Beginnings: From the Top Down

The English ministers who began tightening the screws on American smugglers in 1760 and who hoped to make the Americans pay a share of imperial burdens did not know the people they were dealing with—did not know them well, that is, and had little notion of their stiff-necked quality or of their capacity for principled action.

For political tacticians of considerable skill, these ministers made some surprising mistakes: making decisions in ignorance of American views was one of the worst, and refusing to compromise when these views were expressed was hardly less serious. The process of governing Americans almost seemed to rob these English ministers of their political senses as they forgot the need for accommodation and flexibility.

The great distance of America from Britain surely deadened political sensitivities; governing people they never saw made the political air so thin that many a keen-nosed politician lost the scent of American interest.

The unseen people were colonials in any case. The British constitution proclaimed them subordinate—or at least the king’s ministers thought it did. The language these ministers used, indeed the language of almost everyone who wrote or thought about the colonies, is revealing of rather general assumptions.

The colonies were “plantations,” “plants,” and sometimes “children” of the English parent. All these terms implied that they were watched over, tended, managed, disciplined, and made to obey if recalcitrant. The assumption that these words conveyed is that it was right and proper for the colonies to conform to England’s desires. The colonies owed something to their founders; not the least of the debt was subordination and compliance.

Framing public policy out of a sense of abstract right is a dangerous practice for any government. English ministries of the 1760s were not notably resilient, and when their American plans ran into trouble they felt outraged. Principles self-evident to them had been violated, and the colonial relationship, once so satisfactory to those in authority, seemed betrayed.

Principle hardly seemed at stake when the new king’s ministry, nominally headed by one of the great figures in eighteenth-century English politics, the Duke of Newcastle, began apprising him of his responsibilities and England’s problems soon after he came to the throne in October 1760.

The war with France no longer raged as it had even a year before, but there was no peace. There was war fatigue: Newcastle felt it and so did his friend Bute, and so did the king. Pitt, who still dominated English public life, did not—in fact, he soon began to push for war with Spain.1

Newcastle, nervous, vacillating, constantly concerned about his health, could not, predictably, make up his mind. He feared and admired Pitt; he wanted to remain in office; he wanted to do his best for his king. He had held office, worked the parliamentary engines, and served two monarchs for forty years.

When, in October 1761, Pitt left the government and Newcastle stayed in office, it was these inclinations to hang on, to do what he had done for so long, that held him fast. Pitt departed over the king’s refusal to be forced into war, even though the government had learned by October that the French and the Spanish had concluded a treaty, accomplished by their common hostility to Britain. Within three months Britain declared war on Spain, an action which led to further incredible victories.

By the spring of 1762, Newcastle, feeling shoved completely out of his king’s confidence, left the government. Bute—to the king’s delight—now headed the ministry.

Bute lacked Newcastle’s tenacity and Pitt’s brilliance. As the king’s adviser before he entered the government, he had enjoyed a measure of power without responsibility. This period must have been one of the most satisfying of his life. He, a Scot, tutored a young boy who would be king some day.

The advice he gave was gratefully, even worshipfully, received. And if not out of sight, he remained out of the line of fire. Now, as the king’s minister, he was exposed to abuse, and he got it. The dirty sniggers accompanying the rumors that he was the lover of George’s mother were louder than ever, and all he could do was to ignore them.

Bute soon learned that though peacemakers are blessed, the world does not love them, for after the preliminary articles ending the war were concluded with France, he felt the rage of Pitt and the London mob. By February 1763 the treaty of peace in its final form was signed, and Bute fled as soon as he decently could in April.

Bute had managed to make one major decision affecting English politics and the American colonies before leaving office, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he had headed the ministry that made the decision. His ministry decided early in 1763, apparently in February, to keep a permanent force of royal troops in America—a standing army.

King George III himself contributed in a detailed and concrete way to the decision. He took part, not out of an interest in the colonies, but because, like the Hanoverians before him, he wished to do well for the army. The army was his after all, and in 1762, as the war drew to an end, the army faced uncertain days.

It had grown during the Seven Years War, and it had provided employment and pay for numerous officers who gave the king and his ministries important political support. A good many colonels of regiments sat in Parliament, and they and their subordinates constituted a source of patronage for the Crown. What was to be done with these valuable officers with peace at hand and with the need to cut expenses of every sort pressing on the government?

The young king worried over such questions, and therefore it is not surprising to find him writing his friend Bute in September 1762: “I have been some days drawing up a state of the troops for the Peace, and hope to send it this evening, by which the ten regiments raised at the beginning of the war remain, and yet the expense will be some hundreds pounds cheaper than . . . in 1749.”2 

The king continued to work for another four months on army estimates, the numbers of regiments and the money required to pay them. The American colonies entered his calculations only as they might be made to contribute to the maintenance of royal troops.3

Bute surely understood the king’s concern and just as surely shared it, but Bute and Treasury officials had other concerns as well. Canada, the West, and Florida all had Indian “problems” which called for solutions short of war. Pacification and security would require troops. The Board of Trade, the agency possessing the most information about the colonies, had long advocated imperial rather than local control of Indian affairs.

Protection of white Americans, the Board implied on a number of occasions, could best be realized by regulating the Indian trade—and thereby preventing exploitation of the Indians by white traders, a fertile cause of conflict—and by stopping land-grabbing whites from encroaching upon Indian lands. No imperial role in Indian affairs could be conceived that did not involve the use of the British army.4

In the next few years further uses for a standing army in America were to occur to British officials. The army, several came to believe, might collect customs duties and control American society. These beliefs did not exist in a clear or articulated form in 1763. Common sense and imperial vision seemed to require an army in America, and so the decision to keep one there was rather easily made.

Considering the long history of English antipathy to standing armies, the decision to maintain troops in America was accepted with surprising ease in Parliament. At any rate, the matter did not become a crucial issue there, nor did it receive a full review or debate. Again, common sense probably stilled doubts: there was in America a wilderness of lightly settled territories along the borders of established—and valuable—English colonies.

In Canada there was a population of Frenchmen, recent enemies of doubtful loyalty; in the West there were the Indians, long valued for their trade and long feared for their violence; in the South, in Florida, there were the Spaniards, no more trustworthy than the French. And the English-Americans themselves, though reliably loyal, were unreliable in the arts of diplomacy and quite capable of provoking conflict with all their western neighbors.

How but by stationing good British troops along the rim from Canada to Florida could security and stability be guaranteed? Common sense seemed to dictate the answer, and as for the tradition that denied the Crown the services of a standing army, that tradition seemed much more compelling within the British Isles than outside them. And so Parliament, a body that always believed itself blessed by common sense and by a concern for the rights of the subject, quietly put its doubts aside and just as quietly acquiesced.5


When George Grenville took over from Bute in spring 1763, he was not about to reopen this question. There is no evidence that he thought anything but that royal troops ought to be stationed in America. He was in most ways a conventional English politician, though perhaps shrewder and more ambitious than most.

He was well connected politically—his brother Richard, Earl Temple, had been a force in English politics for years; the two brothers, in fact, were the outstanding representatives of a thriving English political family whose power had extended from several constituencies to Parliament for a generation.

George Grenville, born in 1712, entered Parliament in 1741 to remain there until his death in 1770. Three years after his election to Commons he was asked to join a ministry and did so—perhaps evidence of his ability as well as his connections. Grenville took office again in the great Newcastle-Pitt coalition which fought the Seven Years War to its great victories.

His brother was also in this government, but resigned in October 1761 with Pitt, when Pitt failed to persuade the Crown and Parliament to make war on Spain. Grenville at this point served as Secretary of State for the Northern Department and then as first lord of the Admiralty. He was very much in Bute’s camp.

When Bute left office, Grenville took over at the Treasury and as the king’s first minister. He was an experienced politician facing problems his experience only partially prepared him for. Within England, the first signs of a movement to reform Commons were about to appear. Neither Grenville nor anyone else could have made Commons a more representative institution in 1763; and in any case the “signs” could be read in several ways.

The London mob threatened with its riots and upheavals, though it was only half-conscious of what it wanted at any given time. To Grenville and the ministry the mob simply seemed riotous and irresponsible, the scum of society out to do all the mischief it could. John Wilkes, publicist, politician, rake, was just becoming the darling of the mob, who sensed in him a power which might be bent toward reform of representative institutions which were in fact unrepresentative.

To the south there was upheaval of another sort in the so-called Cider Counties—named after their chief production—where men were bitterly unhappy over the tax on cider.6

Wilkes, the mob, and cider seemed small-time stuff to Grenville, who had other things on his mind throughout most of his ministry. The American West continued to present difficulties, for simply deciding to keep troops there did not solve urgent problems of disposition of lands and relations with Indians.

What was to be done with the lands acquired from France raised issues which had beset imperial and local officials alike for years. The facts were clear: land-hungry Americans were moving into the area in defiance of Indians and of the superintendents who sought to prevent them from forcibly taking Indian lands. Land companies competed in London and colonial capitals for grants which they hoped would give exclusive ownership and rights of sale. The Indians were restive and regarded these acquisitive whites with understandable distaste.7

Among the white Americans no group was more aggressive or greedy than the Virginians. On the basis of seventeenth-century charters the colony still claimed the entire region above the Ohio River. Small groups and lonely individuals from Virginia had edged into the region twenty years before the Seven Years War, and others followed, especially after the area was secured by the great victories of 1758.

The most ambitious of the Virginians gathered together in 1747 and formed the Ohio Company; two years later, this group—they were planters and included young George Washington and a handful of Lees—received a royal charter conferring upon them 200,000 acres south of present-day Pittsburgh.

This charter pleased them and seemed to open the door to large profits through speculation. War and a reluctance on the part of squatters to pay for something that might be taken for nothing frustrated the Ohio Company’s noble desires to make money. Moreover, other Americans entered the region determined to use its resources, among them fur traders from Pennsylvania who had rather different ideas about ownership of the wilderness.

The French and their Indian allies also interfered with the Virginians’ designs by sending in traders and poisoning the minds of the Indians against the English. War, of course, restricted the activities of men on all sides.8

When the French were finally eliminated, the squatters edged back in—and beyond—the old limits. Colonel Henry Bouquet, who shared the hatred of most westerners for Indians, nevertheless tried to restrain white expansion. Bouquet acted not out of altruism but out of a sense that there would be trouble as the American whites moved into the lands Indians regarded as their own.

Bouquet got the support of the Indian superintendents, William Johnson in the North and John Stuart in the South, both of whom reported to the Board of Trade on white encroachments upon Indian lands.9

The Board of Trade was not unmoved by such information. It had in fact acted over a year earlier in a fruitless effort to stop illegal appropriation of Indian lands. In December 1761 it had taken control of land out of the hands of colonial governors, forbidding them the right to grant lands even within the colonies should these grants interfere with Indian rights. All applications for lands were to be sent to the Board by the governors; the Board, three thousand miles away, would make the decisions about who got land and who did not.10

These measures were not successful in staying the settlement of the West, especially after the French had been removed. By the early spring of 1763 the Board and the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, who had formal control of colonial affairs, agreed that action, probably in the form of a royal proclamation, should be taken to reserve the newly acquired West for the Indians.11

The Indians, ignorant of the existence of such grand contrivances as the Board of Trade and secretaries of state, knew nothing of these benign intentions. They did know, however, that General Jeffrey Amherst, who was recalled in 1763, had stopped catering to them—had stopped trying to bribe them would put it more accurately—by the old practice of giving presents, blankets, cloth, trinkets, and tools.

They knew too that, despite the army’s efforts, white settlers were seeping over their lands and that white traders continued to defraud them in the primitive commerce of the West. By May 1763 the Indians had had enough and, under Chief Pontiac, the brilliant leader of the Ottawa, rose in a bloody rebellion. By July they had cut to pieces frontier settlements in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and captured all British military posts west of Fort Pitt except Detroit.

Fort Pitt itself endured desperate days and was relieved by Colonel Bouquet only after a hard fight at Bushy Run. Bouquet did not depend solely on his regulars and their muskets but seems to have resorted to trying to spread smallpox among the Indians. The Indian superintendents, Johnson and Stuart, used more conventional—and more successful—techniques: bribes to detach most of the Iroquois from Pontiac and to persuade the southern tribes to remain neutral.12

News of this upheaval, named Pontiac’s Rebellion after its great leader, strengthened official resolve in Britain to clamp down on the American westward movement. For years warnings had issued from American and knowledgeable English officials that the colonies were going to blunder into an Indian war. Now it had happened, and official action could no longer be postponed.

But there was delay: not until October 7, 1763, did Grenville’s ministry issue the proclamation closing the West between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to white occupation. The proclamation also established three new colonies—Quebec, East Florida, and West Florida—carved out from the French settlements of the St. Lawrence Valley and from areas formerly claimed by Spain and ceded to Britain in the peace ending the Seven Years War.13

The proclamation did not end Pontiac’s Rebellion; the grinding efforts of British troops and American militia did that, though fighting continued until the end of 1764. The proclamation did not end the white man’s movement into the West either. British troops occasionally tried to bar emigration and succeeded only in earning the enmity of settlers, fur traders, and speculators in land.

The Virginians, for example, who had settled in the Kanawha Valley almost twenty years before, and who were driven out by the rebellious Indians, insisted on going back to their farms. According to the terms of the proclamation, they could not, and British troop commanders tried to keep them out. These farmers and hundreds of other pioneers were bitterly resentful, and in late 1764 and early 1765 hundreds made their way over the mountains to the Kanawha.

Other like-minded men and women, now contemptuous of British troops who had failed to protect the frontier, decided to flout the proclamation. The result was a steady migration into western Virginia, Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania, and then northwestern Pennsylvania.14

As defined by Grenville’s ministry, most other problems—more familiar to the ministry—can be reduced to one word: money. This is surely an oversimplification, yet the need for money played a part in every important decision made by Grenville regarding the colonies—and for that matter by the ministries that followed up to 1776.

A look at the national debt in 1763 would have sent any minister’s heart down into his shoes. As of January 5, 1763, according to Exchequer accounts, the funded debt amounted to £122,603,336—an enormous sum. Moreover, it carried an annual interest of £4,409,797. A year later the debt was almost £7,000,000 larger, and by January 1766, six months after Grenville left office, it had increased another £7,000,000.5115

Financing the interest on the debt was a problem that absorbed a good deal of attention; and retiring it, or even a part of it, seemed at times out of the question. Trade was depressed in Britain when Grenville took office, the consequences of the end of the war and the decline of heavy expenditures.

Levying more taxes, or increasing existing ones, was not an attractive solution: ordinary Englishmen had grown restive under the burdens of supporting an overstuffed government and a glorious war. And well they might. Land had long been heavily taxed and no relief seemed in sight. A landowner, of course, might consider himself fortunate; by conventional social opinion he was one of the chosen of the Lord.

Virtue, to say nothing of the right to vote, resided in him. So perhaps he should not mind too much when his money was spent advancing the nation’s interest and glory throughout the world. But what of the poor man solaced only by beer and tobacco? Beer was heavily hit during the war and made to return over half a million pounds a year. Tobacco too was made to pay, and many other things as well: newspapers, sugar, paper, linen, advertisements.

The poor did not feel the taxes on all these items, but the gentry and some of the middling sort did, and on houses, deeds, offices, brandy, and spirits, most of which paid 25 percent of their value. If a man owned a house, he not only paid a tax on it, but on every window in it; if he decided to take the air in his carriage, perhaps fleeing the tax collector, he rode with the depressing knowledge that the carriage too was taxed.16

Englishmen took most of the squeeze on their purses quietly, though by the end of the war they were sometimes outraged to the point of protest. In Exeter in May 1763, for example, shortly after the coming of peace, there were demonstrations against the cider tax which had just passed through Parliament despite much opposition.

Apples decorated with crepe were hung over most church doors, which bore the inscription, “Excise the first fruits of Peace.” The same day a procession of several thousand people formed in the streets: “1st a man riding on an ass, and on his back this inscription; ‘From Excise and the Devil, good Lord deliver us.’ “A string of apples hung in crepe was placed around the ass’s neck, and thirty or forty men accompanied the beast.

Each man carried a white wand, with an apple also in crepe at the top. Then came a cart with an effigy of Lord Bute hanging from a gallows. Following came a cider hogshead, carried by men dressed in mourning, and thousands of people “hallooing and shouting” through the streets. The figure of Bute was eventually consigned to a bonfire where it burned to the cheers of the crowd.17

This demonstration was one of many in the Cider Counties; it was symptomatic of the feeling against existing taxation and evidence of what might come with tax increase. The message was not lost on Grenville, who in any case believed that troops stationed in America, ostensibly for the protection of Americans, ought to be financed by Americans. He found few who disagreed with him in Parliament and none in the ministry.

The question, however, was how best to extract money from the Americans who were notorious for their ability to evade customs duties and for their reluctance to contribute to their own defense.

George Grenville did not intend to collect money from the colonies to help retire the enormous debt the government carried, or even the interest on it. But he did think that they should help support the troops provided for their defense; he did not propose that they should bear all of the charges for troops stationed in America, however.

American defense was of interest to the empire—not just to Americans—and so Britain herself would help carry the burdens of keeping troops in the wilderness. Indeed, according to estimates of what the cost would be—something over £200,000 per year for twenty battalions on the mainland and in the West Indies—Britain would pay the major share.18

Grenville’s ministry decided to impose certain taxes on the colonies for revenue which Treasury experts reported would return only £78,000 per year. This sum, the Treasury argued, could be raised by reducing the old duty of 6d per gallon on foreign-produced molasses imported into the colonies to 3d. The Treasury and Grenville made these calculations on the assumption that this new duty could be collected. That assumption was a very large one indeed.19

Collecting customs duties in America had not been one of Britain’s glorious successes in the eighteenth century, nor had enforcement of any of the trade regulations that the colonials decided to evade. Grenville knew the melancholy history of such efforts; the Board of Trade, Customs and the Treasury all told it to him.

There had been something approaching systematic violation of the old Molasses Act for thirty years, as colonial merchants bribed collectors to look the other way when they smuggled in molasses from the French and Dutch West Indies. The going rate in 1763 was about a penny and a half per gallon, though occasionally the smuggling merchants paid less in out-of-the-way ports. During the French and Indian War violation of the acts regulating trade seems to have become more common.

War usually warps normal standards and practices, and so far as trade was concerned, normality entailed breaking the law. The Americans claimed they had good reason to act as they did: their distilleries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, and Philadelphia needed molasses for rum; their farmers who grew grain and raised cattle, and their bakers and butchers who processed these products, needed markets to sell them.

The British West Indies did not, perhaps could not, produce the molasses required to keep distilleries going, the rum flowing, and the trade active, so the colonists had to turn to foreign producers. And, in fact, merchants in half a dozen colonies sent lumber, barrel staves, fish, beef, pork, bacon, horses, and a miscellany of other products into the West Indies for molasses.

Distilled into rum, it was consumed locally and traded in the fisheries, sent to Africa, and to other places as well. Almost all of this produce of New England and middle colonies farms was barred from Britain, and wheat was subject to heavy duties. The law was askew here and could be enforced only at the expense of a complicated set of exchanges at the heart of the colonial economy. The law which established the prohibitive duty on foreign molasses had passed at the instigation of British West Indies planters, several of whom sat in Parliament and who made their opulence count.20

Defiance of the Molasses Act had begun virtually with its passage in 1733. Other sorts of violations—sending enumerated goods to Europe and importing European goods directly without stopping in Britain—had also occurred early in the eighteenth century. The war opened tempting opportunities and evasion seems to have increased—through bribery, fraud, and corruption.

Britain tried to stop this trade but failed until the Royal Navy found it possible to detach a significant number of ships for the job. At one point in 1756, when smuggling seemed especially prevalent, Governor Robert Hunter Morris of Pennsylvania, an official determined to stop the trade of Philadelphia merchants with the enemy, resorted to breaking into local warehouses late at night with his bare hands in the hope of discovering contraband.

Four years later, in 1760, the British navy got things under control and pretty well stopped the smuggling. In that year merchants in Philadelphia lost thirty vessels with cargoes valued at £100,000 to the navy. 21

What worked against smuggling late in the war could not be continued in peacetime—for one reason, smugglers operated differently after the war ended—and in any case Grenville’s ministry wanted trade to return revenue for the support of the troops in America. Shortly after Grenville took over from Bute, he evidently decided, on the basis of advice from Treasury officials, that molasses might be taxed for revenue.

Before the act was pushed through Parliament, however, Grenville took other steps to tighten up the customs service. On the advice of the Customs Commission in July 1763, he ordered Customs collectors to report to their posts in the colonies, or to vacate their offices. This order produced an epidemic of heartburn among the collectors, most of whom resided in England enjoying fat salaries, while their deputies collected bribes in American ports.

The collectors fancied life in England, not in the American provinces, and understandably a number resigned rather than assume their responsibilities some three thousand miles away.22

After cutting out the deadwood, Grenville turned to the main business of getting a revenue act through Parliament. This he did with surprising ease, surprising, considering that the Americans were unrepresented in Parliament, an agency which took its beginnings from the right of the people to be taxed only by their own representatives. No one reminded the members of this old right as they passed a statute imposing various duties which were intended to produce a sizable revenue.

No one noted that taxes in England had always been the free gift of the people. The Revenue Act of 1764, or Sugar Act as it was popularly called, used these words, a traditional formula which set off no reaction in Parliament. The lack of opposition within Parliament can be explained in several ways—the political temper of Parliament is the most obvious and, in a sense, the most important.

The leaders without office in Parliament were Newcastle and Pitt; they and others feared disagreements among themselves. The American issue threatened to create such divisions. Moreover, they—indeed all the opposition to Grenville—were tired and demoralized after their losing the struggle with his ministry over general warrants. This fight had ended in February 1764. Invigorated by his victory, Grenville introduced the Sugar bill, which sailed past the opposition without encountering even an opposing breeze. By April 5, 1764, it was law.23

Stripped down to essentials and in the nontechnical language Americans understood, the Sugar Act did more than lower the tax on foreign molasses to three pence per gallon. That was its key provision, but the act included others as important. It imposed other duties, several to regulate trade as well as to return revenues; it enumerated goods which could only be shipped to Britain, among them lumber, one of the most valuable items in colonial trade. As productive of outrage among colonials as any of the Act’s provisions were those establishing procedures for compliance and enforcement.

Merchants and ship captains now had to take great care in securing proper manifests and in listing cargo aboard their ships. They were required in most cases to obtain these papers before they loaded and unloaded their cargoes. If they did not, they would be liable to prosecution under the statute.

Prosecutions might take place in colonial courts of record, as they always had under the Navigation Acts, but they might also occur in vice admiralty courts at the discretion of the officials enforcing the Customs regulations. The rub here came in the character of the courts: colonial courts heard cases with the help of juries, and juries composed of colonials did not regard smuggling or other violations with unfriendly eyes.

Vice admiralty courts, on the other hand, did not use juries, and the judge who rendered decisions and fixed penalties was a royal appointee. What made this arrangement more unfair, in colonial minds at least, was that the supposed offender came into a court which presumed not that he was innocent but that he was guilty. Establishing his innocence was his problem, and even if he succeeded, he was out the cost of the action and could not sue to recover damages or expenses.24

These Parliamentary statutes could not have been passed at a worse time as far as the colonists were concerned. An economic depression had gradually overtaken the colonies—and to some extent Britain—beginning in late 1760, as the war ground to an end. With the end of fighting in America, the orders for food and supplies for the king’s military forces fell off, with predictable effects on American business.

Soon all strata of society felt the change in business, especially those farmers who had become accustomed to selling their crops to commissaries. By 1763 the depression was severe. Explanations of economic distress are rarely rational, and the hard times of the 1760s soon came to be connected in American minds to the new imperial measures, among them the Sugar Act and the Currency Act, even though the first indications of depression appeared before the passage of those measures.25

The preoccupation with the economy had still another effect: it contributed to the disposition of Americans to couch their protests in economic rather than constitutional terms. Although more than one American pointed out that the taxation of the colonists by a body in which they were unrepresented violated a long-standing right of British subjects, most Americans who protested concentrated their attention on how the new policies cut into their purses.

Even more Americans remained unconcerned of course, probably unaware of exactly what had happened in Parliament and how it affected them. Their political education was beginning, not surprisingly, in a haze of unclear issues, and was productive of indecisive and sometimes incoherent or uncoordinated responses.

Even as astute an observer as Benjamin Franklin did not grasp at first how portentous Grenville’s plans for taxation were. Franklin heard the rumors that filtered into Philadelphia in 1763 about a tax on molasses with unconcern. Calm and rational in his temperament, Franklin sometimes may have been prone to attribute rationality to others who were not so rational. In November 1763,

Franklin heard from his friend, Richard Jackson, M.P., and Pennsylvania’s agent in England, that it was absolutely certain that “£200,000 a year will infallibly be raised by Parliament on the Plantations.”26 The trade of the colonies would be taxed, according to Jackson, and since there was no way of heading off Parliament, he would not try. But he would attempt to get the duty on molasses set at a penny and a half a gallon.

The news evoked the sensible observation from Franklin—”I am not much alarm’d about your Schemes of raising Money on us”—that he did not expect Parliament to lay heavy burdens on American business because by so doing English business would be curtailed. Franklin’s easy confidence persisted for months—he did not trade in molasses, nor did he manufacture rum—though he suggested that perhaps Parliament should tax luxuries rather than necessities.

But what he found reassuring was a belief that Parliament would do nothing to impair English business, and since “what you get from us in Taxes you must lose in Trade,” the possibility of damaging taxes seemed remote. By early summer 1764 his confidence in the rationality of English policy had slipped, and not long afterward Franklin was joining others in action intended to coerce Parliament into repealing the Sugar Act.

Those colonists more directly affected by the Sugar Act naturally tended to regard Parliamentary taxation with less patience. Yet the initial reactions of merchants betrayed uncertainty about Parliament’s intentions and indecision about how to meet parliamentary action. After the end of the war with France, many merchants undoubtedly expected to renew the old arrangements with

Customs collectors whatever Parliament did. Bribery was cheaper than paying the duty, and better than being shut out of the trade altogether. Without bribery and corruption, the Customs collector “must starve,”27 as Thomas Hutchinson—no friend of smugglers—pungently observed. Merchants who expected starving collectors to appear with outstretched palms as in the good old days got a nasty shock even before the Sugar Act went through Parliament.

The new breed of officials sent by Grenville to the colonies disabused the merchants of any notion that things would ever be the same by passing the word that duties on trade would be collected. And the naval vessels sent to the American station to uphold the Acts of Trade and Navigation did so with a frightening zealousness.28

Smuggling without the connivance of Customs officials and with an unfriendly navy in coastal waters was difficult, but it could be done. Molasses imported by Providence merchants in defiance of the Sugar Act, for example, was off-loaded into scows and small boats and landed in inlets near the city. This cumbersome work had to be done at night and it was risky.

Securing false papers for a ship’s cargo could be done for a price, but it too carried hazards. The Browns of Providence resorted to this means in 1764 at considerable cost to their nerves as well as their purses. There always seemed to be an informer skulking about, eager to tell the Customs officials that off-loading was occurring nearby or that a ship’s papers were false. One William Mumford of Providence—“that pussy William Mumford,” in Nicholas Brown’s tart description—challenged the legality of more than one ship’s papers in the late spring of 1764, rousing the merchants there to try to squelch him.29 

New York City merchants showed what could be done to an informer by resourceful and powerful men. The informer was George Spencer, who was arrested for debt, paraded through the city, pelted by a mob with the filth of the streets, then jailed, to be released only on his promise to leave the city.30

The violence used against Spencer was condoned by the law. There were other cases in which violence was used which occurred outside—indeed, in defiance of—the law. The most extreme violence seems to have been at the expense of royal authority in Rhode Island, probably because the economy there was so fully dependent upon molasses produced in the foreign West Indies.

Moreover, Rhode Island in the eighteenth century still harbored an unusual collection of extravagant personages—some called them wild men—who traced their origins back to the colony’s seventeenth-century beginnings. Whatever their origins, Rhode Islanders did not mind giving the British navy grief: the Newport Mercury in December 1764 reported with indignation an affair in which a lieutenant of a party boarding a colonial vessel suspected of smuggling had run his sword through one of the crew.

We know from other sources that the lieutenant had at least some slight provocation—a sailor on the colonial ship had attacked him with a broadaxe, and in the fight that ensued several members of the boarding party had been thrown overboard.31

This fight had seen a naval officer tangle with private citizens, not an unprecedented incident in England or America. A rather more complicated struggle, and surely a more ominous one, took place in the same year between His Majesty’s schooner, St. John, and a number of inhabitants, the sheriff, and two members of the Council, as the upper house of this legislature (an elective body in Rhode Island) was called.

The details of the fray included impressment by the St. John, smuggling of molasses by the Rhode Islanders, chicken stealing by several of the ship’s company, and an angry confrontation between the navy and civilians. At the climax of the struggle, the St. John attempted to sail out of Newport, at which time the batteries in the harbor fired upon her on the orders of the two councillors. The incident was more than ugly; it had seen civilian officials willing to order colonial guns to shoot at a ship of the Royal Navy.32

A more important episode involved John Robinson, the Customs collector at Newport. Robinson, one of the new appointees under Grenville’s reform, arrived early in 1764, whereupon the local merchants attempted to bring him under the arrangement customarily reached with collectors: a bribe of £70,000 colonial currency a year to look the other way when illegal cargoes were landed. Robinson, an honest man, said no to this handsome offer and began enforcing the law.

He soon discovered that enforcement in the local vice admiralty court was difficult because the judge and the advocate, who prosecuted cases, were both Rhode Islanders with large capacities for friendship. Among their friends were the merchants. To oblige these worthies the judge called cases on short notice when Robinson was out of town, and the advocate failed to appear. The judge thereupon dismissed the case for lack of evidence.

When somehow the court convened and condemned a ship, it sold the vessel back to the owner for virtually nothing. Friends, after all, did not buy at auction the ships seized from their own kind.33

Robinson thought such behavior scandalous, until one April day in 1765 he discovered what scandalous meant when he seized the sloop Polly for failure to report all her cargo of molasses. The seizure took place in Dighton, Massachusetts. Robinson left the Polly there under guard while he went back to Newport to hire a crew to sail her to Newport for proper condemnation proceedings.

Nobody in Dighton had been willing to serve, a fact which might have tipped off a more experienced official that the Polly was laden with trouble as well as molasses. While Robinson was gone, a mob took the wind out of his sails—and the sails off the Polly, along with her rigging, cables, anchors, and of course the cargo of molasses.

For good measure, they ran her aground and bored holes in her bottom. When Robinson’s unsuspecting crew arrived in Dighton to sail the Polly to Newport, the mob persuaded them to do something else. And when Robinson himself showed up to supervise, as he thought, the voyage to Newport, the local sheriff arrested him. It seemed that the Polly’s owner wanted £3000 damages for his damaged ship and vanished cargo.

The Polly’s owner lived in Taunton, Massachusetts, eight miles away, a distance Robinson walked in the sheriff’s custody, followed by a jeering mob. The next two days he rested in jail because no one would put up bail for him. By the time his friends in Newport heard of his plight and got him out, he was a very bitter man.

Robinson, literal-minded, stubborn, upright man that he was, also managed to bungle, though he wished desperately to be a good official. Whatever his faults, he seems not to have been guilty of the legal harassment practiced by other Customs officials and especially by the navy. Parliament in passing the Sugar Act had not intended that the navy seize the small craft that plied the waters of every port, carrying small cargoes from one side to another.

These boats—barges, dories, and the like—were not fit for the open seas, and did not stray from inland waters. Parliament had not intended that their skippers fill out papers—cockets, as the lists of cargo were called—or post bonds. The naval officers did not understand Parliament’s intentions, or did not care overly about them, and began seizing these small craft on the Delaware River, in the ports of New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Providence, Newport, indeed wherever they could.

A number of naval officers saw in the Act and in their instructions to enforce it an opportunity to fill their pockets with colonial prize money; the illegal cargoes they captured were condemned and sold and the navy claimed its share. With this inducement these naval commanders did not trouble themselves with the niceties of Parliamentary intentions or with protests by colonials that they were being “legally” exploited.34

Merchants in the colonial ports retaliated, of course, and proved quite ingenious at making life miserable for the navy. They saw to it that no pilots were available when ships of the Royal Navy entered port, and they offered high wages to sailors the navy hoped to recruit. And when the chance appeared they incited small crowds to harass impressment parties or other groups of naval personnel isolated on shore.35

These encounters were relatively petty and represented small-scale organization. The merchants also attempted to organize in a large way. Boston’s merchants, who had met informally for several years before any of this, began to discuss common problems in carrying on their businesses. In April 1763, as rumors of plans for the extension of the molasses duties reached them—a full year before the passage of the Sugar Act—they gathered themselves into a Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce and commissioned fifteen of their number to serve as a standing committee to draw up a “State of Trade,” an analysis which would provide the basis of the argument that the tendency of the molasses duties was to impair the trade of the colonies, the sugar islands, and of England itself. The “State of Trade,” replete with impressive statistics and commercial data, held that molasses “will not bear any duty at all,” thus combining technical analysis with a prediction of commercial disaster.36

Boston merchants sent several of their number to meet with similar groups from Salem, Marblehead, and Plymouth, and before long all these associations submitted memorials to the General Court asking that an official protest against the duties be sent to the English ministry. And early in the next year, 250 copies of the “State of Trade,” issued as Reasons Against the Renewal of the Sugar Act37 were sent to the colony’s agent in England, with orders to distribute them and to protest against the proposed duties.

Merchants in other colonies also began to act in the last months of 1763. The Rhode Islanders, fully aware of the economic consequences of the proposed legislation, took action without any prompting from Boston. Governor Hopkins, a merchant himself and closely associated with Providence business, engaged in writing “An Essay on the Trade of the Northern Colonies of Great Britain in North America” for the newspapers, found the Boston document especially valuable.

The merchants in Providence supplied further data on Rhode Island trade, and the governor then drafted a “Remonstrance” against the extension of the molasses duties which the legislature, sitting in special session, sent to England. Merchants in New York City met in January 1764, urged the colony’s legislature to protest, and also contacted their business associates in Philadelphia, who then organized.38

These organizations did not speak with a single voice. Most concentrated on the inequity of the Act and its potentially disastrous effects on trade. What Parliament had failed to recognize was that the New England and middle colonies did not pay for imports from Britain simply by exporting locally produced commodities. Rather, they imported molasses from the French West Indies, turned it into rum, which was exchanged for slaves from Africa, who were commodities in a complex trade with the southern colonies and, again, the West Indies.

Fish, horses, meat, grain, and bread were also carried to the French and British West Indies. These exchanges produced money as well as molasses, “credit”—usually in the form of notes or bills of exchange—which was used in the trade with Britain to pay for British manufactures: clothes, hardware, tea, furniture, beer, and necessities, as well as luxuries of all sorts.39

Understandably, colonial legislatures, which began sending off petitions and memorials in the autumn of 1764, also bore in on the economic consequences of the statute. By late in the following winter, nine had sent messages to England through their governors or their agents. All argued or implied that Parliament had abused its power to regulate trade. The British planters in the West Indies would surely benefit from the stoppage of exchanges with the French islands, but neither the mother country nor the colonies on the mainland would.40

If these legislatures, like the colonial merchants, seemed to be of one mind about the results for trade that the Sugar Act would produce, they were less sure in speaking of the rights involved. None of the nine conceded Parliament’s “right” to tax for the purpose of raising a revenue in America, but only two—New York and North Carolina—forcefully denied the right.

The General Assembly of New York confessed its “Surprize” that Parliament would consider such an “Innovation” and reported their “Constituents” claimed “an Exemption from the Burthen of all Taxes not granted by themselves.” For such “an Exemption from the Burthen of ungranted, involuntary Taxes, must be the grand principle of every free State. Without such a Right vested in themselves, exclusive of all others, there can be no Liberty, no Happiness, no Security; it is inseparable from the very idea of Property, for who can call that his own, which may be taken away at the Pleasure of another?

And so evidently does this appear to be the natural Right of Mankind, that even conquered tributary States, though subject to the Payment of a fixed periodical Tribute, never were reduced to so abject and forlorn a condition, as to yield to all the Burthens which their Conquerors might at any future Time think fit to impose. The Tribute paid, the Debt was discharged; and the Remainder they could call their own.” And the New Yorkers made explicit their “disdain” of claiming “that Exemption as a Privilege. They found it on a Basis more honourable, solid and stable, they challenge it, and glory in it as their Right.”41

North Carolina’s legislature also resisted the Sugar Act as an encroachment upon their “right” to tax themselves. Perhaps some especially forceful—and foresighted—individual drove these protests through the legislatures of New York and North Carolina. Neither colony offered leadership later on, and these statements of rights seem aberrant somehow.

For the Americans in countinghouses and legislatures, if not exactly confused, were at the least unclear about what they were up against. They had not had to face a Parliament committed to taxing them for revenue. They had enjoyed rights without having to think about them. Unexamined rights may always be something of a luxury. The Americans were soon to think so.42

Of course, not many Americans had become involved in the struggles over the Sugar Act. And those who did were, for the most part, securely at the top of colonial society—merchants and representatives in colonial legislatures. Occasionally these men had found support among men less powerful than themselves. In the crisis that would occur over the Stamp Act, these leaders were to turn to such men more frequently and in the process to examine their rights more closely. Their example proved edifying to these others—artisans, shopkeepers, workers of various sorts. Quite clearly, what had begun at the top did not end there.


The Glorious Cause : Robert Middlekauff

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