The Declaration of Independence made it clear that some of the American colonists, at least, were not delighted with their British overlords, which is certainly true, but the list of actual grievances doesn't look quite so intense when compared to the Declaration's incendiary rhetoric: George III, it says, "plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people."

What had the colonists' dander up were relatively small intrusions, though the sheer quantity of them might have been enough to provoke revolution. Friedrich von Blowhard turned up an enumeration in a current (2000) high-school history textbook:

  1. The British prohibition of 1763 on colonists moving west of the Appalachian Mountains
  2. The stationing of 10,000 British troops in colonies and on frontiers
  3. Stricter enforcement [of] Britain's mercantilist trade laws, including new legal measures, including writs of assistance, to search for contraband goods
  4. Special courts established for smugglers which abolished trial by jury
  5. The Stamp Act, which taxed all printed materials in the colonies
  6. Assertion of a Parliamentary right to tax colonists directly, without consulting colonial legislatures
  7. New tariffs on imported goods — glass, tea, paper, lead
  8. Friction between colonists and British troops in Boston

As Blowhard notes, this doesn't sound all that different from what 21st-century Americans put up with from their overlords on a daily basis. (Which suggests it's time for another Declaration, albeit not quite so dramatic.) Are we more complacent these days? Probably. But there's one other factor that played a role in 1776 which goes largely overlooked today: comparative quality of life at the most fundamental levels. Citing the work of Robert William Fogel, Blowhard points out that living conditions in the New World were far superior to that of the Old: in 1775, while the British had a life expectancy in the vicinity of 36.5 years, their colonists were averaging 53.5. The Americans were healthier, even taller than their British forebears.

The impact, says Blowhard, was predictable:

Given that most Americans of the Revolutionary War period were of British extraction and could hardly have been ignorant of conditions there, it must have been as plain as the nose on their faces that people lived far longer, ate far better and grew up more sturdily in the Colonies than in the Mother Country. So when the British government started tightening the screws on the colonies in the wake of the French and Indian wars, the mental calculation of the colonists must have been pretty simple: "Let me get this straight: you British aristocrats, in your infinite wisdom, want to make us Americans more like the average British working man? In short, you want us to live as poorly as you do? I think not, if I have anything to say about it. Martha, what did you do with my rifle?"

And it explains much about the thinking behind the US Constitution, which is no more complicated than this: "Every government on the face of the earth sucks. How can we make ours suck less?" Which is why the Constitution is only a handful of pages: yet the Federal Register, the inventory of all the subsequent laws, titles, sections, paragraphs and subparagraphs, would fill a whole boatful of sea chests. But don't get any ideas about dumping said chests into Boston harbor; the EPA will slap you with penalties for threatening the coastal environment.

The Vent

#469
  15 January 2006

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