- Revolution against Empire: Taxes, Politics, and the Origins of American Independence by Justin du Rivage
Revolution against Empire masterfully synthesizes eighteenth-century debates over political economy and foregrounds them as a major cause of the American Revolution. Rather than concentrating on the American revolutionaries, however, Justin du Rivage focuses his attention on the discussions that unfolded across the British Empire between parliamentary leaders and colonial subjects who championed competing visions of empire. Examining the American Revolution in an imperial context helps to explain not only why the colonists rebelled but also why British officials stubbornly pursued tax strategies that so aggravated the colonists. Du Rivage argues persuasively that the American Revolution was "a revolution not for or against monarchy, but against the authoritarian transformation of the British empire" (4).
The author introduces three competing groups that vied for influence in British politics in the second half of the eighteenth century. Establishment Whigs sought a commercial empire supported by a powerful military. Imperial expansion provided the source for economic growth, they reasoned, and therefore military spending should continue unabated. Establishment Whigs believed that existing revenues would be sufficient to fund current operations. Excise and consumption taxes would make colonial taxation unnecessary. The rising costs of maintaining empire provoked challenges from authoritarian reformers, however, who believed that fiscal austerity was necessary to repay the government's [End Page 541] immense loans. Authoritarian reformers promoted a vision of empire that emphasized order and centralization. Excise taxes initiated by the establishment Whig government had rendered British exports uncompetitive and encouraged moral disintegration and debauchery among the lower classes. Taxes on luxury would rein in licentiousness, authoritarian reformers argued, and taxes on subsistence goods would lower wages sufficiently to restore the competitiveness of British manufactures. Radical Whigs shared authoritarian reformers' concerns about corruption, but rejected both their premises and their conclusions. Less concerned about moral corruption among the lower classes, radical Whigs decried the proliferation of sinecure positions in government. Colonial trade, rather than exports, provided the lifeblood of the empire according to radical Whig pamphleteers. High taxes and commercial regulations threatened to suffocate trade and stifle growth. Radical Whigs proposed replacing the excise system with higher taxes on the landed gentry. Eliminating colonial taxes would promote free trade and foster a decentralized vision of empire.
Du Rivage argues that historians have largely accepted authoritarian reformers' arguments at face value and treated imperial tax policy after the Seven Years' War as a foregone conclusion. Such interpretations ignore the arguments put forward by their Whig critics. While radical Whig arguments found strong support in the American colonies, du Rivage explains how authoritarian reformers came to dominate British politics on the eve of the Revolution. These reformers argued convincingly that colonial taxes were indispensable to maintaining the fiscal solvency of the empire. Colonial resistance provided support for their worldview. Unruly colonists appeared to be disciples of anarchy and disorder. Authoritarian reformers called for even greater administrative centralization and new taxes to force the colonists to submit. In this context, taxes not only presented a demand for revenue but also reflected imperial priorities. Du Rivage describes the outcome of this political polarization as an imperial civil war. The colonists declared independence not because they had developed a distinct identity but because they rejected "the empire that Britain was becoming" (204).
Revolution against Empire complicates the traditional narrative of taxation and representation while simplifying the messy political economy distinctions that cloud the American Revolution. A major contribution of this work is in reconciling the transatlantic historiography. Historians of the revolutionary era have often neglected or misunderstood British [End Page 542] politics by suggesting a broader consensus existed in favor of parliamentary authority to tax the colonies (13–14). Du Rivage has marshalled an impressive number of pamphlets and essays to dissect and survey the intellectual history of the period. At times the author could give a better sense of the relative size of each of the respective factions. While most colonists found radical Whigs persuasive...