British Colonial Tax



IN the summer of 1766 and the King George III called William Pitt to create a new ministry out of such material as he pleased, the liberal party in England watched the movement with some anxiety, for they knew how obstinately the monarch clung to the royal prerogative. In making up his cabinet, Pitt seems to have failed in sagacity. It was composed of such discordant materials that neither party knew what confidence to repose in it. It was largely composed of friends of the king. Pitt's shattered health would not permit him to control the cabinet. Frequent fits of gout confined him at his country-seat much of the time, when his opposers and political enemies, whom, to please the king, he had clothed with power, devised and put into operation schemes for taxing the Americans, directly contrary to his well-known principles of action. It was during his administration of two years and four months that some of the most obnoxious acts of Parliament concerning the Americans became laws, under the fostering care of the ministry. Troops had already been sent to America, in accordance with the provisions of a military act passed when news of the stamp-act disturbances in the colonies reached Parliament. A large portion of the House of Lords, the whole bench of bishops and many of the Commons, who did not doubt the right of the government to tax the colonies, urged the ministry to use coercive measures against them. A certain number of bishops are entitled to a seat in the House of Lords, with the same political powers of the peers, and the two classes compose the "Lords spiritual and Lords temporal" of the kingdom.

Troops were sent to New York with power, under the law, to break into houses in search of deserters. The royal governor demanded of the Assembly an appropriation for the subsistence of these avowed instruments of oppression. The people were indignant. The Sons of Liberty were aroused to action, and they resolved to oppose the measure to the utmost of their ability. Angry feelings were excited between the troops and the citizens. The former, insolent and overbearing, became objects of intense dislike; and when, three months after the Liberty-Pole was erected with so much harmony and loyalty, the soldiers, to show their power, cut it down, the indignation of the people almost drove them into open armed rebellion. They set up the pole again the next evening, in defiance of the soldiery, with whom they had a fracas, when some blood was shed. A month later the troops again prostrated the pole, and again the people re-erected it, and from its top unfurled the British banner which they loved so well. They bound the pole with iron to resist the axes of the mercenaries, and set a guard to watch it. The soldiers came with loaded muskets, fired some random shots into a house where the Sons of Liberty were assembled, and tried to drive the people from the fields. Fearful retaliation would have followed this act had not the governor, alarmed by the popular indignation, ordered the troops to refrain from further aggressive acts. That was in the spring of 1767. This defence of the Liberty-Pole in New York was applauded throughout the colonies, and was a manifestation of the spirit of the people everywhere.

Charles Townshend, chancellor of the exchequer, was a ruling spirit in the cabinet in the absence of Pitt. He and Grenville coalesced in devising new schemes for taxing the Americans. The latter proposed direct taxation to a considerable amount. In June (1767), a bill, proposed by Townshend, for levying duties on tea, glass, paper, painters' colors, and other articles imported by the colonists, was adopted by Parliament. In July, another bill was passed for the establishment of a board of revenue commissioners in the colonies, with their seat at Boston, to be independent of colonial legislation; also for creating resident commissioners of customs to enforce the revenue laws. Another was adopted a few days later, forbidding the Assembly of New York to perform any legislative act whatever, until they should comply with the requirements of the mutiny act in regard to the subsistence of the troops.

These taxation schemes were properly regarded as direct blows against the liberties of the Americans, and they excited almost as violent opposition as did the stamp act. The colonial assemblies boldly protested against them. The Assembly of New York disregarded the disabling act, while the royal governors, with their numerous retainers, as blind as their masters, elated by the prospect of being independent of the colonial assemblies, eagerly promoted the schemes of the ministry and so fostered opposition among the people. A warm discussion in Parliament, concerning the rebellious acts of the colonies, revealed the fact to the world that the Americans were on the eve of open rebellion. In the course of the debate they were charged with a design to revolt and set up an independent government. They were called "rebels" and "traitors." Even the cautious Lord Mansfield drew a picture of the "folly and wickedness of the American incendiaries," and the fatal effects upon England which the deplorable event of the separation of the colonists from the mother country might produce.

Meanwhile the colonists were preparing for resistance to the taxation schemes. The common danger had thoroughly united them, and a feeling of nationality was budding in their hearts. The committees of correspondence kept each colony fully acquainted with the sentiments and acts of the others. The assemblies and people took the broad view expressed by James Otis, that "taxes on trade, if designed to raise a revenue, were just as much a violation of their rights as any other tax." The colonial newspapers, then about thirty in number, were becoming tribunes of the people, and in them the principles of liberty and the rights of the colonists were ably discussed in short essays. Among the most effective of these were a dozen "Letters of a Farmer of Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies," which were published in a Philadelphia newspaper in the summer and autumn of 1767. In a style of great simplicity, vigor and animation, their author (John Dickinson, an eminent lawyer of Philadelphia) portrayed the unconstitutionality of the conduct of Great Britain, the imminent peril to liberty in America which existed, and the fatal consequences of a supine acquiescence in ministerial measures-more fatal as precedents than by the immediate calamities they were calculated to produce. Votes of thanks were given to Dickinson at public meetings; and in May, 1768, an association in Philadelphia, called the Society of Fort St. David, presented an address to him "in a box of heart of oak," with suitable inscriptions. On the top was represented the Phoenician cap of liberty on a spear, resting on a cipher of the letters "J. D." ; underneath the cipher, in a semi-circular label, were the words "Pro Patria." Around the whole, the following: "The gift of the Governor and Society of Fort St. David to the author of THE FARMER'S LETTERS, in grateful testimony to the very eminent service thereby rendered to this country, 1768." On the inside of the lid was the following inscription: "The Liberties of the British colonies in America asserted with Attic eloquence and Roman spirit, by John Dickinson, barrister-at-law."

The immediate and subsequent effects of these letters were wonderful. The colonial assemblies noticed them, and upon the broad grounds of right and justice laid down in these essays, they denounced the acts of Parliament. Nonimportation associations which had been dissolved on the repeal of the stamp act were reorganized, and that powerful machinery almost destroyed the commerce with England. Dr. Franklin caused the Letters to be republished in London, with a preface written by himself, in 1768. They were also translated into French and published in Paris.





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