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Why did Parliament not anticipate the backlash to its policies in 1760s?

  • 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.

Members of Parliament certainly did anticipate constitutional, legal, and political resistance to the reforms and policies they advanced in the 1760s and ‘70s. Parliament and the Court both understood that they were engaged in an imperial reform movement designed to fundamentally transform America – to overhaul the structure and nature of government in the empire. But these reformers had a partial record of (rocky) success with this project in Britain itself – increasing tax burdens, enhancing the role of the national government in local administration, enhancing law enforcement in the localities, and building a new constitutional and judicial framework to facilitate and legitimize these reforms. This was a slow process, which was still contested in Britain even in the 19th century, but Parliament was making noticeable progress there in the latter half of the 18th century.

The focus of American historians on the political tumult and violence in the colonies in the 1760s-‘70s obscures from view the fact that this was a politically tumultuous period in Britain as well. During this era, governments formed and dissolved every two or three years, Parliamentary seats changed hands between Whigs to Tories and back again from one election to the next, the public questioned and challenged the legitimacy of governmental institutions, and political violence became a more common feature of public life in Britain. Britain’s war debt was a destabilizing factor in the economy, and therefore also in local, national, and imperial politics. The instability in the colonies was simply a part of this general trend.

Britons increasingly felt that tax laws and government spending did not reflect the public will, but the interests of a well-connected few. Convinced that a political system designed to secure self-government had been corrupted, Britons demanded electoral reform to regain control over their government (by extending voting rights to a wider segment of society, curbing election fraud, cleaning out “rotten boroughs,” and enhancing public oversight of Parliament). This push for reform in Britain manifested itself in petitions, public addresses and editorials, electoral campaigns, and motions in town meetings and in Parliament. However, it also came in the form of urban riots led by populist leaders like John Wilkes, who rode this wave of public disaffection into high office.

The administrative and judicial reforms associated with increased taxation and more forceful tax- and law-enforcement sparked fears about arbitrary power in both Britain and America. The theme of the opposition movement on both sides of the ocean was government-by-consent, linking taxation and law-enforcement to political representation. In America, colonists conveyed this sentiment with the slogan “no taxation without representation”; in Britain, opposition leaders expressed it with a demand for electoral reform. Indeed, leaders of the electoral-reform movement in England – John Wilkes in particular – picked up the cause of the Americans in the 1760s and ‘70s, and were celebrated for it in America.

Parliament thus faced popular opposition to its centralizing reforms in Britain itself, but these reforms nevertheless continued to be implemented in fits and starts. This rocky success at home might explain why Parliament did not anticipate the ferocious backlash in the colonies against its centralizing imperial reforms. The imperial reforms were not undertaken with particular animus toward the settlers; they were not a conspiracy against the colonies, but simply the manifestation of a new governing philosophy (a new bureaucratic logic) in London from the mid-18th century on, and especially during and after the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War).

All government bureaucracies have a governing ideology, which reveals itself in the way they operate. In the case of 18th-century Britain, the bureaucracy met resistance in both Britain and the American colonies. The bureaucracy was weaker, however, in North America, and the resistance stiffer.

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