The British levied several taxes on the American Colonists (13), which were at least part of the reason for the American Revolution. Were the British taxing the 13 colonies for more money than was being spent on or in the 13 colonies?

[edit] I am not asking if taxation was the cause of the American Revolution. I am asking how much the British took in as tax revenue from the 13 Colonies, and how much was spent on the 13 Colonies (before the Declaration of Independence).

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    I think some of this is touched on it my question: history.stackexchange.com/questions/235/… - mostly the British Crown was trying to recoup costs pertaining to the Seven Years War. It was a shared burden since the American Colonies were protected during that war.
    – MichaelF
    Oct 26, 2011 at 7:46
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    @MichaelF Is correct. The taxation was not ridiculous by any means, it was quite fair considering the effort put forth by the British to protect their American colonies. Oct 27, 2011 at 4:22
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    "Were the British taxing the 13 colonies for more money than was being spent on or in the 13 colonies?" That is a very strange criteria. Are you measuring how much they spent on them over the entire investment of the colony? vs how much they returned? Or a 5 year moving average? And as others have pointed out, how do you account for the relatively involuntary costs of the seven years war?
    – MCW
    Dec 12, 2012 at 11:48
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    OK - just wanted to clarify, because that's not how the contemporary British would have seen it. I've lost the reference, but the last primary source document I looked at summarized the trade relationship not in terms of taxes, but inflows of commodities and outflows of manufactured goods. (leaving aside the value of expanding the Empire and humiliating the French).
    – MCW
    Dec 17, 2012 at 11:32
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    Its appalling that all 3 answers are highly voted, but doesn't actually answer the actual question AT ALL. You guys are trying to justify the US revolution when the question is about the factual level of taxes.
    – user5001
    Nov 22, 2014 at 3:42

5 Answers 5


Actual tax figures had less to do with the revolution than the lack of representation in British Parliament.

In short, many in those colonies believed the lack of direct representation in the distant British Parliament was an illegal denial of their rights as Englishmen, and therefore laws taxing the colonists (one of the types of laws that affects the majority of individuals directly), and other laws applying only to the colonies, were unconstitutional. However, during the time of the American Revolution, only one in twenty British citizens had representation in parliament, none of whom were part of the colonies.


The complaint was never officially over the amount of taxation (the taxes were quite low, though ubiquitous), but always on the political decision-making process by which taxes were decided in London, i.e. without representation for the colonists in British Parliament.


  • Welcome to the site. An upvote to get you going.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 26, 2011 at 22:45
  • And a second. A good summary. It would help if you could expand on it with your own words perhaps, but nonetheless. :-)
    – Noldorin
    Oct 27, 2011 at 1:30
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    @malloc - The American colonies actually did have representation in British parliament by "virtual representation." Essentially one of the MPs was in change of American issues. Also, just using block quotes from Wikipedia is in bad form. Oct 27, 2011 at 4:23
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    @Gpierce: The British did like to argue that (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…) - but of course, this claim was risible even but 18th century standards. Dec 11, 2012 at 19:58
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    This doesn't answer the question! The OP specifically stated he did not want a cause of the War of Independence! So what does he get? The cause! Dec 11, 2012 at 22:19

It is rather difficult to find an exact number for how much colonists paid in taxes

This article on PBS Newshour says:

the average British citizen who resided in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes compared to only 1 shilling per year in New England

So as near as I can tell the answer is 1 Shilling per year. From what I can find online my best guess (and it is a guess) is that 1 shilling is worth about $340 today. see here

The costs To Great Britain are even harder to find.

The American Indian war cost the British £70,000,000 see here. That's £11,141,888,434.78 in today's money per this site.

Wikipedia says that in that time period there were 20 shilling a pound. The colonial population was about 2.5 million so that's about £125,000 in revenue from the colonies each year. That would take 560 years to pay of the war debt, ignoring interest and inflation and . . . well. . . revolution.

I couldn't find any info on the cost to administer the colonies but considering that the colonies were largely self governing, I'm guessing that the cost to Great Britain was minuscule compared to the war debt.

Of course we should consider that the British expected to keep a large military and naval force in the colonies. No doubt that expense would have been large.

More interesting information about taxes in America circa 1776

American Colonies (and to a larger extent, the British Crown) were primarily funded by tariffs and excise taxes. This means taxes primarily existed on imports of goods and services to the colonies, as well as on the sale of particular products. . . the average tariff worked out to about 10 percent of the value of imports, source

Sugar and Molasses Act (1733) taxed colonists at 6 pence a gallon.

Sugar Act reduced the rate of tax on molasses from six pence to three pence per gallon, but was more strictly enforced. source

Apparently the more stringent enforcement of the tax affected the colonial economysource:

The combined effect of the new duties was to sharply reduce the trade with Madeira, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and the French West Indies (Guadelupe, Martinique and Santo Domingo (now Haiti)), all important destination ports for lumber, flour, cheese, and assorted farm products. The situation disrupted the colonial economy by reducing the markets to which the colonies could sell, and the amount of currency available to them for the purchase of British manufactured goods.

Stamp Act Basically taxed anything printed on paper (and some odd things like dice or payments to employees) and was very long and complex The tax varied from selling land (two shillings), to an advertisement in a gazzet(newspaper), (two shillings), to a pack of playing cards (one shilling), or dice (ten shillings)

you can see the full list of all 54 taxed items here

The Townshend Acts imposed a tax on tea of four pence per pound which comes to about $8 in today's money. source

There was also the Currency Act which abolished the private bank notes (non-government backed money, or notes of promise) while not technically a tax this would have been a financial burden to the colonists. source

I Hope that helps!


Britain taxed the American colonies to help pay for the French and Indian War. Together with the taxes, Britain placed restrictions on their colonists crossing the Appalachian Mountains (to pacify certain Indian allies like the Iroquois.

The colonies felt that they had done Britain a favor by fighting on the front lines. They felt that they should have been rewarded, with greater settlement rights in the newly conquered territories, and fewer trade restrictions.

Instead, the colonists felt that they were being "punished." Hence the cry of "no taxation without representation." The real issue was not one of taxation, but rather privilege, and ultimately of "equality" with Britain--through independence.

  • It's quite ironic that the issue of taxation immediately reared it's ugly head following the successful American Revolution. +1 though, good answer. Oct 27, 2011 at 4:24
  • Also to be remembered that Universal suffrage was not in place at this time in Great Britain. The vote being only to property owners. Not for the common man. Sep 22, 2014 at 14:28
  • @JamesWoolfenden: And likewise in the U.S. after the Revolutionary War - Kentucky in 1792 was the very first state to abolish the Property Requirement on (white male) voters, which process only completed in 1856 in North Carolina. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Aug 22, 2015 at 22:36
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    This is not an answer to the question.
    – user14572
    Sep 4, 2015 at 16:13

The cash amounts of the taxes were not particularly high, but to the colonist's eyes this was besides the point. The success of the French and Indian war was enabled by a cooperation between the colonial governments and the British military. When a campaign was required, General Redcoat would go to a colonial legislature and say 'we need 500 men and their equipment, and supplies for 3 weeks. Or even "I need 10000 pounds to pay the regulars" Then the legislature would take care of the raising of the troops, supplies and funds. So the government and colonial government were partners in the enterprise of winning the war for the king.

Then after the war, the British Laws come in and cut out the colonial governments entirely, without even consulting them. By American colonial thinking, Parliament should have sent a message to the 13 colonies asking them to raise X dollars for this purpose. And after some negotiation, presumably they would do it. Parliament, having had nothing to do with the previous arrangement aside from benefiting from it, saw no need to elevate the status of colonial governments into a kind of partners in the Empire, decided to play hardball. The Colonial governments, not wanting to be demoted to bystanders, fought back with boycotts and later more extreme actions. And when push came to shove, the Colonies won independence. It all might have been avoided with some understanding on both sides of the ocean, but that's the breaks.

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    This is not an answer to the question.
    – user14572
    Sep 4, 2015 at 16:14
  • Read the first sentence again, silly person. Have fun downvoting old answers like a troll instead of contributing to the site.
    – Oldcat
    Sep 4, 2015 at 23:10
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    "The cash amounts of the taxes were not particularly high..." This fragment might qualify as a tiny bit on topic, but the rest of your answer is still completely off topic. Plus, your claim is completely unsubstantiated. Please post your sources.
    – user14572
    Sep 5, 2015 at 0:40

The following point came from Edmund Burke. Look for his papers about the American revolution. He represented colonial governments in some ways, and had many dealings with them. He was pushing for a peaceful resolution, the war was very much against his wishes.

The traditional arrangement was: colonies don't pay taxes, but are subject to commerce monopoly. Thus, American colonies could only export and import to UK, and not to other nations.

First, it would be hard to tax the colonies. They are too far away, and even if the king could send a trusted tax collector, any dispute would take too long to solve if it involved communications with London.

Second, if the commerce is done with the UK, everything could be taxed in the UK side, much closer to the king.

So, the monopoly is a easier way to tax the colonies indirectly.

Then, in the colonist's mind, any tax was really too much, because they were still subject to the monopoly - Further, any tax was against the established custom.

I doubt any tax of this period is comparable with the amount of taxes we pay now.

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    An non-US but same period anecdote: The Brazilian Inconfidence Revolt of 1789 was motivated by the Portuguese Crown taxation on mined gold: 20%, or the "quinto" (fifth). They considered 20% "completely absurd". Ask yourself if you pay less than 20% tax for anything today, after summing all indirect tax. And the quinto was taken only over mined gold. The government revenue come mostly from import/export taxes and road polls.
    – Luiz
    Jul 6, 2018 at 14:41
  • There were also limits on industries in the Colonies. Plus odd details like coal being required to be imported from Britain. The colonies were trapped as economically subservient. While at the same time the colonies had provided of a lot of their own defense in the past. If one looks beyond the French and Indian War there were plenty of cases where the colonies defended themselves without any help from Britain. Plus the British were looking at quality of life in America and assuming there was plenty of room for taxation. There was good quality of life but low levels of cash in circulation.
    – exploregis
    Jul 6, 2018 at 19:09

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