AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The American Revolution is often framed as a revolt against foreign rule, or a struggle over taxes. However, behind it lay deep constitutional questions about representation and government, which the American victory helped to answer not just for the future United States, but for Great Britain as well.
The American Revolution not only freed Americans from British rule, but arguably saved the British from a violent revolution of their own like the one that befell France only a little more than a decade later. British inflexibility, a source of mockery in traditional historical accounts, and incomprehension among revisionists, represented instead a commitment to a constitutional tradition – one which, if it required them to avoid expedient solutions in the short-run, was the product of centuries of experience.
The British let America go, because in the end their constitution, even unwritten, was more important to them than territory. It was an example that inspired America’s own founding fathers, who respected the constitutional rectitude of their opponents even as they recognized the necessity of battle. For both, the right decisions were made.
At the root of this conflict lay the battle cry “no taxation without representation.” It has been easy to reduce this statement to a complaint about taxes, and either to rebuke the colonists for not wishing to contribute marginal sums to the cost of their own defense, or the British for not making cosmetic concessions such as offering seats in parliament to the American colonists.
Both of these views miss the point. At its root, the dispute was not over tax rates, but rather over who had the power to levy taxes.
English constitutional history for the past 900 years is the tale of a struggle over who can levy what taxes. The Magna Carta, by binding the King to respect the property rights of his subjects, implied limitations on his right to levy taxes without consent, and by the 1300s, the monarchy had effectively conceded that only Parliament, representing the taxpayers of the kingdom, could levy direct-taxes, i.e. those which would be paid by individuals.
The English Civil War was fought over whether the King required approval from Parliament on any expenditures in order to govern, or only needed Parliament when he needed extra money above his personal revenues to govern. The solution, after a series of civil wars and revolutions, was that the King would be denied independent revenue to raise an army.
Every parliament would have to annually pass a Militia Act, authorizing the funding of the military. If it could not, new elections would be required. Critically, parliamentary control over the armed forces was ensured by requiring all armed forces to be raised and paid with money authorized by the English and, later, British, Parliament. The King was not to be permitted a private army, nor was he to be allowed to appeal to the parliament of one of his kingdoms for resources to wage war upon another.
These traditions had serious implications when it came to the struggle over taxation before the American Revolution. The British government had spent extensively on colonial defense during the French and Indian War, and intended to keep a permanent military presence in North America, as much to ensure that enterprising colonial militia officers didn’t start further conflicts as to protect them from external attack. These would have to be paid for, but who and how was as important as how much money was raised.
If Parliament allowed the colonists to raise the money themselves, they would merely have recreated the colonial militias which had performed so poorly early on in the French and Indian War, and over which London would exercise only limited control. Therefore, it was important that they be paid by London. But how?
Almost everyone conceded the principle of “no taxation without representation” insofar as it applied to direct taxation. The English Parliament could not levy direct taxes in Ireland, which had its own parliament, and while some made the claim that the colonies were royal companies, this seemed a tenuous argument.
However, London had reserved the right to impose limitations on Irish trade and duties on Dublin shipping despite the existence of an Irish Parliament, and it seemed self-evident that the English Parliament could regulate the trade of an English-owned company, the East India Company, or its own postal service.
This constitutional tradition also explains why compromise proposals from the colonies were rejected. At various points, offers were made for the colonial legislatures to either raise money on request, or levy their own taxes.
The problem with both solutions was that they would provide the King with a source of revenue outside the purview of the English Parliament. One of the causes of the English Civil War had been King Charles I’s efforts to ask the Irish Parliament to raise an army. Proposing to allow the King of England to have an American army, paid for with American taxes and responsible to colonial legislatures, would be to allow him to wage war abroad without the approval or consent of the English Parliament.
There is little to no evidence King George III sought such power or considered such offers. His sense of constitutional propriety was strong. But it was precisely because such proposals flew in the face of the British Constitution that they were unacceptable. If there had to be troops in North America, the English Parliament had to pay for them.
What of proposals to give the American colonies representation in the English Parliament in London? This was more complicated than it sounds.
Unlike France, Britain has never provided direct representation for overseas territories in the London parliament which conceptually was tied to geographic rather than individual representation. The Parliament could not admit members who were not English to represent part of England. Canada and Australia were never granted representation, nor was the prospect seriously considered. How many were being contemplated? Would each colony be joining England, as Scotland did, as equals?
This would have raised deeper and potentially revolutionary questions about the status of Parliament and its potential reform. Parliamentary boundaries in England had remained unchanged since 1689’s Glorious Revolution. It had come to be an article of faith that they could not be changed, and that Parliament, as a representative of the nation, did not have the right to alter that representation either by creating new constituencies or eliminating existing ones.
When Scotland merged into England with the 1707 Act of Union, the Scottish Parliament did so as a body. When the Irish Parliament would be absorbed in 1801, Ireland would receive almost three times the number of members it would have been entitled to on the basis of population so that the British Parliament could admit, un-altered, representatives of every existing Irish constituency.
What this meant was that if Parliament could not create or alter constituencies in England, Scotland, or Ireland, on what basis could it create those in America? Nor was there a body it could easily merge with. To merge with the colonial assemblies would be to flood Westminster, and to admit their equality. The Continental Congress was a self-proclaimed body. To negotiate with it, much less merge with it as an equal, would be to admit that the American colonies were already sovereign.
Even if these conceptual problems could be overcome, the course would have provided little practical solution. The limited parliamentary franchise was as much an issue of public discussion in Britain as the archaic apportionment. By contrast, the electorate in America was expansive in a way unequaled anywhere else in the world. If America were to be granted 20 Members of Parliament, those Members of Parliament would be elected in all likelihood with several times more votes than the rest of the British Parliament.
It is hard not to see such roles attracting figures such as Thomas Paine, who would be certain to address meetings of the London populace contrasting their own lack of representation with a very different situation prevailing in North America. There would be little else the outnumbered American Members of Parliament could do. They could not hope to influence legislation directly. So, their only option would be to turn to the masses in Britain in the hope of sparking a revolution.
The prospects of such an explosion were much better in Britain than in France. London had a history of radicalism going back to the English Civil War. In 1780, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, the city had exploded in violent riots over laws allowing Catholics to inherit property on an equal basis with Protestants. These “Gordon Riots” involved tens of thousands marching on Parliament. The army killed 285 rioters, with another 30 executed later for their participation. That death toll dwarfed the five who died at the “Boston Massacre.”
Thomas Paine would later play an active role in the French Revolution, even being elected to the National Convention which tried King Louis XVI. In London, Paine would have been able to transform his arguments about “taxation without representation” from a call for American independence to one for revolution in Great Britain. He could point to the injustice of taxes on the food Londoners ate and the ale they drank being levied by a Ministry and Parliament whose members were elected by dozens of votes in rotten boroughs—or to a Church of England which collected mandatory tithes.
The British government would be faced with the choice of either arresting the American Members of Parliament for sedition or allowing them to incite violence, perhaps even Gordon Riots on a greater scale. Their prosecution might either trigger such riots, or if it followed them, provoke a subsequent American revolt.
In short, the only options available to Parliament and the King when facing the American “situation” were to attempt to “solve” a political and legal problem through force, admit the futility of such an attempt by granting independence, or to in effect invite an open debate on the entire British constitutional system in London.
They attempted the first solution, and conceded the second when it failed. The third was always a far worse option, as it was almost exactly the course Louis XVI would follow in 1789 to his fatal regret – summoning a National Assembly to the capital to debate every aspect of the structure of the state, with the implication that the gathering had the power to solve them.
The American Revolution was made by conservative men on both sides, and one reason both America and Great Britain escaped the 18th and early 19th century without the revolutionary violence which befell Europe was due to that. They worked within an originalist constitutional tradition that many at the time called anachronistic, and which befuddles observers today. But it was one of the important themes that when faced with compromising their principles of government for the false promise of expediency, or sticking to those principles even if it cost them, both Britain and America chose the latter.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.