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King George III

King George III in coronation robes (painting by Allan Ramsay c.1765)




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Colonies and Empires

Background to the American War of Independence

If the favourable treatment given to Canada was one of the causes of American anger towards Britain, the other was an argument over money, or, more precisely, over taxation.

Although it would be the king, George III, that would become the focus of Americans' anger, in fact, in 1760, most power lay with the Parliament. This was made up of an oligarchy of conflicting interests. On one hand there were the merchants and businessmen, with the landowners on the other. The landowners had a particular grievance. They were paying taxes, equal to about twenty percent of their annual income, to pay for the last twenty years of wars - wars which had benefited merchants but not farmers.

Running an empire was an expensive business and it was not surprising that the king's ministers, particularly anxious to keep their landowner supporters happy, should look around for additional income. Why not from the American colonies themselves?

America was a virtually untaxed and rich section of the empire. One fifth of the British people were American. Philadelphia was the biggest British city, after London. Poverty, which was a common sight in Britain, was practically unknown amongst free people in the American colonies.

Much of the affluence of the American colonies had been created during the Seven Years' War. However, although Britain had fought France to protect its colonies, the colonies had given their mother-country very little financial support, and then only when they were promised reimbursement. Some colonists had even sold weapons to the enemy.

Only at the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1763 did British taxpayers, as their taxes rose higher and higher, realise how much victory had cost. It was only the British, and not the American taxpayer, who had to pay for making the colonies secure against further French attacks. The average Briton had a tax bill fifty times greater than the average American.

It was an obvious solution, therefore, to ask the American colonists to contribute more to the costs of their own defence. Should they object, it was unlikely that they would be united in their opposition. Each colony was jealous of its territory and authority. Arguments, and sometimes almost fighting, between neighbouring colonies was quite common. Southerners, with their slave plantations, had little love for austere, Puritanical New Englanders, and vice versa. Western frontiersmen did not like the rich, politically powerful seaboard cities. British leaders did not seriously consider the idea that these colonies might unite in opposition against them.


Britain taxes its colonies

Unlike today, there was no tax on income in the 18th century. If the British wanted the Americans to contribute more to the Treasury, it would have to be by taxing certain goods that were consumed (like the VAT in Britain or TVA in France) or by taxing certain goods that entered the country (import duty).

The first attempt to extract more money out of the colonists was the Sugar Act in 1764. In fact, it reduced taxation on molasses imported to the colonies from the West Indies but severely punished anyone who tried to smuggle the syrup into America. This was considered unfair since fortunes had been made by making rum from smuggled molasses. It was ungentlemanly to enforce a law against smuggling.


Tax stamps

The stamps which imported goods needed to show once a tax had been paid


Worse was to come though. In 1765, Parliament in London passed the Stamp Act. This had nothing to do with postage stamps, (they did not exist then), but it was a law that required all legal documents, contracts, newspapers and even tavern licenses, to carry a special tax stamp. It had to be bought from a Stamp Master.

"No taxation without representation" was the cry that went up from the colonists. It meant that no British subject should be taxed unless his representative sat as a member in the Parliament which had voted the law.

The British government did not want trouble, and powerful merchants in London hinted to the king that a conflict in the colonies would be bad for business and, therefore, for the country. The Act was repealed in 1766. Americans danced in the streets to celebrate their "glorious victory over England".


Pennsylvania Journal

The Pennsylvania Journal printed an article against the Stamp Act


In England debts mounted and the landowners were angry that the colonies had still not paid " a single shilling" in taxes. In 1767, Prime Minister Townsend declared he had a secret plan for getting money out of the Americans without upsetting them. In fact it was simply a tax on certain imports, such as tea, paint, glass, paper and lead (to make windows).

The response of the colonies was to boycott (not buy) any of the taxed goods. In 1769, Boston's imports from Britain halved. Massachusetts became the focus of anti-British feeling.


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