What considerations influenced the British government’s response to the crisis in America

The American war of independence was the culmination of conflict with the colonies over the rights of Parliament to legislate taxes on American trade. The principal of “no taxation without representation” was a powerful idea in the colonies, but the British underestimated their political resolve and their inadequate response cost them their most valuable colony.

There is much divergence of historical opinion as to the driving force of parliamentary decisions over the crisis of empire.Peter Thomas partially defends the hard-line stance of Lord North on the colonial rebels, as in compliance with the general will of parliament and the public at large, whereas Ian Chrisitie explains the governments confused and short-sighted response to events as the result of myths of conspiracy an mutual distrust amongst the members of cabinet and parliament. Bradley debates the traditional view that both parliament and the king were acting in accordance with strong public opinion in favour of enforcing British rule on the colonies, in his studies of popular politics.The British response to the American crisis, viewed in hindsight is a shocking failure, pushing her most valuable colony into a war for independence, a war which there is little evidence to show was inevitable, or even desired in the first stages of resistance.

But for contemporaries, distance from the colony could arguably be a reason for the gross misunderstanding of the colonial rebels’ motives, that this was more than just a question of tax, but one of political, constitutional rights. Ian Christie sees the colonial war with France as a good starting point in the gradual build up of the colonial conflict.Colonial assistance had depended on goodwill to an extent, and this had worked well on the whole, but the uneven response and political ambitions of the different colonists was perhaps an early indication of political awareness in America.

However, when Indians provoked uprisings in Ohio over border disputes, Greenville found it difficult to get the colonies to react, and needed to intervene, fixing boundaries “for the present” in 1763, so perhaps the government can be excused for believing American political motivation to be limited. 1 Real conflict was to arise when it came to the question of tax.The colonies were becoming increasingly expensive, the war had drained British finance and the defence of the frontiers and regulations of trade with Indians demanded money.

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The view in Britain was that the colonies should have to pay for their upkeep themselves, and this could be done through indirect taxation on colonial trade. At home, the cider tax had been incredibly unpopular and in comparison with domestic tax, those imposed on the colonies was light. The Stamp Act of 1765 laid duties on appointments in the legal profession and the public office and on many documents required for commercial transactions in land.It provoked a widespread reaction in the colonies, even amongst the loyalists, although at this stage the movement against the authority of parliament to legislate over the colonies was a distinct minority, this was an obvious innovation in colonial finance, an internal tax legislated by an imperial parliament, and it spurned the development of resistance to parliamentary taxation. The government response to this outcry was delayed and confused by their own internal problems. Poor personal relations between Grenville’s cabinet and George III came to a head over this controversial Act and their was a cabinet change-over amidst the crisis.Whereas Grenville was keen to adopt a firm stance with resistance to the Stamp Act, the new ministry under Lord Chatham did not have such a clear position. Confusion over whether such taxes were internal or indirect, and the constitutional question that this raised was apparent on both sides of the Atlantic, ministers had diverging opinions, on the re-opening of Parliament, Pitt declared support for the American rebels against this unconstitutional tax and called for its repeal, to the surprise of his colleagues.

His views were appeased and an attempt made to smooth over the crisis with the Declaratory Bill, in which the impact tax was reduced, butt the over-riding authority of parliament on matters of legislation upheld. Grenville argued that the resistance was not constitutionally, but economically motivated and should therefore be dealt with by a forceful enforcement of the law, the house of Lords was in agreement, not wanting to see the repeal of the Act, but the king was in favour of modification and his ministry was keen to put to rest a crisis they were perhaps incapable of successfully resolving.The underlying problems of attitudes and opinions in parliament remained.

Chrisitie argues that the general feeling was one of a need to passify colonial resistance to imperial rule by avoiding conflict and an awareness of the potential strength of the colonies. But that there was still a refusal to view the reaction as resistance to imperial power, instead of a resistance to taxation.The ministry was letting America drift and allowing resistance in the colonies to develop and organise due to its lack of coherent policy.

Chatham’s mental breakdown and the promotion of Rockingham, another minister with unclear views on colonial policy continued the trend for a lack of policy on America, and temporarily calming the situation, but with the Revenue Act of 1767, defiance of Imperial authority raised the issue again, and this time the colonists resisted British rule with even more vigour.The British needed the colonies to sustain wealth and status as a major world power, and there was a real fear that losing them would mean political and economic ruin, but, in light of their importance, the government shows little attempt to resolve the root of the issue beyond controlling the individual outbreaks of resistance. An explanation for this could be that without hindsight, and with the obvious problem of distance, the government was unable to see the gravity of the problem, believing it to be merely an issue of tax that the colonies would eventually succumb to.There is also much evidence to suggest that the government was under the mistaken impression that resistance was confined to isolated parts of the colonies where incidents, such as the Boston Tea Party, erupted among the undisciplined masses and were unaware of the growing organisation of resistance and the unity of the colonies in their common cause to obtain rights to govern themselves. Chrisitie proposes another theory that could help explain parliament’s reaction and lack of resolve.

He argues that myths of a double cabinet of divided views surrounded the Rockingham ministry, at their height in the late 1760s, and undermined their political confidence in governing. The inspired moral and imaginative writings of Edmund Burke, a leading politician, had such qualities of verisimilitude in depicting individuals who exploited the power of the crown and divisions within parties, that they became confused with the political reality.Fears of a political power falling into the hands of a shadowy cabal caused mistrust among politicians and as there was no total changeover of cabinet from 1768 up until the American war, individuals with widely differing views on America had to work together. In 1773, North did not have a majority in the House of Commons, and thus had difficulty directing any decisive plan.

Similarly, Christie argues, Rockingham wanted Conway to resign to enable him to take on a more conciliatory approach, but he could not make him.He claims that there were also myths that the king himself was involved in conspiracies against the Rockingham ministry. While such conspiracies may have been no more that myth, in Christie’s opinion, a myth that is believed is very powerful. His research show that George III was not in the practise of reshaping his ministries to different political needs and that the workings of government were not shrouded in secrecy, but there was, in fact, increased regulation and documentation of parliamentary practise during this period; North’s ministry being the first to make comprehensive minutes of every cabinet meeting working documents.But in the changing political structure from that based on individuals and personal opinions at work in the king’s ministry, to one of political parties who formed policies on ideological grounds and worked as an identifiable group, there was an era of confusion over political allegiance.

He also gives credit to the increasing force of public opinion in politics, a force that called for the need of a party system to give shape to political opinion and called for politicians to be more aware of the mediating force of the press.New innovations in the journalistic profession and the business of journalism were increasingly important in politics, James Perry, possibly the first political tycoon, was a figure that was not to be ignored by politicians. The commonly held view by historians was that the British people at large were in support of a policy of coercion towards the colonies, one that was heralded by Namier in the 1920s where he described the public as “lemmings” going towards an American war.The view was that it was only intellectuals who felt sympathy for the cause of the American people to be free from imperial power, and that ministers such as Rockingham and North may have had more lenient tendencies, but were under pressure to pursue a more hard-line policy. Although Peter Thomas’ work on North3 does not pretend that he had liberal desires at heart, he does depict North as being in such a position over the American crisis, claiming that he never could have could have obtained cabinet and parliamentary approval to offer the colonies more than he did.Yet, he was still a politician who was keen to be sure of support before taking action against Boston rioters by calling an election, and arranging suitable candidates. But his need to arrange suitable candidates could also suggest that North’s ministry was pushing through a policy that did not have the support of the nation at large.Bradley’s study of popular political culture, based on petitions, reveals that within British society across social and geographical divisions, opinion was divided.

The fact that only one London paper held a pro-American view could be cited as a cause for this misconception of the public’s opinion, but the historical misinterpretation may well have been caused by the political desire at the time to shun or hide the extent of opinion that was contrary to government policy.Lord Camden, John Wesley and Temple Lutherall toured England and concluded that the mass of opinion was in favour of peace, and Bradley concludes the same, but states that the nation was still divided, individual interests in trade as well as ideological concerns affected individual views and there was a lack of any distinct leadership or pressing need to organise in a movement for change. Parliament was thus able to ignore petitions for peace, arguing that this was a trade issue.Realisation of the gravity of the crisis had called more ministers to parliament, in the final stages before war, just as it had called more voters to the ballot box, but increased interest seems to have had little bearing on policy. Thomas argues that North was still working on the assumption that the root cause of the American dispute was taxation right up to the brink of war. He claims that the official policy of 1775 bore North’s personal stamp and that his faulty analysis of the crisis, his bellicose colleagues and a parliament adamant on asserting its rights was what cost his ministry the American colonies.

He offered the colonies a total repeal of all taxes as a last ditch attempt to avoid the escalation into full-scale civil war, but he refused to compromise on the question of British authority. Right up until the outbreak of war, the British response to American demands was confused, and confusion still surrounds the historiography of the workings of parliament and the public opinion. This was the first colonial crisis on this scale that any European power had had to face and the government was clearly unable to deal with this new situation adequately.