Teaser 21 - History of the American Consolidated Union

In honor of Independence Day this week, we wanted to present some history from the Atlantic colonies that eventually become the American Consolidated Union. In the Steamscapes world, there is no Independence per se, but there is still cause to celebrate this week. From the book:

Part 2 – Back from the Brink

Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts was alarmed at the brazen anti-Parliament attitudes demonstrated by the Boston citizenry. In January of 1774, he composed a letter directly to the King requesting additional military support in anticipation of armed insurrection. The tone of his letter suggested his belief that the only proper course of action was a full rejection of the colonists' rights to independence or even representation. Fortunately for England, cooler heads prevailed upon George's ultimate decision.

Lord Rockingham, still one of the most influential Whigs, pointed out to Prime Minister Chatham first of all that the colonists did still have a legitimate constitutional complaint as long as even one of the Townshend Acts remained. More importantly, however, he explained the Boston protests not as a rebuke of Parliament or the Crown, but of the East India Company and the protectionist fiscal policies that enabled its monopoly. By Rockingham's reasoning, if the colonies were a sufficiently well-established economy that they could be used as the "dumping ground" for excess inventory, then they were large enough to be respected as an economic power in their own right. Essentially, he told the Prime Minister, England must choose whether to stand with the East India Company or with its citizens in the Americas.

Chatham considered the issue carefully from this perspective, and decided that the East India Company had essentially worn out its usefulness as a tool of the Empire, and that the North American continent represented much greater potential for revenue and resources. With unprecedented cooperation from both Tories and Whigs, he ordered the immediate repeal of the tea tax and the end of the embargo against foreign tea. Although many  colonists immediately hailed these actions as a major political victory, some agitators—most notably Thomas Paine—seized the opportunity to suggest that further capitulation could be won from England. It turned out that Chatham had anticipated this, and he already had his next act prepared.

In the middle of 1775 and at the behest of his Prime Minister, King George invited noted thinker Benjamin Franklin to visit London. This surprised many, including Franklin himself, because he had been responsible for publishing a leaked copy of Governor Hutchinson's letter following the Boston Tea Party. He was considered by many Tories to be the worst of the colonial Whigs, mostly because they found him too well-reasoned to dismiss him like they dismissed so many of the American intellectuals. Nevertheless, Ben Franklin decided that he had a moral obligation to explore the purpose behind the meeting, so the author and philosopher set out for England. The colonists waited with great anticipation to see what announcement he would make upon his return. In August, Franklin arrived in Philadelphia and sent immediate word to each colony that it should send delegates for what would be called a Continental Congress. The purpose of this gathering would be to propose solutions that would allow for some measure of colonial autonomy without losing political and economic ties to the crown. Essentially, King George was allowing the colonies to write their own constitution.

Initially, all fifteen Atlantic provinces from Newfoundland to Georgia were invited. However, the  Newfoundland delegation quickly fell into a bitter dispute with South Carolina over the issue of slavery. Newfoundland saw the Congress as an opportunity to abolish the practice entirely, a prospect which deeply offended plantation owners. The argument threatened to scuttle the process even before it began. Ben Franklin urged both sides to enter into negotiations with an attitude of compromise, but his pleas were insufficient to stop the conflict. Ultimately, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia walked out of the Congress on principle. Other Northern provinces decided that autonomy was more important than abolition. They were not prepared to risk King George's goodwill on idealistic crusades, so they stayed, thinking to resolve the slavery issue later.

With Franklin's guidance, the Continental Congress was able to cobble together a proposal in just a few weeks. The most critical elements of the agreement involved economic autonomy, enabled by a fiscal policy called indirect taxation, the brainchild of visiting economic philosopher Adam Smith. Smith's plan was to create an independent tax authority in the colonies, which would be responsible for all levies, licensure, and fees of government in America. The colonial government would then pay a percentage to the crown. Essentially, the provinces would become a holding company in which King George was the primary shareholder. In return, the provinces would receive a significant degree of self-determination, including the ability to arm themselves and conduct local elections. They would not answer to Parliament, but the King would retain executive privileges.

The proposal was sent to London in December, and debated well into the new year. Obviously, many in Parliament did not much care for it. Nevertheless, the Whigs were gaining strength, and the argument about the "justice of self-rule" was compelling. Finally, the last strains of opposition died away, particularly as many Tories realized that this represented a convenient way to simply ignore the "colonial problem" for the foreseeable future. With consensus established, King George agreed to ratify the proposal as a full Constitution and send it back to the provinces. On July 4th, 1776, the American Colonial Government was officially convened.