Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Changing Taxing without Representation to Revolution for Independence: The British Prohibitory Act of 1775

In searching for a criminal, policemen have been trained first to search for a motive -- "Cui bono" is the Latin judicial expression. By all reasoning, New England had the most to gain from starting a war against the British military machine, and the British had most to lose. If either one even briefly considered the possibility of losing the war, these two had most to lose. The New Englanders just had more to gain, as well. The New Englanders got twelve contiguous allies they badly needed and wanted, and even so they barely won. William Bradford was doing all he could to stir up a war at Philadelphia's London Coffeehouse, for reasons of his own. Paul Revere had tried on the Delaware River for a tea war at Greenich New Jersey with better reasoning, and John Adams did his best with persuasive arguments at the Continental Congress six or eight blocks away from Carpenters Hall. The big holdouts were the pacifist Quakers, who didn't think anything was worth a war. All three Mid-Atlantic colonies were Quaker-owned and dominated. Nothing would persuade them to go to war, except being attacked.

It is unclear who figured it out, but the British fell for it. They allowed themselves to be persuaded they could win the war quickly, so George Washington drew it out until the French gave the Brits more to contend with. But who was it who perceived there was a legal difference, dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, between being hanged for armed rebellion and merely negotiating between two sovereign nations? We don't know, but keeping its originator a secret certainly sounds like Benjamin Franklin, who had been an insider on both sides, had prestige and access to the leadership of both hotheaded sides which had betrayed him, and knew how to keep his mouth shut. In fact, he had suggested a common union at the 1745 Albany Conference. He had a score to settle between both the British and the Quakers. Provoking the British to start hostilities first, accomplished the near-destruction of both of the two groups who had offended him, after first promoting him as a distinguished leader. Even centuries later, we continue to learn that Poor Richard had a second side to him. We may never learn the truth of this bold assertion, but no one could challenge its plausibility. Right now, the British need us more than we need them with Brexit, so corroborating evidence may not be soon forthcoming. There are other strong possibilities; John Adams understood the power of privateers better than Lord North of the Admiralty did, and Admiral Howe was in no position to argue but wavered in his loyalty. Somebody engineered this enormous distraction and understood the British weakness for bravado as well as its American cousin, heedlessness. No one admires old Ben more than I do, but I have to admit to myself that Franklin has the best credentials for this job. Unless the real culprit was just that long monthlong communication gap, with its inherent delegation of authority to people who were not in a position to understand the full consequences of their power.

In any event, the pacifist Quakers whose assent was crucial, put up comparatively little opposition to conflict the British had clearly started. Defending yourself was always a weakness of pacifism, especially if you had led the flock to believe God would somehow defend them. And the legal pretext was that armed rebels' only choice was to switch from "Taxation without Representation" which was the slogan for Lexington and Concord, to "Independence" which carried less punishment. This would seem like no choice at all to the Frontiersmen. Opposition to war was anyway undermined when the enemy attacks you. The great miscalculation was to think George Washington didn't have a chance against the greatest war machine in the world. Also, Adams knew 3000 miles of ocean were on his side. And he knew that even the Quakers could agree that hanging for treason was worse than negotiating a treaty between two nations about boundaries. Adams was one of the few lawyers in America, so he would immediately see this distinction and how to exploit it. Besides, he probably was a little bit crazy, himself. North only made one mistake, losing the war, but how could he anticipate that? The more you go down the list, the more disqualified everyone seems. Except Franklin.

Originally published: Friday, August 23, 2019; most-recently modified: Wednesday, September 18, 2019