Everyone has heard the expression: “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” The most memorable expression of this proverb was given by the elder William Pitt, the future Lord Chatham:
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail, its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storms may enter, the rain may enter,—but the King of England cannot enter; all his forces dare not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.”
Pitt made these remarks in the course of a debate in the House of Commons on March 27, 1763. The topic of debate was an excise bill put forward by Lord Bute, the Prime Minister, and George Grenville, First Lord of the Admiralty and days away from replacing Bute as Prime Minister. Grenville was Pitt’s brother-in-law and until recently the pair had been strong political allies, but when Grenville decided to break with his party and join the Bute ministry, the alliance was off.
The Excise Bill of 1763 was also known as the Cider Act because it levied a tax on cider. To enforce the act, agents of the Crown would be able to search any suspected business premises for untaxed cider. This was an apparent violation of Common Law restrictions on the power of the King’s agents to enter a man’s property without the owner’s permission. Unfortunately, there was ample precedent for such illegal searches in England. The numerous and various excise statutes, for example on sugar and molasses, gave customs officials the right to search vessels and warehouses on mere suspicion that there were untaxed goods on the premises, but the proposed Cider Act went further and permitted inspection even of private homes in which a farmer or cider merchant might well store some of his product.
To make matters worse, another abuse had grown up over the years: the issuing of general writs of assistance, something like John Doe warrants, which permitted revenue agents to enter the shop or home without even having to obtain a specific warrant that included the name of the proprietor under suspicion. The immediate results of the Cider Act were anti-government riots and the election of opposition MP’s, which led to Lord Bute’s resignation. As Prime Minister, Grenville, despite mounting opposition, maintained the tax.
Britain was a thriving commercial empire in the 18th century, and you may be wondering why the government had recourse to such unpopular measures as these excise taxes.
The simple answer is the Seven Year’s War with France that is known in America as the French and Indian War. Sir Robert Walpole, the first British statesman who can properly be described as Prime Minister, virtually bankrupted the government in order to defend Britain’s colonial possessions in North America and India. New England merchants, although they were getting rich under the protection of the British Navy and British troops, had come to resent even the small fraction of the cost of their own protection they were asked to pay.
Three years later the government, under increasing pressure from cider and wine merchants, backed down and repealed the tax, but to replace the lost revenue Grenville devised the Stamp Act, which imposed an excise tax on every official document—wills, contracts, etc. Since business cannot be conducted without such documents, this led immediately to a sense of frustration followed by active resistance in the American colonies. The crisis occasioned James Otis’ famous declaration that “taxation without representation is tyranny.” To add fuel to the flames, Paul Revere—already a leader in the New England resistance movement—borrowed an English cartoon attacking the Cider Act and refashioned it to apply to the American crisis.
From a distance of more than two centuries the excise issues that led to the American Revolution may seem like paltry affairs, and even James Otis, the leading spirit of New England’s tax rebellion, only reluctantly signed the protest against the Stamp Act. For all the bluster about taxation without representation, Otis knew it was only fair for the colonists to help pay for their protection. Besides, only a minority of Englishmen were able to vote for their parliamentary representatives. For Otis, however, the question was not so much Parliament’s right to tax or the specific rights of Americans, but the Common Law rights of Englishmen everywhere, the rights so dramatically proclaimed by William Pitt.
In defending Boston merchants against the customs officials who had seized their property under general writs, James Otis joined the nascent rebellion. Arguing that no Parliamentary action could overrule the Common Law, Otis declared the writs to be invalid, describing them in 1761 as “the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and fundamental principles of the constitution that ever was found in an English law book.”
John Adams, who was present when Otis made his general case against the writs, remembered the event all his life. In 1817 he wrote that “every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain.”
Back in England, William Pitt again rose to the occasion and attacked his brother-in-law’s Stamp Act, which made war on the fundamental rights of British subjects. Pitt was hailed in North America as the political savior of the colonies, and the grateful merchants of Charleston, South Carolina, erected one of the first bronze statues in the North American colonies. The American secession from the British Empire, in other words, was not really a tax rebellion but an assertion of our right to be secure in our own homes, secure not just from criminals but from government thugs and spies. More to come….
This is the text of the annual Ides of March Lecture, delivered on March 13, 2014.