In “Revolution Against Empire: Taxes, Politics and the Origins of American Independence,” Justin du Rivage argues that the American Revolution was about more than “no taxation without representation.” He argues that the violent break between Great Britain and its colonies stemmed from a fierce ideological debate throughout the 18th century over what kind of empire the British Empire would become. The debate over taxation, public debt and inequality raged on both sides of the Atlantic. The author focuses on how three political factions differed from Boston to Bengal.
–Courtesy American Revolutionary War Museum, Philadelphia
“Britain’s battle over empire took place in a country that had long grappled with partisan conflict. By the mid-18th century, the Whig and Tory parties no longer resembled their former selves. The Tories had begun as the party of ‘court favor,’ while the Whigs contended for ‘commercial freedom.’ But George I and George II excluded the Tories from government, and that reversed the parties’ traditional roles.
Whigs did not give up their enthusiasm for parliamentary government and commerce. Tories embraced their role as opponents of ministerial power. Decades of Whig dominance created a political world where some Whigs had more in common with their Tory rivals.
“Politics became only marginally clearer after George III became king in 1760. The new monarch vowed to rule above party and without the constraint of politicians.
“This blurry political scene meant that even people who nominally belonged to the same party often disagreed fiercely. Individuals throughout the British Empire shared aspirations and built alliances that extended far beyond the mother country’s borders. As a result, three distinct groups emerged on both sides of the Atlantic: establishment Whigs, authoritarian reformers, and radical Whigs.”
“Establishment Whigs defended both their stewardship of parliamentary government and the concentration of wealth and influence in the small elite.
“Radical Whigs drew upon patriotic arguments to attack the Whig establishment. But they dismissed the authoritarian reformers’ critique of society and the economy. Drawing support from the British Empire’s growing middle class, they embraced checks on government, individual freedom, and leveling of society. Then they insisted that Britain’s constitution existed not only to protect property from unjust taxation, but also to enhance the well-being of its citizens.”
“The shifting fortunes of these ideological groups explain why Britain and its North American colonies came to blows. Yet there was nothing inevitable about a conflict between an increasingly authoritarian mother country and ever more radical colonies. Not only did nearly everyone claim to be on the side of liberty and empire, but establishment Whigs, authoritarian reformers and radical Whigs could be found throughout the British world.
Radicalism flourished in Boston, Bristol and Bengal while fears of disorder and licentiousness provoked rural elites in both the Hudson Valley and the English shires. Authoritarian reformers spent decades fighting to escape the margins of British politics. In North America, radicals repeatedly clashed with authoritarian reformers, who included not only their governors but also fellow colonists.
The empire’s politics grew highly unstable. Authoritarian reformers’ arguments gained strength in Britain throughout the 1760s. They captured the imaginations of George III and a significant portion of the electorate. They in turn became increasingly anxious about disorder and political dissent. Many British voters and members of Parliament embraced the project of suppressing licentiousness and shifting the burden of taxation to American colonists. The American Revolution was the result.”
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