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Was the American Revolution a tax revolt?

  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

The American rebellion is perplexing because under British rule, Americans colonists had the most comfortable living standards in the world, the lowest taxation rates in the Western world (certainly lower than in England), access to the largest marketplace in history, their trade was protected by the strongest navy in the world, and their borders likewise were protected by the Empire. Moreover, the vastness of the territory and the limited reach of colonial governments combined to offer American settlers an unprecedented degree of freedom of religious worship. American settlers were living better lives than most people in the world. What explains their willingness to risk these material comforts, and much more, by waging war against the greatest military power in the world?

Many modern Americans understand this rebellion as a tax revolt. But if it was a tax revolt, why were the leaders of the rebellion the wealthiest Americans, who could pay the new imperial taxes a hundred times over? Why would the rich risk their wealth, lives, and social and political standing over mild tax hikes? Why would the winners of colonial society – the elites – lead a rebellion to change the status quo? And if the rich indeed acted out of economic self-interest, why did hundreds of thousands of lower-class colonists join them in their fight? Most perplexing, if this was indeed a tax revolt, why were American colonists so perturbed by the Tea Act, which eliminated the tax on tea?

When historians examine the imperial reforms of the 1760s as a mere financial proposition – tax measures designed to produce more revenues for a British government increasingly in debt – then the colonial reaction seems disproportional, hysterical, and paranoid. But there is little reason to see the taxes as primarily financial. In fact, a large portion of the tax revenues generated in America were not directed to the imperial treasury to service the national debt. They were instead used in America to provide imperial officials there with independent salaries, establish Admiralty courts, and fund other measures designed to liberate imperial officials from the influence and oversight of provincial assemblies, magistrates, and juries.

When the imperial taxes are understood as a constitutional proposition purposefully designed to overturn the structure of government in the empire, enhance the governing role of Parliament in the localities, and limit the role of local assemblies and local courts of law, it is then easier to understand the colonists’ alarm and to see their resistance as proportional. It reveals that the leading families in the colonies were directing a campaign to preserve the status quo, not to change it; it explains why the colonists opposed Parliament-imposed taxes (such as the Stamp Act and Townshend duties), but also Parliament-imposed tax breaks (like the Tea Act); and it explains why Americans of all walks of life – rich and poor – saw the assemblies’ fight as their own.

In the colonial era, the British Empire was decentralized, leaving local communities to govern themselves. It was an empire of strong local governments, led by a weak central government in London. In the period leading up to the American Revolution (during and after the French and Indian War), Parliament attempted to transform the empire into a more centralized state, governed from the center, at the expense of self-government in the colonies. Contemporaries on both sides of this contest understood that the bone of contention between Parliament and colonists in America was not financial (that is, the level of taxation), but constitutional – whether the British Empire ought to be an empire governed from the center or one in which local populations governed themselves:

  • When the Albany Congress (1754) proposed creating a common government for all the colonies (the United Colonies of America) to manage regional defense, Indian diplomacy, and inter-colonial trade, colonial legislatures rejected it out of hand. Americans were happy with the existing structure (or constitution) of the empire, in which colonies governed themselves; they saw any central government that competed with their local governments as a threat to the good imperial order.

  • When colonial assemblies and the Sons of Liberty rose to resist the Stamp Act (1765), Benjamin Franklin offered Parliament a solution that was not financial (reducing or eliminating the tax), but constitutional (granting Americans actual representation in Parliament). He stressed that Americans were outraged not by the Stamp Act’s financial burden, but by being subjected to Parliament’s law. Franklin explained that the colonists had their own legislatures, and would therefore not submit to laws legislated to them by a legislature in which they were not represented.

  • Members of Parliament indeed understood that the dispute over the Stamp Act was constitutional, not financial. This is why they enacted a Declaratory Act (1766) when they repealed the Stamp Act, asserting that Parliament did have the authority to enact laws (including tax laws) for the colonists. The Declaratory Act was a statement not about the tax, but about the proper structure of the empire – who governed the various localities of the British Empire.

  • The Tea Act (which eliminated the tax on East India Company tea, thus lowering the price of tea for consumers) clarifies that the settlers’ complaints were not economic, but constitutional. The issue the Tea Act brought to the fore was not high taxes on consumer goods, but who governed British America; who had the authority to enact laws (including taxes and tax cuts) for the colonies – the local governments or the central government? Colonists objected to Parliament enacting a law that reshaped their local economies without their consent.

  • Americans were likewise alarmed by the Quebec Act (1774), which involved no taxes or financial burdens on Americans. They saw Parliament’s structuring of the province of Quebec as an ominous blueprint for how Britain aimed to restructure and govern the empire.

  • Advocates of the American cause in Britain opposed the tax-enforcement measures implemented in America not because they themselves were subject to these taxes, but because they were alarmed by the constitutional implications for representative government and government by consent. The Crisis, a London opposition paper, informed its readers that the conflict was about “Lawless Power” and “the Constitution of the British Empires in England and America.”

  • Along the same lines, the rebellious colonists asserted in their Declaration of Independence that they objected to Parliament’s numerous attempts “to extend unwarrantable jurisdiction over us” – unwarrantable jurisdiction by the central government, over local communities. The Declaration mentions taxes only once, complaining not about the tax burden, but about taxes being levied without the consent of the governed.

  • When the French entered the Revolutionary War on the American side (1778), the British extended a peace proposal that offered to reinstate the old and decentralized constitutional order that had governed the British Empire before 1763 (before the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Declaratory Act, Tea Act, and Coercive Acts).The British understood, therefore, that the American Revolution was not as a tax revolt, but a constitutional crisis. Both sides understood quite well what the other side wanted and why – Parliament was indeed shifting the center of administrative power from local governments to the central government; and Americans were indeed defending the empire’s old governing principle against what they saw as a lawless government. Britain was not willing to return to the old constitutional order in 1765, or 1774, or 1776, but it was willing to do so in 1778, when faced with the prospect of a Franco-American alliance.

It is apparent, then, that the Revolution was not a tax revolt, or a war to promote the rebels’ economic self-interest. Waging war against the world’s greatest military, naval, and economic power was hardly a promising proposition for any rebel’s economic wellbeing. Imperial officials and American Revolutionists alike explained their actions in constitutional, rather than economic, terms. And when the Americans won their independence, they designed a constitution (the Articles of Confederation) that recreated the governmental structure that they had tried to preserve under British rule: strong local governments under a weak central government. Until the imperial reforms of the 1760s, the British Empire had been a loose confederation of self-governing colonies, which followed imperial instruction and leadership in matters of common defense and foreign trade. The United States under the Articles of Confederation looked exactly like that.

What American settlers feared most – before, during, and after the war – was the concentration of power in the central government. They launched their seemingly suicidal rebellion because they were genuinely attached to government by consent and viscerally fearful of arbitrary government. This is why they rejected the Albany Plan, denounced reforms that expanded Parliament’s jurisdiction in the colonies at the expense of local legislatures, protested the displacement of local courts and juries by British courts and tribunals, and then held the newly formed United States government to the same standard.

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