Book Review / Founding fathers' tidy little war

A STRUGGLE FOR POWER by Theodore Draper Little, Brown pounds 25
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THE STORY of the American Revolution hangs on the mind's wall like a tapestry, visible but unnoticed until George III or George Washington elbows his way into a conversation. When the need arises we can use it to trace the outline of the Boston Tea Party and just pick out the shot heard around the world. It was a tidy little war, almost a toy war, organised by a handful of principled gentlemen now known in the United States as the Founding Fathers. It had something to do with taxes and representation, and it ended in a special relationship for one side and a written constitution for the other. Not a very satisfying portrait, but rich enough in images to make up a theme park (which Disney nearly did last year on the farmland west of Washington, DC) so long as no one asks the questions.

Theodore Draper consigns this moth-eaten cloth to the bin and embarks on an inquiry to fill the gap. He surveys both sides of the Atlantic, relying on the words of pamphleteers and government officials to explain the forces that gave birth to the colonies in the 17th century and then drove their separation from the mother country 150 years later. He raises all the questions, then finds the threads in the vast literature to answer them. His pattern explains not only the origins of the United States but also much about contemporary Britain and her relationship now with her colonial offspring.

In Draper's design, the revolution began not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence but generations earlier, with the granting of royal charters. Without the resources to colonise America on its own, the Crown permitted enterprising citizens to form their own councils and assemblies to administer the lands they settled. The system worked well in the early days, with raw materials flowing back to Britain to fuel a manufacturing economy and finished goods returning to a rapidly growing market. However, self- government can be habit-forming, as the governors who were appointed by the king to oversee the colonies soon were writing home. Six decades and more before the first shots were fired, they and others who came to visit were warning that a burgeoning population and an exploding economy would lead inevitably to demands for complete independence. Only a reversal of Parliamentary policy could delay the outbreak of revolutionary zeal, they warned, and even then only for a time.

Their letters frequently started with complaints about their own compensation. Having contributed few resources to the establishment of the colonies - other than land it did not own - Britain was reluctant even to provide salaries for the few officials installed to look after the affairs of government. These royal representatives found themselves negotiating with the assemblies for their own pay. In the absence of other institutions - an established church, a hereditary aristocracy, a military force of any size - the power of the purse emerged supreme. Thus began the American cultural obsession with money, as rank, religion and influence. The "struggle" in Draper's title refers to the internal fight to retain control of the purse as it grew to immense proportions, and to the trans-oceanic battle to wrest control of trade from Parliament.

It can be difficult to imagine how alarmed 18th-century British observers grew as America's population and economy began to come even with its own. While Britain's population stagnated, America's doubled every 25 years. By 1750, colonial manufacturing was beginning to supplant that in the mother country. The colonies already claimed more degree-granting institutions of higher learning. Had an imaginative government moved at that point to incorporate the colonies into a greater Britain, providing a kind of partnership, a break might have been avoided, but the rate of growth soon made that possibility academic. A tragically weak government made it unthinkable.

A shortage of labour to operate this burgeoning economy meant wages reached significantly higher levels in America almost from the beginning. The wealthiest Americans still lagged behind their counterparts across the sea, but the general prosperity meant the floor was raised substantially for those near the bottom. The growing market drew British commercial attention away from the Continent. By mid-century, the economy had grown heavily dependent on colonial trade, with colonial customers owing an astounding pounds 5 million to creditors here. The dependency led to defensiveness, which in turn led to a rigid governmental insistence on submission to the supremacy of Parliament.

Yet evasion of the law, at least in the realm of trade, was an honourable pursuit in 18th-century Britain. Smuggling, across the Channel and the North Sea, was pesky then as now, but inhibiting it would have cost far more than it would have yielded in duties. In that spirit few Americans objected to the trade laws prohibiting purchase of manufactured goods from other countries and taxing molasses, as long as no one attempted to enforce them.

In Draper's view, the Seven Years' War (King George's War to the Americans) changed the British tolerance for colonial autonomy. Having spent a fortune to prosecute what Draper calls the first worldwide conflict, the government, after a raging public debate, settled for the transfer of Canada from France rather than the sugar island of Guadaloupe. Conventional wisdom has it that removal of the French from the northwest eliminated the colonial need for protection and allowed the blossoming of an independent spirit.

But Draper sees it instead for its economic consequences. The war left Britain deeply in debt. Parliament grew unwilling to maintain a standing army west of the Appalachians to protect the region without Americans bearing at least some of the annual cost of pounds 300,000. Thus, the Stamp Act and later other duties. Colonial defiance of these brought British insistence for submission by its dependents. However, if either remained dependent at that stage, it was England and her merchants, not the colonists. This first British Empire hardly deserved the name. In any event, the reaction to the attempt to squeeze revenue from the Americans was predictable: a final drive for independence.

Flammable as the colonial mood may have grown by the early 1770s, a spark was lacking. Along came a British soldier, one of only 5,000 among a population of 2.5 million spread along the Atlantic seaboard. Enlisted men often found part-time work in the colonies to supplement their meagre pay. On 2 March, 1770, as Private Patrick Walker strolled past a rope factory in Boston, an employee enticed him:

"Soldier, do you want to work?"

"Yes, I do, faith," said Walker.

"Well then," said the worker, "go and clean my shithouse."

A brawl ensued; violence escalated.

Three days later, a mob attacked a British sentry. A relief party was confronted with a crowd taunting them to fire. Someone shouted an order. Three townsmen died then, two more soon after from their wounds.

Thanks to the propaganda skills of Sam Adams and his fellow Boston radicals, these five deaths became the Boston Massacre. But was that the spark? No. Even then, reluctant as both sides were to break their bonds, war was still six years off. Only after a new generation of revolutionaries, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton among them, had emerged as leaders did the lawyers, newspaper publishers and merchants at the head of the movement convince the colonies to unite in revolution.

Draper has devoted much of his professional life to the examination of revolutionary movements. American Communism, Castro, the Dominican revolt and black nationalism have all drawn his attention. This time he looks to his own nation's revolutionary roots and finds them deeper and broader than the sanitised histories would suggest. A Struggle for Power provides economic and political history at its best, clear, compelling, honest and fair, illuminating the present as it explains the past. Draper's unmannered prose and his knack of allowing popular documents of the day to carry the story make this a comfortable and satisfying read.