J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Parliament Kept the Tea Tax

Yesterday I linked to Caleb Crain’s historiographical exploration of the hypothesis that the American Revolution was driven by self-serving merchants, not just at the beginning but as late as the Boston Tea Party on this date in 1773.

I think there’s one more historian whose work deserves examination when we consider personal self-interest in the politics of pre-Revolutionary Boston, and that’s Oliver Morton Dickerson (1875-1966). I’d start with his articles “British Control of American Newspapers on the Eve of the Revolution” (New England Quarterly, 1951) and “Use Made of the Revenue from the Tax on Tea” (New England Quarterly, 1958).

Dickerson specialized in how British officials ran their North American empire, with his major books being the dry American Colonial Government, 1696-1765: A Study of the British Board of Trade in Its Relation to the American Colonies, Political, Industrial, Administrative (1912) and The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (1951). He got more interesting in accusatory articles like “John Hancock: Notorious Smuggler or Near Victim of British Revenue Racketeers?” (Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 1945) and “The Commissioners of Customs and the ‘Boston Massacre’” (New England Quarterly, 1954).

Dickerson’s a problematic author because within a single article he can come across as

  • the indisputable expert on the eighteenth-century British revenue service in North America, and
  • a conspiracy theorist who’s temporarily forgotten his tin-foil hat.
That article on the Massacre is almost all tin-foil, for example. The other articles I’ve listed are based on study of British Treasury Department archives, and seem very reliable until the last page or so. Dickerson ends most of these articles calling the British Customs service a corrupt racket, deserving of every criticism those American smugglers Patriots dealt out. Yet up to that point his evidence and conclusions seem solid.

Scholars have long quoted Dickerson’s transcriptions of newspaper reports in Boston under Military Rule, 1768-1769, as Revealed in a Journal of the Times (1936), though many argue that those reports themselves were exaggerated propaganda. His “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution” chapter in The Era of the American Revolution (1939) is solid.

And we still have lessons to learn from Dickerson. For example, many books leave the impression that when Parliament repealed most of the Townshend duties in 1770, it kept the tax on tea shipped to America to reaffirm that it still had the power to do so. Having looked at the Treasury Department’s records, Dickerson wrote that the tea duty was bringing in practically all the money. So keeping that tax wasn’t symbolic. Repealing the other duties was symbolic.

Dickerson then says those laws directed the revenue toward salaries for certain royal appointees (governors, judges, &c.) and the costs of the Customs service itself. As a result, the Customs department expanded with the new money, and somehow never had any left to pass on to the military branches or to pay down the national debt. So much for paying off the costs of the Seven Years’ War.

The “British Control of American Newspapers” article quotes a letter from the printers of the Boston Post-Boy asking for the local Customs department contract for stationery and forms. Once they got those contracts back from the printers of the defunct Boston Chronicle, the Post-Boy’s editorial line veered toward Loyalism.

This not to say that the American Revolutionaries weren’t self-serving. It’s just that they weren’t the only men in Boston who could mix up their principles and their interests.

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