An Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker. Vintage, 2015, paper.
Having read Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge, our familiarity with the American Revolution seems remarkably shallow. The Boston Tea Party, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Declaration of Independence, and John Hancock’s overly large signature on that parchment is about all most of us know, and we learned that in our grade-school history.
Nick Bunker’s story of how Britain came to the fight with its American colonies is much more complicated. The author describes the political protests in the colonies from 1775 to 1782 as seen from Britain and in the eyes of its ruling elite. He has given us a full account of a parallel political and economic crisis in Britain combined with the considerable ineptitude of the Administration of Lord North (Frederick North), prime minister, and Lord Dartmouth (William Legge Dartmouth), colonial secretary, in dealing with the thirteen colonies. While the separation of the colonies now seems to have been an inevitable consequence of an American coming of age, it also involved considerable mismanagement of colonial affairs.
Tea, yes, the crisis did involve tea. The tea, then largely from China, was transported to England by the ships of the East India Company, a public/private company chartered to bring tea to the home market and to the North American colonies. Tea imports were taxed as part of the more general tax on a triangular commodity trade between the colonial ports stretching from Halifax to Charleston, the West Indies, and London. That commodity trade also included wheat and tobacco from the Chesapeake region; cotton from India; sugar, indigo, and rum from the West Indies. The tax on this commodity trade was an important source of imperial revenue.
Britain in turn exported mostly the products of its booming iron and steel industry. An ‘industrial revolution’ was transforming the English economy and creating an entrepreneurial class out of its landed elite. This elite dominated political life, largely because of the unreformed parliament. Its interests were framing the North Administration’s views about colonial taxation.
The Lord North government generally neglected to take seriously warnings from its administrators in the colonies, Thomas Hutchinson and later Thomas Gage. It tended to view the unrest largely as a problem in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, ignoring the growing discontent from the southern and Chesapeake colonies as well. That colonial administrative apparatus was also compromised by the time it took to send and receive reports and orders by sailing ships – thirty to forty days. The North administration could not respond quickly to fast-moving events in the colonies.
The British thought that the North American colonists ought to pay for more of the cost of its administration. Bunker points out that there is some truth to the contention that they were not paying their share. The average tax per annum paid in Britain was 25 shillings per head; North American 6 pence (12 pence to a shilling).
On the other hand the Americans worried about the colonial administration in London paying the salaries of judges and customs officials serving in the colonies. This resulted, they believed, in undue influence of London over the decisions of these officials. Taxation without Representation.
All might have been different if the North Government had not been reeling from bad economic news, if there had not been the continued Russian and Austrian threat to the British position on the European continent, and if there had not been a looming war with France and Spain. Without European allies, that war would require a naval presence in the North Sea and a greater military presence on the Continent, all that costing money when government coffers were emptying. Thus even greater dependence on taxing trade.
Perhaps the “last straw” was the Quebec Act enacted by the British parliament in May 1774. The French in Canada would be free to worship as they chose. This seemed to be an act of toleration but not through American eyes. It would, they felt, create a catholic presence in the Ohio Valley, in other words handing American settlers over to “popery”.
Nick Bunker compares the various parliamentary debates over the enforcement of British colonial taxation in the 1770s to the debate over the Munich Agreement in 1938. In both cases the likelihood of war weighed heavily on Britain. Perhaps some who hesitated to enter World War II against Nazi Germany sensed the irony of the different role that those American colonists, now the United States of America, played in that decision almost two centuries later.