If there is one recurring theme throughout human history it’s that attempts at economic hegemony have a tendency to lead to wars. Rome versus Carthage, Allies versus Axis, the Spanish-American War are some examples.
The American Revolution was no different.
England, in debt from fighting the French and Indian War, tried to force the American colonies to foot some of the bill. England imposed a series of new taxes on the American colonies throughout the 1760s. But that’s not all. The British government cracked down on colonial trade, limiting imports from foreign countries and revoking civil rights of the colonists to put an end to smuggling imported goods.
As early as 1760, Britain began its enforcement of the Writs of Assistance. This was a general search warrant giving British customs officers the authority to search homes, ships and warehouses for smuggled goods. A general warrant means that customs officers did not actually need to obtain the paper document known as a search warrant.
Merchants like John Hancock and others were well-known smugglers of French and Spanish wines. Other traders would smuggle molasses, for making rum, because it was cheaper to obtain from French or Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
What did this mean for the British government? Smuggling goods under the nose of the British Navy meant that Americans were avoiding a mandatory tax on any imported good. To the British, the American colonists were cheating the system.
Now that England sent customs officers to the colonies, smuggling was going to be more difficult to get away with.
Boston Lawyer James Otis argued in court against the Writs of Assistance in 1761, stating a violation of privacy rights. “One of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house,’’ Otis said in his argument. “A man’s house is his castle; and while he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.’’
Even though the court decided against Otis, historians consider this court case the beginning of the revolutionary era in American history.
By the mid-1760s the 13 colonies were starting to feel the pressure of the new taxes placed on them. England imposed the Sugar Act (1764), Stamp Act (1765), and Townshend Act (1767) on the American colonists. The Sugar Act was a tax on wines, molasses and sugar, which provoked more smuggling to evade the tax. And again, Otis attempted to come to the rescue, voicing his opinion that “Taxation without representation is tyranny.’’ Eventually the Sugar Act was repealed.
The Stamp Act was a tax on paper products, which led to violence in Boston. Massachusetts Stamp Tax collector, Andrew Oliver, feared for his life and had the inside of his home destroyed. Ultimately, the tax collectors in each of the 13 colonies resigned and the act was repealed.
The Townshend Act was a tax on various products like lead, paint, glass, tea, and paper. This tax led to a boycott of goods sent from England. Seeing the loss in profits, England’s parliament partially repealed the act.
Colonial leaders accomplished the job of swaying public opinion in their favor by arguing that the writs of assistance and the trio of taxes were unconstitutional, limiting the privacy and economic freedom of the citizens. And there was more than just money at stake. British parliament also passed the Quartering Act in 1765, forcing colonists to house and feed British soldiers. The Tea Act came in 1773, leading to the Boston Tea Party, which, in turn, led to the Coercive Acts in 1774.
By that point, tension had reached a climax and resentment among the colonists led to war a year later.
That era of American history compares to today. But instead of being controlled and limited by a foreign government thousands of miles away, our own government is imposing similar restrictions on citizen’s rights from Washington D.C.
Since 2001, the USA Patriot Act has been a violation of privacy rights guaranteed in the 4th Amendment. The reason behind it has been to stop terrorist activity, but the definition of terrorism is so broad that it can include many people and many different groups. Since last year, the USA Freedom Act has taken the place of the Patriot act, but there are still critics who say that phone and internet data collection haven’t been rolled back enough.
Taxes have been raised, and with the Affordable Healthcare Act, they will continue to rise. Regulations have been placed on businesses at all levels of government; and we’ve reached a point that makes it incredibly difficult to open a new business. In fact, for a time, more businesses have been shutting down than starting up according to the Washington Post (Sept. 17, 2014).
What this shows – during the Revolutionary era and today — is that government control creates more discontent, less economic freedom, and less prosperity.
Interesting fact: James Otis argued his case against his law professor Jeremiah Gridley. who represented the British government. I actually found a narrative of the lawyer’s statements. The impression made me believe that Otis presented a winning case against his mentor, but the deck was stacked against him.
I suppose this is one of those episodes of truth being stranger than fiction.