Building the American Nation

As the question suggests this essay will be looking at the reasons why American colonists saw British policy as being tyrannical. The word tyrannical is defined as meaning "obtaining obedience by force or threats" [1]. In other words the question is stating that American colonists felt oppressed by the policies of their British rulers. This piece will be examining what these policies were and why they appeared to be tyrannical to the colonists in terms of how they felt oppressed both economically and politically as well as the threats they felt to their freedom.

However it will also evaluate just how widely this notion of tyranny was perceived by the colonists as a whole. The main focus of this will be on the post seven-year war period up until the time America declared independence. Although many colonists did see the British as being tyrannical in their policy it must be stated that not all colonists shared this view as the question suggests. But for those that did, the roots of the problem between the American colonists and the British Empire developed over a long time.

Since 1688, although still under rule of the empire, the colonies had to an extent been pushing toward a larger measure of self-government. This was still the case at the time when the seven years war closed in America, almost a century later. The colonists were fairly satisfied with the existing compromise between home rule and imperial control. They were content that parliament should control imperial commerce, providing it allowed them to prosper.

Back in England though this view of compromise did not go down well with parliament. Britain felt that the colonists hadn't done their proper share in the war and also weren't paying enough in taxes. In 1763 this situation was heightened when George Grenville became the new chief minister for the British government. Grenville not only realised that there was a huge debt caused by the war but that unless the American colonies were protected they would be open to attack from the North-Western Indians or the French.

A good example of this would be when Pontiac of Ottawa tried to start a rebellion and reopen frontier warfare. It was therefore agreed that large garrisons of British soldiers would need to be present in each American colony. The only issue for Britain to consider was supporting these forces would cost 372,744 per annum. This left Grenville with the problem of raising the money. The English taxpayer was already the highest taxed in the west so Grenville reasoned that the Americans were obligated to share the cost of their own defence.

As a result Grenville drew up a number of resolutions dealing with new duties, which, after being accepted by Parliament, became known as the 'Sugar Act', due to the fact that one of the more important resolutions dealt with a new duty on molasses. The Sugar Act was an extension of the 1733 Molasses Act and the tax itself was actually lighter than that of its predecessor. However it still caused alarm in the American colonies, partly because of the expected economic disadvantages, but also because of a number of other reasons.

Americans now found themselves confronted with a new set of British customs officials who were sent to stamp out smuggling and illegal trading, vice-admiralty courts made up of judges appointed by the crown and a severe implementation of naval officials on the coasts. Added to this was a general post-war depression and the enactment of another act prohibiting the use of paper money as legal tender, almost immediately following the Sugar Act.

It was this combination of factors, which provided the background for the oppositional activities. A lot of colonial assemblies spoke against the new taxes. In addition, the Sugar Act also became an issue in the struggle between various factions in the different states, but in general opposition was strong. One of the steps taken, for example, was to threat with a boycott of English products. Colonists resented this tax and saw it as tyrannical because they were paying for a standing army even with the French and Indian armies subdued.

To make this worse the Quartering Act of 1764 meant the colonial assemblies were obligated to provide accommodation and supplies for the troops, which again came out of colonists pockets. Not only this but memories were cast back to the seven year war when soldiers were seen to be wreaking havoc in the colonies with their disrespect toward religion, whoring and what they felt was unnecessary torture – the last thing they wanted was that happening again. They also lost complete control of their currency and had their paper money rendered worthless.

As well as these economic factors colonists resented the rights they appeared to lose, for example in the new court system juries were excluded and the burden of proof was now with the defendant rather than the prosecution. Rumours of a possible new act which was being prepared by the British added to the growing tension. These fears were realised in March 1764 when Grenville stated, "To meet national expenses it may be proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations"[2].

One year later Grenville introduced the next of his resolutions, the Stamp Act, which was scheduled to be put into effect on November 1. Under this act all printed materials were taxed, including; newspapers, pamphlets, bills, legal documents, licenses, almanacs, dice and playing cards. More controversial than its predecessor the Sugar Act because for the first time in the 150 year old history of the British colonies in America, the Americans would now have to pay tax not to their own local legislatures in America, but directly to England.

This act was a turning point for the colonists as they quickly united in opposition. But more importantly their campaign was led by the most influential members of colonial society – lawyers, publishers, land owners, ship builders and merchants – who were most affected by the Act. The main argument from the colonists was that English men had the right to be taxed only by their elected representatives, therefore the Americans felt they should only be taxed by the colonial assemblies they elected, as had previously been the case.

Colonists found this act particularly oppressive because they felt their right of representation was being taken away from them by the English Parliament. "No taxation without representation" [3] was a familiar slogan that summed up the way colonists felt about the act. On top of this they had no choice in the matter, it was literally a case of stamp taxes being paid or business coming to a stop, the colonies simply couldn't carry on without stamped paper.

As a result widespread protests including "Liberty Tree" meetings, burning effigies, riots and other violent means of protest regularly occurred throughout the colonies. In a clear act of defiance on the part of the colonists a policy of shutting off imports from Britain was put into place. They realised they had become a major market for British products and could therefore hurt them economically by abandoning their products. Fortunately for the colonists Grenville died in July 1765 and for a little while there was a period of calm, the violent protests stopped and there was hope that the conflict could now be resolved.

Grenville's replacement, Rockingham, added to this feeling when he repealed the Stamp Acts under the belief that a direct or internal tax such as this was intolerable for the Americans but an indirect or external tax such as the Sugar Act was not so bad. However at the same time parliament passed a new act known as the Declaratory Act in 1766 which meant that parliament could make laws binding under any circumstances. Colonists viewed this suspiciously as now parliament were saying they would make laws for America regardless of what the colonists or their assemblies thought.

As a result of this act a new set of resolutions would be set up the following year when Charles Townshend became Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was due to the English parliament cutting the British land tax, and therefore, to balance the budget, Townshend promised that he would tax the Americans to make up the difference. Taking advantage of the distinction drawn between internal and external taxes, he put through a series of acts laying import duties at American ports on paper, lead, glass and tea shipped from England.

These duties, however, didn't have an economic but a political purpose. The money that was collected was used to pay the salaries of British colonial officials. By doing this the British tried to make these officials independent of colonial legislatures and better able to enforce British orders. Colonists felt the British were trying to take the power away from their colonial assemblies to govern them. They were also angry because they believed they should not be taxed simply to raise revenue for Britain.