Six Innovations on the Road to the American Revolution: Innovation 4--Taxation, Representation, and Self-government.

Six Innovations on the Road to the American Revolution: Innovation 4--Taxation, Representation, and Self-government.
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By: August Glen-James

The French and Indian War changed the relationship between England and her North American colonies. Victory over the French and her native allies was expensive. Consequently, the British, believing their colonies benefitted from the war, asserted that they should help pay the massive war debt. The colonies collectively demurred. The first significant civil unrest of the era resulted from the Stamp Act, which turned the colonies into a tinder box wherein the American Revolution was fired by sparks over the right of taxation, jury trials, British constitutionalism, the civil rights of Englishmen, self-government, and other various asserted rights of the colonists. In the various expositions, one can see an American philosophy of government and economics emerge. Here are some selections that shed light on the revolutionary developments happening in the English colonies.

A. In response to the Stamp Act, John Adams entered into Massachusetts politics for the first time. He drew up a set of resolutions for the town of Braintree on October 14, 1765. In the resolutions, Adams made some basic points that can be summarized thusly: The Stamp Act was a “burdensome” tax on numerous items, with “numerous and enormous penalties” for which colonists can be prosecuted by the “Courts of Admiralty without a jury.” Moreover, the duties were “so numerous and so high” that even if the colonists didn’t deny the right of such an act to be imposed, the people would struggle to “subsist under” it and the act’s execution would drain the colonies of “cash, strip multitudes of all their property, and reduce them to absolute beggary.”  John Adams then continued:

“We further apprehend this tax to be unconstitutional. We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental principle of the constitution that no freeman should be subject to any tax to which he has not given his own consent, in person or by proxy. And the maxims of the law, as we have constantly received them, are to the same effect: that no freeman can be separated from his property but by his own act or fault. . . .

“But the most grievous innovation of all is the alarming extension of the power of Courts of Admiralty. In these courts one judge presides alone! No juries have any concern there! The law and the fact are both to be decided by the same single judge, whose commission is only during pleasure, and with whom, as we are told, the most mischievous of all customs has become established, that of taking commissions on all condemnations; so that he is under a pecuniary temptation always against the subject. . . .”[1]

B. The colonists began to write articles and issue resolutions, chiefly through the Stamp Act Congress, invoking their “rights.” The following are representative samples of their efforts.

(1) Excerpt from the Declarations of the Stamp Act Congress:[2]

“These are the bounds, which by God and nature are fixed, hitherto have them a right to come, and no further.

  1. To govern by stated laws.
  2. Those laws should have no other end ultimately, but the good of the people.
  3. Taxes are not to be laid on the people, but by their consent in person, or by deputation.
  4. Their whole power is not transferable.

These are the first principles of law and justice, and the great barriers of a free state, and of the British constitution in particular. I ask, I want no more—Now let it be shown how ‘tis reconcilable with these principles, or to many other fundamental maxims of the British constitution, as well as the natural and civil rights, which by the laws of their country, all British subjects are intitled to, as their best inheritance and birth-right, that all the northern colonies, who are without one representative in the House of Commons, should be taxed by the British parliament. . . . The colonists, black and white, born here, are free born British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such. . . .

(2) “The common people of Great-Britain very liberally give and grant away the property of the Americans without their consent, which if yielded to by us must fix us in the lowest bottom of slavery: For if they can take away one penny from us against our wills, they can take all. If they have such power over out properties they must have a proportionable power over our persons; and from hence it will follow, that they can demand and take away our lives, when so ever it shall be agreeable to their sovereign wills and pleasure.” [3]

(3) “Unless I am greatly mistaken, if these purposes are accomplished according to the expressed intention of the act, they will be found effectually to supersede that authority in our respective assemblies, which is essential to liberty. The question is not, whether some branches shall be lopped off—The axe is laid to the root of the tree; and the whole body must infallibly perish, if we remain idle spectators of the work.

“No free people ever existed, or can ever exist, without keeping, to use a common, but strong expression, ‘the purse strings,’ in their own hands. Where this is the case, they have a constitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into order without violence: But where such a power is not lodged in the people, oppression proceeds uncontrolled in its career, till the governed, transported into rage, seek redress in the midst of blood and confusion.”[4]

(4) “It appears to me that there is a clear and necessary distinction between an act imposing a tax for the single purpose of revenue and those acts which have been made for the regulation of trade and have produced some revenue in consequence of their effect and operation as regulations of trade.

“The colonies claim the privileges of British subjects. It has been proved to be inconsistent with those privileges to tax them without their own consent, and it has been demonstrated that a tax imposed by parliament is a tax without their consent.”[5]

(5) From the Stamp Act Congress, excerpt:

  1. “That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great Britain that is owing from his subjects born with in the Realm, and all due subordination to that august body, the Parliament of Great Britain.
  2. “That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural-born subjects within the Kingdom of Great Britain.
  3. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives.
  4. “That the people of these colonies are not, and, from their local circumstances, cannot be represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.
  5. “That the only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective legislature.”[6]

A seemingly irreconcilable breach between colonies and Mother Country was thusly inaugurated. Significantly, the colonists characterized any tax they had not consented to, “in person or by proxy,” to be unconstitutional; they claimed, furthermore, that the only constitutional taxation could be issued by their “respective legislatures.” They asserted that the “alarming extension” of power via the admiralty courts without recourse to jury trials to be the “most grievous innovation” of all and, as opposed to arbitrary rule, they must be governed only by “stated laws.” Finally, they claimed that “His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies” were “entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural-born subjects within the Kingdom of Great Britain.” From these revolutionary developments and other like ideas, the American Revolution erupted resulting in the founding of these United States of America.

[1] C. F. Adams, III: “Instructions of the Town of Braintree to Their Representatives, 1765. (Found in The Annals of America, Vol. 2 1755-1783, Resistance and Revolution. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago, pp. 154-155.)

[2] Frohnen, B. (2002). The American Republic. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, p. 121-122.

[3] Silas Downer, 1768, “A discourse at the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty.” Frohnen, op. cit., 143.

[4] Letter IX, “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” John Dickinson, 1767-68. Frohnen, op. cit. 149-150.

[5] Daniel Dulany, “On the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies.”  (Found in The Annals of America, Vol. 2, op. cit., pp. 157.) Original source: Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, for the Purpose of Raising a Revenue, by Act of Parliament, London, 1766.

[6] “Proceedings of the Congress at New-York, Boston, 1765: “Saturday, October 19, 1765, A.M. (Found in The Annals of America, Vol. 2, op. cit., pp. 159.)