The threat of continued oppression and an encroaching condition of slavery was central to the American colonists’ call for separation from Great Britain and the corresponding shift to direct resistance. While the lack of effective political representation was crucial, importantly the colonists held other more acute concerns than the issue of representation in Parliament. Crucially, the colonists grew increasingly fearful over the loss of their status as free men and the dangerous prospective of their lives being reduced to a state of domination.
Following the end of the French and Indian War, Great Britain was facing a debt crisis. The high financial tolls of the military campaign impelled British Prime Minister George Grenville to employ methods for a massive reduction in debt. While a simple flat tax imposed on certain goods across the commonwealth was a possible recourse, Grenville and Parliament opposed such a plan for two primary reasons. Firstly, Grenville desired reducing local taxes at home to appease mainland British citizens and, secondly, Parliament sought an establishment of a permanent standing military force in the British American colonies to safeguard the frontier against encroachments by indigenous peoples. As a solution, Grenville turned his sights on British America as means to achieve both goals.
The first plank of the debt-reduction and military establishment plan was passed in April 1764 as the American Revenue Act, or commonly referred as the Sugar Act of 1764. Marking the first instance of Parliament exercising its perceived right of taxation over the colonists, the act imposed duties on molasses, coffee, textiles, and wine, while additionally restricting the export of iron and silk exclusively to Great Britain. Although the Sugar Act of 1764 was met with resistance by the colonists in the form of boycotts and the creation of a Committee of Correspondence in Massachusetts to coordinate formal objections across the colonies, it failed to generate sufficient revenue for a total reduction of debt.
In March 1765, Grenville pressed Parliament again to authorize another round of taxation on the colonies in order to raise revenue. Parliament complied with Grenville’s request, passing the Stamp Act of 1765 on March 22, 1765. Under this act, taxes were levied on all legal documents, newspapers, and pamphlets. Protests against the tax erupted across the colonies. In June 1765, James Otis proposed that a formal body be erected to deal with the tax and devise a strategy for its repeal. Nine colonies enlisted Otis’s invocation forming the Stamp Act Congress, subsequently drafting the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” which emphasized that legitimate taxation necessitated political representation. Outcries towards the Stamp Act also took a less formal and more forceful path in port cities across the eastern coast. Associations referring to themselves as the Sons of Liberty initiated far-reaching boycotts of the distribution of stamps, sparking violent protests, resulting in the destruction of homes of prominent stamp distributors and political elites such as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson.
As growing unrest mounted in the colonies, mainland Britain was dealing with its own political uncertainty. The hostile response, particularly the boycotts of British goods by the colonists, resulted in a strong pushback by British merchants against Grenville’s tax-reduction plan. With calls for its repeal percolating in the colonies and at home, Grenville’s tenure as Prime Minister was short-lived with Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Second Marquess of Rockingham replacing Grenville in late 1765. The change in leadership brought with it an oppositional voice against the implementation of the Stamp Act and Parliament quickly responded, repealing the act on March 17, 1766.
While the repeal of the Stamp Act marked an important stifling of Westminster’s encroaching taxation policy, the passage of the Declaratory Act would prove to be far more noxious to the colonists’ understanding of sovereignty and arbitrary power. Passed on the same day as the repeal of the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act marked a bold effort by Westminster to reassert its authority over the colonies. Drawing from the Navigation Act of 1651 and the Irish Declaratory Act of 1719, the act stated that Parliament retained the “full power and authority” to bind the colonies as subjects of the crown “in all cases whatsoever.” The passage of the act marked a decisive shift in how the colonists saw not only their relationship with mainland Britain, but also how Parliament and the Crown existed as crucial impediments to self-government.
The absence of political representation only exacerbated the dilemma of the colonists, yet a larger issue was also at play. In a profound manner, the colonists now saw themselves reduced to the status of slaves, beholden to an arbitrary power located thousands of miles away from British America. The colonists were no longer free British subjects, but under the authority of another. In classical Roman republican terms, the free men of British descent had acquired, by way of the Crown, a master (dominus) and were thrust into a codependent relationship of domination (dominatio). The inability of the colonists to see themselves as free subjects speaks to a rampant usage of the word “slave” by American Whigs. From 1765 to the 1776, the term of “slave” was the most commonly used phrase by the colonists to depict their condition, succinctly articulated in the 1772 Boston Town Resolution. Collectively drafted and approved by the inhabitants of Boston, the text asserted, “We are degraded from the rank of free subjects to the despicable condition of slaves.”
The growing sentiment by the colonists at the time—a despicable state of non-freedom placed upon them by a foreign arbitrary power—found important commonalities with the eighteenth-century Whig movement in England, particularly in its more radical manifestations. No greater influence can be found pertaining to the colonists’ inability to see a possibility of freedom than in the writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Written and published between 1719 and 1723, Cato’s Letters were widely concerned with civil liberty, the degeneration of morality, and the growing threat of tyranny within the commonwealth. In Letter No. 62, the two British writers directly confronted the dangers of arbitrary power and how such a power dynamic eradicates personal autonomy. The effects of an unequal power exchange are far-reaching, according to Trenchard and Gordon, resulting in a political climate marked by violence and uncertainty. But beyond the erasure of stability ushered by an equilibrium of private and public liberty that is initiated by the full force of arbitrary power, the letter pointed to the substantive content of a positive theorization of freedom. “Liberty is, to live upon one’s own terms,” the writers maintained, affirming a necessity for individual autonomy as well as the absence of an external force over free subjects. For Trenchard and Gordon, the antithesis of liberty was flat-out devastating: “slavery is, to live at the mere mercy of another.”
This framing of liberty, and importantly, its full conceptual scope pertaining to a particular understanding of slavery outside the realm of chattel slavery, strongly resurfaced, not simply in the rhetoric of the colonists, but in the lexicon of ardent British supporters of the American case. Notably, Joseph Priestley and Richard Price expound upon this idea of liberty. In An Essay on the First Principles of Government, Priestley took direct aim at the full force of the Declaratory Act on the American colonists and its repercussions for a continuation of abusive powers. “But in all cases, when those who lay the tax upon others exempt themselves, there is tyranny,” Priestley suggested. Continuing, Priestley alluded to the non-recallable nature of tyrannical power, linking a minimal offense, the taxation of a single penny in this case, to a larger more nefarious pattern leading to the total destruction of personal liberty. “The man who submits to a tax of a penny, levied in this manner,” Priestley claimed, “is liable to have the last penny he has extorted from him.” From this position, Priestley expunged the idea that the severity of a law must serve as the sole criterion for its propriety. Rather, Priestley’s assertion cut directly to the heart of the American case, in the sense that it was not necessarily the erroneous nature of the British Acts that restrained the possibility of liberty, but instead, it was the manner in which the Americans were removed from the law-making process, thus subject to an external force not of their own accord or control.
What Priestley was able to show—namely, a fractured and uneven distribution of sovereignty rights between Westminster and the Crown with the colonists—was further amplified in the writings of Richard Price. Here, similar to the discussion of slavery found in Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters, Price took up the issue of Britain’s authority over both an individual colonist and the colonies at large. Dispelling the casting of Parliament and King George III in a paternalistic or benevolent light, Price believed that any form of external authority leads to a reduction of liberty, and consequently, servitude. Price argued that neither individuals nor communities can be “denominated free” regardless of how “equitably and kindly they may be treated.” Isaac Kramnick neatly captures Price’s view of the dilemma facing the colonists and the freedom that awaited them as a natural right, writing, “Price insisted that the rights of the Americans are the natural rights of all free men, not the product of history, tradition, statute, charter, or precedent.” To Price, then, the outcome of an external power over another was undoubtedly clear: slavery.
The inability of the colonists to see themselves as free subjects placed under the yoke of an external force became intensified with the rise of standing armies throughout the colonies. As the Sugar Act of 1764 ushered in a policy that saw the colonists responsible for costs associated with a permanent military installation, the Quartering Act of 1765 was far more expansive in scope and, for the colonists, more invasive. Under this act, the colonists were to bear the financial burden of all expenditures related to the military presence, including costs of supplies such as bedding, alcohol, and food. Moreover, the act required that the colonists provide accommodations for British troops if barracks were unavailable.
While the issue of excessive taxation in order to support a permanent military force was certainly unpleasant to many colonists, a necessity to quarter them within barns, inns, and taverns was far more egregious. Rage over the Quartering Act intensified in New York, particularly in New York City, a site of a strong contingent of troops. Objecting to the financial and invasive nature of the act as well as the uneven share of the burden placed upon the colony, the New York Assembly refused to comply with the stated requirements. In retaliation, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer within the cabinet of Prime Minister William Pitt, effectively persuaded Parliament to pass the Townshend Acts of 1767, initiating yet another round of duties on goods in the colonies. Central to the Townshend Acts was a document contained within the piece of legislation referred to as the New York Restraining Act of 1767. Under this part of the act, Parliament suspended the New York Assembly due to its failure to comply with the Quartering Act. Unwilling to fully fund the stationing of the troops and capitulate to the demands of the act, Parliament accelerated its attack on the legislative authority of the New York Assembly by formally authorizing Gov. Henry Moore to dissolve the Assembly. In early 1769, the Assembly reopened with new representatives and agreed to fully fund all expenditures related to the stationing of British troops in the province.
The acts imposed upon British America prompted many colonists to paint the Crown and Parliament in a tyrannical shade. In his “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), Thomas Jefferson challenged the very legitimacy of Parliament, claiming that the imposition of the acts was flat-out void. According to Jefferson, Parliament possessed “no right to exercise authority” over the colonies of British America and their actions reaffirmed a “spirit of tyranny” that could be located throughout history. The severity of these “exercises of usurped power” was pronounced due to its prolonged continuation indicating a pattern of abuses that spanned across numerous tenures of various prime ministers and members of parliament. The ongoing nature of the despotic acts were not political miscalculations or products of the “accidental opinion of a day;” rather, for Jefferson, the full scope of Parliament’s actions ranging from the Declaratory Act to the Tea Act of 1773 to the Boston Port Act of 1774 illustrated a discernible “systematical plan.” The orientation, or more aptly put, the end goal of such a design, was clear to Jefferson and other colonists alike: the annihilation of political and economic freedom for the colonists by “reducing us to slavery.”
For studies that examine the development and implementation of the Sugar Act, see Bernhard Knollenberg, Origins of the American Revolution, 1759-1776, ed. Bernard W. Sheehan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002); Charles R. Ritcheson, British Policies and the American Revolution (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1954).
“Declaration of Rights and Grievances of the Colonists, October 19, 1765,” in Essential Documents of American History, vol. I: From Colonial Times to the Civil War, ed. Robert Blaisdell (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2016), 72-75.
Gordon S. Wood, “A Note on the Mobs in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 23 (1966): 635-642. Also, see Andrew P. Peabody, “Boston Mobs Before the Revolution,” Atlantic Monthly62 (1888): 321-333.
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, “No. 62, An Enquiry Into The Nature And Extent Of Liberty; With Its Loveliness And Advantages, And The Vile Effects Of Slavery,” in Cato’s Letters, or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, vol. 2, June 24, 1721 to March 3, 1722, ed. Ronald Hamowy(Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), 128-133.
See Martin Fitzpatrick, “Joseph Priestley, Political Philosopher,” in Joseph Priestley, Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian, eds. Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 117.
Richard Price, “Supplemental Observations on the Nature and Value of Civil Liberty and Free Government,” §1, in The Works of Dr. Richard Price. With Memoirs of His Life, vol. 7 (London: Printed for Richard Rees, 1816), 4.
For the strong display of opposition demonstrated by riots and protests from New Yorkers, see Edward Countrymen, A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989), 36-71.
Thomas Jefferson, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America: Set Forth in Some Resolutions Intended for the Inspection of the Present Delegates of the People of Virginia, Now In Convention,” American Imprint Collection, Thomas Jefferson Library Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (Williamsburg, VA: Printed by Clementina Rind, 1774), 9.