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.