Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Marketplace of Revolution


For those who don’t know me, I’m Rob. I’m an actor, playwright, and comedian who works in New York and Los Angeles.

I’m currently busily working on various projects. One of them, a play that will be produced early next year, explores the moral complexity of the founding of our country, an issue frequently swept under the rug of self-aggrandizing mythology. Though the script is already written, I still search for obscure and informative books about the time period in hopes that new information will inform my rewriting process.

This search has lead me to The Marketplace of Revolution by T. H. Breen. This book explores the American Revolution from a purely economic viewpoint, theorizing that similarities in economic behavior served as the true catalyst for uniting the colonies against Britain. So to kick off my tenure here, I’ll first provide you with a brief summary of my understanding of the American Revolution, and while reading the book, track how my understanding of the movement evolves and grows.

My current understanding of the revolution movement is, essentially, that it first arose in a post Seven Years War world, when the British Empire re-imposed mercantilist regulations on their colonies, introducing taxation and enforcing age-old Navigation Acts to finance war debt.

The policy seemed sound for a variety of reasons. One, the colonies were originally created to serve the mother country’s economic interests. Two, Britain used the same tactic a decade earlier in India. After British forces successfully battled the French for territory to ensure the British East India Tea Company’s economic dominance in the region, a deal was struck in which the company agreed to pay the British government an annual fee to repay charges incurred during battle. The same strategy, when applied to the American colonies was, of course, an abysmal failure, reversing 75 years of salutary neglect first instituted by William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

Two pieces of legislation passed in the wake of the Stamp Act illuminate in crystal clear terms the difference of opinion that ultimately lead to war: The Declaration of Rights and Grievances passed by the colonies in 1765 and the Declaratory Act passed by Parliament a year later. The Declaration of Rights and Grievances states the belief of the colonies that Parliament has no authority to tax them without their consent. The Declaratory Act states Parliament’s firm belief in the opposite.

This issue snowballed, not reaching definitive resolution until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Britain’s first controversial measure, the Stamp Act, was met with a colonial non-importation agreement created by the Stamp Act Congress. Britain repealed the Stamp Tax but replaced it with the Townshend Duties of 1766. Bostonians responded with riots and mob attacks. Britain responded by sending a standing army to police Boston. Tensions between Bostonians and British soldiers lead to the Boston Massacre of 1770, an incident seized upon by colonial propagandists.

In the 1770’s, Parliament attempted to use their colonies to help resolve a somewhat different economic issue. The bankrupt British East India Tea Company, desperate for funding to repay government loans, resolved to sell excess tea to the American colonists. The Sons of Liberty, who owned the docks of the Boston Harbor, refused to unload the tea, and one day before the tea was supposed to be legally seized by the royal governor, they threw it into the sea. Britain’s response was the Intolerable Acts. Colonial response was the First Continental Congress, which agreed to form militias. The activities of these militias lead to Lexington and Concord. Then, an eight-year war ensued, after which it became definitively clear that Britain would never again levy another tax on any of its former thirteen colonies.

And so we shall see, over the course of the next few weeks or so, how Breen’s analysis of the events helps flesh out my understanding of the topic. Until then…


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