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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

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Colonial Relations with the British Government

It was neither the Indian wars nor the French wars that finally brought forth American nationality. That was the product of the long strife with the mother country which culminated in union for the war of independence. The forces that created this nation did not operate in the colonies alone. The character of the English sovereigns, the course of events in English domestic politics, and English measures of control over the colonies—executive, legislative, and judicial—must all be taken into account.

The Last of the Stuarts.—The struggles between Charles I (1625-49) and the parliamentary party and the turmoil of the Puritan régime (1649-60) so engrossed the attention of Englishmen at home that they had little time to think of colonial policies or to interfere with colonial affairs. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660, accompanied by internal peace and the increasing power of the mercantile classes in the House of Commons, changed all that. In the reign of Charles II (1660-85), himself an easy-going person, the policy of regulating trade by act of Parliament was developed into a closely knit system and powerful agencies to supervise the colonies were created. At the same time a system of stricter control over the dominions was ushered in by the annulment of the old charter of Massachusetts which conferred so much self-government on the Puritans.

Charles’ successor, James II, a man of sterner stuff and jealous of his authority in the colonies as well as at home, continued the policy thus inaugurated and enlarged upon it. If he could have kept his throne, he would have bent the Americans under a harsh rule or brought on in his dominions a revolution like that which he precipitated at home in 1688. He determined to unite the Northern colonies and introduce a more efficient administration based on the pattern of the royal provinces. He made a martinet, Sir Edmund Andros, governor of all New England, New York, and New Jersey. The charter of Massachusetts, annulled in the last days of his brother’s reign, he continued to ignore, and that of Connecticut would have been seized if it had not been spirited away and hidden, according to tradition, in a hollow oak.

For several months, Andros gave the Northern colonies a taste of ill-tempered despotism. He wrung quit rents from land owners not accustomed to feudal dues; he abrogated titles to land where, in his opinion, they were unlawful; he forced the Episcopal service upon the Old South Church in Boston; and he denied the writ of habeas corpus to a preacher who denounced taxation without representation. In the middle of his arbitrary course, however, his hand was stayed. The news came that King James had been dethroned by his angry subjects, and the people of Boston, kindling a fire on Beacon Hill, summoned the countryside to dispose of Andros. The response was prompt and hearty. The hated governor was arrested, imprisoned, and sent back across the sea under guard.

The overthrow of James, followed by the accession of William and Mary and by assured parliamentary supremacy, had an immediate effect in the colonies. The new order was greeted with thanksgiving. Massachusetts was given another charter which, though not so liberal as the first, restored the spirit if not the entire letter of self-government. In the other colonies where Andros had been operating, the old course of affairs was resumed.

The Indifference of the First Two Georges.—On the death in 1714 of Queen Anne, the successor of King William, the throne passed to a Hanoverian prince who, though grateful for English honors and revenues, was more interested in Hanover than in England. George I and George II, whose combined reigns extended from 1714 to 1760, never even learned to speak the English language, at least without an accent. The necessity of taking thought about colonial affairs bored both of them so that the stoutest defender of popular privileges in Boston or Charleston had no ground to complain of the exercise of personal prerogatives by the king. Moreover, during a large part of this period, the direction of affairs was in the hands of an astute leader, Sir Robert Walpole, who betrayed his somewhat cynical view of politics by adopting as his motto: “Let sleeping dogs lie.” He revealed his appreciation of popular sentiment by exclaiming: “I will not be the minister to enforce taxes at the expense of blood.” Such kings and such ministers were not likely to arouse the slumbering resistance of the thirteen colonies across the sea.

Control of the Crown over the Colonies.—While no English ruler from James II to George III ventured to interfere with colonial matters personally, constant control over the colonies was exercised by royal officers acting under the authority of the crown. Systematic supervision began in 1660, when there was created by royal order a committee of the king’s council to meet on Mondays and Thursdays of each week to consider petitions, memorials, and addresses respecting the plantations. In 1696 a regular board was established, known as the “Lords of Trade and Plantations,” which continued, until the American Revolution, to scrutinize closely colonial business. The chief duties of the board were to examine acts of colonial legislatures, to recommend measures to those assemblies for adoption, and to hear memorials and petitions from the colonies relative to their affairs.

The methods employed by this board were varied. All laws passed by American legislatures came before it for review as a matter of routine. If it found an act unsatisfactory, it recommended to the king the exercise of his veto power, known as the royal disallowance. Any person who believed his personal or property rights injured by a colonial law could be heard by the board in person or by attorney; in such cases it was the practice to hear at the same time the agent of the colony so involved. The royal veto power over colonial legislation was not, therefore, a formal affair, but was constantly employed on the suggestion of a highly efficient agency of the crown. All this was in addition to the powers exercised by the governors in the royal provinces.

Judicial Control.—Supplementing this administrative control over the colonies was a constant supervision by the English courts of law. The king, by virtue of his inherent authority, claimed and exercised high appellate powers over all judicial tribunals in the empire. The right of appeal from local courts, expressly set forth in some charters, was, on the eve of the Revolution, maintained in every colony. Any subject in England or America, who, in the regular legal course, was aggrieved by any act of a colonial legislature or any decision of a colonial court, had the right, subject to certain regulations, to carry his case to the king in council, forcing his opponent to follow him across the sea. In the exercise of appellate power, the king in council acting as a court could, and frequently did, declare acts of colonial legislatures duly enacted and approved, null and void, on the ground that they were contrary to English law.

Imperial Control in Operation.—Day after day, week after week, year after year, the machinery for political and judicial control over colonial affairs was in operation. At one time the British governors in the colonies were ordered not to approve any colonial law imposing a duty on European goods imported in English vessels. Again, when North Carolina laid a tax on peddlers, the council objected to it as “restrictive upon the trade and dispersion of English manufactures throughout the continent.” At other times, Indian trade was regulated in the interests of the whole empire or grants of lands by a colonial legislature were set aside. Virginia was forbidden to close her ports to North Carolina lest there should be retaliation.

In short, foreign and intercolonial trade were subjected to a control higher than that of the colony, foreshadowing a day when the Constitution of the United States was to commit to Congress the power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce and commerce with the Indians. A superior judicial power, towering above that of the colonies, as the Supreme Court at Washington now towers above the states, kept the colonial legislatures within the metes and bounds of established law. In the thousands of appeals, memorials, petitions, and complaints, and the rulings and decisions upon them, were written the real history of British imperial control over the American colonies.

So great was the business before the Lords of Trade that the colonies had to keep skilled agents in London to protect their interests. As common grievances against the operation of this machinery of control arose, there appeared in each colony a considerable body of men, with the merchants in the lead, who chafed at the restraints imposed on their enterprise. Only a powerful blow was needed to weld these bodies into a common mass nourishing the spirit of colonial nationalism. When to the repeated minor irritations were added general and sweeping measures of Parliament applying to every colony, the rebound came in the Revolution.

Parliamentary Control over Colonial Affairs.—As soon as Parliament gained in power at the expense of the king, it reached out to bring the American colonies under its sway as well. Between the execution of Charles I and the accession of George III, there was enacted an immense body of legislation regulating the shipping, trade, and manufactures of America. All of it, based on the “mercantile” theory then prevalent in all countries of Europe, was designed to control the overseas plantations in such a way as to foster the commercial and business interests of the mother country, where merchants and men of finance had got the upper hand. According to this theory, the colonies of the British empire should be confined to agriculture and the production of raw materials, and forced to buy their manufactured goods of England.

The Navigation Acts.—In the first rank among these measures of British colonial policy must be placed the navigation laws framed for the purpose of building up the British merchant marine and navy—arms so essential in defending the colonies against the Spanish, Dutch, and French. The beginning of this type of legislation was made in 1651 and it was worked out into a system early in the reign of Charles II (1660-85).

The Navigation Acts, in effect, gave a monopoly of colonial commerce to British ships. No trade could be carried on between Great Britain and her dominions save in vessels built and manned by British subjects. No European goods could be brought to America save in the ships of the country that produced them or in English ships. These laws, which were almost fatal to Dutch shipping in America, fell with severity upon the colonists, compelling them to pay higher freight rates. The adverse effect, however, was short-lived, for the measures stimulated shipbuilding in the colonies, where the abundance of raw materials gave the master builders of America an advantage over those of the mother country. Thus the colonists in the end profited from the restrictive policy written into the Navigation Acts.

The Acts against Manufactures.—The second group of laws was deliberately aimed to prevent colonial industries from competing too sharply with those of England. Among the earliest of these measures may be counted the Woolen Act of 1699, forbidding the exportation of woolen goods from the colonies and even the woolen trade between towns and colonies. When Parliament learned, as the result of an inquiry, that New England and New York were making thousands of hats a year and sending large numbers annually to the Southern colonies and to Ireland, Spain, and Portugal, it enacted in 1732 a law declaring that “no hats or felts, dyed or undyed, finished or unfinished” should be “put upon any vessel or laden upon any horse or cart with intent to export to any place whatever.” The effect of this measure upon the hat industry was almost ruinous. A few years later a similar blow was given to the iron industry. By an act of 1750, pig and bar iron from the colonies were given free entry to England to encourage the production of the raw material; but at the same time the law provided that “no mill or other engine for slitting or rolling of iron, no plating forge to work with a tilt hammer, and no furnace for making steel” should be built in the colonies. As for those already built, they were declared public nuisances and ordered closed. Thus three important economic interests of the colonists, the woolen, hat, and iron industries, were laid under the ban.

The Trade Laws.—The third group of restrictive measures passed by the British Parliament related to the sale of colonial produce. An act of 1663 required the colonies to export certain articles to Great Britain or to her dominions alone; while sugar, tobacco, and ginger consigned to the continent of Europe had to pass through a British port paying custom duties and through a British merchant’s hands paying the usual commission. At first tobacco was the only one of the “enumerated articles” which seriously concerned the American colonies, the rest coming mainly from the British West Indies. In the course of time, however, other commodities were added to the list of enumerated articles, until by 1764 it embraced rice, naval stores, copper, furs, hides, iron, lumber, and pearl ashes. This was not all. The colonies were compelled to bring their European purchases back through English ports, paying duties to the government and commissions to merchants again.

The Molasses Act.—Not content with laws enacted in the interest of English merchants and manufacturers, Parliament sought to protect the British West Indies against competition from their French and Dutch neighbors. New England merchants had long carried on a lucrative trade with the French islands in the West Indies and Dutch Guiana, where sugar and molasses could be obtained in large quantities at low prices. Acting on the protests of English planters in the Barbadoes and Jamaica, Parliament, in 1733, passed the famous Molasses Act imposing duties on sugar and molasses imported into the colonies from foreign countries—rates which would have destroyed the American trade with the French and Dutch if the law had been enforced. The duties, however, were not collected. The molasses and sugar trade with the foreigners went on merrily, smuggling taking the place of lawful traffic.

Effect of the Laws in America.—As compared with the strict monopoly of her colonial trade which Spain consistently sought to maintain, the policy of England was both moderate and liberal. Furthermore, the restrictive laws were supplemented by many measures intended to be favorable to colonial prosperity. The Navigation Acts, for example, redounded to the advantage of American shipbuilders and the producers of hemp, tar, lumber, and ship stores in general. Favors in British ports were granted to colonial producers as against foreign competitors and in some instances bounties were paid by England to encourage colonial enterprise. Taken all in all, there is much justification in the argument advanced by some modern scholars to the effect that the colonists gained more than they lost by British trade and industrial legislation. Certainly after the establishment of independence, when free from these old restrictions, the Americans found themselves handicapped by being treated as foreigners rather than favored traders and the recipients of bounties in English markets.

Be that as it may, it appears that the colonists felt little irritation against the mother country on account of the trade and navigation laws enacted previous to the close of the French and Indian war. Relatively few were engaged in the hat and iron industries as compared with those in farming and planting, so that England’s policy of restricting America to agriculture did not conflict with the interests of the majority of the inhabitants. The woolen industry was largely in the hands of women and carried on in connection with their domestic duties, so that it was not the sole support of any considerable number of people.

As a matter of fact, moreover, the restrictive laws, especially those relating to trade, were not rigidly enforced. Cargoes of tobacco were boldly sent to continental ports without even so much as a bow to the English government, to which duties should have been paid. Sugar and molasses from the French and Dutch colonies were shipped into New England in spite of the law. Royal officers sometimes protested against smuggling and sometimes connived at it; but at no time did they succeed in stopping it. Taken all in all, very little was heard of “the galling restraints of trade” until after the French war, when the British government suddenly entered upon a new course.

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