Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics and the Origins of American Independence

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Book Review: Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics and the Origins of American Independence by Justin du Rivage (Yale University Press, 2017)

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The typical narrative of the American Revolution generally posits 1763, which marked the end of the Seven Years’ War, as the beginning of the end for the British colonies in America.[1] That global struggle left the British with massive debts, a huge standing army, and the need to protect the fruits of victory represented by its massive new territory in North America. These policy aims were reconciled by the imposition of relatively modest taxes on the American colonists who, given the burdens placed on their British counterparts, were in no position to complain. Yet, complain they did.

Justin du Rivage believes that this standard historical narrative isn’t entirely correct, and in his Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics and the Origins of American Independence,[2] he employs a nuanced narrative to explain why North American colonials decided in the 1770s to revolt against the empire they had once so greatly admired.[3] By carefully reading the political debates on both sides of the Atlantic, he aims to the “recover … [the] fears and passions” of the era to provide a more compelling explanation for the events leading up to the Revolution.[4]

At the very heart of his story is a fight over “what kind of empire the British Empire would become.”[5] That struggle was conducted by “statesman and scribblers, intellectuals and activists” who debated over the model of colonial governance that was in Britain’s best interests and consistent with the rights of the colonists. Part of a larger struggle over the direction of British politics in the eighteenth century, rival political factions formed with members on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, we replace a conflict between American colonials and the British government with one between rival ideologies with adherents on both sides of the water. The war would come only after different factions (with incompatible visions of empire) emerged victorious in each.

In America, the faction that prevailed is dubbed “Radical Whigs.” While they included virtually all of the well-known American Patriots, Radical Whigism had plenty of adherents in England as well. The best known, and perhaps most important, was William Pitt, the “Great Commoner,” who had played a vital role during the Seven Years’ War as leader in the House of Commons. Other British Radical Whigs playing leading roles included Isaac Barre, the Earl of Camden and John Wilkes.[6]

In the Radical Whig world view, the American colonies provided inestimable value as trading partners, purchasing British goods and supplying the raw materials necessary to produce them. Colonists were to be treated equally with their English brethren. Taxing them from London would only upset this relationship with the mother country, much to its detriment.

The Radical Whigs’ rivals are labelled “Authoritarian Reformers.” Like the Radical Whigs, they drew membership from America as well. Francis Bernard, Joseph Galloway, Archibald Kennedy and Howard Martin were among their American leaders.[7] Among their British adherents, Lord North, George Grenville and Charles Townsend are all familiar names, along with perhaps the alpha Authoritarian Reformer, George III himself. They saw the colonies as potential burdens, and wanted to set them on the path towards paying their own way. Austerity and order were their watchwords. For the colonists were not only failing to contribute their fair share, but were acting unruly as well. Worse, the colonists’ prosperity was thought to come at the expense of the mother country, and they needed to be kept down lest they ultimately supplant her.

In addition to direct taxation, their plan for spreading the costs of colonial rule and maintaining colonial dependence found its expression in limitations on the colonists’ trade and their ability to settle in the west. Perhaps most ominous of all was the decision to maintain 10,000 British troops there. British interests, backed by force, would dictate colonial policy under Authoritarian Reform governments.

In telling his story, du Rivage notes where he thinks his telling departs from the standard narrative. For instance, these ideological conflicts had been years in the making. They did not just emerge in 1763. Rather, that was merely the time frame when political conditions in Britain allowed Authoritarian Reformers to take control of government and begin implementing the views they had been espousing all along. Despite the title, he also believes that taxation alone is insufficient to answer key questions.[8]

Not least of these developments was the coronation of King George III in 1760. In du Rivage’s narrative, the King plays an important role. Schooled by the Earl of Bute and others in Authoritarian Reform logic, he would sideline Newcastle and Pitt for Bute and Bedford to aid his cause of regaining some of the monarchical power lost since the Glorious Revolution. Britain’s small electorate and growing concerns over lawlessness at home as well as abroad helped solidify Authoritarian Reformers’ political position. By 1774, the Authoritarian Reformers were firmly in control of British policy making.

Other claims sometimes made by historians characterize the war as a conflict over sovereignty or perhaps a struggle for or against monarchy.[9] Du Rivage pushes back against such interpretations. “Few in the 18th century would have made that mistake,” he opines. In his view the Revolution is best understood as a struggle against the Authoritarian Reformers’ transformation of the British Empire from an “empire of reciprocity” into an “empire of extraction.” He also stresses the role political economy plays in shaping the policy preferences on each side, Radical Whigs reflecting Adam Smith’s world view while their opponents clung to mercantilism.[10]

Some historians might quibble about how different his theory really is from other ideologically based ones, and du Rivage perhaps owes more to them than he seems willing to acknowledge. Others will doubtlessly complain that he has neglected non-ideological factors. But by resurrecting the eighteenth century British debate over which direction the country should take in such fine detail, du Rivage has greatly enriched our understanding of what the participants thought was at stake and why they therefore made the decisions that they did. His work merits close reading and thoughtful consideration by those wishing to make sense of the American Revolution and its aftermath.

 

[1] For instance, both Merrill Jensen in his Founding of A Nation: A History of the American Revolution (Hackett, 2004), and Robert Middlekauff in his The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford, 1982) choose 1763 as their jumping off point, as does Edmund Morgan with Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (Chicago, 2012). See also works by eminent historians Lawrence Gipson and Jack Greene.

[2] Justin du Rivage, Yale Press, 2017.

[3] du Rivage characterizes his narrative as “a very different story of the American Revolution than we are accustomed to,” one he traces back to Yale historian Charles Andrews’s classic work The Colonial Background of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 1924).

[4] du Rivage, ix.

[5] Ibid., 1.

[6] The “Establishment Whigs” are a third faction into which du Rivage sorts the actors. They governed Britain for many years, mostly under the lead of the man considered to be first real Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, who served from 1721 to 1742. Their main purpose is as the foil to which the Radical Whigs and Authoritarian Reformers developed their competing critiques. However, they successfully reasserted themselves at various times during the period from 1763 until Lord North took the reins in 1770, which explains why British policy waivered back and forth during those seven years. Du Rivage counts Edmund Burke, the Earl of Darthmouth and the Marquess of Rockingham among the key Establishment Whigs.

[7] Interestingly, Thomas Hutchinson makes only the briefest of appearances.

[8] Specifically, he is interested in understanding why the British insisted on the right to tax even after it was clear that the assertion of such a right would lead to greater costs than would be collected in revenues, and also why Americans were so fearful of British taxes that they were willing to lay down their lives.

[9] One particular recent thesis he seems to be rejecting is that advanced by Harvard historian Eric Nelson is his The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Harvard University Press, 2014). According to the publisher, Nelson sees the Revolution as “an insurrection in favor of royal power—driven by the conviction that the Lords and Commons had usurped the just prerogatives of the monarch.” du Rivage expressly disclaims the notion that it was a Revolution “for or against monarchy”. du Rivage, 4.

[10] Observing from France, the free trade advocate and Finance Minister Jacques Turgot predicted that, if successful, the American Revolution would represent the greatest revolution in politics and economics in all of Europe. du Rivage, 2.

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