Sunday, November 14, 2010

Before the Stamp Act

One thing I never really learned in school is that prior to the 1760s, the British colonies in North America had been, in a sense, the most free people in the world - for something like 150 years. London had regulated trade across the Atlantic, but the colonies got to elect their own assemblies and govern their own affairs. They were still nominally under the control of the king and the Parliament - and certainly thought of themselves as Englishmen - but they ran their own show. The empire kept hands off local decisions.

Then, at least as we were taught, Britain passed the Stamp Act in 1765 - the first direct taxation of all colonists - which sent people into the streets, caused them to boycott British goods, and to create "Sons of Liberty" organizations throughout the colonies. (The Stamp Act was followed, of course, by the Tea Act. Whoops! People dressed up as Indians and did their tea thing in Boston's harbor.)

But wait a minute. Isn't this a bit of a quick reaction? From loyal subjects to rioters overnight?

Yes, it is. It turns out that for several years, Parliament had been changing the rules. After enjoying many generations of self-government, the colonies realized the British had begun taking over:

- In 1763, Parliament passed a proclamation severely limiting colonists from settling west of the mountains toward the Mississippi River - land recently ceded to England from France. Colonists were saying: "What the hey? Isn't this our say?"

- In 1764, it passed the Sugar Act (also called the Revenue Act) involving custom taxes on molasses and many other commodities, severe penalties including the confiscation of ships, and forcing alleged violators to appear in an admiralty court in Halifax, which had no jury of peers.

- Also in 1764, it passed Currency Act, forbidding colonists from using local paper money to pay taxes - a law colonists said would impoverish them.

To the British, it all made sense: prevent chaos in the West, raise revenue to meet England's expenses in North America, and prevent paper-money fraud. To the colonists, it would not only destroy the economy but be a huge violation of the property rights of free and loyal British subjects who had no representation - a clear violation of rights dating back to the Magna Charta in 1215.

My point is to bitch about not learning about any of this stuff in school. My impression was of people going ape at the drop of a hat. It just wasn't so. Instead, it was a steady erosion of rights over several years that led to what was to come. These early Americans, still considering themselves English dudes, took some years to get really upset.

No comments:

Post a Comment