The Trade Problem - The Imperial Problem
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Townshend's Ministry. The repeal of the Stamp Act was greeted by the colonials with undisguised glee. The colonial assemblies even agreed to compensate the victims of the Stamp Act riots. In Britain, the Rockingham ministry, compelled to increase domestic taxes in order to compensate for the loss of expected Stamp Act revenues, lost the support of the king and of the followers of Pitt. Forced to resign in June 1766, Rockingham was succeeded by Pitt, who then left the Commons to enter the Lords as the Earl of Chatham. Faced with large-scale want (bread riots were commonplace in England at the time), Chatham proved temperamentally unfit to handle the domestic crisis. Effective power and responsibility devolved upon Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who set out vigorously to resolve the tax dilemma. The failure of his efforts to retain the wartime tax rates on land resulted in an estimated loss to the Treasury of £500,000. Since the estimated budget for 1767 was £8,500,000, Townshend had no recourse but to find new sources of revenue. Caught between the growing irritation of the English taxpayer and the obvious disinclination of the colonials to accept new taxes, he determined upon a clever - too clever, as it turned out - exploitation of what was assumed to be the widely held colonial distinction between internal and external taxation. Though confessing that he found the distinction "perfect nonsense," Townshend announced his willingness to garb new colonial taxes in the guise of duties upon American imports from England of glass, paper, paint, and tea. The total revenues to be raised by this method were not expected to exceed £50,000, a bare tenth of the amount lost through land-tax reduction, and it was intended primarily to reassure the British taxpayer that he was not alone in footing imperial bills.
Purpose of the Townshend Act. Parliament meant to use funds drawn from these new duties to meet the salaries of governors and judges in those colonies where assemblies had refused to appropriate salary payments for officials who displeased them. Massachusetts was the immediate target of this provision. Since the Townshend Act supplemented the Sugar Act and other navigation acts, Parliament decided to institute new enforcement agencies to make all these measures effective. A board of commissioners was set up in America to supervise all American customs officials, and in 1768 four new vice-admiralty courts were set up to assist in enforcing payment of duties. Rendering judgments in Halifax, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, these courts seemed to complete the British intention of making trade regulation meaningful.
External and Internal Taxation. When the colonials learned of the new laws in September 1767, protests welled up again. To avoid a repetition of past violence, the more moderate colonial leaders called for a nonconsumption movement. John Dickinson, a reserved moderate, leveled an effective critique against the new British proposals in which he elaborated upon the colonial distinction between external and internal taxation. He conceded that Parliament had the right to levy taxes to regulate trade, but denied it the right to tax for revenue purposes. By this he meant that Parliament had the right to achieve the mercantilist ideal of a balanced economy and that it could suppress colonial commerce and industry in the process, but that it could not raise money to defray the costs of ordinary government since only local assemblies could authorize revenue taxes. Dickinson also noted that when the Stamp Act Congress passed its resolves, it had abolished the distinction between external and internal taxation by rejecting Parliament's right to levy any tax on the colonials.
The Colonial Protest. Remembering the effective nonimportation agreements of the Stamp Act crisis, Boston called for their revival in March 1768, but received an uncertain response from New York and Philadelphia merchants. Philadelphia eventually joined the movement, but only reluctantly.
The customs commissioners were soon convinced that they faced an impossible job in enforcing the trade regulations. Though smuggling was epidemic, only one smuggler was successfully prosecuted between 1765 and 1768. As the customs commissioners pointed out to their London superiors, "Now that the Right of Parliament to lay any taxes . . . on the Colonies is denied, we have every reason to expect that we shall find it totally impracticable to enforce the Execution of the Revenue Laws. . . ."
The Disintegration of Parliamentary Authority. In Boston, law enforcement practically ceased and near-anarchy prevailed. The seizure of John Hancock's ship Liberty by a British warship for suspected trade violations provoked mob action against the customs commissioners, who escaped by seeking refuge aboard another warship. The British promptly dispatched four regiments under General Gage to quell further disturbances, and the redcoats seemed to achieve their purpose. British merchants and manufacturers, however, were already suffering the pains of a diminishing trade with the colonies. In early March of 1770, all the Townshend duties except the tax on tea were revoked; the latter was retained only to uphold the principles set forth by the Declaratory Act. Even this last thin assertion of Parliamentary authority enraged the colonies. Nothing short of an acknowledgment of the exclusive power of the local legislatures would satisfy the colonials. As Thomas Hutchinson subsequently recalled: At first, . . . the supreme authority [of Parliament] seemed to be admitted, the cases of taxes only excepted; but the exceptions gradually extended from one case to another, until it excluded all cases whatsoever.
For all practical purposes, the colonials were asserting complete independence from the authority of Parliament.
The Boston Massacre. At first the presence of British troops in Boston provoked no violence. When the Sons of Liberty called for forceful opposition they were overruled by more temperate opinion. An uneasy peace prevailed, marred only by several minor clashes between townsmen and soldiers during the winter of 1770. But the ill feeling finally culminated on March 5, 1770, in the Boston Massacre. The available evidence indicates that the affair was provoked when a mob of young men and boys began to pelt passing troops with snowballs. In the altercation that followed two English soldiers were caught and beaten. A detachment of thirteen soldiers led by Captain Thomas Preston went to their rescue. As the mob grew in size, the Preston detachment was also attacked. Finally, when one soldier, who had been injured by a club, fired without orders, a general volley ensued. Five members of the mob were killed and six wounded. Samuel Adams promptly seized upon the incident to prove the existence of an English reign of terror in Boston. The soldiers and their captain were held for trial. John Adams successfully defended them, and all but two were acquitted. To avoid further incidents the redcoats were withdrawn to Castle William, a British fortification located in Boston Harbor. This action was promptly exploited by Samuel Adams as evidence of the superior strength of the Whig party in Boston. Contempt for the written law had now been combined with defiance of its upholders.
The Gaspee Incident. The British government's insistence that the tax on tea be continued when the other Townshend duties were repealed brought a swift demand from Boston that nonimportation be continued until total victory was achieved. With some reluctance the other port towns agreed, but when New Yorkers learned that Boston merchants were secretly importing goods they too resumed trade with England. They were quickly followed by Philadelphia and finally, officially, by Boston. With the end of nonimportation there came a swift upsurge of prosperity throughout the colonies. A deceptive tranquillity descended upon the relationship between England and her colonies. It was shattered in 1772, when colonial attacks upon royal ships attempting to enforce trade regulations culminated in the destruction of the British revenue cutter, Gaspee. The Gaspee had run aground in Narragansett Bay, near Providence, and was boarded during the night by men who wounded its commander, overpowered the crew, and burned the vessel.
The Crown responded by appointing a commission of inquiry which failed to obtain any information, although it was common knowledge that the culprits were well-known residents of Providence.
Committees of Correspondence. Further evidence of the developing rupture in the imperial relationship came when the Virginia House of Burgesses called for the organization of Committees of Correspondence to keep the colonies abreast of parliamentary actions and the individual colonial responses to them. Within a short time the newly organized Committees had ample cause for action. In May 1773, responding to the severe financial difficulties of the East India Company, Parliament passed the Tea Act. The act permitted the refunding of all duties paid on seven million pounds of tea held in East India warehouses, and authorized export of this surplus tea directly to the colonies. Parliament's expectation was that the low price of this tea in the colonies would encourage consumption and help right the fiscal affairs of the company. But Parliament failed to take into account that there were large supplies of tea already in the colonies on which full duties had been paid by colonial merchants, and even larger quantities of cheap Dutch tea which had been smuggled in. The successful sale of the cheaper and better tea of the East India Company would adversely affect a good many colonial businessmen.
The Boston Tea Party. The tea merchants of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston promptly organized to prevent the East India Company tea from being unloaded. Efforts were made in the colonies to dissuade shipowners from accepting as cargo the tea chests, and the men to whom the tea was consigned were intimidated. Despite these efforts the tea was sent to the colonies. Only in Charleston was it permitted to land. At Boston events moved swiftly as Samuel Adams compelled the three ships bringing tea to dock at locations chosen by him. Civil authority had broken down in the town and even English military and naval support proved ineffective in restoring order. On the night of December 16, a band of men disguised as Indians boarded the moored ships and dumped the tea into the harbor. This famous Boston Tea Party signaled the beginning of further resistance along the entire seaboard. Mobs prevented the landing of tea at Philadelphia, while New Yorkers dumped tea into their harbor. Any doubt that the colonials were united in their opposition to the pretensions of Parliament should have been dispelled. But the Lord North ministry chose this time to replace rule by consent with rule by coercion.