Mar 202013

What IS Right With America? Tipping Points Toward American Independence

The beginning of spring, 1782 brought with it a the tipping point toward American Independence. It came not from a resounding victory on the battlefield. The tipping point, instead, came on the political battlefield in the British Parliament.

Let’s take a moment to look at happenings in the Colonies through the eyes of the British themselves. Even the names used to refer to differ in some respects. For example, what Americans referred to as the “Intolerable Acts” were known as the “Coercive Acts” in Britain. As a result of the Seven Years’ War, Britain predominantly controlled the land in North America. Britain relied on the combination of import barriers and export surpluses to produce income for itself. It used its powerful navy to not only protect the Colonies, but to limit smuggling between the Colonies and other European nations. However, the other result of the Seven Years’ War was a significant debt. Additionally, there were now increased costs of protecting its North American holdings from other European counties. In an effort to fund the cost of British troops in the Colonies, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. It went on to pass a collection of taxes, regulations and tariffs known as the Intolerable Acts. After the Revolution began, decreased trade with the Colonies further impacted Britain’s economy. That does not begin to take into account the cost of fighting the war with the Colonies. As the war progressed it became apparent that the British army had lost ground, while the Americans were becoming better at both fighting the war and building alliances with other nations. The British public and Parliament alike became increasingly unhappy with funding a war that cost and average of twelve million pounds each year.

As time passed, opposition to the war had been building in Britain. After the British defeat in Yorktown on November 25, 1781, the Opposition in Parliament began a drum beat that reached a crescendo culminating in Lord North’s resignation. In early February, Charles James Fox brought censure motions against the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich. Henry Conway carried a resolution to grant the Colonies independence on February 27, 1782. On March 5, the King was empowered by Parliament to begin peace negotiations with the Colonies. On March 20 there was a motion of no confidence against Lord North which lost by only 1 vote. The handwriting, as they say, was on the wall. Although he had tried to do so twice in the past, Lord North declared during a debate on March 22 that “those persons who had for some time conducted the public affairs, were no longer his Majesty’s ministers.”

The tipping point actually occurred not with Lord North’s resignation, but with the appointment of Lord Rockingham as North’s successor. More formally known as Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Lord Rockingham had previously served as Prime Minister from 1765-1766. It was Rockingham who sought to repeal the Stamp Act and replaced it with the Declaratory Act. As stated in a previous post, Edmund Burke was Rockingham’s private secretary. Burke, a philosopher associated with conservatism, was also a member of the House of Commons. He referred the colonies as the “American English” and advocated the colonists’ liberties be preserved rather oppressed. In a 1774 speech advocating repeal of the Tea Act, Burke stated, “tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too?” In May of 1775, Burke asserted that “the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen…They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles…Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government, they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation, the cement is gone.”

It is clear that Rockingham was greatly influenced by Burke. Within weeks of Rockingham’s selection as Prime Minister, Sir Guy Carleton replaced General Clinton as the Commander of British Forces in America. Carleton immediately sought to end the conflict with the Colonists and began to withdraw British troops. At the same time, Richard Oswald and Benjamin Franklin began negotiations in Paris that ultimately led to the Treaty of Paris. Britain ended the American Revolution with a debt of approximately two hundred and fifty million pounds. Some scholars describe the loss of the Colonies as insignificant to Britain’s political or social landscape. Others, however, note Britain’s isolation from its European neighbors, a broad spectrum of opinions amongst the British public (particularly in Ireland) about the war, and tensions within the royal family as all impacting life in Britain.

The attached image is a British cartoon by W. Humphrey in 1780 entitled “The State Tinkers.” Lord North is shown chipping at the bowl which represents Britain’s “National Kettle.” King George appears to be either shocked or surprised.


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