When Email Collaboration Could Have Changed History

In our mission to make history relevant to the busy IT executive, we speculate how Email might have helped pivotal events in history. Could the War of Independence have been due to a misunderstanding?

Part I: The American Revolution

The year is 1765, and the Parliament of the United Kingdom face a difficult decision. How can the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies in America be encouraged to pay taxes to pay for the troops maintained in America? One answer that the Prime Minister proposed was the payment of a ‘Stamp Tax’ on all legal documents, pamphlets or newspapers. This had been very successful on mainland Britain, and so naturally Grenville, PM at the time, thought it might work out in America, much like ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Office’.

What he’d failed to do is test his proposed tax. A simple spreadsheet, sent to the right people, could have saved him a great deal of trouble. At the time, the crude Seamen & Maritime Transport Protocol could not deliver mail much quicker than 6 weeks, which was a major obstacle to Grenville’s plan. He needed the income from taxes quickly, or the troops could not be paid.

The financial troubles of His Majesties Treasury could be traced back, not to the Seven Years War, but to the mistakes of one junior Treasury official, Mr Samuel Oxen-Fforde. Upon receiving a missive from the Banque Royale de Espaneolo (Hispaniola branch), that promised ‘Fine Returnes, for the estate of Don Pasartartes (deceased) has promised much Treasure to him who can claime itte. Let him sende five hundrede Doubloons to Hispaniola, for the hiring of Shippes, and let him sende Men, for the movement of the same’. Sensing an opportunity, Oxen-Fforde procured the doubloons from the Treasury, and sent them to the address marked. Sadly, the promised treasure never came, and so the Treasury had to cover costs by taxing the Americans. Needless to say, a mail system that could filter out these kind of communications would have saved Oxen-Fforde from himself.

In concession to the sensibilities of the colonists, the tax was to come in by November 1765, though it had been passed in March. Grenville entrusted the enforcement of the tax to Stamp Distributors – one could only obtain the ‘stamp’ that legal documents required from these people. This was also a grave mistake, as there was no meaningful oversight. Appointing an ombudsman could have helped. Perhaps even using IIS to create a webpage accepting anonymous criticisms of the tax would have helped. Apache of course was no-go: this was a time of high tension with the Indian population.

Instead of providing appropriate feedback about the new tax, the colonists rioted, before the tax even came into force. Whilst it has made for good patriotic banter ever since, these scenes of mob violence could have been avoided if the more sensible souls had managed to get word to Grenville that the Stamp Tax wasn’t a goer. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, it took 6 weeks, sometimes more, to cross the Atlantic.

Even when word got back to Britain, the Parliament wasn’t in session over the winter of 1765. Parliament sessions are short at the best of times, but during the eighteenth century, they weren’t much more than a long weekend. What Grenville really needed to do, is hit User Groups\MPs with an urgent need to repeal the tax, maybe BCCing Ben Franklin and the other troublemakers from the colonies. A bit of reassurance would have done a lot to reduce tension.

As it was, the Stamp Act was repealed in March 1766 – it lasted barely a year, and was hardly enforced. But the Act had done irreparable damage to British-American relations, building up the suspicion and violence that would explode into the American War of Independence a decade later. And all because their email systems wouldn’t work.