Was the American Revolution Really about Taxes?

Albert Esplugas blogs the following magnificent quote from Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power:

Schoolchildren and tourists are still taught the story of the American Revolution primarily in terms of economic burdens. In London, the argument runs, the government wanted some recompense for the cost of expelling the French from North America in the Seven Years War, and of maintaining a 10.000 strong army to police the disgruntled Indians beyond the Appalachian mountains, who had tended to side with the French. The upshot was new taxes. On close inspection, however, the real story is one of taxes repealed, not taxes imposed.

(…) In January 1770 a new government in Britain, under the famously unprepossessing Lord North, lifted all the new duties except the one on tea. Still the protests in Boston continued.

Everyone has heard of the “Boston Tea Party” of 16 December 1773, in which 342 boxes of tea worth 10.000 pounds sterling were tipped from the East India tea ship Dartmouth into the murky waters of Boston harbour. But most people assume it was a protest against hike in the tax on tea. In fact the price of the tea in question was exceptionally low, since the British government had just given the East India Company a rebate of the much higher duty free and had to pay only the much lower American duty on arriving in Boston. Tea had never been cheaper in New England. The “Party” was organized not by irate consumers but Boston’s wealthy smugglers, who stood to lose out. Contemporaries were well aware of the absurdity of the ostensible reason for the protest. “Will not posterity be amazed”, wrote one sceptic, “when they are told that the present distraction tool its rise from the parliament’s taking off a shilling duty on a pond of tea, and imposing three pence, and call it a more unaccountable phrenzy, and more disgraceful to the annals of America, than that of the witchcraft?”

On close inspection, then, the taxes that caused so much fuss were not just trifling; by 1773 they had all but gone. In any case, these disputes about taxation were trivial compared with the basic economic reality that membership of the British Empire was good – very good – for the American colonial economy. The much-maligned Navigation Acts may have given British ships a monopoly over trade with the colonies, but they also guaranteed a market for North American exports of agricultural staples, cattle, pig iron and, indeed, ships. It was the constitutional principle – the right of the British parliament to levy taxes on the American colonists without their consent – that was the true bone of contention. (…)

On 4 July 1776 (…) the Declaration of Independence was adopted by representatives of the thirteen secessionist colonies at the Second Continental Congress. Only two years before, its principal author, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, had still addressed George III in the name of “your subjects in British America”. Now the transatlantic or “continental” Britons had become American “Patriots”. In fact, most of the Declaration is a rather tedious and overstated list of wrongs supposedly inflicted on the colonists by the King, whom they accused of trying to erect a “Tyranny over these States”. It bears all the hallmarks of a document heavily revised by an outsize committee. (…)

The Hollywood version of the War of Independence is a straightforward fight between heroic Patriots and wicked, Nazi-lie Redcoats. The reality was quite different. This was indeed a civil war which divided social classes and even families. And the worst of the violence did not involve regular British troops, but was perpetrated by rebel colonists against their countrymen who remained loyal to the crown. (…) Overall, something like one in five of the white population of British North America remained loyal to the crown during the war. (…)

[T]he Loyalists were not sufficiently disillusioned with British rule to abandon it altogether. Quite the contrary: many of them responded to defeat by emigrating northwards to the British colonies in Canada, which had all remained loyal. (…) In all, around 100.000 loyalists left the new United States bound for Canada, England and the West Indies. It has sometimes argued that in gaining Canada in the Seven Years War, Britain had undermined her position in America. Without the French threat, why should the thirteen colonies stay loyal? Yet the loss of America had the unforeseen effect of securing Canada for the Empire, thanks to the flood of English-speaking Loyalist immigrants who would soon reduce the French Quebecois to a beleaguered minority. The amazing thing is that so many people should have voted with their feet against American independence, choosing loyalty to the King and Empire over “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. (…)

The irony is that having won their independence in the name of liberty, the American colonists went on to perpetuate slavery in the southern states. As Samuel Johnson acidly asked in his anti-American pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: “How is it that the loudest YELPS for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?” By contrast, within a few decades of having lost the American colonies, the British abolished first the slave trade and then slavery itself throughout the Empire. Indeed, as early as 1775 the British Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had offered emancipation to slaves who rallied to the British cause. This was not entirely opportunistic: Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in Somersett’s case had pronounced slavery illegal in England three years before. From the point of view of most African-Americans, American independence postponed emancipation by at least a generation. Although slavery was gradually abolished in northern states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, it remained firmly entrenched in the South, where most slaves lived.

Nor was independence a good thing for the native Americans. During the Seven Years War the British government had shown itself anxious to conciliate Indian tribes, if only to try to lure them away from their alliance with the French. Treaties had been signed which established Appalachian mountains as the limit of British settlement, leaving the land west of it, including Ohio Valley, to the Indians. Admittedly, these treaties were not strictly adhered to when peace came, sparking the war known as Pontiac’s Uprising in 1763. But the fact remains that the distant imperial authority in London was more inclined to recognize the rights of the native Americans than the land-hungry colonists on the spot.

I know not all libertarians–even some of my fellow anarcho-libertarians–agree with this negative, cynical assessment of the American Revolution. But I’ve become increasingly cynical about how “libertarian” the Constitution, the Revolution, and even the Declaration were.

For further reading, see my blog posts Goodbye 1776, 1789, Tom; Jeff Hummel’s “The Constitution as a Counter-Revolution”; Rockwell on Hoppe on the Constitution as Expansion of Government Power; Bill Marina (R.I.P.) on American Imperialism from the Beginning; Happy We-Should-Restore-The-Monarchy-And-Rejoin-Britain Day!; Revising the American Revolution, The Murdering, Thieving, Enslaving, Unlibertarian Continental Army; The Declaration and Conscription; ‘Untold Truths About the American Revolution’.

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  • The libertarian elements in the Declaration and (even) in the Constitution were, for most secessionists in those times, an EXCUSE. Even those who truly wanted liberty were ambivalent about it, and offset liberty for people with opportunities for ambitious men in a non-imperial government.

    Over time, the ambition won out over the liberty, the reason won out over the excuse. Libertarians, today, are in the somewhat odd position of either earnestly and naively embracing the excuse, and pretending it was the reason, or else embracing the excuse as our current reason and repudiating all past and present who use it only as an excuse.

    There are levels of loyalty, here, that disallow simple interpretations.

    This is one reason for irony in modern times. The person who knows human nature also has learned that idealism nearly always exists as pretense for most.

    It may seem a sad lesson to learn of our Forefathers that their dedication to liberty was nearly as compromised as the politicians of our day. But, at least we can learn that amazing things can be done, even with corrupt and complex men.

  • I want to write a violently-worded opposing response, but sadly I too have started to realize that the founding was not near as glamorous as I was led to believe.

    If you wade through the misinformation in history textbooks and Hollywood, there are small nuggets of amazing ideas that emanated from the American founding.

    You’re right that the Revolution wasn’t about taxes, and for the most part it wasn’t generally supported by a great number of colonists. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the more gruesome of which were usually perpetrated by the American “patriots”, like tar and feathering tax collectors.

    Just like today’s Tea Parties, the American Revolution started out as a small number of philosophically and politically conscious individuals contesting the idea of subservience to any king or government. There was general distaste and disdain for government by that group. However, just like today, with time the Revolution became infested with people who were disaffected with their present government rather than philosophically in favor of liberty. Today’s Tea Parties started as a Ron Paul liberty movement and have moved to a neoconservative push for big government defense policies and anti-democratic administration mouthpieces. With the American Revolution you had people like Jefferson, who abhorred the institution of slavery, who were overshadowed by the collective desires of the masses in the form of a Republic.

    There were triumphs. The concept of self-government and liberty temporarily won over that of Monarchy and unitary government. Self-reliance temporarily won over that of welfare. Those triumphs didn’t last long, and soon after the founding there were attempts to use government for the benefit of some people at the expense of others.

    Ultimately, we can chalk it to the fact that the founding wasn’t perfect. It had it’s flaws. However, what it did provide were the ideas that would later shape the later conservative movement (the Robert Tafts), and ultimately the libertarian movement. Libertarians have taken the ideas of the classical liberals, the American founders, the early 1900s conservatives, and the Austrian economists to and developed a framework for a small or no government philosophy around liberty. I prefer the no. With time the ideas of the American Founding, whether realized or not, contributed to a revival and love of liberty throughout the world until German collectivism became popular in the late 1800s.

    It’s easy to look back at history, real history, and dismiss events because by today’s standards they were imperfect and in some ways even horrible.

  • A libertarian arguing for the British Empire? Shame, Shame. The American revolution was not perfect and like any society not all the players were in it for the same or even honorable reasons, but one does not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even Rothbard thought the revolution a justified war in the cause of liberty. I agree with Murray.