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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Drawn from the same oligarchical class


But

if we assume that it was the only consideration involved, we shall misunderstand all that followed, and be quite unprepared for the sweeping victory of a purely doctrinal political creed which brought about the huge domestic revolution of which the breaking of the ties with England was but an aspect. The colonists did feel it unjust that they should be taxed by an authority which was in no way responsible to them; and they so felt it because, as has already been pointed out, they enjoyed in the management of their everyday affairs a large measure of practical democracy. Therein they differed from the English, who, being habitually governed by an oligarchy, did not feel it extraordinary that the same oligarchy should tax them. The Americans for the most part governed themselves, and the oligarchy came in only as an alien and unnatural thing levying taxes. Therefore it was resisted.

The resistance was at first largely instinctive. The formulation of the democratic creed which should justify it was still to come. Yet already there were voices, especially in Virginia, which adumbrated the incomparable phrases of the greatest of Virginians. Already Richard Bland had appealed to "the law of Nature and those rights of mankind that flow from it." Already Patrick Henry had said, "Give me liberty or give me death!"

It was but a foreshadowing of the struggle to come. In 1766 the Rockingham Whigs, having come into power

upon the fall of Grenville, after some hesitation repealed the Stamp Act, reaffirming at the same time the abstract right of Parliament to tax the colonies. America was for the time quieted. There followed in England a succession of weak Ministries, all, of course, drawn from the same oligarchical class, and all of much the same political temper, but all at issue with each other, and all more or less permanently at issue with the King. As a mere by-product of one of the multitudinous intrigues to which this situation gave rise, Charles Townshend, a brilliant young Whig orator who had become Chancellor of the Exchequer, revived in 1768 the project of taxing the American colonies. This was now proposed in the form of a series of duties levied on goods exported to those colonies--the one most obnoxious to the colonists and most jealously maintained by the Ministers being a duty on tea. The Opposition had now learnt from the result of the Stamp Act debate that American taxation was an excellent issue on which to challenge the Ministry, and the Tea Tax became at once a "Party Question"--that is, a question upon which the rival oligarchs divided themselves into opposing groups.

Meanwhile in America the new taxes were causing even more exasperation than the Stamp Act had caused--probably because they were more menacing in their form, if not much more severe in their effect. At any rate, it is significant that in the new struggle we find the commercial colony of Massachusetts very decidedly taking the lead. The taxed tea, on its arrival in Boston harbour, was seized and flung into the sea. A wise Government would have withdrawn when it was obvious that the enforcement of the taxes would cost far more than the taxes themselves were worth, the more so as they had already been so whittled down by concessions as to be worth practically nothing, and it is likely enough that the generally prudent and politic aristocrats who then directed the action of England would have reverted to the Rockingham policy had not the King made up his unfortunate German mind to the coercion and humiliation of the discontented colonists. It is true that the British Crown had long lost its power of independent action, and that George III. had failed in his youthful attempts to recapture it. Against the oligarchy combined he was helpless; but his preference for one group of oligarchs over another was still an asset, and he let it clearly be understood that such influence as he possessed would be exercised unreservedly in favour of any group that would undertake to punish the American rebels. He found in Lord North a Minister willing, though not without considerable misgivings, to forward his policy and able to secure for it a majority in Parliament. And from that moment the battle between the Home Government and the colonists was joined.


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