Declaration of Dissent
by Gabriel Conroy
When, in the course of human events, Americans again find it necessary to laud an unjust war, a decent respect for these otherwise decent people requires me to declare the reasons I dissent from the general celebration.
I hold these truths to be as self-evident that all humans are created equal in rights, that all are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes, and accordingly all experience has shown, that even the most justified upheaval effects such great hardships upon innocents and upon those who, while not completely innocent of all wrongs the upheaval addresses, are caught up in the complexity in which human life places them and who perhaps do not deserve the extent of the scorn and humiliation such upheaval inflicts upon them. And when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing generally the same object evinces what seems to be a design to reduce the people to living under what some of them might believe to be absolute despotism, it is at least understandable that they might see their grievances as justification and even as obligation to throw off such government, and to provide new safeguards for their future security.
Such was the belief of those American colonists who revolted against the crown to which they had declared their loyalty and from the operations of which and of the lawfully sitting representative body they had enjoyed a great measure of security. But the history of the colonial and British relations up to that time represented a poor excuse to break those bonds that had lately been so strained. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
Parliament’s punishment of the Massachusetts Colony with the “Coercive Acts,” or “Intolerable Acts,” so called in the colonies, was unduly harsh and in other ways unwise. But in itself, the punishment had been occasioned by the actions of a cabal of smugglers to destroy the property of the purveyor of a luxury item in the name of protesting a tax on that item, the practical function of the enforcement of which would primarily have been to reduce the price consumers paid for that item and drive the same smugglers out of business, or so they believed. Although the legally constituted government among the Massachusetts officially disproved of such actions by the cabal, it tolerated or at least acquiesced to those protests.
The riots of 1770, which resulted in the deaths of five protesters, were a key example of the dangers of using the military to enforce civil laws, and the laws in question, duties upon trade, were so unpopular that parliament would have been well-advised to obtain a better means of securing their adoption and enforcement in the colonies. But the riots themselves placed the occupation soldiers under direct threat of their lives. And although the soldiers’ membership in the military was ostensibly a choice, the policy of press ganging and other circumstances placed constraints placed upon the liberty of those who eventually found themselves in the military. Furthermore, the soldiers themselves had no say in devising the policy they had been sent to enforce. The soldiers received a measure of compensation, but were still required to find employment to supplement that compensation to make ends meet, and the riots to which they responded were as much about jobs competition as they were about the principle of the duties upon trade.
The duties in question had been enacted after protests against a colonies-wide Stamp Tax measure, and under a theory of the proper competency of the imperial government, offering indirect as opposed to direct taxation, advanced by one faction of the protesters against the Stamp duty.
The Stamp duty and the later duties were in fact enacted to help pay the colonists’ share of protection offered by the crown during the late war, and the imposition of all those duties still amounted to less a percentage of their incomes than what the colonists’ compatriots in Britain had to pay.
Clear and urgent objections might be raised to the requirement that colonists pay for the war, a war instigated by some colonists, one of whom was soon made commander of the rebels after the declaration of independence, so called, but admittedly pursued with interests as devised in London and not as devised in Boston, or New York, or Williamsburg, and to secure the colonists’ enthusiastic support, the Pitt government offered imperial discounting of their expenses. But one must reconsider the means designed to object to a change in policy, a change made necessary by fiscal contingencies that faced the empire.
And some other chief objections advanced by the declaration of independence, so called, target efforts to vouchsafe liberties to other peoples. To wit:
The insurrections by “merciless Indian savages” against which the improvident declaration protests can be viewed as the efforts of sovereign nations to claim their share of an agreement they had entered into with the Crown and as assertions of their sovereign prerogative to control incursions into their lands.
The supposed abolition of a “free system of English laws in a neighboring province” amounts to acknowledging the specific religious practices of a conquered people in lieu of imposing the rules of the Church of England upon them. Perhaps a better option would be to call for no civil enforcement of either church, or any church, but in 1774, when the supposed usurpation was inflicted, and in 1776, when the declaration of independence, so called, was promulgated, the ideal of non-recognition was in its infancy, and the choice rested with keeping a civil and religious institution familiar to the conquered peoples, or imposing a one wholly alien upon them.
The declaration of independence, so called, declines to discuss the beam of bondage in the eyes of the drafters, and makes only vague reference, and in the final draft even vaguer reference, to the mote of the imperial facilitation of such bondage.
It is true that prior policies of the empire had encouraged, at the request of the band of adventurers lured to the Americas by the promise of wealth, the importation of bound servants.
It is true that the empire had declined to invalidate or cause for the melioration of those laws, imposed by the colonists, designed to strengthen the terms of bondage and make them heritable.
It is true that the empire had at times invalidated measures by some colonies designed to lessen, and perhaps eventually to effect the elimination of, the bondage to labor.
And yet the colonists who most enjoy the fruits of the labor of bound people, either directly in the production of staples, or indirectly in the merchandising of articles sold to those who so directly enjoy those fruits, clamor for direct representation in the imposition of trade duties, long acknowledged as a prerogative of the empire, while denying to bound servants the basic freedom of ownership to labor that is the privilege and right of every English person. It is only partial, and too slight, an answer to suggest that the remedy be forthcoming, although in some climes, where the colonists stand to continue to benefit from bond servitude indirectly, they might remove the reminder locally through local abolition of the institution. The authors of the declaration of independence, so called, are well-advised to reconsider whether the promise of some future attainment, in a later generation when the then current authors shall have passed away, be justification for the then current iniquity.
In every stage of the “oppressions,” so called, enumerated in the declaration of independence, so called, the colonists had petitioned for redress in the most humble terms. Their repeated petitions had been answered sometimes by the force of arms, but just as commonly by efforts at accommodation and compromise. True causes of concern exist. The parliament may have overstepped its bounds. The king may have overstepped his majesty’s prerogatives.
But the objections the colonists offered, amounting to an innovative and noticeable but not heavy taxation, to recognition of the rights of neighbor nations and conquered peoples, and to the response of armed violence with armed violence, constitute more the haphazard, if clumsy, and sometimes good faith, sometimes cynical, appraisal of how best to resolve the issues of governance that did not quit the colonists upon their independence, and indeed an in some ways made aggravated by the independence, than it constituted anything like a “long train of abuses” justifying the call to arms the declaration of independence, so called, demands.
Great good, it must be admitted, came from the circumstances occasioned by that declaration. But the happy and felicitous outcomes, to the degree they were truly happy and felicitous, were largely unforeseeable. The cost, in lives and in the civil liberties and in the rights to property of those who dared, with heroic firmness, to offer a different view of the emerging conflict, were too great to address the extant evils.