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England's debt, failed tax policy provoke American Revolution

December 28, 2006|by ALLAN R. POWELL

Editor's note - With the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War this year, The Daily Mail has been running a monthly column on the war by local historian Allan R. Powell. This is the 40th and final installment of the series.




It has often been said (quite correctly) that the French and Indian War was the major cause of the American Revolution but, usually there is no attempt to support the statement or present a coherent defense of the claim. What follows is the thesis that, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, England was strapped with a massive debt from which she sought relief. One way to get that relief was to tax the colonies more than before the accumulation of that debt.

The debt was the result of a war with France that had lasted seven years. The original purpose of the war was to stop French expansion into territory believed to belong to England. The Colonies were part of the British Empire and they also did not want French domination of North America. Since they received the benefits of empire, one should expect that they would support that empire.

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England's debt at the end of the war was 146,000,000 with the additional interest payment of nearly 5 million. One should multiply this figure by four to obtain dollar equivalence. Was it unreasonable to expect the colonies to share in the removal of this debt or should homeland British citizens carry the whole burden?

An early attempt to get tax assistance was the Stamp Act passed in 1765 - only two years after the Treaty of Paris which ended the war. It was only a portion of the cost to maintain nearly 8,000 troops in North America. The actual cost for these troops for a year was estimated to be 290,971. The Stamp Act was supposed to raise only 60,000. It can quickly be seen that this was only one-fifth of the cost for British security in North America.

To those who would ask, "what security was needed?" the answer is readily available. A major Cherokee uprising took place in 1759-61 and was eventually put down by British regulars. In 1763-64, Pontiac, the great Ottawa warrior, staged an even larger rebellion that was also put down by British regulars. Both of these took place before the Stamp Act was passed. Without British regulars, who did the colonists suppose would protect them from large-scale Indian wars?

The colonial leaders who opposed and eventually forced a repeal of the Stamp Act argued that they were being taxed without representation in Parliament. But would representation have given them enough votes to stop being taxed? The answer is "no" and the reason is simple. If they had been awarded the 33 seats in the British Parliament, which had been proposed at one time, they would have faced an opposing vote of 588 - the number of seats then represented in Parliament. They would have been outvoted probably on most issues vital to their interest.

One Member of Parliament, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, raised the question of fairness on the part of colonials. He asked this question in a speech, " will these Americans, children planted by our Care, nourished by our Indulgence until they are grown to a degree of Strength and Opulence, and protected by our Arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?" This is a reasonable question which is seldom raised in American history texts.

Colonial leaders were infuriated over the Stamp Act and all the other tax measures that followed. Those that were passed were repealed or were unenforceable. Tensions led to violence and violence led to war and an eventual separation. There are those who think that the colonists were ingrates who had forgotten all the good things that came their way as a part of the British Empire. The list includes: the security provided by British troops; annual reimbursements to each colony in proportion to what they had spent the preceding year; bounties (cash payments) to encourage certain products needed in England, and money spent to provide colonial judges and administrators to have an orderly society in the new world. All of the foregoing was not just for the benefit of England; it was for the welfare of colonial society as well.

In reflecting on the violent separation for independence, one is tempted to ask if it could have been avoided. Maybe - maybe not. It seems clear that by the end of the French and Indian War a good many Americans did not want to continue being a colony for the benefit of empire. This feeling was aggravated by the realization that the threat of a French takeover no longer existed. Like a child maturing into young adulthood, they wanted self determination.

One did not hear much talk of resistance and rebellion before France was defeated. If France had remained a threat, it can safely be assumed that England's army, navy and administrative ability would have been needed and welcomed. It's entirely possible that separation, whether peaceful or violent, would have been inevitable at some future point. One thing there is no debate about; America's successful struggle for independence inspired others to do the same.

Author's note:

This is the concluding article in a series of 40 on the French and Indian War. Hopefully, some understanding of an almost forgotten era came as a consequence of these articles. Herald-Mail Executive Editor Terry Headlee and Daily Mail Managing Editor Tony Mulieri are to be commended for their interest in American history.

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