“Taxation of America”


"While I relate my story, Americans give ear, Of Britain's fading glory You presently shall hear." The singer tells the "true relation" or "the taxation of North America." "North, and Bute his father" propose to tax the Americas, but the Americans rebel


After the French and Indian War (Seven Year's War, for which see "Brave Wolfe"), Britain faced both a new obligation (the need to administer Quebec) and a huge financial burden (a national debt of 122,603,336 pounds, according to Robert Middlekauff, _The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789_ (Oxford, 1982), p. 57. And Britain had been taxed to the hilt. So attempts were made to gain additional money from the American colonies.

It's interesting to note that the Spaeth text never says *what* tax North and Bute wished to gather. As a matter of fact, the taxes on the Americans were quite mild compared to what the British suffered, and in many cases the British actually lowered the duties (e.g. the tariff on imported molasses was cut in half) -- it's just that the administration would actually attempt to *collect* the taxes, which had been widely evaded (Middlekauff, p. 61). The amounts were trivial (the most optimistic projection was 200,000 pounds per year, according to Middlekauff, p. 62, which wouldn't even cover the interest on the British debt, and most estimates were in the 75,000 pound range).

Given the overall incompetence of this song (which seems to have been known only from broadside and perhaps the Guernsey manuscript), it strikes me as quite possible that the author didn't *know* what taxes caused the colonists to revolt. For a song on the subject that's a little closer to actual reality, see "Old Granny Wales (Granny O'Whale, Granua Weal)."

Among those mentioned in Spaeth's text of this piece:

"North": Lord Frederick North, second Earl of Guilford (1732-1792). A political success from an early age, he became First Lord of the Treasury (in effect, prime minister) in 1770; he was the leader most responsible for the increased friction between the government and the colonies, though he was perhaps more willing to compromise than the ministers under him -- certainly more so than the King he served.

North repeatedly tried to find solutions for the American problems, or failing that to resign (see, e.g., Don Cook, _The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785_, pp. 294-295), but George III would not release him because North was the only man with enough clout to form a government who also would go along with George's wishes. He finally was allowed to leave office after Yorktown, when the opposition in parliament became so strong that North simply could not maintain a government. (Cook, pp. 357-358, tried to keep him on even then, but North knew the confidence motion was coming, and quit.) The American mess really wasn't his fault; it was George III's. But it was easy to blame things on North.

Ironically, North would briefly return to the government, working with Charles James Fox, in effect in opposition to George III (February 1783; Cook, p. 375); this was the government that in September finally ratified the peace with the U. S. -- though it might have come some months earlier had not the Fox/North coalition interfered with the work of the previous Shelburne government. The King hated the Fox/North team so much that he called upon 24-year-old William Pitt the Younger to form a government in December (Cook, p. 377)

"Bute his father": Presumably John Stuart, Third Earl of Bute (1713-1792). He wasn't North's father, but he was Prime Minister 1762-1763. His brief period of power, however, had little effect on colonial relations that I can see, though he was personally close to George III, to whom he had once been tutor. (Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, _Blood Royal: The Illustrious House of Hannover_, Doubleday, 1980, p. 115, even speculates that "perhaps [George III's] deep devotion for the handsome and elegant Lord Bute was not entirely platonic,? though he offers no evidence for this. Given how straitlaced George III was, I rather doubt that particular implication -- especially given his myriad children.)

It?s just possible that we should re-reference the pronoun and treat "his father" not as North's father but as George III's. Walter R. Borneman, _The French & Indian War_, Harper-Collins, 2006, p. 264, does say that George "idealized" Bute and implies that George may have treated him as a father-figure (George's father Frederick had died when George was 13, and in any case there was an unwritten law in the Hannoverian dynasty that fathers and their heirs always despised each other).

A third possibility is that the remark "Bute, his father" is a slam at George III's legitimacy. Middlekauff, p. 20, has much to say of Bute, "a Scot, the advisor -- not, as some whispered, the love -- of George's mother." Obviously the song might have been making the whispers explicit. However, there is no evidence of a relationship between the two -- and George III had clear resemblances to his Hannoverian ancestors.

Middlekauff adds, "For the next five years [Bute] served as the prince's tutor and friend. The friendship seems to have developed easily -- in part, we may suppose, because George craved affection and kindness and Bute responded with both. Yet... Bute held the upper hand: he was twenty-five years older, strongly opinionated, obviously intelligent, and he was in charge of the prince's education. Although Bute possessed the learning required, he was not a good teacher.... Bute himself knew much but did not understand men or human conduct.... Master and pupil then and later commonly mistook inflexibility for personal strength and character" (p. 20).

The colonies blamed Bute for the much-hated Stamp Act, but in fact it was proposed by Grenville after Bute had ceased to be Prime Minister. At worst, Bute's responsibility was indirect: As Prime Minister, he had created a plan to have the colonies pay for the troops based there (Middlekauff, p. 51). This is obviously reasonable, if you assume a standing army was needed there (and it probably was, with rebellious Canada to the north, Spanish Florida to the south, and constant conflicts with the Indians to the west as colonists kept trying to grab Indian land; Middlekauff, p. 54) -- but George III and Bute's successors refused to consult with the colonies about how to raise this money. By contrast with his predecessor William Pitt, who had been largely responsible for beating the French in Canada, Bute must have seemed a great disappointment.

"Green" (sic.): Presumably Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786), largely responsible for the success of the Colonial campaigns in the south after he succeeded Gates in 1780

Gates: Horatio Gates (c. 1728-1806), the theoretical victor at the key battle of Saratoga, though hindsight shows that he really had little to do with it; he was later appointed to command in the south, but botched matters and had to be relieved by Greene.

Putnam: Probably Israel Putnam (1718-1790), though it might be his cousin Rufus (1738-1824). Neither was a great success (in fact, both were rather disastrously bad officers), but Israel Putnam was still popular in 1779 when he was paralyzed and had to retire from the military.

Conquering Washington: Presumably you know who he is. - RBW

Historical references

  • 1760-1820 - Reign of George III


  1. Spaeth-WeepMore, pp. 3-5, "Taxation of America" (1 text)
  2. cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 477, "American Taxation" (source notes only)
  3. Roud #3687
  4. BI, CG477a


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1927 (Spaeth)
Keywords: money patriotic
Found in: US