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- The Eve of the Revolution, - 5/28 -


"reserved to the Indians."

Having thus taken measures to protect the Indians against the colonists, the mother country was quite ready to protect the colonists against the Indians. Rash Americans were apt to say the danger was over now that the French were "expelled from Canada." This statement was childish enough in view of the late Pontiac uprising which was with such great difficulty suppressed--if indeed one could say that it was suppressed--by a general as efficient even as Amherst, with seasoned British troops at his command. The red man, even if he submitted outwardly, harbored in his vengeful heart the rankling memory of many griefs, real or imaginary; and he was still easily swayed by his ancient but now humiliated French friends, who had been "expelled from Canada" only indeed in a political sense but were still very much there as promoters of trouble. What folly, therefore, to talk of withdrawing the troops from America! No sane man but could see that, under the circumstances, such a move was quite out of the question.

It would materially change the circumstances, undoubtedly, if Americans could ever be induced to undertake, in any systematic and adequate manner, to provide for their own defense in their own way. In that case the mother country would be only too glad to withdraw her troops, of which indeed she had none too many. But it was well known what the colonists could be relied upon to do, or rather what they could be relied upon not to do, in the way of cooperative effort. Ministers had not forgotten that on the eve of the last war, at the very climax of the danger, the colonial assemblies had rejected a Plan of Union prepared by Benjamin Franklin, the one man, if any man there was, to bring the colonies together. They had rejected the plan as involving too great concentration of authority, and they were unwilling to barter the veriest jot or tittle of their much prized provincial liberty for any amount of protection. And if they rejected this plan--a very mild and harmless plan, ministers were bound to think--it was not likely they could be induced, in time of peace, to adopt any plan that might be thought adequate in England. Such a plan, for example, was that prepared by the Board of Trade, by which commissioners appointed by the governors were empowered to determine the military establishment and to apportion the expense of maintaining it among the several colonies on the basis of wealth and population. Assemblies which for years past had systematically deprived governors of all discretionary power to expend money raised by the assemblies themselves would surely never surrender to governors the power of determining how much assemblies should raise for governors to expend.

Doubtless it might be said with truth that the colonies had voluntarily contributed more than their fair share in the last war; but it was also true that Pitt, and Pitt alone, could get them to do this. The King could not always count on there being in England a great genius like Pitt, and besides he did not always find it convenient, for reasons which could be given, to employ a great genius like Pitt. A system of defense had to be designed for normal times and normal men; and in normal times with normal men at the helm, ministers were agreed, the American attitude towards defense was very cleverly described by Franklin: "Everyone cries, a Union is absolutely necessary, but when it comes to the manner and form of the Union, their weak noddles are perfectly distracted."

Noddles of ministers, however, were in no way distracted but saw clearly that, if Americans could not agree on any plan of defense, there was no alternative but "an interposition of the authority of Parliament." Such interposition, recommended by the Board of Trade and already proposed by Charles Townshend in the last ministry, was now taken in hand by Grenville. The troops were to remain in America; the Mutiny Act, which required soldiers in barracks to be furnished with provisions and utensils by local authorities, and which as a matter of course went where the army went, was supplemented by the Quartering Act, which made further provision for the billeting and supplying of the troops in America. And for raising some part of the general maintenance fund ministers could think of no tax more equitable, or easier to be levied and collected, than a stamp tax. Some such tax, stamp tax or poll tax, had often been recommended by colonial governors, as a means of bringing the colonies "to a sense of their duty to the King, to awaken them to take care of their lives and their fortunes." A crown officer in North Carolina, Mr. M'Culloh, was good enough to assure Mr. Charles Jenkinson, one of the Secretaries of the Treasury, backing up his assertion with sundry statistical exhibits, that a stamp tax on the continental colonies would easily yield 60,000 pounds, and twice that sum if extended to the West Indies. As early as September 23, 1763, Mr. Jenkinson, acting on an authorization of the Treasury Board, accordingly wrote to the Commissioners of Stamped Duties, directing them "to prepare, for their Lordships' consideration, a draft of an act for imposing proper stamp duties on His Majesty's subjects in America and the West Indies."

Mr. Grenville, who was not in any case the man to do things in a hurry, nevertheless proceeded very leisurely in the matter. He knew very well that Pitt had refused to "burn his fingers" with any stamp tax; "and some men, such as his friend and secretary, Mr. Jackson, for example, and the Earl of Hillsborough, advised him to abandon the project altogether, while others urged delay at least, in order that Americans might have an opportunity to present their objections, if they had any. It was decided therefore to postpone the matter for a year; and in presenting the budget on March 9, 1764, the first minister merely gave notice that "it maybe proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations." Of all the plans for taxing America, he said, this one seemed to him the best; yet he was not wedded to it, and would willingly adopt any other preferred by the colonists, if they could suggest any other of equal efficacy. Meanwhile, he wished only to call upon honorable members of the House to say now, if any were so minded, that Parliament had not the right to impose any tax, external or internal, upon the colonies; to which solemn question, asked in full house, there was not one negative, nor any reply except Alderman Beckford saying: "As we are stout, I hope we shall be merciful."

It soon appeared that Americans did have objections to a stamp tax. Whether it were equitable or not, they would rather it should not be laid, really preferring not to be dished up in any sauce whatever, however fine. The tax might, as ministers said, be easily collected, or its collection might perhaps be attended with certain difficulties; in either case it would remain, for reasons which they were ready to advance, a most objectionable tax. Certain colonial agents then in England accordingly sought an interview with the first minister in order to convince him, if possible, of this fact. Grenville was very likely more than ready to grant them an interview, relying upon the strength of his position, on his "tenderness for the subjects in America," and upon his well-known powers of persuasion, to bring them to his way of thinking. To get from the colonial agents a kind of assent to his measure would be to win a point of no slight strategic value, there being at least a modicum of truth in the notion that just government springs from the consent of the governed.

"I have proposed the resolution [the minister explained to the agents] from a real regard and tenderness for the subjects in the colonies. It is highly reasonable they should contribute something towards the charge of protecting themselves, and in aid of the great expense Great Britain has put herself to on their account. No tax appears to me so easy and equitable as a stamp duty. It will fall only upon property, will be collected by the fewest officers, and will be equally spread over America and the West Indies.... It does not require any number of officers vested with extraordinary powers of entering houses, or extend a sort of influence which I never wished to increase. The colonists now have it in their power, by agreeing to this tax, to establish a precedent for their being consulted before any tax is imposed upon them by Parliament; for their approbation of it being signified to Parliament next year...will afford a forcible argument for the like proceeding in all such cases. If they think of any other mode of taxation more convenient to them, and make any proposition of equal efficacy with the stamp duty, I will give it all due consideration."

The agents appear at least to have been silenced by this speech, which was, one must admit, so fatherly and so very reasonable in tone; and doubtless Grenville thought them convinced, too, since he always so perfectly convinced himself. At all events, he found it possible, for this or for some other reason, to put the whole matter out of his mind until the next year. The patriotic American historian, well instructed in the importance of the Stamp Act, has at first a difficulty in understanding how it could occupy, among the things that interested English statesmen at this time, a strictly subordinate place; and he wonders greatly, as he runs with eager interest through the correspondence of Grenville for the year 1764, to find it barely mentioned there. Whether the King received him less coldly today than the day before yesterday was apparently more on the minister's mind than any possibility that the Stamp Act might be received rather warmly in the colonies. The contemporaries of Grenville, even Pitt himself, have almost as little to say about the coming great event; all of which compels the historian, reviewing the matter judiciously, to reflect sadly that Englishmen of that day were not as fully aware of the importance of the measure before it was passed as good patriots have since become.

There is much to confirm this notion in the circumstances attending the passage of the bill through Parliament in the winter of 1765. Grenville was perhaps further reassured, in spite of persistent rumors of much high talk in America, by the results of a second interview which he had with the colonial agents just before introducing the measure into the House of Commons. "I take no pleasure," he again explained in his reasonable way, "in bringing upon myself their resentments; it is my duty to manage the revenue. I have really been made to believe that, considering the whole circumstances of the mother country and the colonies, the latter can and ought to pay something to the common cause. I know of no better way than that now pursuing to lay such a tax. If you can tell of a better, I will adopt it."

Franklin, who was present with the others on this occasion, ventured to suggest that the "usual constitutional way" of obtaining colonial support, through the King's requisition, would be better. "Can you agree," asked Grenville, "on the proportions each colony should raise?" No, they could not agree, as Franklin was bound to admit, knowing the fact better than most men. And if no adequate answer was forthcoming from Franklin, a man so ready in expedients and so practiced in the subtleties of dialectic, it is no great wonder that Grenville thought the agents now fully convinced by his reasoning, which after all was only an impersonal formulation of the inexorable logic of the situation.


The Eve of the Revolution, - 5/28

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