Political Economy and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

A review of Taxing Empire: Political Economy and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, 1747-1776 by Justin duRivage.

Justin duRivage’s dissertation offers a new rendition of the causes of the American Revolution that focuses on the “struggle over political economy that took place throughout the British world in the three decades proceeding American Independence” (p. 3). At the fount of this inquiry is a puzzling pattern that throws into question the conventional view that the Revolution was sparked by “taxation without representation.” Although American colonists were taxed much more lightly than their British counterparts and enjoyed more representative political institutions, and although the British government’s attempts to raise revenue without consent as well as resistance to such attempts were widespread throughout the British Empire, only in American colonies did political resistance erupted into revolutionary violence.

Throughout the dissertation, duRivage maintains that this puzzle cannot be explained by appeals to different “political cultures” of the colonists and the Britons, as has been variously espoused by Charles Andrews, Lawrence Henry Gipson, H. T. Dickinson, Gordon Wood, and others. The answer lies, he argues, in rival ideologies as “maps of political and social worlds” through which contending parties understood what the British Empire was and prescribed what it ought to be. Drawing on recent studies by Kathleen Wilson, Nicholas Rodgers, and others, duRivage highlights the ideological disagreements that cleft the British opinion both in the imperial metropole and its colonies.

Mining a wealth of parliamentary speeches, newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, and private correspondences, duRivage follows the thread of “taxation” into the political and economic controversies between 1747 and 1776. The fundamental premise of the study is that taxation for eighteenth-century Britons, on both sides of the Atlantic, was much more than a fiscal instrument. It represented a powerful means of social control and reform that made it the centerpiece of “moral, political, and economic regeneration of the entire British Empire” (p. 3). After detailed investigations of the debates surrounding the War of Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, the Stamp Act, and the Coercive Acts, the dissertation concludes that the road to American Independence was paved by the opposing and eventually irreconcilable understandings of what taxation meant for the present and the future of British liberty and prosperity.

In reconstructing the Revolutionary debate in terms of political economy and taxation, duRivage contends that the relevant fault lines were not geographic but ideological. In Chapter 1, he outlines four principal ideologies that cut across political party, social class, and imperial geography. He describes in detail the “Tory,” “authoritarian Whig,” “establishment Whig,” and “radical Whig” positions on political economy and imperial policy, though the principal antagonism that shapes the rest of the study is mainly between the authoritarian and the radical understandings of empire and taxation. The authoritarian position claimed the empire to be in dire crisis, burdened by a disastrous public debt, heavy taxes on land, and an idle and increasingly truculent population. Accordingly, authoritarian Whigs and Tories’ proposed tax regime targeted domestic consumption and colonial trade, which would ensure moral discipline, economic competitiveness, and debt relief at home, while subordinating colonies as economic peripheries dependent on the imperial metropole. Radical Whigs, in contrast, called for shifting the tax burden away from manufacturing and consumption towards landed property. Their vision of the British Empire was a middle-class empire of settlement and commerce, economic benefits that accrued from intra-imperial commerce justified any public debt needed to defend the colonies. It is this ideological variance and not exogenous factors, duRivage argues, that explains the different policies adopted in the 1740s (reimbursement of colonies) and the 1760s (fiscal austerity and colonial taxation), despite Britain’s similar fiscal conditions after the War of Austrian Succession and after the Seven Years’ War. In the 1740s, authoritarian calls for fiscal austerity and colonial control crashed against the alliance of establishment and radical Whigs who believed that taxing the colonies would merely undermine imperial commerce, economic growth, and thereby Britain’s power. British policymakers’ response in the 1760s would be drastically different.

Chapter 2 follows the same ideological conflict into the Seven Years’ War and examines the British Parliament’s curious reluctance to compel the colonies to shoulder the financial burden of the war effort. DuRivage parts ways with Ian Christie, Jack Greene, and others who have attributed such restraint to the pragmatism and prudence of British politicians. Instead he holds that the willingness of William Pitt (Chatham) and his radical Whig allies to negotiate with colonial assemblies for raising funds and soldiers had more to do with their specific understanding of how the political economy of empire worked. The flashpoint of ideological conflict was the proposed formation of a colonial union on the Continent as a bulwark against French aggression, which became a screen on which authoritarian and radical camps projected their imperial agendas. Authoritarian Whigs pushed for imperial reforms that would wrest the power of the purse from colonial assemblies, substitute a professional army for colonial militia, and quarter imperial troops in the colonies without reimbursement (particularly insightful is duRivage’s treatment of quartering and recruitment of indentured servants as a sort of taxation on property). Radical Whigs decried this authoritarian and extractive imperial scheme by asserting limited government, local autonomy, and colonial militia as the safeguards of liberty and prosperity in the British Empire. Far from being a “colonial” matter, all three of these proposals were deeply woven into broader debates in Britain about the sovereignty of Parliament, the extent of royal prerogative, and the dangers of standing armies. The ideological stalemate between the authoritarian and the radical Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic, combined with the establishment Whigs’ aversion to political instability threatened by such a divisive issue, “held colonial union hostage” (95). Authoritarian plans of imperial reform were once again stillborn.

Chapter 3 turns to the short-lived Stamp Act, passed in 1765 and repealed in 1766. The dispute surrounding the Act is significant as it marks the hardening of the ideological conflict between authoritarian and radical political economy. For its architect, George Grenville, the Stamp Act was not an isolated fiscal measure but the linchpin of authoritarian imperial reform that would later be compounded by the Currency Act, the Navigation Act, the Sugar Act, and a large royal military establishment in the colonies. In Grenville’s vision of a centralized empire of extraction underpinned by Parliament’s absolute sovereignty, American colonies figured as dependent sources of raw material and markets for the manufactures of Britain, paralleling India’s newly acquired status as source of revenue (the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa). The comprehensiveness of authoritarian imperial reform was not lost on radical Whigs, who railed against the Act in a flood of printed material and coordinated boycott movements. They declared that colonial liberty, imperial commerce, and the fortunes of the British Empire would sink together under the arbitrary taxes that would virtually expropriate the colonists and reduce them to a state of slavery. Whether or not colonial resistance played an actual role in it, the drastic economic downturn of 1765-1766 seemed to vindicate the radical position that colonial taxation and austerity amounted to butchering the hen that laid golden eggs. Viewed against the background of trans-Atlantic mobilization against the Stamp Act, DuRivage suggests, the repeal of the Act owed less to the prudence and pragmatism of the Rockingham ministry that proposed the repeal than to the principled opposition of the colonists and the support of their radical Whig allies in Britain.

In Chapter 4, we witness the calcification of the authoritarian Whig position into a kind of “new Toryism” in the late 1760s. While the neo-Tory platform kept the old planks of imperial authoritarianism, fiscal austerity, and moral discipline, it now incorporated a feverish apprehension that the leveling tendencies of the masses at home and of the colonists in America were rendering the empire nigh ungovernable. This was not sheer paranoia, as demographic growth and urbanization in Britain did spark food riots, demand for higher wages, and industrial protests, epitomized by the upheavals of the Spitalfield weavers. With the landed interests still over-represented in Parliament, and radical and establishment Whigs divided amongst themselves, neo-Tories succeeded in mobilizing landed interests to push the authoritarian agenda of tethering the colonies to Britain through taxation. The prospective revenue from Townshend duties, customs, excise, and Diwani promised to compensate for the reduction in land tax from 4 to 3 shillings a pound, thereby relieving the landed classes of Britain, reducing public debt, and harnessing the empire together in a single stroke. Inverting the argument, radical Whigs blamed the authoritarian measures for instigating political and economic turmoil, triggering colonial boycott, damaging trade, and suffocating British manufacturers and merchants. Metropolitan interests would be served best by protecting rather than exploiting the colonial periphery, which necessitated more egalitarian relations with America and bridling the rapacity of the East India Company in Bengal. As for domestic politics, the only remedy to the scourge of neo-Toryism was electoral reform whereby the commercial and manufacturing sections of the British population would achieve stronger representation in Parliament. Just as the Stampt Act had convinced the colonists that they had real enemies in Britain, the trans-Atlantic radical alliance and calls for electoral reform further galvanized neo-Tory ranks.

The final chapter examines the radicalization of political opinion in the colonies during the period of neo-Tory ascendancy in British politics. Challenging the progressive historians Woody Holton and M. Schlensiger, DuRivage highlights several causes behind the diffusion of radical ideas amongst the colonial elites and masses alike. One of these was the perception of the Townshend duties as being cut from the same cloth as the Stamp Act, which once again set off a flurry of arguments associating political liberty with labor, property, and prosperity, asserting local fiscal control, and rejecting an imperial Parliament. Another was the explosive combination of a growing sense of economic vulnerability amongst the colonist and the ominous realization that their fortunes were very much exposed to British high politics, most recently reminded by the reduction of land taxes in Britain and the East India Company’s securing of the Tea Act. The heightened perception of threat inflected the terms of colonial opposition, which now conflated colonial trade, economic activity, and taxation, and decried as oppressive Parliament’s claim to regulate any one of them. Similarly, the long-standing premise of the reciprocal benefits of intra-imperial commerce came under question, as more and more radicals contended that the cessation of imperial commerce would cripple Britain more than the colonies. The belief that the latter were capable of economic self-sufficiency in the long run inspired local boards, bounties, and premiums for promoting colonial manufactures in New England. In this spirit, First Continental Congress called for enforcing America’s commercial independence. For the colonial neo-Tory minority, on the other hand, such policies meant intimidation, coercion, and specters of “democratical despotism” (p. 362). The question of whether the colonists’ goals could be achieved while remaining part of the empire proved more divisive both within the Congress and without. Those supporting reform over independence, however, saw their conciliation schemes rendered unfeasible by the neo-Tory recalcitrance in Britain. American demands for constitutionally guaranteed political and economic equality with the metropole and neo-Tory insistence of authoritarian empire and dependent colonial development left no common ground for conversation. The ensuing war was “fought as much between two parts of the British Empire as it was between rival ambitions for the future of that empire” (p. 387).

The dissertation is meticulously researched and lucidly argued in a way that would make it accessible to even non-specialists. The innovative edge of the study is to situate the American Revolution in a decisively imperial framework and to cast political economy as a language of constitutional argumentation in which the contestation played out. This is captured most clearly in DuRivage’s statement that the colonists “understood their liberty ad their rights in terms of political economy” (p. 343). When published as a book, this dissertation would be of interest to students of eighteenth-century British Empire, American Revolution, political economy, political ideologies, and party politics.

Onur Ulas Ince
Department of International Relations
Koç University

Primary Sources
Bodleian Library
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
National Archives of the United Kingdom
Proceedings & Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America

Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2013. 437 pp. Primary Advisors: Joanne B. Freeman and Steven Pincus

Image: Philip Dawe, The Bostonians Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring and Feathering (London, Oct. 1774).

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