As a result, the British tax system was in constant crisis, and North’s government strained to pay off the large debt run up in the recent French and Indian War. Faced with a system that was not working, but continuance of which was essential to the personal enrichment of the inner circle of the Old Whig clique, North’s government chose to double down on the old model. It resorted to ever more intrusive levels of state coercion to plug the holes in revenue enforcement, invented new forms of taxation that would be harder to evade, and abused the exceptions of admiralty law to circumvent the centuries-old right to jury trial, even far inland. High bail and distant trial venues served to make prosecution itself the punishment, regardless of an eventual verdict. Abusive enforcement of the customs laws fell heaviest on the colonies, which had no members of Parliament to complain on their behalf.
Particularly oppressive was the use of the Royal Navy to enforce the Navigation Acts. A handful of revenue cutters once engaged in token enforcement. Now, Navy ships, whose captains could carry out summary, jury-free enforcement under admiralty law, swarmed up and down the American coast. They disrupted the technically illegal commerce with the French West Indies that was a mainstay of colonial American prosperity, while seizing ships and impressing sailors into Navy service, despite the fact that many of them were legally exempt. Law enforcement and defense are two distinct activities, and the mind-set appropriate to one is not appropriate to the other. Use of the armed forces to enforce civil law is always the sign of a system in crisis, and so it was in pre-revolutionary America.
Phillips’s identification of 1775 as the turning point comes from this understanding of the Revolution as the result of a crisis not just in Anglo-colonial relations, but in the overall Atlantic mercantilist system. It was the escalation to systematic armed resistance in 1775, combined with the persistent preference of North and George III to escalate coercion rather than negotiate compromise, that made the Declaration of Independence a foregone conclusion.
Phillips argues that for the Patriot leaders of 1776, many of whom had no strong preference for independence per se, the Declaration was not at that point a radical step, but rather a conservative one, a means of legitimizing order in a time of chaos. George’s intransigence and declaration of rebellion had cut off any retreat back to empire and subjecthood. State committees and conventions, with no obvious legitimacy, were exercising de facto power with no de jure basis. Independence and statehood became the only way to create legitimacy, both for domestic stability and for the international status needed to seek and receive help. The Declaration was, as Phillips put it, “a stitch in time.”
This story has direct relevance for our own era. The institutions of the first British Empire were once reasonably functional, and they helped produce an age of unprecedented prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. Partly because of their success, they became less and less functional as the Empire grew and changed. Some of the most intelligent minds of the English-speaking world of that day — among them Franklin, Burke, and Adam Smith — devoted much thought to diagnosing these problems and proposing changes that would preserve a united Empire as a free, prosperous, and constitution-based polity. They failed, primarily because the minds in charge of the system were too small, unimaginative, self-interested, and arrogant to understand the scope of the crisis they faced, or the futility of escalating coercion against people with a long tradition of freedom and self-government.
Patrick Henry famously declaimed: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and George III — may profit from their example.” I would hesitate to draw a blind parallel today in a much different era, one in which we have many constitutional tools for change, not available to our ancestors, that have not yet been tried. Yet there are many today defending an old, tired, blind, and bankrupt system who may yet profit from the example of others such in the past.
– Mr. Bennett is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge and a co-author (with Michael J. Lotus) of the forthcoming America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century — Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come (Encounter, May).