France and Great Britain have been allies throughout most of modern history, both in times of war and peace. This wasn’t always the case. From the Norman Invasion of 1066 to the Napoleonic Wars of 1802-1815, England and France have been in a state of war at least forty times. Throughout most of that history, the two sides would clash until one or the other ran out of money, then yet another treaty would be trotted out and signed.
New taxes would be levied to bolster the King’s treasury, and the cycle would begin all over. The change in this cycle which began in the late 17th century can be summed up in a single word: Debt.
In the time of Henry VIII, British military outlays as a percentage of central government expenses averaged 29.4%. By 1694 the Nine Years’ War had left the English Government’s finances in tatters. £1.2 million were borrowed by the national treasury at a rate of 8% from the newly formed Bank of England. The age of national deficit financing, had arrived.
In one of the earliest known debt issues in history, Prime Minister Henry Pelham converted the entire national debt into consolidated annuities known as “consols”, in 1752. Consols paid interest like regular bonds, with no requirement that the government ever repay the face value. 18th century British debt soared as high as 74.6%, and never dropped below 55%.
The Seven Years’ War alone, fought on a global scale from 1756 to 1763, saw British debt double to the unprecedented sum of £150 million, straining the national economy.
American colonists experienced the conflict in the form of the French and Indian War, for which the Crown laid out £70,000,000. The British government saw its American colonies as beneficiary of their expense, while the tax burden on their colonists remained comparatively light.
For the colonists, the never ending succession of English wars accustomed them to running their own affairs. The “Townshend Revenue Acts” of 1767 sought to force American colonies to pick up the tab for their own administration, a perfectly reasonable idea in the British mind. The colonists had other ideas. They didn’t object to the amount of taxation as much as whether the British had the right to tax them at all. They were deeply suspicious of the motives behind these new taxes, and were not about to be subjugated by a distant monarch.
The political atmosphere was brittle in 1768, as troops were sent to Boston to enforce the will of the King. Rioters ransacked the home of a newly appointed stamp commissioner, who resigned the post following day. No stamp commissioner was actually tarred and feathered, a barbarity which had been around since the days of Richard III “Lionheart”, though several such incidents occurred at New England seaports. More than a few loyalists were ridden out of town on the backs of mules.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives sent a petition to King George III asking for the repeal of the Townshend Act. A Circular Letter sent to the other colonial assemblies, called for a boycott of merchants importing those goods affected by the act. Lord Hillsborough responded with a letter of his own, instructing colonial governors in America to dissolve those assemblies which responded to the Massachusetts body.
The fifty gun HMS Romney arrived in May. Customs officials seized John Hancock’s “Liberty” the following month, on allegations the sloop had been involved in smuggling. Already agitated over Romney’s captain’s impressment of local sailors, Bostonians began to riot. By October, the first of four regular British army regiments had arrived in Boston.
On February 22, 1770, 11 year old Christopher Seider joined a mob outside the shop of loyalist Theophilus Lillie. Customs official Ebenezer Richardson attempted to disperse the crowd. Soon the mob was outside his North End home. Rocks were thrown and windows broken. One hit Richardson’s wife. Ebenezer Richardson fired into the crowd, striking Christopher Seider. By nightfall, he was dead. 2,000 locals attended the boy’s funeral, the first victim of the American Revolution.
On March 5, wigmaker’s apprentice Edward Garrick taunted British Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch, claiming he had not paid a bill owed to his master. The officer had paid the bill and ignored the insult, but Private Hugh White, on guard outside the State House on King Street, said the boy should be more respectful, striking him with his musket. Garrick’s companion Bartholomew Broaders argued with White, as an angry crowd began to gather.
The shouting mob soon had White backed up to the State House steps, as Officer of the Watch Captain Thomas Preston dispatched a non-commissioned officer and six privates of the 29th Regiment of Foot, bayonets fixed, to back up Private White. The crowd began to throw stones and snowballs. Private Hugh Montgomery was knocked to the ground, and came up shooting. Then they all fired, killing three outright, and wounding six more. Two more lay dying.
Future President John Adams and Josiah Quincy defended the troopers in the following trial, in what would be the first time a judge used the phrase “reasonable doubt.” Two were convicted, but escaped hanging by invoking a medieval legal remnant called “benefit of clergy”. They would be branded on the thumb with “M” for murder. The others were acquitted, leaving both sides complaining of unfair treatment. The only conservative revolution in history, was fewer than six years in the future.
There is a circle of stones in front of the Old State House on what is now State Street, marking the site of the Boston Massacre. British taxpayers continue to this day, to pay interest on the debt left to them, by the decisions of their ancestors.
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