The Peace of Utrecht to the Seven Years War
The Peace of Utrecht in 1713 brought the perpetual struggles on the European continent to a temporary end, and inaugurated a generation of tranquil respite. During this era, the economies of the British colonies in North America flourished, as they were drawn more integrally into a burgeoning Atlantic system of triangular trade. Simultaneously, prosperity fostered ever-increasing exposure to British manufactured goods and culture, prompting colonial society to grow more Anglicized. Colonists on the edge of the American wilderness came to view themselves as British subjects abroad, heirs to the motherland’s civilized institutions and beneficiaries of attendant rights and privileges. The British Government’s milder approach to imperial economic policies during this era abetted the process of Anglicization. At the same time, such “salutary neglect” encouraged the maturation of colonial political systems and the concomitant autonomy of colonial legislatures, furthering trends that had begun in earnest in the wake of the Glorious Revolution. As colonial societies expanded and matured, colonists expected the British home government to uphold, or at least not interfere with, the prosperity and autonomy they enjoyed. When transitions in British external affairs and internal politics inspired a fundamental reorientation of imperial policies, however, the colonies resisted changes they viewed as detrimental to their interests.
1714 King George I (1714-1727) ascended to the throne. As an elector of the Duchy of Hanover tapped by Parliament to preserve a Protestant monarchy, the German-speaking king had to rely on influential ministers to exert any real political authority.
1720 Sir Robert Walpole, leader of the Whigs in the House of Commons, becomes chief minister to King George I (and George II, 1727-1760), a position he occupied until 1742. In this role, and during his service as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Walpole became the primary architect of imperial colonial policy between 1714 and 1742. Relieved of the burden of global war with France, Walpole deferred to the wisdom of his personal motto, “Let sleeping dogs lie,” when dealing with the North American colonies. He accepted the status quo, instituted few new policies, and scaled back the degree of official interference in colonial affairs, an approach that came to be known as “salutary neglect.” Walpole decided that forceful imperial rule only stood to interfere with his preference for a merchant-dominated empire based on trade.
Walpole’s benign hand and deference to merchants fostered an already prominent trend toward legislative autonomy in the colonies. Prior to 1689, royal authorities and authoritarian elites wielded the upper hand in colonial politics. In the 18th century, as colonial societies grew and became more diversified, colonial politics tended to become more representative and slightly more democratic. The ideological influence of the Glorious Revolution complemented these demographic changes. Drawing on the example of the English Whigs, leaders of the American representative assemblies established the same committees that existed in the House of Commons. Foremost among the powers coveted by colonial legislatures was the authority to levy taxes. Control of taxation, in turn, served as a wedge to procure greater constitutional equity relative to a royal or proprietary governor. The connection was simple: Assemblies voted for taxes that paid the governor’s salary, an important bargaining chip in negotiations over the control of patronage and the budget. Sovereignty over taxation and revenue also served to stymie the implementation of unpopular imperial edicts. Royal bureaucrats and absentee proprietors roiled at such insolence, but legislative autonomy became a fact of political life in the colonies. Of course, royal governors continued to exert their influence through control of patronage and land grants, but political authority gradually reverted to parochial leaders who controlled the assemblies. These assemblymen, in turn, marshaled local support to resist governors or royal bureaucrats.
In British politics, Walpole secured support for the Crown’s policies through assiduous dispensations of patronage, pensions, and gifts. This strategy had a discernible impact on the royal customs bureaucracy in the colonies. The patronage system tended to fill colonial posts with mediocre officials concerned with their own enrichment rather than the integrity of imperial trade policies. Such men were more susceptible to bribes and less likely to challenge the will of local elites. Patronage eviscerated the Board of Trade, traditionally the institutional spearhead for colonial discipline. Lacking reliable support, even the most reform-minded governors and officials could do little but assent to colonial preferences.
Walpole’s opponents in Parliament decried the strategy he employed to build a strong “court party,” claiming that it encouraged corruption and enervated the principles of constitutional monarchy established during the Glorious Revolution. These “Real Whigs” were joined by another set of critics loosely referring to themselves as the “country party.” The latter criticized Walpole’s close ties with merchants and financial institutions, and warned of the threats to liberty embodied by high taxes, extensive royal bureaucracies, a standing army, and large national debts.
Ironically, even as Walpole’s patronage system worked to their political advantage by etiolating royal influence in North America, colonists found much that was appealing in the rhetoric of the minister’s opponents. They still rankled at the arbitrary power royal governors employed – vetoing legislation and using land grants and appointments to influence legislators’ votes. Real Whig ideology indicted excessive executive power and corruption as forces corrosive to representative bodies and traditional liberty. Such rhetoric resonated with colonists, especially influential assemblymen.
1732 Parliament passed the Hat Act, prohibiting the export and intercolonial sale of finished hats. Like the Woolen Act before it, the Hat Act represented another attempt to discourage colonial manufacturing within a mercantile economic system.
1733 By the 1720s, the colonies produced more flour, fish, and barrels than the British sugar islands actually needed. Accordingly, colonial merchants shipped the surplus to the French West Indies, which helped French growers to gain control of the competitive European sugar market. In response to desperate petitioning on the part of British sugar planters, Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1733, which imposed a high tariff (6 pence per gallon) on molasses imported into the colonies from non-British possessions. But New England merchants, who often imported molasses from the French West Indies, and New England distillers, who needed it to produce rum cheaply, stood to suffer financially. This protective tariff favoring British agricultural producers over colonial merchants and distillers comported once again with a mercantilist policy that promoted the integrity of the Imperial Atlantic trade over the profitability of colonial commerce. New England merchants were largely able to ignore the Molasses Act, however, bribing customs officials and smuggling French contraband. Despite the Board of Trade’s efforts to oversee colonial customs officers, the actual flow of commodities in and out of American ports evaded imperial control. The Act was never seriously enforced, and sugar prices subsequently rose to render the immediate issue moot.
1740 King George’s War (War of Austrian Succession, 1740-48) renewed hostilities with France and brought the post-Utrecht era of peace to an end.
1748 The Earl of Halifax assumed the presidency of the Board of Trade, intending to undertake a more aggressive approach to colonial regulation. By the late 1740s, many members of the Board of Trade became increasingly concerned with the growing political power exercised by colonial assemblies and the stubborn independence of colonial merchants. Senior British ministers, however, generally ignored the Board’s warnings and calls for administrative reform.
1750 Parliament passed the Iron Act to prevent the manufacture of finished iron products, another effort to discourage colonial industry in competition with that of Britain. The act was extensively violated in the colonies.
1754 Although British mercantilist policies sought to subjugate the colonial economy, an important loophole in the Navigations Acts had the opposite effect. The Acts had always allowed Americans to own ships and transport goods, thus enabling colonial merchants to gain control of 95 percent of the commerce between mainland and the West Indies. The American merchant fleet, for example, carried 75 percent of all manufactures shipped across the Atlantic from London and Bristol. Quite unintentionally, British mercantilism fostered a dynamic and wealthy community of colonial merchants. These merchants formed part of the provincial elite whose influence tended to keep royal governors in check.
Prosperity did not guarantee unanimity among colonies, however. When various colonial representatives convened in Albany to discuss war plans against the French and certain Native American tribes, Benjamin Franklin suggested a Plan of Union. The plan collapsed in part because individual colonial assemblies had no intention of surrendering their autonomy.