The American Colonies

The American Colonies

How does one recognize the looming inevitable? In the 1760s, the British, having defeated the French in America and expanded George III’s overseas empire, saw only profit and prestige ahead. A New England cleric, the Reverend Samuel Cooper, told his congregation that the colonists were indebted “not only for their present Security and Happiness, but, perhaps for their very Being, to the paternal Care of the Monarch.” The legitimacy of royal rule was little questioned. In that future seedbed of sedition, Boston, Thomas Foxcroft declared, “Above all, we owe our humble Thanks to his Majesty and with loyal Hearts full of joyous Gratitude, we bless the King, for his Paternal Goodness in sending such effectual Aids to his American Subjects. . . when we needed the Royal Protection.”

Fighting a seven-year war three thousand miles from home, when travel time was measured in months, had pinched the British economy. Why not, then, have the colonists, who had been rescued from the wicked French, pay something for their own protection? It was a petty stamp tax on printed paper, a bargain fee (a quarter of what Britons at home paid) on imported tea. It would go to quartering Redcoats to keep away marauding Indians, or to inhibit revengeful “Frogs.”

This imperial logic escaped its beneficiaries. Outspoken colonists resented paying anything on their own behalf, claiming lack of representation in Parliament, the tax-raising body in remote London. But that complaint was only the tip of the trade iceberg. Colonists by law could not manufacture weapons or ammunition (or much else) for their own defense. British industry at home was sustained by commercial barriers. Americans were to supply the raw materials for the making of goods they would have to buy as finished products.

Within a decade, objections about taxes, trade, and troops had plucked the gilded genie from the transatlantic bottle. Colonial farmers, craftsmen, and merchants began proposing a new concept, liberty, as a solution to their discontent. In Britain, complacent merchants, manufacturers, and landowners saw only ignorance, ingratitude, and greed motivating the radicalized handful of New England Yankees, who—despite a way with words—lacked arms and fighting zeal. In the seemingly tractable South, Tory planters—self-styled aristocrats—prospered alongside a noisy rabble and illiterate backwoodsmen. Samuel Johnson grumbled that deprivation of the “rights of Englishmen” was an unrealistic grievance. Americans were no less represented in Parliament than most inhabitants on his own side of the water, who lived in increasingly teeming districts excluded from seats in Parliament. Americans were “a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.”

Did the Establishment foresee unwelcome change? Could it maintain the imperial equilibrium by granting token seats—unlikely ever to be occupie...