Study of a tumultuous time that shaped 13 of Great Britain’s North American colonies into a breakaway nation.
The great takeaway from this deeply researched, occasionally plodding history by Norton (Emerita, American History/Cornell Univ., Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World, 2011, etc.) is that taxation without representation is reason for restiveness and rebellion. Yet, as she notes, Colonial Americans were not entirely indisposed to paying taxes to the British Crown: The colonists were so enamored of tea that it was difficult for even the most independent-minded to avoid paying the consumption tax the British government placed on it—twice, in fact: once when it arrived in England and once when it arrived in the Colonies. One solution was to acquire tea on the black market, brought in illegally from non-British Caribbean countries or from Holland. Boston alone, writes the author, brought in 265,000 pounds of taxed tea in 1771—but another “575,000 pounds of smuggled tea.” Norton delivers a densely argued account of the economy of tea and other commodities, such as tobacco. The former, in particular, served as a flash point for revolution come the so-called Boston Tea Party that closed the year 1773 and during much of the turmoil of 1774, which would finally boil over in the armed uprising at Concord and Lexington and its spread into revolutionary war. Though the book is most useful to specialist readers, of particular interest are episodes that illustrate how Colonial thinkers viewed the prospect of war with the mother country in that climacteric period. These include a legally minded cleric who calculated that since King George III had effectively broken his bargain with America by “levying war upon us,” all bets were off and the Colonies owed allegiance to neither monarch nor Parliament.
Norton makes a good case for considering 1774 and not 1776 to be the foundational year of the new republic.