The Tea Tax and the American Colonies
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Chatham [Ed. William Pitt, recently granted the title Earl of Chatham] in 1766 had no time to do more than take the first steps towards carrying out the foreign policy which he desired. The Family Compact had been a warning that neither France nor the new government in Spain had forgotten the old scheme for advancing the Bourbons, and the Peace of Paris had dealt with these powers tenderly enough to make the revival of those schemes a possibility. Chatham designed a general alliance of the Northern Powers, which would have very thoroughly bridled Bourbon ambitions. Frederick, however, was not greatly troubled by Bourbon ambitions; he was now intent rather upon the dismemberment for his own advantage of the kingdom of Poland.
Also, while he had the highest admiration for Chatham, he had no sort of security that that statesman would remain in power in England, and he was not at all disposed to risk a repetition of the treatment he had experienced in 1762. It is likely therefore that Chatham would in any case have failed in achieving his Northern Alliance.
But failure in this direction would not have induced him, as it induced the Grafton ministry, to forget that British interests might be affected by affairs in Europe. British interests perhaps did not suffer in consequence, at least directly. But the isolation of Great Britain, for which Bute had been primarily responsible, was intensified, and one curious result of her indifference to European affairs is to be noted. The island of Corsica was subject to the republic of Genoa; but the subjection was very much against the will of the Corsicans.
Corsican patriots, led by Paoli, resisted the Genoese government and defied all efforts to suppress them. The insur gents offered the sovereignty to Great Britain. Great Britain declined it; Genoa ceded the sovereignty to France, and Napoleon Buonaparte was born a few months afterwards a French instead of a British subject. Chatham was no sooner incapacitated than his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend, took the leading place in the House of Commons, and, with a light heart, conducted it along a path which it was quite willing to treat, but upon which Chatham would never have allowed it to set foot.
In America the repeal of the Stamp Act had allayed the public excitement, but had scarcely produced the effect hoped for. The colonials in fact conceived not that the British Government had made a magnanimous concession for which they ought to be grateful, but that it had been forced to give way. Their tone irritated English sentiment, which before had been rather favourably disposed towards them. Townshend at once proposed, as a practical corollary to the Declaratory Act of the Rockingham ministry, to impose new taxes - taxes upon imports, and therefore not without ample precedent, but taxes for revenue, and therefore entirety obnoxious.
Taxes on Tea
The taxes themselves were trivial; the revenue expected to be derived from them was only some forty thousand pounds. Glass, red and white lead, painters' colours, paper and tea were the imports upon which the new duties were laid. Of the whole group none was of the slightest importance except the last, and the tea tax was actually so arranged as to reduce the cost of the tea to the American consumers. In the ordinary course tea could only be carried to America after paying duty at a port in Great Britain. The duty now imposed at the American ports was not added to the duty at the. British ports, but was a lower duty substituted for the latter.
Financially the thing was a boon rather than a grievance. But a principle was at stake, not pounds shillings and pence. All the mollifying effects of the repeal of the Stamp Act were swept away, all the latent irritation, broke out with renewed vehemence. In plain terms, the public at large and nearly all the leaders both in Great Britain and in America lost their tempers, and therewith the capacity for appreciating what was reasonable in the attitude of the other side.
When once mutual distrust has been generated the smallest points of friction become - exaggerated, and the utmost tact and skill are always needed to bring about a satisfactory adjustment. But the difficulties are indefinitely increased when the parties are remote from each other and communication is slow. Knowledge of the mother country in the colonies was limited knowledge of the colonies in the mother country was infinitesimal. Despatches from colonial agents in London and from government officials in the colonies took a very long time in passing; between the forwarding of a document and the receipt of a reply there was time for the whole situation to become completely changed.
It is difficult enough even at the present day, when a trip to the remotest parts of the Empire provides a holiday amusement for persons of leisure, when the speech of a statesman in London may be printed and discussed in Melbourne and Montreal twenty-four hours after its delivery, for the British public to gauge accurately the views of Canadians and Australians, and vice versa. A hundred and fifty years ago it was infinitely more difficult for Westminster to be really in touch with Massachusetts and Virginia. The quarrel between Great Britain and the colonies may have been actually incapable of adjustment; but conditions of the time, which we of necessity have the utmost difficulty in realising, made the chances of adjustment infinitely less.
Attitudes toward America
In America, then, the associations for exclusive dealing at once revived the activities which they had suspended when the Stamp Act was repealed. Illicit traffic and the evasion of customs became laudable aims for respectable, law-abiding citizens, while the officers of the law became the minions of tyranny. And at the same time in the eyes of the British public in general the Americans appeared to be revolutionary anarchists, with whom it was hardly possible for the law-loving Briton to sympathise, and for whom it was not easy even to make allowances! There was, indeed, a strong body of enlightened opinion which appreciated the reality of the American grievance, and perhaps weakened its own case with the public by the vigour of its expressions of sympathy; but there can be no doubt that the great mass of public opinion in Great Britain was entirely on the side of ministers.
The arch mischief-maker, Charles Townshend, died three months after he had fired the train. His place as Chancellor of the Exchequer was taken by the Tory Lord North, with whom allegiance to the king was a first principle, The ministers who were most inclined to maintain Chatham's views carried the least weight in a ministry to which were now admitted some members of the old Bedford connection, who showed themselves entirely ready to bow to the king's direction, while in the nature of things they were at one with the Crown on the real question of the hour. In 1768 parliament was dissolved and ministers returned with renewed strength; while there was still no sign of a recovery of health on Chatham's part which would enable him to emerge from his retirement.