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

«·George III and His System · Colonial Resistance Forces Repeal·»

George III's Ministers and Their Colonial Policies

Grenville and the War Debt.—Within a year after the accession of George III, William Pitt was turned out of office, the king treating him with “gross incivility” and the crowds shouting “Pitt forever!” The direction of affairs was entrusted to men enjoying the king’s confidence. Leadership in the House of Commons fell to George Grenville, a grave and laborious man who for years had groaned over the increasing cost of government.

The first task after the conclusion of peace in 1763 was the adjustment of the disordered finances of the kingdom. The debt stood at the highest point in the history of the country. More revenue was absolutely necessary and Grenville began to search for it, turning his attention finally to the American colonies. In this quest he had the aid of a zealous colleague, Charles Townshend, who had long been in public service and was familiar with the difficulties encountered by royal governors in America. These two men, with the support of the entire ministry, inaugurated in February, 1763, “a new system of colonial government. It was announced by authority that there were to be no more requisitions from the king to the colonial assemblies for supplies, but that the colonies were to be taxed instead by act of Parliament. Colonial governors and judges were to be paid by the Crown; they were to be supported by a standing army of twenty regiments; and all the expenses of this force were to be met by parliamentary taxation.”

Restriction of Paper Money (1763).—Among the many complaints filed before the board of trade were vigorous protests against the issuance of paper money by the colonial legislatures. The new ministry provided a remedy in the act of 1763, which declared void all colonial laws authorizing paper money or extending the life of outstanding bills. This law was aimed at the “cheap money” which the Americans were fond of making when specie was scarce—money which they tried to force on their English creditors in return for goods and in payment of the interest and principal of debts. Thus the first chapter was written in the long battle over sound money on this continent.

Limitation on Western Land Sales.—Later in the same year (1763) George III issued a royal proclamation providing, among other things, for the government of the territory recently acquired by the treaty of Paris from the French. One of the provisions in this royal decree touched frontiersmen to the quick. The contests between the king’s officers and the colonists over the disposition of western lands had been long and sharp. The Americans chafed at restrictions on settlement. The more adventurous were continually moving west and “squatting” on land purchased from the Indians or simply seized without authority. To put an end to this, the king forbade all further purchases from the Indians, reserving to the crown the right to acquire such lands and dispose of them for settlement. A second provision in the same proclamation vested the power of licensing trade with the Indians, including the lucrative fur business, in the hands of royal officers in the colonies. These two limitations on American freedom and enterprise were declared to be in the interest of the crown and for the preservation of the rights of the Indians against fraud and abuses.

The Sugar Act of 1764.—King George’s ministers next turned their attention to measures of taxation and trade. Since the heavy debt under which England was laboring had been largely incurred in the defense of America, nothing seemed more reasonable to them than the proposition that the colonies should help to bear the burden which fell so heavily upon the English taxpayer. The Sugar Act of 1764 was the result of this reasoning. There was no doubt about the purpose of this law, for it was set forth clearly in the title: “An act for granting certain duties in the British colonies and plantations in America … for applying the produce of such duties … towards defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the said colonies and plantations … and for more effectually preventing the clandestine conveyance of goods to and from the said colonies and plantations and improving and securing the trade between the same and Great Britain.” The old Molasses Act had been prohibitive; the Sugar Act of 1764 was clearly intended as a revenue measure. Specified duties were laid upon sugar, indigo, calico, silks, and many other commodities imported into the colonies. The enforcement of the Molasses Act had been utterly neglected; but this Sugar Act had “teeth in it.” Special precautions as to bonds, security, and registration of ship masters, accompanied by heavy penalties, promised a vigorous execution of the new revenue law.

The strict terms of the Sugar Act were strengthened by administrative measures. Under a law of the previous year the commanders of armed vessels stationed along the American coast were authorized to stop, search, and, on suspicion, seize merchant ships approaching colonial ports. By supplementary orders, the entire British official force in America was instructed to be diligent in the execution of all trade and navigation laws. Revenue collectors, officers of the army and navy, and royal governors were curtly ordered to the front to do their full duty in the matter of law enforcement. The ordinary motives for the discharge of official obligations were sharpened by an appeal to avarice, for naval officers who seized offenders against the law were rewarded by large prizes out of the forfeitures and penalties.

The Stamp Act (1765).—The Grenville-Townshend combination moved steadily towards its goal. While the Sugar Act was under consideration in Parliament, Grenville announced a plan for a stamp bill. The next year it went through both Houses with a speed that must have astounded its authors. The vote in the Commons stood 205 in favor to 49 against; while in the Lords it was not even necessary to go through the formality of a count. As George III was temporarily insane, the measure received royal assent by a commission acting as a board of regency. Protests of colonial agents in London were futile. “We might as well have hindered the sun’s progress!” exclaimed Franklin. Protests of a few opponents in the Commons were equally vain. The ministry was firm in its course and from all appearances the Stamp Act hardly roused as much as a languid interest in the city of London. In fact, it is recorded that the fateful measure attracted less notice than a bill providing for a commission to act for the king when he was incapacitated.

The Stamp Act, like the Sugar Act, declared the purpose of the British government to raise revenue in America “towards defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America.” It was a long measure of more than fifty sections, carefully planned and skillfully drawn. By its provisions duties were imposed on practically all papers used in legal transactions,—deeds, mortgages, inventories, writs, bail bonds,—on licenses to practice law and sell liquor, on college diplomas, playing cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, calendars, and advertisements. The drag net was closely knit, for scarcely anything escaped.

The Quartering Act (1765).—The ministers were aware that the Stamp Act would rouse opposition in America—how great they could not conjecture. While the measure was being debated, a friend of General Wolfe, Colonel Barré, who knew America well, gave them an ominous warning in the Commons. “Believe me—remember I this day told you so—” he exclaimed, “the same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first will accompany them still … a people jealous of their liberties and who will vindicate them, if ever they should be violated.” The answer of the ministry to a prophecy of force was a threat of force. Preparations were accordingly made to dispatch a larger number of soldiers than usual to the colonies, and the ink was hardly dry on the Stamp Act when Parliament passed the Quartering Act ordering the colonists to provide accommodations for the soldiers who were to enforce the new laws. “We have the power to tax them,” said one of the ministry, “and we will tax them.”

«·George III and His System · Colonial Resistance Forces Repeal·»