Eating Out Their Substance: Ever-Expanding and Intrusive Presence of Tax Collectors, and the Declaration of Independence
“He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
This Grievance in the Declaration of Independence focuses on the most visible aspect of “taxation without representation,” which was foundational to the American Revolution.
England was deep in debt after prevailing in the first worldwide war of the modern era. The Seven Years War (1756-1763) engaged all European countries, big and small, in a struggle for territorial and political dominance of the European Continent. It rapidly spread to battling over control of Colonies and trade routes throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.
What was known as the “French and Indian War” in North America was just a small part of this larger world war.
After the British victory, British Prime Minister, Lord Grenville (1763-1765), desperately sought ways to pay off the crippling war debt. Grenville chose to ignore the fact that American Colonists paid, fought, and died to defeat France in North America. Instead, he promoted the concept that the beneficiaries of the war (American Colonists) should pay for it. He also asserted that American Colonists should pay for retaining twenty battalions of British soldiers that remained to pacify the people conquered in the former French territories.
Grenville’s first step was to enforce existing customs duties. Many British Customs officials managed collections through intermediaries while remaining in England. Grenville forced them to relocate to America as part of his general crack down on smuggling, lax enforcement, and spotty revenue collection. Expanded numbers of Customs Officers became more aggressive in using search warrants, called “writs of assistance,” to track down smuggled goods. Warehouses were seized and ships were captured to bolster Royal revenue collection. Royal Customs officials became a permanent and pervasive presence in Colonial seaports along the Atlantic coast.
Benjamin Franklin cautioned that “what England gained from taxes would be lost in trade.” A post-War economic recession proved him prophetic.
The shortfall in Customs revenue led to the Stamp Act of 1765, the first internal tax levied directly on American Colonists by the British Parliament. Prior to the Stamp Act, taxes were only levied by local government through their elected officials. Now a government, 3,500 miles away, was asserting control, without the knowledge, approval, or oversight of the Colonists.
The Stamp Act imposed a tax on all paper documents in the Colonies. This included legal documents, playing cards, newspapers, and land titles. Stamps had to be purchased with British sterling, rather than local paper currency, causing additional economic hardship. Proof of payment required affixing a Royal Stamp on documents, thus the name.
The February 1765 Parliament debate on the Stamp Tax reveals the growing chasm between King George III and his proponents versus the American Colonists:
Prime Minister Grenville:
“and now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence until they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from heavy weight of the burden which we lie under?”
Colonel Isaac Barré [Member of Parliament and friend of Benjamin Franklin] responded:
“They planted by your care? No! Your oppression planted ‘em in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable country where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable…
“They nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of ‘em. As soon as you began to care about ‘em, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over ’em, in one department and another, who were perhaps the deputies of deputies to some member of this house, sent to spy out their liberty, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon ’em; men whose behavior on many occasions has caused the blood of those sons of liberty to recoil within them….
“They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defense, have exerted a valor amidst their constant and laborious industry for the defense of a country whose frontier while drenched in blood, its interior parts have yielded all its little savings to your emolument …. The people I believe are as truly loyal as any subjects the King has, but a people jealous of their liberties, and who will vindicate them if ever they should be violated.”
Barré’s reference to the “sons of liberty” became the moniker for the Boston Patriots for years to come.
Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. Hundreds of Royal commissioned “Stamp Agents” arrived in major towns across the American Colonies. They were met with riots and attacks. In October 1765, representatives from nine of the Colonies met at the City Hall in New York City to coordinate opposition, a forerunner to the Continental Congresses. In the face of mounting opposition, and concerns for the safety of Royal Tax officials, the Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on February 22, 1766.
While seeming to address Colonial concerns, Parliament linked repealing the Stamp Act to passage of the Declaratory Act. This Act affirmed Parliament’s authority to pass any Colonial legislation it saw fit, without input, notice, or representation. The Declaratory Act galvanized Colonial concerns about “taxation without representation,” first raised with the Stamp Act.
Charles Townshend (August 1766-September 1767) became Prime Minister and developed additional imperatives for taxing the Colonies. It was no longer just about paying war debt; it was about consolidating Imperial power.
Raising taxes, and trade-based duties and fees, would provide enough money for the British Crown to “reimagine” Colonial administration by directly paying Colonial governors, judges, and other senior officials. American-based officials would now owe their livelihood directly to King George III instead of the Colonists and Colonial assemblies. By “liberating” royal officials from their financial dependence on American legislatures, Townshend hoped to eliminate the most tangible obstacle preventing regular enforcement of parliamentary laws and royal directives.
Higher revenue from the American Colonies was also to provide enough funds for Townsend to reduce the British Land Tax, consolidating his Party’s support in future elections.
The “Townshend Acts” created new taxes on numerous consumer goods. The Acts authorized and funded the hiring of the much referenced, “multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.” Legions of Royal tax collectors and Customs Officers arrived from England to establish new or expanded operations in every major Colonial trading center.
Townshend died before his initiatives swept through the Colonies. Widespread opposition and protests led to the repeal of most taxes in April 1770. The controversial tax on tea remained.
The Tea Tax, and the “swarms of Officers,” remained daily reminders of oppression by unaccountable Royal officials. Arthur Lee, serving as an observer for Massachusetts before the British Parliament, mused whether any Member of Parliament actually:
“know us, or we him? No! Is he bound in duty and interest to preserve our liberty and property? No! Is he acquainted with our circumstances, situation, wants, etc.? No! What then are we to expect from him? Nothing but taxes without end!”
The ever-expanding and intrusive presence of tax collectors and customs officers merited several mentions in the “Petition to the King” as part of the documents issued by the First Continental Congress in 1774, and became one of the grievances within the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn
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