Paul Foot

In the colonial style

(July/August 1996)

From Reviews, Socialist Review, No.199, July-August 1996, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A Struggle for Power
Theodore Draper
Little, Brown £25

This book opens with a sentence of breathtaking banality. Justifying ‘another book on the American Revolution’, Theodore Draper writes:

‘In my view, the Revolution was basically a struggle for power between Great Britain and its American colonies.’

Er, yes. But 330 pages later Draper explains what he means and why the sentence is not so banal after all.

‘The raison d’etre of the American colonies for the British was economic. The colonists knew that the weak link in the British colonial chain was the need to hold on to the American market for British manufactures.’

What he meant by this early statement of the obvious was that there are hundreds of interpretations of the American Revolution, most of them connecting old fashioned American jingoism with modern American imperialism. But there are very few books on the subject which start at the real beginning: economics.

Draper’s book starts with a fascinating account of a pamphlet war in Britain which started in 1759, in the middle of what was really the first world war, the Seven Years War between Britain and France. The question for debate in these pamphlets sounds bizarre. In the event of a peace settlement, which of two territories should Britain insist on seizing from the French: Canada or Guadeloupe? The argument for getting exclusive control of the big one – Canada – seemed irresistible; and so, eventually, the French were chucked out. But several perspicacious commentators argued instead for Guadeloupe. First, it was stunningly rich. Secondly, it was easier to defend. Thirdly, most important, the confidence and ambitions of the Americans would be enormously increased if the French threat was removed from Canada. Fifteen years before the first shots were fired in the American War of Independence, there were people on both sides of the ocean who foresaw a widening breach between the economic interests of Britain and those of her American colonies.

For at least a decade after 1759, though, the old colonial arguments held out. British industry and commerce desperately needed the huge, burgeoning and captive market in the American colonies. The colonies were not expensive to run – they ran themselves through their own assemblies. Of course, the elections to those assemblies cut out the vast majority of the population. But they were home grown, and paid scant regard to the British-appointed governors who spent most of their time whining for their expenses. For more than 100 years the relationship had survived uneasily as a sort of stand off. Draper describes it as ‘dual power’. Sovereign Britain laid down the ground rules while the day to day administration was carried out by the local American assemblies. Because the relationship was essentially exploitative, however, dual power could not last forever. As time went on, the British government demanded more, and the American colonists conceded less. What finally started to blow the whole imperial edifice to pieces was a familiar little word: tax.

The British had won the Seven Years War, but they still had to pay for it. As soon as the war was over, in 1763, the faction in the British parliament which demanded more money from the colonies grew in stature and influence. These gentlemen could not see why the colonies should not pay more tax to help defray the expenses of keeping their country secure for British trade. So in quick succession the British parliament passed laws demanding new taxes from the Americans – first a sugar tax, then a stamp tax, then a series of other measures designed to bring the colonies to heel. These were known (after a particularly brainless and bullying chancellor of the exchequer) as the Townshend Acts. One by one the taxes were passed into law, and one by one they were repealed as the Americans united against them. ‘No taxation without representation!’ was the cry. What infuriated and united the people in all 13 colonies was not so much the economic burden of the new taxes, which Draper shows was relatively light. Americans united behind the principle that Americans should decide what taxes they should pay; and that taxation was not a matter which could in any way be trusted to a distant parliament for which no American had a single vote.

Opposition to the new taxes could be disturbingly uncivilised. In the Boston riots against the stamp tax in 1765, for instance, the ‘mob’ broke into the prisons and freed everyone who had been sent there for riot or any other political offence. Though the British had by this time installed troops, they were nothing like strong enough to cope with these mighty demonstrations, and the people were repeatedly triumphant. Their triumphs stoked up the fury of the new British chancellor soon to be prime minister, Edward North, an even denser bigot than Townshend. The implacability of the colonists and the stubbornness of the British government continued up to the Boston Tea Party (brilliantly explained by Draper) and on to the hot war which eventually broke out in 1775.

I had hoped when I opened the book that it would deal with the armed struggle for independence, and the extraordinary, revolutionary experiments in democracy which took place during the war, especially in Philadelphia. Instead, the book stops at the start of the war, so in a way the really exciting events are yet to come. But Draper’s book is grittily attractive nevertheless. It never abandons its roots in the economics which, Draper insists, set the war going in the first place. This insistence on the essentially colonial nature of the war answers a lot of questions. The enforced, uneasy unity between the classes during the war explains why the Americans could defeat what was then the biggest and proudest military machine on earth – but it also explains why the American Revolution did not go half so far as its French successor in extirpating the dark forces of feudalism. It took another 100 years or so, for instance, for bourgeois America to rid itself of the vile barbarism of slavery. (The French Revolution, by contrast, abolished slavery in a single decree early in 1794.) The class war kept breaking out in the American Revolution, but it was continually fudged at the edges by the colonial war. What Governor Shirley of Boston called ‘working artificers, seafaring men and the low sort of people’ were called up to do their bit to get rid of the English. They were put back in their place rather more meekly than in France a decade later, and this long but easy to read history book goes a long way to explaining why.


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