, parks and gardens, entertained endless guests, employed armies of servants, grooms, gamekeepers, gardeners, field laborers, artisans. The Marquess of Rockingham, the wealthiest to hold high office in this period except for the dukes, received an income of about £20,000 a year from properties in Yorkshire, Northamptonshire and Ireland, lived in one of the largest homes of England, married an heiress, disposed of three parliamentary boroughs, 23 clerical livings and five chaplaincies, served locally as Lord-Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire and of the city of York.
Why did possessors of wealth, privilege and great estate enter government? Partly because they felt government was their province and responsibility. Noblesse oblige had roots in the feudal obligation that originally obliged nobles to serve in the King’s council, and they had long governed as landlords and Justices of the Peace in their home counties. Governing went with territorial title; it was the employment of gentlemen, the duty of landed nobility. In the election of 1761, 23 eldest sons of peers entered the House of Commons at their first opportunity after reaching 21, all but two of them under the age of 26.
For another thing, high office offered the means of support for dependent relatives. Because estates were entailed by primogeniture on the eldest son, private wealth was rarely enough to support younger sons, nephews, poor cousins and deserving retainers. “Place” was necessary because these dependents had no other means of support. Except for law, there were no professions for which the gentry were trained. Through patronage and connections at court, a minister could take care of his own. Salaried sinecures of rather misty duties were limitlessly available. Sir Robert Walpole, dominant minister of the previous reign, distributed among his three sons, including Horace, the post of Auditor of the Exchange, Usher of the Exchange, and Clerk of the Pells, while two of the sons shared a Collectorship of Customs. George Selwyn, a fashionable libertine and connoisseur of public hangings, was appointed and served as Registrar to the Court of Chancery in Barbados without his ever gracing the island by his presence. One reason for the meager returns from American customs was that appointees to the Collectorships often remained comfortably at home in England, leaving their duties to poorly paid and easily bribed substitutes.
More than patronage, the lure of power and status has bewitched men of all times and conditions, in comfortable circumstances no less than in needy. The Earl of Shelburne, one of the more intelligent ministers of the time, stated it plainly: “The only pleasure I propose by employment is not the profit, but to act a part suitable to my rank and capacity, such as it is.” The aristocracy of 18th-century England succumbed to the lure like other men; even the Duke of Newcastle’s fear of office was surmounted, says Horace Walpole, by “his passion for the front rank of power.” They entered young, were rarely prepared or trained for the tasks, could become restless or bored under difficulties and usually retreated for half the year to the charms of their country homes, their racing stables, hunting fields and adventures in landscaping. Individual temperaments and capabilities differed as much as in any group: some were conscientious, some casual about their duties, some liberal in thought, some reactionary, some spoiled by gambling and drink, some more thoughtful, able, better educated than others, but on the whole, their attitude toward government was less than professional. Indeed the profession of government did not exist; the idea would have shocked those who practiced it. Social pleasures tended to come first; office was attended to in the time remaining. Cabinet meetings, unscheduled and haphazard affairs, were generally held at dinner in the First Minister’s London residence. Sense of commitment was not always strong. Lord Shelburne, in whom it was strong, once commiserated with a colleague on how provoking it was to have Lord Camden and the Duke of Grafton “come down [to London] with their lounging opinions to outvote you in the Cabinet.”
When gambling was the craze of the fashionable world, when ladies filled their homes with card parties which they advertised in the papers and men sat up until dawn at Brooks’ betting huge sums on the turn of a card or in meaningless wagers about tomorrow’s rain or next week’s opera singer, when fortunes were easily lost and debt was a normal condition, how did such men, as ministers, adapt themselves to the unforgiving figures of supply bills and tax rates and national debt?
Noble circumstances did not nurture realism in government. At home, a word or a nod to servitors accomplished any desired end. At the fiat of Capability Brown or another landscape designer, rolling contours were fashioned from level land; lakes, vistas, groves of trees created; sweeps of curving lawn laid from lake to house. When the village of Stowe interfered with the designer’s planned view, all the inhabitants were moved to new houses two miles away and the old village razed, plowed over and planted with trees. Lord George Germain, the minister responsible for conducting the military operations of the American Revolution, was born a Sackville and brought up at Knole, a family domain so extensive, with its seven courtyards and multiple roofs of different heights, that it looked from a distance like a town. In his boyhood his father planted in one grand sweep the seedlings of 200 pear trees, 300 crabapple, 200 cherry, 500 holly, 700 hazel, another 1000 holly to screen the kitchen garden and 2000 beeches for the park.
Tastes were not in all cases confined to the outdoors and the clubs. Education at school and university was supposed to have provided a respectable acquaintance with the Latin classics and some Greek, and the continental Grand Tour some acquaintance with the arts, embellished by the purchase of paintings and casts of classical sculpture to bring home. The Tour usually included Rome, which seems not to have greatly changed since the times of the Renaissance popes. Its government was “the worst possible,” wrote an English visitor. “Of the population a quarter are priests, a quarter are statues, a quarter are people who do nothing.”
Counsel from outside their narrow class was available to British rulers, if they wished, through the employment of outstanding intellectuals in advisory capacities. Rockingham, when thrust into the chief office following Grenville, and perhaps conscious of his shortcomings, had the wit to select the brilliant young Irish lawyer Edmund Burke as his private secretary. Lord Shelburne employed the scientist Joseph Priestley as his librarian and literary companion with a house for himself and an annuity for life. General Henry Seymour Conway, Secretary of State and a future Commander-in-Chief, appointed the political philosopher David Hume as his departmental under-secretary and, on Hume’s plea, secured a pension of £100 a year for Jean Jacques Rousseau, then in England. Conway himself, as an occasional author, wrote a comedy adapted from the French and produced at Drury Lane. The Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State in the ministry of his stepbrother Lord North, was principal benefactor of Eleazar Wheelock’s school for Indians, which became Dartmouth College. He sat for eighteen portraits, including one by Romney, and was a devoted patron of the poet William Cowper, whom he provided with a sinecure and a quiet home to shelter him in his bouts of insanity.
For all their cultivated tastes, the upper crust of the governing class produced during this period few of outstanding mind. Dr. Johnson declared he knew “but two men who had risen considerably above the common standard”: William Pitt and Edmund Burke, neither wholly of the upper crust. Pitt suggested a factor, doubtless subjective, in his remark that he hardly knew a boy “who was not cowed for life at Eton.” He kept his own children at home to be educated privately. The general state of mind was better understood by William Murray, the Scottish lawyer and, as Earl of Mansfield, future Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor. He had tried without much success to direct a course of study in history, oratory and the classics for his nephew, the future Marquis of Rockingham, and wrote to him when he turned 21, “You could not entertain me with a more uncommon sight than a man of your age, surrounded by all the baits and instruments of folly, daring to be wise; in a season of dissatisfaction, daring to think.” That was the condition of the period 1760–80; daring to be wise, daring to think was not its forte. But then, how often has it ever been of any period?
The young monarch presiding over this establishment was not widely admired in these years. On George Ill’s accession to the throne in 1760 at the age of 21, Horace Walpole found him tall, florid, dignified and “amiable,” but the amiability was painfully assumed. Fatherless since the age of twelve, George had been brought up in an atmosphere of the harshest rancor between his grandfather George II and his father, Frederick, Prince of Wales. While common among royalty, the paternal-filial hatred in this case was extreme, leaving young George inimical to all who had served his grandfather and persuaded that the world whose rule he inherited was deeply wicked and its moral improvement his duty. In the narrow family circle at Leicester House, he was poorly educated with no contacts with the outside world and grew up obstinate, limited, troubled and unsure of himself. He liked to retire to his study, reported his tutor, Lord Waldegrave, “to indulge the melancholy enjoyment of his own ill humor.” He would seldom do wrong, “except when he mistakes wrong for right” and, when this happens, “it will be difficult to undeceive him because he is uncommonly indolent and has strong prejudices.”
Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so. In a boyhood essay on King Alfred, George wrote that when Alfred came to the throne, “there was scarce a man in office that was not totally unfit for it and generally extremely corrupt in the execution of it.” Removing the incorrigibles, “reclaiming” the others, Alfred had “raised the glory and happiness of his country” with the help of the Almighty Power that “wrecks the cunning of proud, ambitious and deceitful men.” Such was George’s view of his ministers and such his own program. He must clean out the system, restore righteous rule—his own—and carry out his mother’s injunction, “George, be a King.” His efforts from the first day of his reign to unseat the Whig grandees who complacently ruled through a pervasive distribution of patronage, by acquiring control of the patronage in his own hands, not unnaturally convinced many of his intention to restore the royal absolutism defeated at such cost in the previous century.
In need of a father substitute, George had fixed on the Earl of Bute with a neurotic adoration that was bound to—and did—end in disillusion. Thereafter, until he found the comfortable Lord North, he either disliked or despised every First Minister, or swung over into dependence, and since he had power to appoint and dismiss within certain limits, his swings kept government unstable. Because Pitt had left the Prince of Wales’ circle to serve under George II, George called him “the blackest of hearts” and a “true snake in the grass,” and vowed to make other ministers “smart for their ingratitude.” Often confessing to Bute the torture of his self-distrust and irresolution, he was convinced at the same time of his own righteousness, which had as its basic assumption that because he wished nothing but good, everyone who did not agree with him was a scoundrel. This was not a sovereign likely to understand or try to understand insubordinate colonials.
A weakness of England’s government was lack of cohesion or of a concept of collective responsibility. Ministers were appointed by the Crown as individuals and pursued their own ideas of policy often without consulting their colleagues. Because government derived from the Crown, aspirants to office had to find favor and work in partnership with the King, which proved a more ticklish job under George III than it had been under the thick-witted, foreign-born first Hanoverians. The sovereign was, within limits, chief of the executive with the right to choose his own ministers although not on the basis of royal favor alone. The First Minister and his associates had to have the support of the electorate in the sense that, even without a political party, they had to muster a majority of Parliament and rely on it to enact and approve their policies. Even when this was achieved, George Ill’s erratic and emotional exercise of his right of choice made for extreme uncertainty of governments in his first decade, the brewing years of the American conflict, besides fostering personal rancor in the struggle of factions for favor and power.
The Cabinet was a fluid body constantly being reshuffled and not charged with a specific policy. Its chief was called simply First Minister; resistance to the title of Premier, which Grenville called “odious,” was a legacy from the twenty-year tenure of Sir Robert Walpole and the fear of renewed aggregation of power in one man. The function, insofar as it had to be exercised, inhered in the First Lord of the Treasury. The working Cabinet numbered five or six including, besides the First Lord, two Secretaries of State, for home and foreign affairs—oddly designated the Northern and Southern departments—the Lord Chancellor for law and the Lord President of the Council, meaning the Privy Council, a large floating group of ministers, former ministers and important officials of the realm. The First Lord of the Admiralty, representing the major service, was sometimes though not always a member of the inner Cabinet. The Army had a Secretary at War without a seat in the Cabinet and a Paymaster-General, who, through control of pay and supplies, held the most lucrative post in the government, but it had no representative in policy councils. Until 1768, no department was specifically charged with administration of the colonies or execution of measures pertaining to them. Pragmatically, colonial affairs became the business of the Board of Trade and Plantations; equally pragmatically, the Navy, which maintained contact across the ocean, served as policy’s instrument.
Junior Lords, Under-Secretaries, Commissioners of boards and customs, performed the daily business of government, suggested and drafted the bills for Parliament. These members of the civil service, as far down as clerks, were appointed through patronage and “connexions,” as were the colonial governors and their staffs and the Admiralty officials in the colonies. “Connexion” was the cement of the governing class and the operative word of the time, often to the detriment of the function. This did not go unrecognized. Asked by the Duke of Newcastle to appoint to his staff an unqualified M.P. for the sake of assuring his vote, Admiral George Anson, who became First Lord after his celebrated voyage around the world, bluntly stated the disservice to the Navy: “I must now beg your Grace will seriously consider what must be the condition of your Fleet if these burrough recommendations which must be frequent are to be complyed with”; the custom “has done more mischief to the publick than the loss of a vote in the House of Commons.”
Beyond ministers, beyond the Crown, Parliament held supremacy, bitterly won in the last century at the cost of revolution, civil war, regicide, restoration and a second royal ouster. In the calm that at last settled under the rule of the imported Hanoverians, the House of Commons was no longer the fiery tribunal of a great constitutional struggle. It had settled into a more or less satisfied, more or less static body of members who owed their seats to “connexions” and family-controlled “rotten” boroughs and bought elections, and gave their votes in return for government patronage in the form of positions, favors and direct money payments. In 1770, it has been calculated, 190 members of the House of Commons held remunerative positions in the gift of the Government. Though regularly denounced as corruption, the system was so ubiquitous and routine that it carried no aura of disgrace.
Members were associated in no organized political parties, and they were attached to no identifiable political principles. Their identity came from social or economic or even geographical groups: the country gentlemen, the business and mercantile classes of the cities, the 45 members from Scotland, a parcel of West Indian planters who lived on their island revenues in English homes—a total of 558 in the Commons. In theory, members were of two kinds: knights of the shire or county, of whom two were elected at large for each county, and burgesses representing the boroughs, that is, any town empowered by its charter to be represented in Parliament. Since the knights of the shire were qualified by holding land worth £600 a year, they belonged to the substantial gentry or were sons of peers. Combining with them in interest were the members from the smaller boroughs, who had so few voters that they could be bought or were so tiny that the local landlord held them in his pocket. They generally chose members belonging to the gentry who could further their interests at Westminster. Hence the landed gentry or country party were by far the largest group in the House of Commons and claimed to represent popular opinion, although in fact they were elected by only some 160,000 voters.
The larger urban boroughs had virtually democratic suffrage and held contested, often rowdy, elections. Their members were lawyers, merchants, contractors, shipowners, Army and Navy officers, government officials and nabobs of the India trade. Though influential in themselves, they represented an even smaller electorate, hardly more than 85,000, because the country party managed to keep the urban population largely disenfranchised.
About half the seats, it was estimated, could be bought and sold through patronage vividly portrayed in Lord North’s instructions to the Treasury Secretary at the time of the general election of 1774. He was to inform Lord Falmouth, who controlled six seats in Cornwall, that North agreed to terms of £2500 for each of three seats to fill by his own nomination; further that “Mr. Legge can only afford £400. If he comes in for Lostwithiel he will cost the public some 2000 guineas. Gascoign should have the refusal of Tregony if he will pay £1000”; further, “Let Cooper know whether you promised £2500 or £3000 for each of Lord Edgcumbe’s [five] seats. I was going to pay him £12,500 but he demanded £15,000.”
Political patrons controlled sometimes as many as seven or eight seats, often in family groups depending from a peer in the Lords, whose members acted together under direction from the patron, although when an issue took fire, dividing opinion, individuals sometimes voted their own convictions. The knights of the counties whose electorates were too large to be dominated by any patron, and thirty or forty independent boroughs not controlled by estates, considered themselves the country party. Here the Tory idea still existed, a residue of the Crown party of the 17th century, exiled from the central government, grown crusty. Long accustomed to local government, the counties resented interference from London and despised court and capital on principle, although this was not incompatible with supporting Whig ministeries. Attached to no faction, following no leaders, soliciting no titles or “place,” serving their constituency, the county members voted according to that interest and their own beliefs. A Yorkshire M.P. wrote in a letter that he had “sat twelve hours in the House of Commons without moving, with which I was well satisfied, as it gave me some power, from the various arguments on both sides, of determining clearly by my vote my opinion.” Men thinking for themselves will defeat the slush funds—if there are enough of them.
George Grenville’s primary concern when he took office was Britain’s financial solvency. With the Peace of Paris in hand, he was able to reduce the Army from 120,000 to 30,000 men; his economies at the expense of the Navy, involving a drastic cutting back of dockyard facilities and maintenance, was to have crippling consequences when the test of action came. At the same time, he prepared legislation for taxing American trade, in no ignorance of the sentiments likely to be aroused. Agents or lobbyists retained by the colonies to represent their interests in London, given their lack of representation in Parliament, were often M.P.s themselves or other persons with access to government. Richard Jackson, a prominent M.P., merchant and barrister, and agent at different times of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, was Grenville’s private secretary. “I have access to almost every place any friends of the Colonys wd wish to have access to,” he wrote to Franklin, “but I am not sensible of my making any impression proportional to my Endeavors.” He and his colleagues did what they could, against a cloud of indifference, to make colonial opinion known in the capital.
In addition to Jackson as a channel, Grenville was in correspondence with the colonial governors and the Surveyor General of Customs in the northern colonies, whose advice he asked before drafting a bill for enforcement of the customs. It was no secret that Americans would regard enforced collection, so long allowed to lapse, as a form of taxation they were prepared to resist. Grenville’s preliminary order of November 1763 instructing customs officers to collect existing duties to the full was reported by Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts to have caused “greater alarm” in America than had the French capture of Fort William Henry six years earlier. For the record, the Board of Trade was asked to advise by what method “least Burthensome and most Palatable to the Colonies” they would contribute to the costs of “Civil and Military Establishments.” Since there was no way that burden could be made palatable, and Grenville had already made up his mind, a reply was perhaps not seriously expected.
If prospects of trouble did not greatly disturb the ministry, it was because, as Grenville said reasonably enough, “All men wish not to be taxed,” and because he was determined in any event that America could and should contribute to the costs of its own government and defense. His two Secretaries of State, the Earl of Halifax and the Earl of Egremont, were not men to dissuade him. Lord Halifax had inherited his peerage at 23 and enriched it by the acquisition of a wife who brought him, from a father in textiles, a huge fortune of £ 110,000. With these qualifications, he served as Groom of the Bedchamber and Master of Buckhounds and in other ornamental court posts until the political roundabout dropped him in the Presidency of the Board of Trade, where his tenure at the time of the founding of Nova Scotia caused its capital to be named for him. Considered weak but amiable, he was a hard drinker and a victim of early senility, of which he was to die at 55 while serving in the first Cabinet of his nephew Lord North.
The heavy drinking of the age was often a diminisher of life, or ability. Even the universally admired Marquess of Granby, Commander-in-Chief of armed forces in England in 1766–70, a noble soldier of noble character, did not escape: according to Horace Walpole, “his constant excesses in wine hurried him out of the world at 49.” In the general election of 1774, Charles James Fox, no mean consumer himself, complained of the entertaining he had to do while canvassing. Eight guests came on one afternoon, stayed from three to ten, and drank “ten bottles of wine and sixteen bowls of punch, each of which would hold four bottles”—the equivalent of nine bottles per man.
Grenville’s other Secretary of State, the Earl of Egremont, his brother-in-law, was incompetent and arrogant in equal parts, taking after a ducal grandfather known as “the proud Duke of Somerset.” He was a composite, reports the always uncharitable Horace, “of pride, ill-nature and strict good breeding … [with] neither the knowledge of business nor the smallest share of parliamentary abilities,” and reputedly untrustworthy besides. He looked down on Americans but disappeared from their affairs when a stroke of apoplexy brought on by overeating (according to Walpole) carried him off while the Revenue Bill was still being drafted.
His successor, the Earl of Sandwich, a former and later First Lord of the Admiralty, was a change only in temperament. Hearty, good-humored and corrupt, he used his control of appointments and provisions for the Navy for private profit. Although not a dilettante but a hardworking enthusiast of the fleet, his inveterate jobbery left dockyards a scandal, provisioners defrauded and ships unseaworthy. The condition of the Navy, when revealed by the war with America, was to earn him a vote of censure by both Houses. Socially he was a crony of Dashwood’s Hellfire circle and so addicted to gambling that, sparing no time for meals, he would slap a slice of meat between two slices of bread to eat while gaming, thus bequeathing his name to the indispensable edible artifact of the Western world.
While under the aegis of these ministers the Revenue Bill was being prepared, a measure fertile in discord was taken without act of Parliament. The Boundaries Proclamation of 1763 prohibited white settlement west of the Alleghenies, reserving these lands to the Indians. Prompted by the ferocious Indian uprising called Pontiac’s Rebellion, which swept up the tribes from the Great Lakes to Pennsylvania and threatened at one stage to drive the British from the area, the Proclamation was intended to appease the Indians by keeping the colonists from invading their hunting grounds and provoking them to renewed war. Another Indian rising could be a stalking horse for the French besides requiring new expenditure to combat it that Britain could ill afford. Behind the stated motive was a desire to restrict the colonists to the Atlantic seaboard, where they would continue to import British goods, and to prevent debtors and adventurers from crossing the mountains and planting a settlement free of British sovereignty in the heart of America. Here, out of contact with the seaports, they would manufacture their own necessities, in the dire prediction of the Board of Trade, “to the infinite prejudice of Britain.”
The Proclamation was hardly welcome to colonists who were already forming stock companies to promote migration for profit or, like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, obtaining grants of land across the mountains for speculation. To the restless homesteader it was infuriating interference. A century and a half of winning the wilderness had not made Americans amenable to the idea that a faraway government of lords in silk knee-breeches had the right to prevent their taking possession of land they could conquer with axe and rifle. They saw in the Proclamation not protection of the Indians—whom their own volunteer forces had done more than the redcoats to combat in Pontiac’s Rebellion—but corrupt plans of Whitehall to grant great tracts of Crown lands to court favorites.
Getting acquainted is supposed to generate mutual understanding, and joining in the same fight to weld fellow-feeling, yet the reverse was the effect of contact between regulars and provincial forces in the Seven Years’ War. At the end of operations they liked, respected and understood each other less than before. Colonials naturally resented the British Army’s snobbery, the officers who disdained to accord equal rank to colonial officers, the rituals of spit and polish (British troops used 6500 tons of flour a year for whitening wigs and breeches), the extension of supreme command over provincial forces and superior airs in general. That could be expected.
On the other hand, British contempt for the colonial soldier, who was eventually (with French help) to take the British sword in surrender, was the oddest, deepest, most disserviceable misjudgment of the years leading to the conflict. How could General Wolfe, the hero who at 32 captured Quebec and died on the battlefield, call the rangers who fought with him “the worst soldiers in the universe”? He added in another letter, “The Americans are in general the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs you can conceive … rather an encumbrance than any real strength to an army.” Dirty the woodsmen-rangers certainly were in comparison with the white-wigged redcoats. Brilliant exterior had become so much the criterion of a European army that it determined judgment. Sir Jeffery Amherst had a “very poor opinion” of the rangers and Wolfe’s successor, General James Murray, declared the Americans “very unfit for and very impatient of war.” Others who saw service in the woods and camps of America alongside the rangers called them rabble, unsoldierly, cowardly. Such judgments swelled at home into fatuous boasts like that of General Thomas Clarke, aide-decamp to the King, who said in the presence of Benjamin Franklin that “with a thousand Grenadiers he would undertake to go from one end of America to the other and geld all the males partly by force and partly by a little coaxing.”
A possible cause for the fatal misjudgment has been found in the different nature of military service experienced on the one hand by British professionals and on the other by provincials, who were recruited by their local assemblies under contract for a specific mission, a limited time and prescribed conditions of pay and supply. When these failed, as in all wars they must, colonial troops balked, refused duty, and if the grievances were not met, simply marched off for home, not in solitary hidden desertions but openly in a body as a natural response to breach of contract. This was behavior quite incomprehensible to Hussars, Light Dragoons and Grenadier Guards steeped in regimental pride and tradition. British commanders tried to apply the Rules and Articles of War; the colonials, doggedly civilian soldiers and determined that nothing should transform them into regulars, stubbornly rejected them, to the point of group desertion if necessary. Hence their reputation as rabble.
Ill feeling found another source in the effort of the Anglican Church to establish an episcopate in New England. With religion’s peculiar capacity to stimulate enmity, the episcopal prospect aroused the fiercest suspicions in Americans. A bishop to them was a bridgehead of tyranny, an instrument for suppressing freedom of conscience (which no one practiced less than New Englanders), a hidden door to popery and a sure source of new taxes to support the hierarchy. In fact the British government, as distinct from the Church, had no intention whatever of sponsoring a separate American episcopate. Nevertheless, “No bishop!” continued to be a cry as potent as “No tax!” or later, “No tea!” Even masts for the British Navy were a source of friction through the White Pine Acts, which prohibited the felling of tall trees to preserve them for masting.
It is possible these multifarious quarrels might have been composed if an American Department to give steady attention and coherent management to the colonies had been created at the close of the Seven Years’ War when the need for a uniform reorganized administration was recognized. The moment was exigent; a large new territory had to be incorporated; the diverse charters of the colonies had already proved troublesome. But the need was not met. Lord Bute’s iniquities and the maneuvering of colleagues and rivals in his wake absorbed political activity. The fractious affairs of empire were left to the Board of Trade, which had three successive presidents in the year 1763 alone.
The Revenue Bill presented to Parliament in February 1764 contained provisions bound for trouble. It reduced the long-ignored duty on molasses, the fulcrum of New England commerce, but required that collection of a new duty of 3d. a gallon be enforced; it removed trials of suspected violators from common-law courts, with juries of fellow-citizens not inclined to convict, to a special non-jury Admiralty Court in Halifax, with judges not readily bribed by colonial merchants and where the accused would have to travel to defend his case. The Bill did not disguise but proclaimed that its purpose was “to raise a revenue in America for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the same.” This was its red flag. Yet it was plain that while the Crown’s right to regulate trade was more or less fitfully acknowledged by the Americans, they were bent on denying the right of taxation for revenue except by themselves. More compelling was their fear of a ruined trade, profitable while customs duties had long been hardly more than a fiction, but with no margin of profit left under an enforced duty of 3d. a gallon.
The colonies’ agents in England had already made the point that a dwindling trade would be of no benefit to Britain and insisted that molasses could not tolerate a duty of more than a penny a gallon although merchants might “silently acquiesce” to 2d.* Locally, the assemblies of Massachusetts and New York were already growling about violation of their “natural rights” in the principle of taxation and urging Connecticut and Rhode Island to join in protesting a “Mortal Wound to the Peace of these Colonies.” They resisted the principle as strongly as the actual threat to the pocket because they believed that acceptance of a precedent in parliamentary taxation would open the way to future taxes and other impositions. Colonial opinion, however, was at this stage meagerly reported, or regarded, in London.
The Board of Trade fixed the duty at 3d. and the Revenue Bill (generally known afterward as the Sugar Act) was enacted by Parliament in April 1764 with only one negative vote, by a member named John Huske, who had been born in Boston.
The Act carried a sting in its tail—as yet only in embryo—in the announcement of a projected Stamp Tax to follow. This was no horrendous device to torture Americans but one of numerous ad hoc levies used in England, in this case, a tax on letters, wills, contracts, bills of sale and other mailed or legal documents. Grenville inserted the advance notice because he was indeed aware of a lurking question about Parliament’s right to tax unrepresented subjects, which he himself considered beyond question, and he hoped “in God’s name” that it would not be made an issue in Parliament. A premise of England’s government in an age tired of struggle was to maintain a wide base of acceptable policy that would awake no sleeping dogs, the eternal wish for “consensus.” Grenville was less concerned about colonial reaction than about disturbance of a nicely reliable Parliament. He embodied notice of the Stamp Tax in the Revenue Bill, perhaps hoping that enactment would establish without fuss the principle of Parliament’s right to impose a revenue tax, or he may have intended a hint to the colonies to tax themselves, though his subsequent actions do not bear this out. A more Machiavellian motive has been advanced in the suggestion that he knew the notice would incite such bellows of colonial protest as would unite Parliament in angry assertion of its sovereignty.
The cry was indeed loud and unrestrained, but by the time it was heard, England’s attention was absorbed in an issue that awoke every sleeping dog in the country—the Wilkes case. Not that John Wilkes diverted attention from America, because there was little as yet to divert. The measures of 1763–64 were not unreasonable, nor were they folly per se, except in failing to take into account the quality, the temperament and the vital local concerns of the people to whom they applied. But heeding local concerns is not in the nature of an imperial government. The colonists were not a primitive “fluttered folk and wild” but offspring of exceptionally strong-minded and enterprising dissidents of the British breed. Essentially, the problem was attitude. The British behaved—and what is more, thought—in imperial terms as governors to the governed. The colonials considered themselves equals, resented interference and sniffed tyranny in every breeze coming over the Atlantic.
Liberty was the most intense political sentiment of the time. Government was disliked; although the streets of London were beset by assault and robbery, resistance to a police force was strong, and when Lord Shelburne was to suggest, after the days of violence, flames and deaths during the Gordon riots of 1780, that the time had come for an organized police, he was regarded as advocating a thing only suitable to French absolutism. The idea of a census was considered an intolerable intrusion. Providing information to “place-men and taxmasters,” it was denounced by a Member of Parliament in 1753 as “totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty.” If any officer should demand information about his household and family he would refuse it and if the officer persisted he would have him thrown into the horsepond. It was sentiments such as these that animated the fervor with regard to taxation and Wilkes.
The Wilkes case, which blew up into a constitutional issue of alarming virulence, was important for America because it was to create allies in the cause of “liberty.” Because parliamentary rights, represented by Wilkes, and American rights were both seen as issues of liberty, those who became opponents of the government in the Wilkes affair became ipso facto friends of the American cause. John Wilkes himself was an M.P. and a coarse but witty man-about-town of the type that gains notoriety by being abusive. In 1763 in his journal, The North Briton, he published a ferocious attack on the terms of the settlement with France of the Seven Years’ War laced with insults to the King. He was arrested under a general warrant on a charge of seditious libel and imprisoned in the Tower. Chief Justice Pratt (the future Lord Camden) ordered his release on grounds of his parliamentary privilege. Expelled from the House of Commons by the government majority he fled to France, while in England he was tried in absentia for libel of the King and, irrelevantly, for obscenity for privately publishing a pornographic Essay on Women, which his erstwhile friend Lord Sandwich insisted on reading aloud word for word in the House of Lords.
These attentions secured Wilkes’ conviction and sentence of outlawry and succeeded in raising a crisis when parliamentary opposition, now free of defending the man, rallied around a resolution declaring his arrest by general warrant illegal. When it was barely defeated by a government majority that sank to fourteen, the vote revealed the weakness of patronage when the House scented abuse of its rights. The King angrily ordered Grenville to dismiss all the renegade voters who held positions in the royal household or in the ministry, thus creating a nucleus of opposition that was to grow. George III was not the most astute politician.