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In The Birth of the Republic, 1763–89, Edmund S. Morgan shows how the challenge of British taxation started Americans on a search for constitutional principles to protect their freedom, and eventually led to the Revolution. By demonstrating that the founding fathers’ political philosophy was not grounded in theory, but rather grew out of their own immediate needs, Morgan paints a vivid portrait of how the founders’ own experiences shaped their passionate convictions, and these in turn were incorporated into the ...
In The Birth of the Republic, 1763–89, Edmund S. Morgan shows how the challenge of British taxation started Americans on a search for constitutional principles to protect their freedom, and eventually led to the Revolution. By demonstrating that the founding fathers’ political philosophy was not grounded in theory, but rather grew out of their own immediate needs, Morgan paints a vivid portrait of how the founders’ own experiences shaped their passionate convictions, and these in turn were incorporated into the Constitution and other governmental documents. The Birth of the Republic is the classic account of the beginnings of the American government, and in this fourth edition the original text is supplemented with a new foreword by Joseph J. Ellis and a historiographic essay by Rosemarie Zagarri.
“Apart from its uplifting argument, part of the appeal of The Birth of the Republic is its prose style, which is blissfully bereft of academic jargon, sophisticated but simple in a way that scholarly specialists find impressive and ordinary readers find comprehensible. Morgan makes the story he is telling take precedence over the note cards he has assembled. He regards narrative as the highest form of analysis, and he has a natural gift for telling a story, silently digesting mountains of historical evidence to produce the distilled essence of the issue at stake.”
The Americans and the Empire
The people who undertook the search seemed to their contemporaries—and even to themselves—as unlikely a group as could be found to join in any common enterprise. The American colonists were reputed to be a quarrelsome, litigious, divisive lot, and historical evidence bears out this reputation. The records of the local courts in every colony are cluttered with such a host of small lawsuits that one receives from them the impression of a people who sued each other almost as regularly as they ate or slept. Their newspapers bristle with indignant letters to the editor about matters that now seem trifling. Ministers kept the presses busy with pamphlets denouncing each other's doctrines.
Within every colony there were quarrels between different sections. Eastern Connecticut despised western Connecticut. Newport, Rhode Island, was at odds with Providence, and the rest of New England looked upon the whole of Rhode Island with undisguised contempt. Western North Carolina was so irritated by eastern North Carolina that civil war broke out in 1771. Not only did the different sections of every colony quarrel with each other, but every colony engaged in perennial boundary disputes with its neighbors. Even when faced with Indian uprisings, neighboring colonies could seldom be brought to assist each other. When New York was attacked, Massachusetts found that her budget would not allow her to send aid. When Massachusetts was attacked, the New Yorkers in turn twiddled their thumbs.
So notorious was the hostility which every American seemed to feel for every other American that James Otis, one of the early leaders in the search we are about to examine, averred in 1765 that "were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion." And an English traveler who toured the colonies in 1759 and 1760 came to precisely the same conclusion: "Were they left to themselves, there would soon be civil war from one end of the continent to the other." Twenty years later these same people united to create a government that has had a longer continuous existence than that of any other Western country except England.
How they were able to do it must always remain a source of wonder, but with the benefit of hindsight we may see that in spite of their divisions they did have much in common. For one thing they were mainly of English descent—and proud of it. There were two large exceptions: the first a wedge of Scotch-Irish and Germans in the back country from Pennsylvania southward, the second a half-million African slaves scattered throughout the colonies but with the greatest numbers on the tobacco and rice plantations of the South. The Africans were the great exception to everything that can be said about colonial Americans. Though they did much of the work, they enjoyed few of the privileges and benefits of life in America.
For the great majority of Americans who still spoke of England as "home," even though they had never been there, being English meant having a history that stretched back continuously into a golden age of Anglo-Saxon purity and freedom. The past as it existed in their minds may have borne little resemblance to what actually happened. It was a past in which freedom, born among the Anglo-Saxons, was submerged by the Norman Conquest and only gradually recovered, the final triumph occurring in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was more myth than reality, but the myth served to give to the forester in New Hampshire and the cattle drover in North Carolina a pride in a common heritage. Even those parts of English history that had occurred since the founding of the colonies were cheerfully appropriated, and in the ensuing years of strife with the mother country there was no repudiation of the heritage. Throughout the war and after, Americans maintained that they were preserving the true tradition of English history, a tradition that had been upset by forces of darkness and corruption in England itself.
That such a defection should have occurred came as no surprise to the colonists, because they shared a distinctly bearish view of human nature. As they were for the most part English, so they were even more overwhelmingly Protestant. Maryland was the only colony with a substantial minority of Catholics. And except for a handful of German Lutherans, the Protestants were predominantly of Calvinist origin. Among the more sophisticated, especially in the cities and large towns, it was the fashion to take a somewhat happier view of human nature than Calvin had endorsed, but even those who thought man good enough to win heaven by his own efforts seem to have been skeptical about the likelihood of kings and statesmen making the grade. It was an outright infidel, Thomas Paine, who declared that government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence. This common assumption, that men and especially men in power are prone to corruption, was to prove a potent force in keeping Americans traveling together in the same direction.
Still another common denominator lay in the fact that most of the inhabitants of every colony made their living from the soil. There were four or five large cities—Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, Newport, Boston—and several more good-sized towns where merchants and tradesmen flourished, but most people north and south lived on land they cultivated. And probably most of them (research has not revealed the exact proportion), especially in the North, owned their land.
This widespread ownership of property is perhaps the most important single fact about the Americans of the Revolutionary period. It meant that they were not divided so widely between rich and poor as the people of the Old World. Most of the men and women who settled the colonies had come with expectations of a better life for themselves and their children, and most had achieved it. Though there was as yet no professed belief in social equality, though in every colony there were aristocrats, marked by the fine houses they lived in and the fine clothes they wore, there were no peasants for them to lord it over—except always the slaves. Apart from the slaves the people were much of a piece and did not know what it meant to bow and scrape to a titled nobility.
Ownership of property gave not only economic independence but also political independence to the average American. In every colony that was to join in the Revolution there was a representative assembly, elected by property-holders, which made the laws and levied the taxes. Historians once assumed that the property qualification confined the suffrage to a small segment of the population. But if most men owned property, as now seems probable, then most men could vote.
They enjoyed also a common privilege the meaning of which was more difficult to determine: they were all subjects of Great Britain. This privilege—and they counted it as such—they shared not only with each other but with people in Canada, Florida, the West Indies, and the East Indies. They were part of the largest empire the Western world had ever known, an empire that in 1763 had just finished defeating its most serious rival, France, in the long and bloody Seven Years' War.
For Americans the great thing about this empire, apart from the sheer pride of belonging to it, was that it let you alone. The average colonist might go through the year, might even go through a lifetime, without seeing an officer of the empire. The colonies had not been founded under imperial direction but by private enterprise operating under what amounted to a license from the King of England. In most colonies the King appointed the governor and gave him directions, but it was one thing to give directions and another to have them carried out.
On paper the governor's powers seemed large, larger even than those that the king enjoyed in the English government. The royal governor of a colony had the right to summon or dismiss his representative assembly at will, and he had a veto power over its every act. But in practice the governor proved a paper tiger. He had virtually no funds to run the government except what he could wheedle from the assembly. He could not do without the yearly taxes it voted, nor could he afford to antagonize the members who did the voting by disallowing legislation they favored. In practice, therefore, he could exercise his seeming powers only cautiously and sparingly; otherwise he might bring his government to a standstill. And though the king could still veto a colonial law that the governor had unwillingly allowed, the assemblies generally managed to get their way in the end. Their control over taxation was a weapon that even their distant monarch was obliged to respect.
Apart from the royal governors, the only imperial officers normally encountered in the colonies were those charged with enforcing the Navigation Acts. These were acts passed by the British Parliament to regulate colonial trade so that raw materials were producedfor the mother country and manufactured goods were purchased there. The acts required that certain products of the colonies, such as tobacco, rice, indigo, and furs, when exported should be taken only to England or to another English colony; they required that the colonies purchase European manufactures only through England; and they required that all colonial trade be carried in English or colonial shipping. The acts also charged duties to discourage the colonists from importing certain foreign items, granted bounties to encourage them in supplying specific raw products, and prohibited them from some kinds of manufacturing. For example, a bounty was granted on the production of raw iron, but the production of finished iron goods was forbidden (except in those mills already operating when the prohibition was established in 1750).
The purpose of the acts was to promote the economic welfare of the empire in general and of the mother country in particular. The restrictions placed on the colonies to make them serve English interests did not seriously hamper them, because the acts required the same kind of activities that the free play of economic forces would probably have produced anyhow. In America natural resources, especially land, were cheap, while labor (and consequently manufacturing) was dear. In the Old World the situation was reversed. Under these circumstances it was advantageous for the colonists to sell raw materials and buy manufactures. Though they had to buy from England, England was the most advanced industrial country in the world and could generally offer the best prices.
The only Navigation Act that could have caused real hardship was one passed in 1733, placing a duty of sixpence per gallon on molasses imported into the colonies from outside the British Empire. If it had been enforced, the Molasses Act might have crippled the New England rum trade and distilling industry: the duty on foreign molasses was prohibitively high, and the sugar plantations in the British West Indies, for the benefit of which the act was passed, did not produce enough molasses to satisfy the thirst of colonial tipplers or of the other rum drinkers from the fishing banks of Newfoundland to the coasts of Africa. But the act was not enforced. The customs officers who were supposed to collect the duty were a venal lot; and the New Englanders were able to arrange a standard bribe, varying from a half-penny to a penny and a half per gallon, in return for which the officers looked the other way whenever a cargo of French molasses arrived.
Doubtless the collectors were persuaded by similar methods to overlook occasional cargoes of French or Dutch textiles. But if the colonists felt aggrieved by the Navigation Acts, other than the Molasses Act, they did not say so. They did not even complain that the acts were passed by a British Parliament in which they had no representative. It has often been suggested that their contentment was the result of the ineffectiveness of imperial administration, and it must be admitted that the empire was run in a strangely listless manner.
The government of Great Britain had not been designed to cover half the globe, and when Englishmen were not busy extending their possessions still farther, they were apt to regard the problem of turnpikes in Yorkshire as vastly more important than the enforcement of the Navigation Acts in New York. Administration of the colonies was left to the King, who turned it over to his Secretary of State for the Southern Department (whose principal business was England's relations with southern Europe). The Secretary left it pretty much to the Board of Trade and Plantations, a sort of Chamber of Commerce with purely advisory powers. The Board of Trade told the Secretary what to do; he told the royal governors; the governors told the colonists; and the colonists did what they pleased.
This system, or lack of system, had at least one virtue: it did no harm, a fact evidenced by the rolling prosperity of mother country and colonies alike. The British Empire, however inefficient its management, was very much a going concern, and wise men on both sides of the Atlantic believed that its success was intimately connected with the bumbling way in which it was run. They saw both the prosperity and the inefficiency of the empire as results of the freedom that prevailed in it. Freedom, inefficiency, and prosperity are not infrequently found together, and it is seldom easy to distinguish between the first two. The British Empire was inefficient, but its inhabitants were prosperous, and they were free.
It was this real and present freedom even more than the long and honorable heritage of it that the colonists cherished. They never tired of praising the government that made it possible, and in doing so they were by no means unique. The English too thought of freedom as the special virtue of their constitution, and the fashionable French philosophers agreed. The peculiarity of English government responsible for this happy result was thought to be the combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy embodied in the King, House of Lords, and House of Commons. During the years since the first American colony was founded, the balance in the combination had altered. The effect of the Civil War of the 1640s and of the Revolution of 1688 had been to reduce the authority of the King and to establish the predominance of Parliament, particularly the House of Commons. In the eighteenth century it had come to be accepted that English liberty depended upon this predominance, and George III, the conscientious farmer who ascended the throne in 1760, never failed to acknowledge the supremacy of his Parliament.
The colonists joined in the applause for Parliament. Though they had not participated directly in its past triumphs, they had enjoyed an analogous experience which they identified, in a way they might not have been able to define, with that of their English cousins. For while Parliament was winning control in England, the colonial assemblies were winning it overseas and had tamed the royal governors almost as effectively as Parliament tamed the King. When Parliament got rid of James II in the Revolution of 1688, New England and New York threw off the new government James had established over them and restored the assemblies he had temporarily suspended. The supremacy of Parliament had thus become associated in the colonial mind with the supremacy of the assemblies. Both stood for English liberty, for laws made by consent of the people. Both meant that the English were freer than all the rest of the world.
The relations of mother country and colony had not been seriously affected by the shifts of power in England. Apart from trade regulations the laws the Americans lived by were made, as always, by their own representatives. Whatever directions came to them from England came, as always, from the King through the royal governors.
What the colonists did not understand was that the King, because of the supremacy of Parliament, did not speak merely for himself when he sent them orders. The orders were in effect Parliament's as much as his. As long as they were sent through the governors, there would be no trouble: the colonial assemblies had learned over the years to deal with governors. But what would happen if King and Parliament tired of the independent, not to say truculent, behavior of the assemblies? What if the supremacy of the assemblies were matched, not against the royal governors, but against the corresponding and overruling supremacy of Parliament? Suppose Parliament should decide to carry out its own orders by legislating directly for the colonists as it had admittedly, if rarely, done in the past?
Excerpted from The Birth of the Republic, 1763â"89 by Edmund S. Morgan. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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