The Anti-Anticorruption Origins of the American Revolution

The story of the American Revolutionary War is one that many of our readers – certainly our American readers – know well. According to the conventional narrative, at least as conveyed in U.S. high schools, the British crown’s unfair taxes, punitive laws, and general disregard for the Thirteen Colonies led to protest, massacre, and revolution. There is, however, another perspective from which the story could be told, in which the British were not engaged in arbitrarily denying colonial rights, but were instead embarking an on anticorruption crackdown that went horribly awry.

In the eighteenth century American colonies, smuggling goods to avoid tariffs was not so much an industry as a way of life. In the 1750s, more than three-quarters of the tea consumed by Americans was illegally imported. In 1763, the value of contraband imported into the colonies was estimated at a staggering £700,000. Smuggling was so prevalent that New England merchants could purchase insurance in the event that their cargo was seized by British authorities. And this flagrant smuggling was enabled by a culture of rampant bribery, in which paying off customs agents was business as usual. During this era, the British customs service routinely sent to the crown only a quarter of its operating costs as revenue.

Smuggling-related corruption was not just petty bribery of customs officials. One popular method of smuggling during the French-Indian War involved sailing under flags of truce to “exchange prisoners” (actually paid actors) with the French West Indies. Colonial governors had the discretion to grant such flags to aid the war effort, but many governors instead sold the flags at a high price to merchant-smugglers. William Denny, the Governor of Pennsylvania, found this activity so profitable that he sold truce flags on an open market, amassing a small fortune. Denny’s corruption was hardly limited to flags: as governor, he signed a number of bills that the Crown had instructed him to oppose, in exchange for each of which the Assembly voted to give him £1,000. Denny also demanded high fees to sign military commissions and land warrants; with respect to the latter, the payments he demanded were so steep that the land office was forced to close entirely. He also regularly used his absolute veto power as governor to extort money. (Years later, Benjamin Franklin cited Denny’s conduct as the basis for objecting to an absolute presidential veto in the U.S. Constitution.) And although Denny’s corruption was particularly notorious, he was hardly unique: many of the people who took positions as colonial governors did so in order to line their own pockets.

Corruption in the American judicial system also thwarted British attempts to clamp down on undesirable behavior. Governor Denny, for instance, walked free in spite of British desire to press charges, and he died in London as a wealthy man. American juries regularly refused to convict smugglers. American judges were equally sympathetic to colonists when crown officials pressed charges, and many judges were known to be on the take. When two New York Supreme Court justices were implicated in smuggling, American newspapers refused to print the story, and the informer was hauled through the streets, pelted with filth, and imprisoned. On the rare occasion that a judge was forced to convict a smuggler, the judge would often sell the confiscated goods back to the smuggler at a fraction of their value.

British officials were, understandably, frustrated by this state of affairs. Although hardly corruption-free by modern standards, an ideology of anticorruption had been gradually developing in England. The term “patriot,” which originated in the late sixteenth century, grew prominent in the late eighteenth century, and in Britain connoted not merely love of country, but rather the ideal “disinterested ‘patriot’ who placed the public interest above his own.” English political cartoons of the late 1700s depicted valiant parliamentarians lopping the heads off of hydras labeled “corruption,” and showed “corrupt figures vomiting” to represent “purging the state of corruption.” Cancer as a corruption metaphor, which remains in common use today, originated in England in the seventeenth century, although the word “corruption” had religious connotations at the time. In this context, it’s easy to see why many in England viewed the corrupt colonies as something of an embarrassment in need of purging.

Accordingly, the Crown decided to clamp down on smuggling and bribery in the colonies with the Sugar Act of 1764. In addition to imposing new taxes, the Sugar Act included dozens of new regulations on colonial commerce and strict means of enforcement. Customs officials were required to report directly to their outposts, rather than appointing underlings who might be more susceptible to bribery. The Sugar Act penalized bribe-takers with a £500 fine and a lifetime ban from civil and military service. The Sugar Act also halved the levy on molasses imports, with the hope that a lower rate would reduce incentives to bribe customs officials.

Although the direct taxes enacted by the Sugar Act were a primary driver of colonial hostility, the anti-smuggling and anticorruption provisions were also deeply unpopular. Despite the broad authority conveyed by the Sugar Act, customs officials were largely left adrift when attempting to actually enforce the new laws. In 1765, the merchants of Newport, Rhode Island, offered the newly arrived customs inspector, John Robinson, a bribe of £70,000 to turn a blind eye to smuggling. When Robinson attempted to punish this action, the judge allied himself with the merchants, and the prosecutor would not even appear in court. When ordering the seizure of smuggling ships in a nearby town, Robinson found that not only was there no one willing to follow his commands, but the local sheriff arrested him on false charges.

The Crown attempted to further remedy this situation by passing the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, which sought to remove local influence from the customs enforcement process altogether. The Sugar Act authorized, and the Stamp Act established, a single vice-admiralty court, with both original and appellate jurisdiction, for all of the American colonies. Those accused of smuggling were required to pay trial costs in advance—sometimes assessed at double the value of their vessel—or forfeit everything. Vessel owners were also presumed guilty, as the government was not required to present evidence of fraud. Although trial by jury was theoretically guaranteed by the Magna Carta and reaffirmed by the 1689 British Bill of Rights, this right was suspended within the vice-admiralty court. The Townshend Acts also offered financial incentives for what we would now call “whistleblowing,” awarding informants one-third of all goods seized. Judges were similarly entitled to a percentage of any goods they declared unlawful. Finally, the Townshend Acts created the American Board of Customs Commissioners to oversee the collection of customs uniformly across the colonies. The Board replaced one problem with another, however, as its members were notoriously corrupt and engaged in extensive “customs racketeering” by arbitrarily seizing ships and auctioning them to line their own pockets. It was on the request of the Board that British soldiers were sent to occupy Boston, culminating in the Boston Massacre outside of their headquarters. As one historian has argued, “[t]he actual separation of the continental colonies from the rest of the Empire dates from the creation of this independent administrative board.”

No doubt, the prelude to the American Revolution was a complicated one, and the colonists had legitimate grievances against the Crown. Nevertheless, it’s notable that the reviled Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts can be readily characterized as a reasonable and well-intentioned, if rather crude and poorly executed, response to rampant colonial corruption. Faced with a corruption problem, which was pervasive from the lowliest customs officials all the way up to the colonial governors, the Crown attempted to crack down, closing loopholes and stiffening penalties for bribe-takers. When local courts refused to enforce the new laws, the Crown created a new court and an independent board to oversee it instead. These actions do not seem so different from the recommendations that modern anticorruption experts routinely advance today. Yet, the crackdown not only failed to staunch corruption in the colonies, but fomented open rebellion and, ultimately, revolution. Part of this failure can be attributed to the ham-fisted nature of the regulations. The Sugar and Stamp acts created a “bureaucratic nightmare” of regulations that meant that “any small vessel engaged in inland trade would probably be guilty of some violation or other, even when there was no criminal intent.” This overcorrection from under-enforcement reinforced colonial beliefs that the Acts were unfair, as well as enabled abuse from customs officials. There were also the practical difficulties of implementing any kind of meaningful reform when a one-way trip from England to the colonies was 4 to 6 weeks by ship. Perhaps most importantly, however, the Crown may simply have underestimated the importance of smuggling and corruption to the colonial economy. New England in particular (where the Revolution began) had little in the way of desirable raw goods, and thus faced near trade extinction when anti-smuggling laws were enforced. Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard presciently warned an English associate in 1763 that the “mischievous consequences” of the impending crackdown on smuggling “will not appear so certain on your side of the water as they do here,” but that “if the Northern Colonies are not allowed to import foreign sugars & molasses upon practicable terms, they will become desperate.”

And so they did.

5 thoughts on “The Anti-Anticorruption Origins of the American Revolution

  1. Thanks for the fascinating post, Zach. I think you raise some important issues. One thing that occurs to me is that there were two rival conceptions/views of corruption at work in the decade leading up to American independence. On the one hand, you had advocates of the Stamp Act and other imperial reformers who–not entirely wrongly–saw the colonies as lawless and guilty of widespread evasion of imperial trade restrictions and taxes. Such lawlessness included, as you point out, widespread bribery and corruption. On the other side, folks like Benjamin Franklin, the Elder William Pitt, and the Earl of Shelburne (who sometimes referred to themselves as “Patriots”) articulated a view of corruption as the product of an expanding imperial state that created opportunities for self-enrichment by elites. Both sides saw corruption in the colonies as a problem, though many British critics of colonial corruption were more likely to see it among colonists and the lower orders while self-described patriots were more likely to identify it among political elites. Both sides had a point. Increasing British control of the colonies through a growing colonial bureaucracy promised to create new opportunities for political patronage and for making American elites more dependent on British political leaders than on colonial voters. But, as you rightly point out, colonists smuggled ith abandon, and building an imperial state strong enough to stamp out corruption, particularly when that state was also seeking to extract more tax revenue and discipline the colonies, was bound to lead to political conflict.

  2. Fantastic post Zach, and super enlightening. I am fascinated by your argument that corruption made up a significant part of the economy and culture of the colonies. Certainly, as Justin points out, there are two ways to see this: either that this corruption was pervasive among the “lower orders” or among the political elites. However, I wonder if corruption as a “culture” was born out of a rebellious urge to bypass the crown’s laws and conduct business outside of the “legal” order, as a sign of protest and disregard for the crown’s reign. I suppose a way to answer this question would be to see if the pervasiveness of corruption continued once the colonies established their statehood. If not, then perhaps corruption was a byproduct of discontent.

  3. Very interesting post. Reminds me of an American history course I took in which the teacher brought in this angle about smuggling, but from a different point of view. According to him, the issue was that Britain imposed the same tarrif regime for the colonies as it had for England. This meant that exports from the colonies to England would not be charged any tarrifs as the colonies were considered part of the same country, but imports from foreign countries into America would be assessed the same high duties as they would face in England. This created perverse incentives because while the colonists gladly benefited from not having to pay tarrifs for their exports to England, they went for smuggling when it came to importing cheaper goods from other countries instead of wanting to pay customs duties to the crown, thus essentially having their cake and eating it too. Do you have any thoughts on whether there is truth to this? And what kind of customs duties were imposed after independence and how they were different from those previously in place? Did smuggling continue at the same level or was there any change in its nature and extent after 1776?

  4. Incredibly engaging post Zach! I wonder what was the primary motivation in Brittain’s enhanced focus on corruption. You mention the development of British anticorruption ideology and the “ideal disinterested patriot who placed the public interest above his own” as well as the rampant smuggling of goods into the colonies (presumably evading British taxes). Do you think the latter desire to increase their own tax revenue contributed to some of the failures of British reform, such as overcorrection from under-enforcement?

  5. What a fascinating post Zach, thank you! I don’t know much about American history, but your analysis of Britain’s anticorruption efforts and the colonies’ response to them, makes me think of sentiments I’ve heard expressed among post-imperial countries in the Global South that “Western countries” overestimate corruption in Global South countries and/or apply different standards for corruption when assessing Global South countries — and thus unjustly avoid collaboration/ transactions with them, or go about such collaboration in patronizing ways. I’m not sure there is any strong empirical evidence that this unjust avoidance actually happens, but it is definitely a frustration I’ve heard expressed before.

    Reading your post makes me think there might be some link between colonialism/imperialism and transnational anticorruption efforts — perhaps even today! Keen to think more about this (and to dispel the impression that there is a link, if that’s warranted).

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