BOOK REVIEW: 1764: The First Year of the American Revolutionby Ken Shumate (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2021)
When did the Revolution begin? This seemingly simple question has been answered in a variety of ways over the last three centuries. John Adams thought it was effected in “the minds and hearts of the people” long before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. More recently, historians have offered book-length accounts of specific years to answer this question: David McCullough’s 1776 (2006), Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (2013), and most recently, Mary Beth Norton’s 1774: The Long Year of Revolution (2020).
Ken Shumate offers a novel answer by focusing on 1764 as it was in that year British policies toward the colonies began to change and when Americans began to protest their treatment with constitutional arguments. Toward that end, Shumate focuses on the passage of the Sugar Act which included the promise of an imminent Stamp Act (passed by Parliament the following year) as well as the various letters, petitions, and remonstrances that the colonists dispatched to London to contest the policy. As Shumate observes: “The year 1764 marked the beginning of a long and unhappy argument between America and Great Britain” that ultimately concluded with war and independence (page ix).
Shumate’s decision to focus on 1764 allows him to get into the nitty-gritty of Parliamentary politics and colonial trade regulations, things often overlooked in accounts of the leadup to 1776. He begins with a concise account of the Sugar Act, a British law that placed a three-pence duty on each gallon of molasses imported from foreign islands to mainland British North America. Shumate explains that this was a renewal of the Molasses Act of 1733 rather than a new piece of legislation. He also notes that the Molasses Act had long been a curious beast. Some thought it was a tax and others a trade regulation, yet neither side prevailed as there had been little effort to enforce the law. These uncertainties and salutary memories of imperial neglect would accordingly define the Sugar Act’s reception.
Shumate moves quickly from the law’s details to the Americans’ response. To tell the story of 1764, he opts “to allow American voices to be heard” (xi). Much of the book consists of extended excerpts from colonial correspondence and petitions to agents, Parliament, and the king. While this approach keeps the focus on the ideas of Americans, it makes for slow reading at times. It also ensures that the American voices captured here are nearly all politicians at the highest levels of colonial administration.
The bulk of 1764 is devoted to the details of the colonial protests against the Sugar Act and the impending Stamp Act. Properly understood, these were not violent or even physical actions, but rather constitutional and economic arguments against further Parliamentary regulation of trade and the imposition of new taxes. Shumate moves colony-by-colony, offering long quotations of the petitions from New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, with some attention to other American colonies.
A great strength of Shumate’s approach is that it allows one to see the arguments of the American Revolution in utero. Before the colonists started tarring and feathering excisemen or declaring their inalienable rights, they experimented with arguments against the Sugar Act. For example, New York lawmakers claimed that Parliament had no right to tax them, insisting that they “would not ask for a License to import woolen Manufacturers from France; or go into the most lucrative Branches of Commerce in the least Degree incompatible with the Trade and Interest of Great Britain” (80). In so doing, New Yorkers tried out arguments about the separation of powers that would later become integral to the United States Constitution. Similarly, Virginian Richard Bland previewed the division of power when he drew a distinction between “internal and external government” (122).
Indeed, many colonists in 1764 understood that Parliamentary duties on imported goods were unconstitutional because the Americans were not represented in the House of Commons. “Your Memorialists conceive it to be a fundamental Principle of the British constitution,” wrote the Virginia General Assembly to the House of Lords, “thatthe People are not subject to any Taxes but such as are laid on them by their own Consent” (129). Within a few years, this sentiment would be more pithily rendered: “no taxation without representation.”
As would be expected in this first act of revolutionary protest, some of the arguments were not refined, but conflated economic arguments with constitutional ones. Massachusettsan Oxenbridge Thatcher gently warned that an unprecedented tax would harm British trade: “Doth this not resemble the conduct of the good wife in the fable who killed her hen that every day laid her a golden egg?” (102). Laissez-faire economists like Adam Smith later understood the theoretical value of such statements that, in 1764, were largely buried under self-interest.
Shumate also demonstrates that several ideas later developed in the imperial crisis were at hand even in these earliest debates over Parliamentary laws. Rhode Island lawmakers took particular offense to the Sugar Act’s use of vice admiralty courts in which a judge but not a jury rendered a judgment against a suspected smuggler. By rejecting Parliament’s efforts “to deprive the colonies of that darling privilege, trial by juries,” the smallest New England colony laid the groundwork for the Fifth Amendment.
In addition to witnessing the evolution of constitutional thought, Shumate’s extended excerpts reveal some curious aspects of late colonial America. For example, we see how Massachusetts’ objection to the Sugar Act was entwined in its jealousy of the British colonies in the West Indies, places that had voices in Parliament and which would not suffer from the new levy. We also find New Jersey and Virginia citing privileges based on their original charters many years after these governing documents had been revoked and replaced.
There is no question that 1764 serves the author’s stated purpose of refocusing readers’ attention to a lesser known year, and that this is beneficial for all students of the American Revolution. A close reading of this book will remind many that the move for independence predated the Stamp Act riots of August 1765 such that instructors will want to revise their lectures, while steadfast Patriots will be heartened by the words of these earliest founders.
However, 1764 is also disappointing in its lack of context. Shumate would have been wise to offer short biographies of the authors he quotes as well as in-depth explanations of the partisan politics of the individual colonies. Without this context, we are left to wonder why Rhode Island was more sensitive to the denial of trial by jury than the others and why Virginians most vociferously decried taxation without representation as tyranny. Shumate might have also made more of an effort to include more political theory and to trace the constitutional arguments he locates to the English past and American present. Without this context, many of his connections are only suggestive and leave the reader with too many questions.
Nevertheless, readers eager for a detailed account of the earliest shot in the process that split the American colonies from the British Empire will have much to learn from Shumate’s work and a new appreciation for 1764.
John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6854.