January 31, 2012 essays

Fingering the King on the Road to Independence

The Coercive Acts led Americans to blame the king for the conspiracy to strip them of their rights and liberties.

In my last essay I discussed how the Coercive Acts, which Parliament passed in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, solidified the belief of many Americans that the British government had been planning for years “to reduce [Americans] under absolute despotism” (as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence). This widespread belief in a British conspiracy had a spinoff effect — a fateful conclusion that was virtually necessitated by the inner logic of ideas.

Between the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Coercive Acts of 1774, the British ministry changed personnel a number of times. For example, the detested Stamp Act was repealed (March 1766) during the short-lived Rockingham administration, which enjoyed the support of Edmund Burke and other parliamentary “friends” of America. But at the same time that Parliament repealed the Stamp Act it also passed the notorious Declaratory Act, according to which Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America … in all cases whatsoever.”

The point of the Declaratory Act was to emphasize that Parliament repealed the Stamp Act as a favor, in effect, not on principle – and certainly not on the American principle of no taxation without representation. For many Americans the Declaratory Act served as a constant reminder of the desire of Parliament to exercise unrestrained power over the colonies, so they naturally viewed each new encroachment on their rights as part of this overall plan. The Declaratory Act served as a recurring and unifying theme that linked various acts of Parliament into a continuous chain of conspiracy.

Some nagging questions remained, however: Who was behind this conspiratorial plan? Given the changing faces of various administrations, what was the constant factor that accounted for the unremitting efforts to subordinate Americans to the sovereignty of the British government in “all cases whatsoever”?

After passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774, one answer became increasingly common, namely: The king himself was the culprit. It was not some power behind the throne, but George III – the despot who sat on the throne — who had been at the center of the conspiracy all along. The king was the constant in a sea of variables.

Prior to 1774, most Americans, including many radicals, viewed George III as an unwitting dupe who was being manipulated by his corrupt, power-seeking advisers. Again and again, from the late 1760s to the early 1770s, Americans addressed fawning petitions to the king seeking redress for their grievances, but to no avail. Nevertheless, even the firebrand Samuel Adams attributed these failures to the “baneful Influence of corrupt and infamous Ministers and Servants of the Crown.”

After George III approved the Coercive Acts (which was necessary for them to become law), the king rather than Parliament increasingly became the focus of attention and condemnation. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this shift in perspective. To finger the king, to brand him a tyrant, was to abandon almost all hope of reconciliation and to run, not walk, to the precipice of revolution and, from there, to independence.

As one writer in the Essex Gazette explained, the Coercive Acts were the equivalent of a declaration of war against the colonies, and “if the King violates his sacred Faith to, and Compact with any one State of his Empire, he discharges the same from their Allegiance to him, dismembers them from the Empire and reduces them to a State of Nature….” In other words, he “CEASES TO BE THEIR KING.”

To appreciate how radical this claim was, we need to understand the theory of allegiance that was being articulated by a growing number of Americans. According to this theory – which was defended by Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other prominent Americans – the colonies had never owed allegiance to the British Parliament. Legislatively considered, the colonies were autonomous states within the British Empire, and as such they owed allegiance only to the king. And this allegiance, in turn, was grounded in a mutual contract, according to which Americans pledged their allegiance in exchange for the king’s protection.

This version of social contract theory stipulated that the king could continue to demand allegiance only so long as he fulfills his part of the agreement. If he violates his trust – as Americans believed he had with the Coercive Acts –he “unkings” himself and releases his subjects from their part of the deal. His subjects are thereby cast into a “state of nature” — i.e., a society without government — and are then free to form a new government of their own choosing.

Silas Downer of Providence put this argument forcefully. In July 1774, Downer wrote to a friend: “The time is come…that we are independent. By the passing of the late Acts in the British Parliament, every Tye is cut, and we are set adrift.” In September of the same year, during the First Continental Congress (which was convened in response to the Coercive Acts), Patrick Henry delivered a fiery speech that included these words:

Government is dissolved. Fleets and armies and the present state of things show that government is dissolved. We are in a state of nature.

Historians sometimes refer to this position —which became even more common after serious fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 — as assertions of de facto independence. That is to say, the colonies were rendered independent, as a matter of fact, by the king, whose tyrannical decrees and behavior absolved his American subjects of any and all allegiance to him.

The significance of this argument for de facto independence can be seen in how it was used during the summer of 1776, as delegates to the Second Continental Congress debated the advisability of passing a formal declaration of independence. Some delegates from the middle colonies maintained that they could not vote for independence because they lacked authorization from their respective legislatures. In response, the radicals argued that independence was already a fact, and that delegates did not need authorization to acknowledge a state-of-affairs that already existed.

Here is how Thomas Jefferson summarized this interesting argument in Notes of Proceedings in the Continental Congress (a document that Jefferson later inserted in his Autobiography). John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, and other radicals maintained

That the question was not whether, by a Declaration of Independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists.

That, as to the people or Parliament of England, we had always been independent of them….

That, as to the King, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but that this bond was now dissolved by his assent to the last act of Parliament, by which he declares us out of his protection, and by his levying war on us, a fact which had long ago proved us out of his protection; it being a certain position in law, that allegiance and protection are reciprocal, the one ceasing when the other is withdrawn.

…No delegates then can be denied, or ever want, a power of declaring an existing truth.

This way of thinking, when combined with points I made earlier, helps us to understand some passages in the Declaration of Independence. Consider this penultimate line from the second paragraph:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Here we have the conspiracy theory that I discussed previously, in which blame is placed squarely on the king. Yet just two years earlier, in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Jefferson had attacked Parliament, not the king. Indeed, in A Summary View – which was originally intended to be instructions for Virginia delegates to the Second Continental Congress – Jefferson recommends that “an humble and dutiful address be presented to his Majesty, begging leave to lay before him, as Chief Magistrate of the British empire, the united complaints of his Majesty’s subjects in America.” The king, Jefferson goes on the say, “is no more than chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist working the great machine of government.”

As Jefferson saw the matter, the king should function as an impartial arbiter who resolves disputes among otherwise autonomous legislatures within the British Empire. Americans owed allegiance only to the king, so he had the reciprocal duty to intervene when Parliament usurped power that properly belonged to the Americans and their own legislative bodies.

Over the next two years, as Jefferson and other Americans became convinced that the king had not only defaulted on this duty but was also the primary culprit in the conspiracy to strip Americans of their rights and freedoms, they realized that they had no impartial arbiter to whom they could appeal for the redress of grievances. Americans were thereby thrown into a textbook case of the state of nature, a social condition with no impartial arbiter to resolve disputes. Independence was simply a logical corollary of this situation.

This is why the Declaration focuses on the king rather than on Parliament. In an allusion to the theory of de facto independence, it claims that the king “has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection, and waging War against us.” Thus, with the king having violated his part of the social contract, it became “necessary” for Americans to declare that they no longer acknowledged any allegiance to Great Britain. They were free “to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them….”

We can now appreciate why many American revolutionaries detested being called “rebels.” They were not “rebels” and they were not engaged in a “rebellion,” as their critics and enemies claimed.

In 1774, an American defender of the British wrote: “It is a universal truth that he who would excite a rebellion, is at heart as great a tyrant as ever wielded the iron rod of oppression.” An irate John Adams shot back:

We are not exciting a rebellion. Opposition, nay, open avowed resistance by arms, against usurpation and lawless violence, is not rebellion by the law of God or the land. Do not beg the question…and then give yourself airs of triumph. Remember…that the word rebel is a convertible term.

John Adams may have been an eccentric man, but this was not an eccentric argument. On the contrary, Adams was invoking a standard Radical Whig doctrine with a long history. John Locke put it this way in his Second Treatise of Government:

[R]ebellion being an Opposition, not to Persons, but Authority, which is founded only in the Constitutions and Laws of the Government; those, whoever they be, who by force break through, and by force justifie their violation of them, are truly and properly Rebels. For when men, by entering into Society and Civil Government, have excluded force, and introduced Laws for the preservation of Property, Peace, and Unity amongst themselves; those who set up force again in opposition to the Laws, do Rebellare, that is, bring back again the state of War, and are properly Rebels….

According to Locke and other Radical Whigs, a state of war exists whenever a person repeatedly uses force without legitimate authority. If a king exceeds his legitimate authority, he reverts to the status of a private renegade – a “rebel” against the constitution and natural justice – so his former subjects may use force against him, as they would against any outlaw, in self-defense. This was exactly how revolutionary Americans viewed the conflict with Britain. The king and his political minions were the true rebels, not those Americans who wished only to defend their rights and freedoms.