The Restoration to the Peace of Utrecht
The earliest accounts of American taxation cannot be separated from the politics of colonial commerce. Charles II’s ascension to the British throne in 1660 marked the restoration of the Stuart line in England, and brought to an end the tumultuous era that had followed the English Civil War in 1641. While Cromwell’s Puritan revolutionaries had largely ignored the fledgling North American colonies, Charles was determined to incorporate them more fully into a mercantilist trading system. Traditional mercantilism advocated the expansion of national wealth through a favorable balance of trade. By encouraging exports and restricting imports, nations built up a surplus of specie; foreign gold and silver flowed in to cover commercial debts. Colonies represented potential new export markets, of course, but by channeling colonial trade with the rest of the world through English ports, the King could expect a surplus of customs duties to pad the royal coffers.
The Crown’s efforts to implement such a system in the post-Restoration era took effect in a variety of measures designed to tighten control over colonial trade practices and government affairs. A series of Navigations Acts between 1650 and 1750 established the guidelines for Imperial regulation of colonial trade along mercantilist lines. Although the colonists actually acceded to such royal stipulations only in varying degrees, a comprehensible precedent defining the ends and limits of Imperial commercial policy became discernible in this era. Meanwhile, as the institutions of colonial self-government matured, and civic upheaval transformed political discourse in England, concerns about the relationship between representation and the locus of taxation authority grew more relevant.
1651 Puritan merchants based in London gained substantial representation in Parliament following the beheading of Charles I in 1649. They applied their newfound influence to secure passage of the Navigations Act of 1651. This ordinance attempted to preempt the influence of Dutch merchants by requiring all goods imported into England or the colonies to be carried on English or colonial ships. It was the earliest mercantilist attempt to regulate colonial trade. Ignored by the colonists, the act went largely unenforced.
1652-1654 The first of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars fought to control maritime markets ended in stalemate. The Dutch Republic had been the dominant commercial power for over a century, controlling the commerce of the East Indies, as well as western trade in slaves, sugar, and furs. Much of England’s mercantilist strategy over the next 20 years was designed to expand English trade and profits at the expense of the Dutch. The Navigations Acts imposed by the British government in the two decades that followed directly incited conflict between London and Amsterdam, and placed the American colonies at the center of a global war over trade.
1660 Charles II created a new committee of the Privy Council, the Lords of Trade and Plantations, charged with formulating colonial policy. Parliament passed the Navigations Act of 1660, which strengthened the ban on foreign shipping initiated in 1651 and declared that certain enumerated goods – sugar, indigo, and tobacco – could be shipped only to other English possessions. Duties were applied to most of these commodities.
1663 Parliament passed the Staple Act, requiring that the goods enumerated in the 1660 Act be shipped exclusively to England, where they could subsequently be reexported to other countries at greater profit to English merchants. The Staple Act also called for European exports to the colonies to be shipped through England first. Adding a middle man in this fashion inflated the prices of foreign goods, making English goods cheaper by comparison. As such, the Staple Act had an effect similar to that of a protective tariff. In the 1660s, the duties on tobacco from the Virginia and Maryland colonies amounted to 25 percent of English customs revenues and 5 percent of the Crown’s entire income.
1664 In the second of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars, the English annexed the only Dutch outpost in North America, New Amsterdam (renaming it New York), and effectively drove the Dutch from the continent.
1673 Parliament passed the Revenue Act of 1673. The act imposed a "plantation duty" on certain American exports and closed loopholes colonists had employed to export tobacco and other products directly to European markets. It also created a staff of customs officials to collect the plantation levy in American ports. This staff was the first revenue-collecting administration in the British New World.
In the third of three Anglo-Dutch commercial wars, the English Navy succeeded in usurping Dutch supremacy in world trade, and effectively ended their dominance of the West African slave trade. Subsequently, English merchants were free to expand their private fleets and gain a dominant position in Atlantic Commerce. The Navigations Acts played a central role in enhancing Britain’s world position.
Imperial duties levied on colonial tobacco brought in £100,000 annually by the mid-1670s. Charles II required such extravagant sums to finance his exorbitant personal and governmental expenses. In addition to this ample income, the Navigations Acts also ensured English self-sufficiency with respect to critical semi-tropical crops like sugar, tobacco, and indigo.
Just as the King relaxed royal authority over colonial land in this era by issuing large proprietary grants (Pennsylvania [external link], New York, New Jersey [external link], the Carolinas) to political allies, his tightening of colonial trade regulations and administration also served to secure support for his Restoration regime. Since the Acts established a monopoly over colonial markets for British merchants, they helped cement the alliance between monarch and mercantile community, many of whom were Puritans. Merchants now stood as a ready source of financing for wars and other royal undertakings.
1681 Royally appointed customs collectors resided in every colony by this date, supervised by a resident surveyor. A surveyor general oversaw this colonial customs bureaucracy, reporting violations of the Navigations Acts to his London superiors. Although the Acts established a policy for Imperial regulation of colonial trade, in practice colonial merchants often resisted or sidestepped royal authority. Local inhabitants physically accosted customs officials, while colonial juries in New England and the Chesapeake tended to acquit merchants accused of illegal trade practices.
1684 The Massachusetts-Bay Colony had enjoyed its heyday while a sympathetic Puritan regime controlled England between 1642 and 1660. Subsequently, the colony chafed at the Stuart monarchy’s mercantilist system. Interpreting the various Navigations Acts as intrusive and burdensome, colonial merchants tended to ignore them completely, conducting, for example, a thriving commerce with the Dutch and French sugar islands.
At the urging of exasperated English customs officials in North America, the Lords of Trade took action to curtail colonial independence. The Lords advocated the abolition of all proprietary charters and criticized the autonomy of the corporate colonies of New England. They persuaded the English Court of Chancery to annul the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, on the grounds that its Puritan government had violated the Navigations Acts (and virtually outlawed the Church of England).
1685 James II ascended to the British throne. As the Duke of York, James had ruled the proprietary colony of New York in authoritarian fashion for two decades, refusing to allow a representative assembly. As a Catholic, he had little empathy for Puritan colonies. His desire to curb the power of colonial representative institutions and subject the colonies to firmer royal control comported well with the mentality of the Lords of Trade.
1686 With James’s blessing, the Lords of Trade revoked the corporate charters of Connecticut and Rhode Island, merging them with the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies to form The Dominion of New England. New York and New Jersey were added two years later. The Dominion represented a new authoritarian model of colonial administration. James appointed Sir Edmund Andros [external link], an arrogant military official, as the Dominion Governor, and abolished the Massachusetts General Court. Situated in Boston, Andros acted to abolish local assemblies, ruled by administrative fiat, and levied arbitrary taxes. Other colonies experienced similar authoritarian rule, and within a year stood on the brink of revolt.
1688 James II pursued identical policies in England: abrogating the corporate charters of towns and guilds, levying new taxes without Parliamentary consent, and declaring that his son and heir would be raised as a Catholic. A subsequent Protestant uprising in Parliament drove James II from the throne and into exile. William of Orange, a Protestant Dutch Prince, accepted an invitation to rule with his English wife, Mary, as "constitutional monarchs" who would accept the rights of Parliament.
The so-called Glorious Revolution ushered a sea change in political philosophy as well. The long-held understanding of the "divine right of kings" gave way to notions of a constitutionally limited monarchy, permanently checked by the authority of Parliament. English revolutionaries, or Whigs, believed that the enhanced capacity of the Legislative body, particularly its role as the final arbiter of taxation, best protected the traditional rights of English subjects from regal capriciousness.
John Locke most clearly elucidated the principles of the Glorious Revolution in his seminal work, Two Treatises on Government (1690). Locke grounded his thesis on the assumption that rights and liberties were not necessarily the arbitrary constructs of government – he argued there were certain universal entitlements to "life, liberty, and property" that preceded and superseded any specific regime. Governments were formed by mutual consent of the governed specifically to preserve and enhance "life, liberty and property," and derived their authority and legitimacy from such consent. Locke even hinted that this putative contract between governors and governed could be dissolved if a regime habitually abrogated its subjects’ inalienable rights. Locke’s natural rights philosophy, with its concomitant endorsement of popular sovereignty and representative government (though not democracy, per se), would resonate strongly with many Americans, especially those who wished to augment the power of colonial assemblies.
1689 News of the Glorious Revolution in England set off popular uprisings in Massachusetts, Maryland, and New York. Governor Andros was overthrown and the Dominion of New England dissolved. King William’s War (The War of the League of Augsburg) against Catholic France began.
1691 King William III granted Massachusetts a new charter [external link] establishing it as a royal colony. The charter affirmed the crown’s authority to appoint the governor and naval officers to supervise ports, while guaranteeing that delegates to the colonial assembly were to be popularly elected by property-owning males, including nonmembers of the Puritan church.
Bifurcated authority between colony and crown, governor and elected assembly, gradually became the norm throughout North America. By the early 18th century, only Rhode Island and Connecticut elected their governors. The king appointed governors in all other colonies except the proprietary colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, where the Penn and Calvert families, respectively, exercised that power. This system tended to increase political autonomy for property-owning colonists at the same time it extended royal authority over military affairs and trade.
1696 Parliament passed the Navigations Act of 1696, which required American governors to enforce trade regulations and increased the legal powers of customs agents. The Act replaced the Lords of Trade with a new Board of Trade, composed of politicians and officials with knowledge of colonial affairs. It also created Vice-Admiralty Courts to enforce all laws of trade and navigation. Unlike most local colonial courts, Vice-Admiralty Courts did not rely on juries; decisions were rendered by a single judge appointed directly by the royal governor.
From 1689 to 1713, Britain engaged in almost perpetual warfare with Louis XIV’s France in order to prevent the Catholic juggernaut from dominating the balance of power in Europe. During King William’s War (War of the League of Augsburg, 1689-1697) and Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1713), the Board of Trade undertook extensive military planning for operations against the French in Canada. It also exercised significant influence over colonial administration, advising the Privy Council on the appointment of colonial governors and other royal officials, and reviewing acts passed by colonial assemblies in order to reconcile them with the economic policies of the British government. Soon after the Board’s creation, Parliament added to the number of American products subject to the board’s regulation under the Navigations Acts. The exigencies of war tended to instigate such tightening of administrative controls.
1699 Parliament passed the Woolen Act, which prohibited the export and intercolonial sale of certain textiles in an effort to protect the British textile industry from budding colonial manufactures. Such legislation was consistent with a mercantilist orientation that discouraged colonial industries from competing with similar British concerns. Colonies were to be limited solely to supplying raw materials. Excise duties on colonial tobacco contributed £400,000 in royal revenue annually.
1702-1713 Great Britain fought Queen Anne’s War (War of Spanish Succession, 1702-1713) with France.