Second in our series “Five Myths about the Revolutionary War” , concerning taxes.
Ask the average American what their colonial forebears thought about paying taxes and she will answer that they didn’t want to—wouldn’t do it, in fact, and went to war over it. But this is not so.
Americans in the Revolutionary period were not against paying taxes to Britain. Again, they were British citizens, thought of themselves as such, and had no problem with paying taxes like any other Britons to support the empire. The problem was that Americans began to suspect that they were being asked to pay for the French and Indian War (1756-63) all on their own.
In truth, Americans paid far less tax than people living in England. Taxes in England in the mid-18th century were very high. America was taxed less for a few reasons: for many beginning decades in the 1600s the colonies were not able to produce enough to be taxed very much; England was afraid to tamper with the fledgling colonial economies; it was easier and faster to collect taxes in England, where the money could be in London with days rather than weeks or months; and finally most Americans had very little actual cash, relying on bills of credit issued from London.
America also cost England very little until the French and Indian War. While England fought France and Holland in Europe, defending the home island was the main objective, and the people living on it paid the government’s expenses to do so.
But when the war with France came in full force to America in 1756, Britain had to expend a great deal of money and effort to fight and win the war there. Yes, Americans were vital to that war effort, and many volunteered to fight the hated French, but in fact most colonial governments actually charged the British army for their help. British soldiers bought food and supplies at incredibly inflated prices, paid for their board, and fought beside American militia members whose colonial governments hired them out to fight, making a pretty penny for those colonies.
Once the war was over and won for Britain, Americans assumed things would return to normal. But Britain, realizing that its citizens in England were exhausted financially, while its citizens in America had actually made money on top of their usual robust economy, turned at last to those colonies to pay for their war.
The British government might have done it, too, successfully and without any problem, if it hadn’t been impatient. Rather than introduce higher export duties on American merchants and farmers, or some other more gradual measure, it came down hard with sweeping taxes that invaded every aspect of life—taxes on stamps, sugar, and tea that made life harder for all Americans.
Even these taxes might have been accepted, if Parliament had given the Americans some say in the matter. Americans had begun to expect that they should have seats in Parliament. As British citizens, they should be able to participate in their own government. Perhaps every colony could send two representatives to Parliament, so that Americans could actually make the laws that would affect them. But the British government refused. Despite American claims to the rights of Englishmen, there was no denying that almost from the start of the colonial era there had been a clear divide between America and England, and a sense of alienation on both sides. (see Why did America Rebel against Britain? for more.)
So London did not really accept Americans as Britons, or America as just another branch of England. America was a colony, a possession, a piece of property, and its people were not British citizens but dependents on Britain. There could be no seat in Parliament for a foreign people under British rule.
When the Americans realized they would not be given a say in their own government, including what taxes were levied on them, their willingness to help pay for the French and Indian War evaporated and a rallying cry was born: “No taxation without representation.”
Americans, then, did not rebel against taxes, but against unfair government. Those Americans today who see protesting against all taxation as upholding the Revolutionary spirit and purpose are completely mistaken. Americans realized then as they do now that a government must tax its people. You pay taxes to get services. But it’s only fair to pay taxes if you have a say in them through your government representatives. If the Americans had been given their seats in Parliament, their representatives would have voted for most of the taxes and that would have been the end of it, rather than the beginning of a war.
21 thoughts on “Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes”
I like your writing, but I don’t agree with you about American colonial representation in Parliament.
Colonial representation was discussed very seriously in Parliament with ideas of how to handle that representation including electing British army officers who had fought in the colonies in the French/Indian War, setting up (dominion-like) an American parliament in the colonies, a suggestion that was put to the Continental Congress during the war as a peace initiative, and was ignored by them. In fact there was a lot of popular support in Britain (and in Parliament) for the colonies right to self government and even a casual observer of a map of the time could see a new arrangement was necessary for the future of the Empire.
The problem, as always up to recently, was the distance and speed of communication. Having actual colonial representatives in Parliament would require some communication with the colonies that could take as much as a year to make the round trip. It would have caused a logistical and parliamentary problem that could have put Great Britain herself in dire jeopardy; it made no sense!
One of the problems about writing about that time is that the winners write the history, and in the furthering of the American identity there is a distancing of the British/colonial British/Loyalist connection for propagandic and unity purposes which is for the most part false. Colonial America and the Mother Country were family and Americans (Colonial British) were for most part considered equals and that is one of the reasons the Revolution by the minority ruling elite nearly failed despite their acts of coercion on the public, and would have had Great Britain not been facing invasion herself in 1781.
At no time, even during the war – and particularly when the Patriots’ treachery brought in the French – did the British Founders of our country have popular support. In fact before Yorktown occurred the Revolution was almost petered out!
The taxation problem is way overstated in American history. The problem, as you mention, was that the Mother Country was bankrupt and could not afford to continue sustaining the borders of an Empire the size of which had suddenly doubled. American colonial help in the Seven Years War (French/Indian) had been very little and it was generally recognized that colonial America needed to pay for its own defense. That this was unlikely, British expansion West in to the Northwest territory (Ohio Valley) ceased as agreed by treaty with the Indian tribes. This however, did not suit the likes of Washington, and others, who had land claims on those Indian lands protected by treaty.
If there is one primary reason for the Revolution it is this treaty with the Indians that forbade settlement of Indian territory in the Northwest Territory, and why the Indians continued to fight the Americans after the British army had left America. And we know what happened then!
Hello Matthew; thanks for writing. Your comments are very thoughtful and add a great deal to the discussion. What Americans wanted was their own representatives in London. I believe Benjamin Franklin was in London himself when he presented a petition for Parliamentary representation. They wanted to elect representatives to send to London, just as they elected representatives to send to their colonial legislatures. The 6 weeks or so it took to get letters across the Atlantic would have been acceptable to colonists, as all their important business with Britain was carried out at this pace (and Britain was willing to fight a war in America with the same long time lapse, meaning orders from London reached commanders in the field nearly two months after they were issued). British army officers would not do as reps, nor would Americans accept a mini-Parliament of their own, which would of course have had no power compared with the real Parliament.
While many in Britain were willing to allow the American colonies some self-government, most drew the line at independence. As you point out, most Americans drew the same line, and did not immediately support the Revolution. Americans thought of themselves as Britons, which they technically were, but as we point out in other posts, there was also a clear and distinct American identity from the start in New England, and by the early 18th century well-established in other colonies. Every revolution is started by a minority who are willing to take action, and they either persuade or coerce the rest of the country into joining them. There was no coercion in the new U.S., and in fact many Americans were won over by the bravery and carriage of George Washington, and the rules against pillaging that he enforced on his army.
Engagements with the Continental Army had indeed about stopped by Yorktown, but this does not mean the fighting had stopped. There were many battles with other American forces as the fighting moved south to Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia; many towns burned, many lives lost. Charleston, Hanging Rock, Camden, King’s Mountain, Guilford Courthouse, Cowpens, Green Springs Farm—many battles, some won by Americans, some by Britons, all bringing devastation to the countryside and the war home to Americans, who fought not just to protect their own land but for the sake of their new country.
All of these issues are fascinating and repay careful study; thanks for the opportunity to discuss them!
I do find the subject very interesting and I certainly agree with you on a number of points you bring up in your reply, especially the protraction of the War in the South, and the admiration people felt for George Washington. An admiration openly expressed by King George 3 (I assume he was not going through one of his bouts of madness) and many homeland British and the military. There is a story of the British fleet in the English Channel, on hearing of Washington’s death, giving him a 21 gun salute. You can also see his statue outside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London.
As far as representation goes, my understanding is that the time it took for a transatlantic voyage was a minimum of three months, and longer in winter. Representatives in the Colonies would be unable to effectively communicate with their separate legislatures in time for Parliament to act on matters that involved the home islands or any reasonable imperial action. Franklin was a trade representative for Pennsylvania, but there was no apparatus of representation that could work then other than without portfolio. It would be representation in name only, and matters of imperial importance, not just in America, would have been undermined. The suggestion of using British Army officers who had fought the French in America was a serious consideration because the colonists generally had great respect for them – see the history of Augustus Howe, William’s elder brother. It is clear that nothing would really have worked at that time for a central governing body because, not only were the colonists in “thirteen” (they were actually forming a 14th colony) separate legislatures (which, ironically, the Westminster Government had tried for fifty years to unify for their own protection against the French). The Westminster Government also held off passing the Stamp tax through two sessions of Parliament until it heard the reaction from the Colonies. They were waiting to see if it would be accepted because it was directly related to imposing a tax that was not related to trade (as had been acceptable under the Royal charters) but to help pay for a war in which the colonists had not contributed much for their defense. When Parliament heard nothing back from the colonies it enacted the Stamp Tax. By doing so, it broke one of the cardinal rules of the colonial relationship which, by Royal charter, had given the right to raise taxes solely to the legislatures. It was always accepted that taxes on customs and trade were to finance the British Army in America for the defense of the colonies, but a stamp tax that was not leveled by the independent legislatures was new. That representation in Parliament would have allayed the worsening position is hard to gauge as the American representation could not have helped Parliament decide. An independent unified American colonial parliament within the British Empire may have worked if it were based on the the later status of a dominion that the other English nations beyond the seas formed later. That it could have been done was a lost opportunity and set up an unnatural and bitter rivalry that lasted well into the twentieth century. There was no need for war and both sides, had they had the right people in charge, would have found a peaceful agreement. Why because the Founding Fathers and their British Empire opponents were Whigs and had the same enlightenment values that supported Republican ideas based on the English enlightenment of the 17th Century. Remember the Puritans (Parliament) won the civil war; not all of them sailed for New England.
Regarding Patriot coercion. One only has to read of the exploits of the Sons of Liberty to know that many colonists sided with the Patriots because they feared losing life and property. As with any war – especially a civil war – the hatred and atrocities seem extreme. As in the southern part of the war the killing and maiming of patriots and loyalists were appalling. So rather than go on about this it is wise to understand that myths are also formed within myths especially when a new country is trying to justify its actions which don’t correspond to its propaganda. That there were cultural differences between the UK and the colonies is true, but nothing like popular history suggests. This is also a myth that has come out of the War of 1812 and the nationalistic awakening in its aftermath.
The war was unpopular in the UK and the Patriots had a lot of support until they sided with the French. There was also distrust in the colonies for such action. There was also a sense of bitter treachery in the UK that lasted many years after the war because the UK had protected the colonies against the French, the ancient enemy, for over a hundred years.
I could go on, but just in case your eyes are glazing over I would like to suggest a few books that I think give the background of the Revolution and the revolution of 1688.
Sorry if this is a bit long, but thank you for allowing me a response, and I really do appreciate your myth blogs. But as I mention there are myths within myths!
I think, though I’m not certain of this, that there were packets running that went faster than passenger ships and carried only cargo, including letters. I seem to remember from some reading that these express ships were used to send command letters to and from London during the Revolution.
The problem with British officers being reps for the colonies was that the Americans would have insisted on voting for them, and I don’t think London was going to allow that—to have their officers forced to submit to a popular vote, and maybe even have to run against colonists themselves.
I don’t know about the common ties you mention; I think the Founders were less whiggish then you make out, as they were all willing to fight a shooting war for independence, and were reared in a century that saw more and more of a distance between Britain and the 13 colonies. The New England Puritans had fallen out long ago with their English counterparts; once the English Puritans introduced toleration it was all over between them. And no matter how much you revere a historical tie between two peoples, they are two peoples, and Americans did have an American identity.
Coercion and terror were tactics of anti-government protesters for at least a century in the colonies, particularly Massachusetts; but the Sons of Liberty, while beginning that way, quickly evolved in the 1760s into a well-oiled, nonviolent political machine, fueling the Committees of Correspondence and, in Massachusetts, organizing the Body of the People to replace the outlawed popular Assembly. Yes, the tea commissioners in Boston were forced out of their jobs fearing for their lives, but no actual violence was used against them.
It’s hard to say that a small group of extreme patriots were able to cow and subdue an entire colonial population from Maine to Georgia and force them to submit to/participate in a war. Americans fought the Revolution for many reasons—to protect their land, to avenge assaults by British armies, and/or because they believed in the principles being fought for. Of course there were depredations on both sides, which, as you say, is what war is. But the idea that there was really no argument between the colonies and Britain, and that if not for the actions of a few hotheads no blood need have been shed, is remarkably like the old argument heard so often in the US since 1865, that there was no quarrel between North and South, no one really cared about slavery, and if not for the heedless actions of a few men hell-bent on having a war we needn’t have spilled any blood in a civil war.
This is certainly a very interesting discussion and I thank you for your great comments. The difference of views between us comes down more to perception and generalization of the nationalistic need of Americans to form a unique culture after the War of 1812. To me that is where the main myth lies, and the taught perception that the British were tyrants trying to take away freedoms is entirely false. This myth has been perpetuated in American culture to the point that it is given as fact when it should be questioned! Even the cry of the British are coming is false, because they actually cried the “Regulars”, meaning regular army. The majority of the colonists considered themselves British!
As most people prefer a history that confirms their bias, it is difficult to look at history with a separate eye the way you have!
Before hostilities the differences were few as in fact the Mother country and Colonists were seeking a closer relationship, not distancing, based on a well acknowledged need for a new colonial arrangement that would insure the colonies remained within the British Empire. For sure there were those who wanted complete independence, like Samuel Adams, but they were few at first. The closeness of the relationship caused concern to those who looked for independence.
The army officer suggestion was just a suggestion in an attempt to find some way of inclusion for the colonists. There was no real, in the modern sense, popular vote in the separate colonies as most people, even at that time, did not own land. This again, like the reason for the colonists departure from England because of religious persecution, is generally a myth and at best a half truth.
When hostilities did break out, the reaction by Britain was one of sending support for the majority against what they considered, in modern terms, an insurgency by a minority. A number of senior British commanders in Britain refused to act against the rebel colonists. The way General William Howe, a Whig, conducted the war to that time is an example of the attempt by Britain to seek a compromise. He certainly supported the patriot cause but wanted the colonies to remain, as the majority of colonists did too, within the British Empire. His military tactics definitely indicated that he wanted to have a compromise – why would he let Washington escape when he could have ended the war there and then! That’s another subject, but he is an unsung American hero in my book!
I won’t go over the points you mentioned in the reply with you, some of which I disagree with, because time is too short. However I will say your blogs are refreshing to read, but from my perspective they do include a fair amount of learned myth too. Starting a country and unifying it under a single banner requires myth – especially if a country is formed against popular support by a minority elite!
It is a good discussion! I see we’re headed toward “agree to disagree” territory, but I’ll just say the Puritans certainly left England because of religous persecution. And, to go back to your previous comment on the Sons of Liberty and violence, we do provide a fair overview of this in the third and fourth and fifth posts of our Boston Tea Party series
I’m not sure this comment is tagged on the end of our discussion. So good to discuss things and “agree to disagree” without anyone’s feelings being hurt or a need for polemics. I will take a look at the Boston Tea Party discussion you suggested. Thank you.
I know by now you like to put in a little fizzing encouragement in your text, so I’ll answer you about what I know about the persecution in England of the Puritans and separatists, the sect that became know as the Pilgrims. I won’t bore you with the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 just to say the result of it forced some extreme protestant sects in England to look for places they felt they could practice their religion without interference. I think persecution is the wrong word to discuss the political situation in England and which the Puritan Separatists, the Pilgrims felt they had to leave. From the point of view of the Church of England they wanted to persecute others and change the Church of England radically.
They ended up going to Holland where religious freedom was more widely accepted but returned to England prior to their voyage from Plymouth, Devon to America in 1619. Of the 500 initial settlers only 125 were pilgrims, the rest were adventurers! Later waves of puritans joined them and at one time even Oliver Cromwell was ready to leave but somehow the boat left without him. Maybe an urban legend!
I know we have the convenient one sided history on this stuff about religious persecution of the pilgrims. It suits our many victim myths, but really they left because they couldn’t get their own way in England and inflict it on the majority! Rather than go on, I would suggest a book: Albion’s Seed. Written by Hackett Fischer, about the four British folkways to America. Even if it has an aggrandizing agenda, it gives a good account of the Puritan migration and the upper middle class people who made it initially.
Who doesn’t like some fizz? There does seem to be a blurring in your comment of the Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans. The Separatists were guilty of treason because they left the state (Anglican) church, and therefore had to leave England. They left Holland because that country’s truce with Catholic Spain was due to expire in 1621 and if religious war broke out there again and Spain won, radical Protestants like the Pilgrims would have been decimated. (Their form of religion was also only grudgingly tolerated in Holland.) The Pilgrims were definitely in the minority on the Mayflower, and friction between the majority population of unreformed Anglicans/adventurers and the minority (but stakeholding) Separatists was constant.
The Puritans, on the other hand, were still Anglican but demanding sweeping social and religious reform, which made them anathema to Elizabeth I, who was trying to keep the pendulum of religious zeal from swinging one more time (from Edward’s Protestant revolution to Mary’s Catholic restoration to a Protestant reformation of the Anglican Church). She began the crackdown that James I extended, and laws against traveling to hear ministers, laws mandating that everyone attend their local church, and stripping Puritan ministers of their jobs and imprisoning many of them made it very hard to be a Puritan in England by 1630. Many Puritan leaders were imprisoned. Archibishop Laud was determined to root the sect out and restore the Anglican church to Catholicism so far as he possibly could. So the first group of Puritans left for America in 1630, to set up the last true Christian outpost in the world (since God was going to destroy England for breaking its covenant). The resentment that those Puritans who stayed behind in England to face God’s wrath felt for those who left for the poltiical safety, promise, and freedom of America grew over time, beginning the rift between English and American Puritans. John Winthrop Sr. was plagued by constant carping letters from “concerned and loving friends” in England who criticized the Massachusetts Bay Colony for a wide variety of perceived errors, accompanied by empty promises that “very soon” they would come over from England to join the MBC Puritans in God’s work.
You can see The Puritans and Freedom of Religion on this. Yes, the Puritans were a minority who wanted to enforce their religion throughout the kingdom but that isn’t an argument proving they weren’t victims of persecution—it’s proof that they were victims of persecution, since such radical minorities are always persecuted by the state they threaten.
Although I think it is more complicated than your explanation suggests, I tend to agree – with acknowledgement of my own bias. State’s do tend to try to marginalize – sometimes very crudely by our modern standards – those who pose a radical threat.
One of the things I didn’t realize – and which Albion’s Seed brings out – is how highly educated many of the Pilgrims were, and indeed many of the Puritans, in the Eastern Association. Hackett compares the Eastern Association with other regions of England as being above the norm for that time in education. There were more than the average number of Oxbridge graduates in their group.
I’ll take a look at your Puritans and Freedom of Religion link.
Thank you for un-blurring me!
I realized, after I had replied to you, that the Eastern Association was later and a somewhat different. Sorry about that!
From the Declaration of Independence….They listed all the reasons why we broke off fom the king and among these …””For imposing taxes on us without our consent”…..
Hello; thanks for writing. Yes, Americans did not want to be taxed without their consent. This is different than saying they didn’t want to be taxed, or that they would not accept taxation. They accepted being taxed, but only if they had a say in what was taxed and at what rate.
Here’s an article from Delanceyplace.com on 4/19/13 you may find interesting. Just a different perspective:
delanceyplace.com 4/19/13 – land fever in america
[In] the years before the American Revolution, the population growth of the colonies was virtually exploding. British and colonial authorities could scarcely comprehend the meaning of the huge increase of people in search of land — much less their mobility and restlessness. That growth brought unprecedented disruption, but it also brought many colonials unprecedented wealth through land speculation — the “land fever” of the day being much like today’s internet investing. Notably, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other key Revolutionary figures were involved in “some of the most grandiose land schemes in modern history.” But then the British intervened, placing a firm western boundary beyond which colonials were not allowed to purchase land — because of a morass of issues including Indian rebellions, land ownership disputes, and a general desire to reserve the lands. That prohibition was one of the key items which, along with debtor issues, religious divisions, and — famously — taxation, caused the colonists to erupt into Revolution…
“[After an Indian rebellion in the Ohio Valley in 1763, a British] demarcation line along the Appalachians that closed the West to white settlers was hastily and crudely drawn. … [The accompanying] new [Indian] trading regulations and sites were widely ignored and created more chaos in the Indian trade than had existed earlier. So confusing was the situation in the West that the British government could never convince the various contending interests that the proclamation was anything more than, in the words of George Washington, who had speculative interests in western lands, ‘a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.’ Scores of land speculators and lobbyists pressured the unsteady British governments to negotiate a series of Indian treaties shifting the line of settlement westward. But each modification only whetted the appetites of the land speculators and led to some of the most grandiose land schemes in modern history.
“In [a new act,] the Quebec Act of 1774, the British government finally tried to steady its dizzy western policy. This act transferred to the province of Quebec the land and control of the Indian trade in the huge area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and allowed Quebec’s French inhabitants French law and Roman Catholicism. As enlightened as this act was toward the French Canadians, it managed to anger all American interests — speculators, settlers, and traders alike.”
Hello; thanks for sharing this. We had to cut it down to fit in the Comments space, but we preserved the essence of it. If you’d like people to read the article in full, send us the link.
I’m quite sure that most did not want to pay taxes. The whiskey rebellion is a good example. The people then feel about the same as we do now. I pay taxes only because they steal it from me. Its not voluntary and I did not give consent for them to tax me.
Hello Satch; thanks for writing. We suppose that you give your consent by agreeing to continue to live in the U.S., where we have a system of taxation. Perhaps you are working through our political system to change that. Until then, consent is implied by citizenship, and the only remedy is to renounce that.
I disagree with thehistoricpresent comment about the only remedy is to renounce citizenship. In fact that is not as easy as it sounds. That is a common way to shut down discussion about things not liked in the USA. They say “you don’t like it how it is, don’t let the door hit your rear on the way out”. The fact is, having a passport is a privilege that can be taken away for a variety of reasons. If you have a passport and do leave the country to establish citizenship somewhere else, you have to ask for permission to renounce US citizenship and the US government has a right to say no. If they do say yes, they claim to have domain over your income for some time (I think 10 years), such that you continue to pay US tax even as a non US citizen. So, no, renouncing your citizenship is not an actualy remedy to Satch’s comment.
Hello Matt; thanks for writing. We’ve never heard of the U.S. continuing to tax people who renounce their citizenship. Can you share where you found this information? The original comment we made was about feeling so at odds with, or even fundamentally opposed to, the federal government that the question of separating oneself from it becomes logical. “America—love it or leave it” was a popular bumper sticker in the 70s but we don’t stand by that here at the HP. All the same, if an American comes to believe that s/he cannot support the federal government in any way, and sees paying taxes to provide services for themselves and for their fellow Americans as an onerous or even immoral requirement, it’s not too out of the question to ask if they have considered leaving for a more acceptable nation.
Yeah. They didn’t want to be forced to pay taxes to a govt that doesn’t represent them. It’s not a myth. You’re just phrasing it differently. Did you really need to write that many paragraphs to do that?
Hello, and thanks for writing. Your own summary is the truth, which counters the myth that taxation itself was the issue. Many Americans today will simply say “we didn’t want to pay taxes”, which is different from “they didn’t want to be forced to pay taxes to a govt that doesn’t represent them”, as you put it. And so our post explains why these particular taxes were problematic enough to lead Americans to suggest for the first time that they send representatives to Parliament. The development of the problem over time, and its roots in the exhaustion of domestic tax reserves in England, does take a few paragraphs to explain.