10th Grade: “It’s the Economy, Stupid.”


This week we looked at the Seven Years War, and the puzzling question as to why the aftermath of the war ended up driving Americans and the British apart. Why this happened should puzzle us, because usually when two sides ally, fight together, and win, it draws them closer together.  We got some hints this week as to how this might have happened.

In the end, I think the war had this effect because of fundamental disagreements about the reasons for the war, the reasons for changes in British policy, and the question of colonial identity.

1. Why was the war fought:

  • I think the British thought of the war being fought for the benefit of empire generally, but more specifically for the benefit of the colonies.  The French were now far away,  a secure border established with the Indians, and a clear treaties signed to that effect.
  • The colonists fought out of a sense of duty to empire, but they did not ask for or cause this war.  The border was just fine, thank you, before you came.  We hate your treaties because it limits our expansion.  You are infringing upon our rights of self-determination

2. Changes in Policy

  • The British faced enormous debts at the end of the war.  They felt that they should shoulder the overwhelming % of the cost.  But they did ask the colonies to help bear perhaps around 10-15% of the burden of maintaining troops out west along the frontier.   These troops, of course, were there to protect the colonists, and to enforce the treaty (i.e. make sure we did not cause trouble along the border).
  • The colonists saw the British debt as England’s problem.  What if we were taxed to help relieve the debt of Greece, for example?  The troops were there not to protect but to possibly infringe on our liberties, and meddle in our affairs.

3. The Question of Identity

  • The British saw the colonies as an extension of England itself — England transplanted far away — hence names like ‘New England,’ ‘New York,’ etc.
  • The colonies saw themselves as part of the British Empire, yes, but much in the same position as Ireland or Scotland, who had sovereign control of their own domestic affairs, and England could not tax them.

Another backdrop to this dispute was the role of Parliament in English affairs.  Over the course of the 18th England saw a gradual rise in the role of Parliament in relation to the power of the king, after many immigrants to the colonies had already left. All early colonial charters and governemtns professed their allegiance and loyalty to English kings like James I, Charles II, etc. but are silent on the question of Parliament.  They did not directly experience this gradual in English history. They recognized the authority of the king as a kind of figurehead of empire, but Parliament?  Parliament, in their experience, was a body sovereign only in domestic English affairs, and not in the empire as a whole.

The Seven Years War also created a perfect storm of factors involving land.

The war settled questions of the colonies’ western frontier, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that the British victory helped spur on massive emigration west towards the newly acquired land.

At the same time, the new land may have been at least a partial impetus for a massive influx of immigration from the British isles of people wanting a “fresh start” in America on basically free land.

Thus, at just the moment when the British wanted to restrict western movement to prevent another conflict with France, settlers poured into these very same territories and pushed the limits of the treaty.  Ideally I include a map below to show you this, but alas, I could not find an electronic version of the map I handed out in class showing this western push, so do feel free to look at the map I handed the students last week.

Like ships passing in the night, the colonists and the English saw land differently as well.

For the colonists, land represented opportunity, opportunity that did not exist in the more aristocratic, patron-oriented system in England.  Restricting land, for many colonists, meant restricting self-government.

The British must have found this hard to swallow.  They could understand the link with land and independence, even if they did not feel the link as keenly.  But, as far as they were concerned, the colonists surely had far more than enough to go around.  The original colonies contained about 430,000 square miles, compared to about 70,000 square miles in England.  The Seven Years War only added perhaps an additional 200,000 square miles for the colonists.  Now you say you want more?  How much is enough?

We closed the week by examining the Sugar Act, in particular.

The Sugar Act has to be put in context with the following:

  • England’s Debt.  Their normal peacetime budget was 8 million pounds a year.  The interest payment on their war debt alone was 5 million pds./year.
  • The fact that colonists on the border had, hardly before the ink dried on the treaty, strayed across the Appalachian border and brought on a conflict with the Pontiac tribe.  This worried England to no end.  They just got finished fighting a long and expensive war.  The last thing they wanted was to be drawn into another conflict.  Some students rightly asked why the British would care about skirmishes with Indians.  I don’t think the British worried too much about the Indians, but beyond the Indians lay the French.  If the colonists clashed with the French, it would become England’s business.  Besides this, the treaty that ended the war was a mutually agreed upon international treaty.

Of course, no colonial representatives had a part in the terms of this treaty.

  • During the war many New England merchants expanded their operations to deal with increased trans-Atlantic traffic.  The end of the war left many over-extended and in financial trouble.  A number of merchants resorted to smuggling to help make up the difference.  The smuggling mostly centered around the molasses trade.  England collected a 6 pence/gallon duty, but people knew that if you approached the right people you could get a 1 1/2 pence/gallon ‘off the books’ price, which England would never see.

So, Parliament enacted the Sugar Act in 1764.  It had a broad purpose, ultimately geared towards getting England back on its feet economically. Over the last few years, we are all familiar with a political atmosphere dominated by economic concerns, and we can understand the hope we might feel if a plan emerged to ease our pain.  England hoped to raise about 20% of the cost of maintaining English troops along the border out west.

Ultimately, the act was designed to raise revenue indirectly from the colonists.  Here’s how they wanted to do it:

  • The British lowered the import duty to 3 pence per gallon (instead of the normal 6 pence) in the hopes that this would deter smuggling.
  • They gave expanded powers to customs agents to search cargo.  And, they gave them legal protection in case of a mistaken accusation.  Currently, accused smugglers went on trial before their peers, and, of course, were often acquitted.  Customs officials would then have to pay a heavy, heavy fine for ‘false accusation.’
  • They wanted to encourage the colonists to manufacture and sell their own rum.  Hence, they erected a variety of barriers to the purchase of French rum from the Carribbean, and lowered the import duty (cf. ) on British sugar. That way, the British get the import duty, and the tax from the sale of local rum (taxes on the sale and manufacture of alcohol was a primary revenue source for governments in the early modern age, before things like income tax, sales tax, etc.)  Aside from that – be good British subjects and stop giving money to the French!

Thus, no one is hurt, or even directly taxed.  We stop breaking the law.  The British get money.  Colonists are protected from Indians.  It is all very reasonable in the typical British way.

So, why did we object to the import duty being lowered (in fact, colonists continued to smuggle until the British lowered the duty to 1 pence p/gallon, below the smuggling price)?

  • The expanded search powers gave customs officials the right to seize cargo on mere suspicion.  Their warrants were in effect, blank checks.  Colonists felt that this violated their rights.
  • A large amount of hoop jumping was now required to prove the validity of cargo.  The lives of many merchants got much harder.  Think of how the process of obtaining a loan changed after 2009.
  • Accused smugglers could now be tried not in local courts, but special admiralty courts.  In other words, they would not be tried by a civilian court of their peers, and again, the colonists believed this violated their traditional rights.
  • Who cares about the troops in the forts anyway?  We were doing just fine before you showed up, thank you very much.  We managed our own affairs for the last 125 years and can still do so without your help.  We helped you with the war, like we were supposed to.  But this war was your idea, not ours.  We should not have to help pay for it, indirectly or otherwise.

At root in this controversy is the exact nature of the relationship between the colonists and England.  England saw the colonists as essentially extensions of themselves.  Thus, Parliament had jurisdiction over them just as they would any town in England.  The colonists saw themselves akin to Ireland, part of the empire but internally, entirely self-governing.  Even a little bit of meddling was still meddling, and still unjustified.

So, is one side right, and the other wrong?  Are both partly right?  Who is mostly right?  The students were not in agreement, which is just how I like it!  It should make for some interesting discussions next week.


Dave Mathwin