Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Minor Quibble on the American Rebellion

All authors are guilty on occasion of exaggeration (even hyperbole) and, as often, prone to error. I commit all three deficiencies on occasion too. Hopefully, the rest of our work is acceptable at least in avoiding all three weaknesses of the human condition.

Take a clear case of the weakness of error in an otherwise acceptable essay by Ann Berg in, entitled “Money's Sordid Tale of Dirty Floats, Debasement and Doom”:

“The same year Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, America revolted against the absolutism of monarchial power and soon after developed the first comprehensive contract in history between state and citizenry.”

Now, I have little sympathy for the British King George III and his government’s policies towards the American Colonies (although I understand where they were coming from having spent £100 million in wars with the French to protect the American colonies and their trade worth £20 million), but I willingly confess to a touch of Smithian human sympathy with him in his mental illness.

And that is the error I see in Ann Berg’s piece. The British monarchy by the mid-18th century was not in any way and example of the European ‘absolutism of monarchial power’. Whatever the legitimate grievances of the colonists against the British government’s policies of ‘taxation without representation’, these had nothing to do with practice and powers of absolutist monarchy on the Continental model.

Britain had eroded the power of absolutist monarchy from the 16th century onwards and power shifted to parliament, especially under Cromwell’s 17th-century governments. The colonists' slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’ was itself recognition of the new, non-absolutist, status of constitutional monarchy in Britain in the mid-18th century. No King could impose taxation in Britain without the authority of parliament. If the British parliament claimed authority to tax the colonies the people to be taxed must have representation; this was an unassailable principle, over which parliament had clashed mortally with Charles I. In the end it cost him his throne – and his head.

It was the British parliament that attempted to impose taxation on the colonies (to contribute to their own defence instead of relying solely on the British taxpayer); the King had no authority to do so. He was the Head of State, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The vote to impose taxes was passed by parliament because this was no longer and solely the absolute prerogative of the King.

In France, there was a real absolutist monarchy (at the time, 1776, it had only 13 years left of the absolutist power to tax at will). By that time (1789) the US Constitution had taken shape, but Smith was to die in 1790 and did not see the great progress materialise, which he had predicted in Wealth of Nations for the colonies. He considered that within a hundred years the American colonies (1880s) would become the most powerful economy in the world. He was right; so were the American rebels.

[Read Ann Berg’s full article at:]


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