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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Friday, July 07, 2017

“The colonies submit to pay all external taxes”

On 11 Apr 1767, a letter signed “Benevolus” appeared in the London Chronicle. It was reprinted in two other London newspapers within the week.

The Pennsylvania Chronicle, the influential newspaper still co-owned by Benjamin Franklin, ran the letter on 8 June, and Boston newspapers carried it by the end of that month.

“Benevolus” wrote to refute several misconceptions about the American colonists, such as “That they refused to contribute towards the expence of those [recent] wars,” and “That they pay no taxes.”

Misconception number 8 was “That the colonies contend the parliament of Britain has no authority over them.” The essayist assured London readers:
The truth is, that all acts of the British legislature, expressly extending to the colonies, have ever been received there as laws, and executed in their courts, the right of parliament to make them being never yet contested, acts to raise money upon the colonies by internal taxes only and alone excepted.
For “internal taxes” on trade or property within the colonies, Americans insisted—just as Britons did—that only a legislature which represented them could enact such taxes.

But “Benevolus” allowed something else:
The colonies submit to pay all external taxes laid on them by way of duty on merchandizes imported into their country, and never disputed the authority of parliament to lay such duties.

The distinction indeed between internal and external taxes is here looked upon as groundless and frivolous, and some are apt to wonder how a sensible people should ever advance it. But an American founds it thus; an internal tax to be raised in the colonies by authority of parliament, forces the money out of my purse without the consent of my representative in assembly: An external tax or duty is added to the first cost and other charges of the commodity on which it is laid, and makes a part of its price: If I do not like it, at that price I refuse it. If I do like it, I pay the price, and do not need to give my consent by my representative for the payment of this tax, because I can consent to it myself in person.

However, whether there be validity in this distinction or not, seems to be immaterial; since if they are willing to pay external though not internal taxes, and we say they are the same, ’tis then the same thing to us, provided we get the same money from them, as much as they ought or are able to pay, and we may let them please themselves with their futile distinction as long as they think proper.
Assurances like this one emboldened Charles Townshend to propose new bills in May 1767 laying tariffs on tea, wine, glass, paper, and other goods shipped into the American colonies. After all, those were all “external taxes.” That distinction was how Townshend could say ”he would cut off that Hand before he would vote for taxing America” at the same time he was proposing new Customs duties to be collected in America.

“Benevolus” wasn’t just any political observer, though. He was the designated agent for multiple colonial governments and the most respected American in London. He was Benjamin Franklin.

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