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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Its field of taxation would be somewhat narrow


Stamp Act and the resistance it met mark so obviously the beginning of the business which ended in the separation of the United States from Great Britain that Grenville and the British Parliament have been frequently blamed for the lightness of heart with which they entered upon so momentous a course. But in fact it did not seem to them momentous, nor is it easy to say why they should have thought it momentous. It is certain that Grenville's political opponents, many of whom were afterwards to figure as the champions of the colonists, at first saw its momentousness as little as he. They offered to his proposal only the most perfunctory sort of opposition, less than they habitually offered to all his measures, good or bad.

And, in point of fact, there was little reason why a Whig of the type and class that then governed England should be startled or shocked by a proposal to extend the English system of stamping documents to the English colonies. That Parliament had the legal right to tax the colonies was not seriously questionable. Under the British Constitution the power of King, Lords and Commons over the King's subjects was and is absolute, and none denied that the colonists were the King's subjects. They pleaded indeed that their charters did not expressly authorize such taxation; but neither did they expressly exclude it, and on a strict construction it would certainly seem that a power which would have existed if there had been no charter

remained when the charter was silent.

It might further be urged that equity as well as law justified the taxation of the colonies, for the expenditure which these taxes were raised to meet was largely incurred in defending the colonies first against the French and then against the Indians. The method of taxation chosen was not new, neither had it been felt to be specially grievous. Much revenue is raised in Great Britain and all European countries to-day by that method, and there is probably no form of taxation at which men grumble less. Its introduction into America had actually been recommended on its merits by eminent Americans. It had been proposed by the Governor of Pennsylvania as early as 1739. It had been approved at one time by Benjamin Franklin himself. To-day it must seem to most of us both less unjust and less oppressive than the Navigation Laws, which the colonists bore without complaint.

As for the suggestion sometimes made that there was something unprecedentedly outrageous about an English Parliament taxing people who were unrepresented there, it is, in view of the constitution of that Parliament, somewhat comic. If the Parliament of 1764 could only tax those whom it represented, its field of taxation would be somewhat narrow. Indeed, the talk about taxation without representation being tyranny, however honestly it might be uttered by an American, could only be conscious or unconscious hypocrisy in men like Burke, who were not only passing their lives in governing and taxing people who were unrepresented, but who were quite impenitently determined to resist any attempt to get them represented even in the most imperfect fashion.

All this is true; and yet it is equally true that the proposed tax at once excited across the Atlantic the most formidable discontent. Of this discontent we may perhaps summarize the immediate causes as follows. Firstly, no English minister or Parliament had, as a fact, ever before attempted to tax the colonies. That important feature of the case distinguished it from that of the Navigation Laws, which had prescription on their side. Then, if the right to tax were once admitted, no one could say how far it would be pushed. Under the Navigation Laws the colonists knew just how far they were restricted, and they knew that within the limits of such restrictions they could still prosper. But if once the claim of the British Parliament to tax were quietly accepted, it seemed likely enough that every British Minister who had nowhere else to turn for a revenue would turn to the unrepresented colonies, which would furnish supply after supply until they were "bled white." That was a perfectly sound, practical consideration, and it naturally appealed with especial force to mercantile communities like that of Boston.

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