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Stamp Act, 1765.
The Sugar Act. The Stamp Act. The Townshend Act. These and other acts of Parliament legislated during the 1760s and 1770s have been seared into our brains since our first American History class in elementary school. Most of the key events cited as causes of the American Revolution were either the Parliamentary acts themselves or the actions of colonists rising up in defiance of these acts. The one exception may be the Boston Massacre in 1770 which came about when (according to one widely accepted version) a British soldier was struck by a snowball and his musket accidentally discharged. But in March of 1770 the citizens of Boston were angered by the presence of Redcoats in their city and outraged at being forced to house these soldiers in their homes, as decreed by the Quartering Act of 1768.
What was the motivation of the British in enacting such legislation? Was it, as many historians claim, to punish unruly colonists and force the will of British hegemony upon them? Eventually that may have been true, but not during the years immediately following the end of the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War). Only when revolution loomed on the horizon in the 1770s and there were too many instances of open defiance against British rule did Parliament decide to take retaliatory measures. Patriots throwing a tea party at the expense of the East India Company was one thing; having the Sons of Liberty threaten the lives and livelihood of British personnel assigned to the colonies was quite another.
|The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor|
Soon after the 1763 peace agreement that ended the war with France, Parliament imposed such legislation as the Sugar Act and Stamp Act for one simple reason: the war effort had proven to be enormously expensive, as did the ongoing costs of administering the colonies and protecting them against the enemies of propriety and social order. To King George and his ministers, it seemed only right that the colonies be required to pay their fair share for the privilege of living in the security and sanctity of the British Empire
Sound reasonable? Perhaps to our generation, but certainly not to many English colonists living in America at that time. To them, any levy of taxes without the consent of the governed violated their unalienable rights as free English citizens and were therefore subject to open resistance.
Boston 1768 by Paul Revere
To help illustrate the point, following is an excerpt from chapter 2 of A Matter of Honor. Richard Cutler and his brother Will are having supper at the home of their English cousins in Fareham, a town in Hampshire north of Portsmouth, England. Joining them for the occasion are close friends and neighbors: the Hardcastle family, the patriarch of which is a retired Royal Navy post captain who is somewhat miffed by a statement Will has made concerning the situation in America. The year is 1774.
“Explain yourself, sir,” Henry Hardcastle harrumphed.
Will’s blue eyes remained steady on the retired naval officer. “I mean no disrespect to you, Captain,” he said, “or to anyone at this table. If I have offended you, I most sincerely apologize. I merely wish to point out that loyalty to a king or country is something that must be earned, not decreed. Unfortunately, most members of Parliament seem not to understand this. Nor do the king’s ministers except for William Pitt and perhaps one or two others. King George has called us ‘ungrateful children.’ Lord Sandwich promises us ‘a jolly good spanking.’ Is that all we Americans are to you? Children to be whipped into submission?”
“Poppycock!” Henry bellowed. “Has not your family fared well in the colonies? Should that alone not inspire loyalty in you? And what’s all this bosh about children?”
“You’re right, Captain,” Will agreed. “We have fared well. We are fortunate to have family in England with means and influence. Most people in Massachusetts are not so fortunate. They are not treated as kindly, I can assure you.”
Henry Hardcastle threw up his arms in frustration. His daughter (author’s note: Richard’s future wife) said:
“Are you suggesting, Will, that my father is somehow responsible for how people are treated in America?”
“No, not directly, Katherine. But every Englishman in a position of influence must bear some responsibility.”
“I say!” Henry fumed, his dander up.
Jamie (author’s note: Katherine’s brother, a Royal Navy midshipman) asked, in steadier tones, “Is Parliament’s position so unreasonable, Will? Surely you must realize that the cost of maintaining an army in the colonies is quite staggering, and that England must pay exorbitant annual tributes to the Barbary States to protect American shipping in the Mediterranean. Should the colonies not contribute to these costs? Your so-called Sons of Liberty resist paying taxes but ignore the simple truth that these taxes are raised primarily for your own defense and safety.”
“And bear in mind,” added Robin (author’s note: Will’s cousin), “the taxes we pay in England are much higher than what you are being asked to pay in America. Twenty-five times higher, in fact. Had you the representation in Parliament you seem to desire, you’d find no sympathy for your position there. Your own Dr. Franklin was booed off the floor last session when he tried to present your grievances.”
“Understand,” said Will, “it’s not just about taxes. If that’s what Parliament believes, Parliament is wrong. What we in the colonies want – what we have sought in every petition we have sent King George – is simply to be granted the same rights as all free Englishmen. Our grievances have been ignored. Why? Do we not deserve the courtesy of a reply? Are we so unworthy?”
Richard had heard Will speak often on this topic, but not to this extent and never with such eloquence. Still, he resented Will for broaching the subject. It was one that lay in waiting like a Pandora’s box behind every discussion in Britain gravitating towards ‘the American situation.’ Once it was opened, the ills of empire were released, consuming in their fiery wake all possibilities for civil conversation. William Cutler (author’s note: Richard and Will’s uncle) was determined this evening to keep that box firmly shut. He rose to his feet and gently rapped a glass with the edge of a spoon…