2. 1764: Loyal Subjects?
The sad story of Colonial oppression commenced in the year 1764. Great Britain then adopted new regulations respecting her Colonies, which, after disturbing the ancient harmony of the two countries for about twelve years, terminated in a dismemberment of the empire.
David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, 1789
A dismemberment of the empire. Ramsay's graphic description of the process whereby Great Britain lost its American colonies is apt. The colonies would be torn asunder from the mother country, and the colonists from each other. Yet few in 1764 could predict such a cataclysm. After all, British and Americans were celebrating victory in war and the vast enlargement of British territory in North America. In this atmosphere Parliament passed two acts to increase the depleted income of Britain and its merchants.
- The Sugar Act was intended to replenish the British treasury, as the war had nearly doubled the national debt. While the act lowered the tax on British molasses and sugar, it increased the enforcement of anti-smuggling laws. By making it difficult for colonial merchants to smuggle non-British goods, the reasoning went, they would have to buy more British goods and add to the British coffers. The colonial merchants' reasoning was quite different: "For if our trade may be taxed, why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands and everything we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves."1
- The Currency Act banned the colonies' printing their own paper money. English merchants had insisted for years that payment in colonial currency left them underpaid for their goods. But colonists insisted that without their own paper money they could not maintain vigorous economic activity.
"Sugar Act" and "Currency Act"—to us they are bland terms, but they became fighting words for New England colonists. They signaled an upset in the longterm commercial and political relationship with Great Britain. They announced: "You can't conduct global trade the way you used to"; "You can't print paper money to pay your debts." And: "If you get caught, you won't be tried by a jury of your peers." To colonial merchants already struck by a postwar economic depression, the acts threatened their personal livelihoods, the future vitality of colonial economies, and the colonists' long-cherished status as loyal and nearly autonomous British subjects. "That shift in imperial policy," writes historian Alan Taylor, "shocked the colonial leaders of the Atlantic seaboard into recognizing and defending their distinctive way of life. Push came to shove as both colonists and imperialists belatedly recognized the contradiction, long overlooked, between the growth in imperial ambition and the persistence of colonial autonomy."2 Push came to shove—another apt description.
In these readings we view the beginning of the "shift in imperial policy" from American and British perspectives, each predicting dire but avoidable consequences. You might also begin your study of the revolutionary era by reading the texts in the final section of this Theme—How Did We Get Here?—for the views of Benjamin Franklin in 1773, Francis Hopkinson in 1774, and John Adams in 1818. How did so many Americans turn from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots in such a short time?
Colonists respond to the Sugar & Currency Acts, 1764. "Absolutely irreconcilable with the rights of the colonists": so wrote revolutionary leader James Otis in his famed essay The Rights of the Colonists, excerpted in this compilation of citizen essays, merchant appeals, legislative petitions, and public protests against the 1764 acts that concludes with commentary from Patriot historian David Ramsay in his 1789 History of the American Revolution. What most perplexed and enraged Americans about the acts? Why did they deem the Currency Act unfair, and the Sugar Act unfair and unconstitutional? In their view, what legitimate financial regulations could be enacted by Parliament? Why would American resistance enrage and perplex British citizens? As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations in this Theme CRISIS. (8 pp.)
A Briton's warning to Britain: Thomas Pownall, The Administration of the Colonies, 1764, selection. Even before Parliament passed the controversial acts of 1764, Thomas Pownall, a British official who had served many years in America, predicted great harm to the empire if Britain became more heavy-handed with the colonies—if it issued parental strictures to "children" who had long ago grown up and formed autonomous lives. As a royal governor, Pownall had observed the power struggles between the colonies and Britain during the French and Indian War, and he published The Administration of the Colonies in 1764 to warn and advise Britain. Implement clear central governance over the colonies, he emphasized, while respecting their treasured privileges, or you will jeopardize Britain's future as a global commercial power. While convinced that the colonies would never revolt for independence, Pownall predicted their resistance to Britain's increased imperial authority and military presence after the war. Don't think of the colonies as "mere appendages to the realm," he counsels, but as loyal partners in "one organized whole, the commercial dominion of Great Britain." What must not happen, he emphasizes, is the colonies becoming unified as an entity in the commercial system. While you're reading, remember that the issue here is not the colonies' independence from Britain; that comes later. The issue is the colonies' self-governance within the empire. (4 pp.)
- From these documents, what impressions do you gain about the imperial relationship between Britain and the American colonies in 1764?
- How had the French and Indian War, and its victorious conclusion, affected the relationship?
- To many colonists, what was most valued in the relationship? What British action could most jeopardize the relationship?
- To Parliament, what was most valued in the relationship? What colonial action could most jeopardize the relationship?
- How did Thomas Pownall try to intercede in the postwar British-American relationship? Why?
- Why did he stress that the British government must envision commercial empire instead of imperial dominance?
- How did he intimate the threat of colonial independence if Britain did not revise its policies?
- Why did colonists claim that the Currency Act was unjust?
- Why did they claim that the Sugar Act was unjust and unconstitutional?
- What financial regulations by Britain did Americans accept as legitimate?
- What mercantile rights are stressed in the Boston merchants' appeals against the Sugar Act? what rights as English subjects?
- When Americans insisted that submitting to parliamentary taxation would be submitting to slavery, what did they mean? How, then, did they relate to the enslavement of Africans in the colonies?
- In what ways did colonists affirm that they were "loyal and dutiful subjects"? As tensions rose in the next decade, how did the colonists' use of this phrase change?
- In what ways did colonists' resistance to the 1764 Acts set the stage for their response to the Stamp Act in 1765?
- How did historian David Ramsay explain the British justification and American opposition to the Acts? Would this define their opposition throughout the prerevolutionary period?
- Create a dialogue between David Ramsay and Thomas Pownall on the spectre of American resistance and the consequences for the empire. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion between the speakers, or an acknowledgment that no conclusion can be reached.
- Begin or continue a chart, collection of statements, collage of broadsides, or similar compilation to document the progression to revolution from 1763 to 1775. Include positions for and against resistance to British actions.
- Do these readings suggest that the American Revolution was inevitable? Why or why not? Is it too soon to say?
- Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
- Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
- How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
- Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?
COMPILATION: Colonists respond to Sugar & Currency Acts
Pownall, The Administration of the Colonies
, Pt: V of Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763 (primary source collection, National Humanities Center)
The American Revolution: A Documentary History
(Avalon Project, Yale Law Library)
The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776
(Massachusetts Historical Society)
The American Revolution
, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress)
The Road to Revolution
(American Revolution, Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.)
"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?
," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)
Teaching the Revolution
, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)
General Online Resources
1 Boston Merchants, Recommendations to the Massachusetts General Assembly, published in The Boston News-Letter and New-England Chronicle, 31 May 1764.
2 Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 421.
– Five-pound note, New York, 21 April 1760; University of Notre Dame, Dept. of Special Collections. Reproduced by permission.
– "New Port, Rhode Island, in 1730," engraving, ca. 1884 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 478731.
– Two Acts of Parliament, London, 1764; Boston reprint (detail). Reproduced by permission of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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