I’ve made it an irregular tradition to offer a meditation on the Declaration of Independence every July 4.
The structure of the finalized document shows an argument made in three parts.
It begins with a statement of general political and philosophical principles. These are ideals, and generally I think of them as aspirational rather than descriptive, particularly when I recall that eighteenth-century Colonial America was a land in which slavery and indentured servitude were pervasive facts of life, female suffrage would have been deemed risible, and ownership of land was a prerequisite to having a political voice at all. And people drank beer, wine, and rum all the time, because almost all of the water was like as not to kill you.
The bulk of the document is a list of grievances aimed at King George III. In the past, for instance during the Glorious Revolution, the Wars of the Roses, and the English Civil War, complaints about the government were typically addressed to the King, complaining that his councilors had dispensed poor advice to him, because of course the King, being selected by God to lead the country to its common weal, would not otherwise have done such horrible things of his own accord. Jefferson & Colleagues dispensed with this polite formality and directly accused George of a variety of acts.
It is here that my mind dwells this year. “What did King George do that was so very bad that the Founders preferred treason?” Let’s take a look each of these twenty-seven grievances.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
This is often taken to refer to Royal refusal to assist attempts by certain colonial politicians to abolish the slave trade. But the fact of the matter is, many of the colonies had economies heavily dependent upon agriculture, which even before the invention of the cotton gin relied upon abundant, cheap labor. Jefferson originally proposed more direct language about abolition, but his fellow Virginians at the Continental Congress insisted upon more elliptical language.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
In what may seem a bit ironic to those who remember the rallying cry “no taxation without representation,” this refers to the levying of local taxes to pay for things like militias to protect against Indian raids. We forget that armed Indian tribes, often in collaboration with other European powers, were often a match or even military superiors to the English colonists. The specter of King Philip’s War rested heavily and uneasily on the minds of all the colonists, especially those in the New England area, even a century after it had happened. So the problem here was in large measure that the King in England didn’t seem to care that the colonies had no way to pay for a formal military to defend themselves and wouldn’t allow imposition of a tax to pay for such a force.
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
The reference here is to Quebec and Ohio, two geographic regions within Britain’s territorial claims on the North American continent, into which the colonists wished to expand. The British government had entered into pacts with various coalitions of Indians to restrict European settlement west of the Appalachian mountains, so the fertile fields and rich forests were largely unavailable to those who would otherwise have exploited those lands.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
This is not a fair cop against King George, but rather a swipe at the royal governors of Massachusetts and Virginia, who would periodically announce that holding representative assemblies at the customary capitals of their colonies was unsafe and convene them at other, “safer” locations. There may have been some truth to the reasons behind the moves, but it’s quite certain that the alternative locations were selected with an eye towards making it difficult for the governors’ more obstreperous opponents (think Patrick Henry) to attend and gum up the works. On the one hand, this may be “politics as usual,” but it does strike at notions of fairness and full political participation of dissenting or opposition politicians.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
And the reason for the royal governors’ desire to weed opposition legislators out of the colonial assemblies was that those opponents sometimes won. When that happened too often, the King would hear about it and dissolve the assemblies in the same way that he would from time to time dissolve unruly Parliaments at home. Again, it was simultaneously political maneuvers that were hardly unheard-of back home in England, but which were also intrinsically unfair.
Also on the “bullshit” list was, having dissolved a local legislative assembly, to then neglect calling for new elections afterwards. Again, it really wasn’t anything that didn’t have ample precedent with respect to Crown-and-Parliament relations back in England. For a long time during the Tudor, and early Stuart dynasties, the King viewed Parliament as necessary only for the purpose of levying new taxes, and would govern with no Parliament sitting at all. This changed more than a little bit during the Glorious Revolution, when principal governing power shifted from the King to Parliament, but it did take a long time after that for the British to think of the person wearing the Crown as a vessel through which governmental power was transmitted rather than as an independent political actor in his own right.
I continue to be charmed by the Founders describing their opposition to the King, or more specifically the royal governors he appointed for their colonies, as characterized by having “manly firmness.”1
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
For the most part, we’re talking about Quebec and Ohio again. The gripe here is that the colonies cannot expand or use readily-available resources to economically grow and prosper because of a deal the King cut to keep himself in political control. A number of his ministers had probably been paid healthy bribes along the way, too.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
Here, consider the colonies of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, whose colonial assemblies had attempted to create circuit courts to hear local criminal and civil disputes. The King refused to assent to these resolutions, effectively vetoing them, insisting that only the Crown could appoint a judge and that the judges served at the King’s pleasure. Again, these were well-established principles of British law at the time, although the colonists certainly had a point that petitioning the King to appoint some judges and then waiting to see if he would do it, and if so when, and then waiting another two to four months for those judges to make and hopefully survive the transatlantic voyage, was not a good way to deal with the fact that the local courts had substantial dockets of disputes overdue for resolution. And that’s before you get to the issue of whether those judges would apply the law impartially and fairly, or whether they would have an unfairly pro-government bias…
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
…Which, of course, was the problem with the public officials the King did send to the colonies. Rather than select local people who would command the esteem of the colonists themselves, people from England were selected for loyalty to the Crown first and competence second. These officials came generally in military positions, so such courts and assizes as did exist were under military, and particularly Admiralty auspices, and the most important civil governmental officials — customs agents — were also very often foreign to the areas they were assigned to patrol.
Now, read between the lines a little bit here. Customs agents. Admiralty courts. Insensitivity to local preferences. Recall that quite a bit of smuggling was going on — smuggling being the shipment of cargo without the paying of customs and other taxes. It makes me wonder the extent to which rum-runners were the motive force behind this complaint. That said, the issue of having impartial governmental officials selected from the people to be governed is still one worth consideration.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.
This, of course, is a reference to the occupation of Boston, which had been under direct military rule since 1768. Among other ills attributed to the regular military serving as the local government was the Boston Massacre, the proliferation of public drunkenness and patronage of prostitutes, and fallout from the frequent desertions which ultimately led to a number of public executions on Boston Common. These executions horrified the public, who ironically still included people within their number who had living memories of the public execution of “witches” in that same space.
Worse, the Quartering Act of 1765 imposed a tax on the colonists to pay for the soldiers’ room and board.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
This sets up a series of complaints that simply could not be laid at the feet of King George alone, because the “others” with whom he combined were Parliament. The basic theory here was that the American colonists did not consent to rule by Parliament, because they had a long custom of electing their own legislative assemblies. There was something to be said for the great desirability of local government, especially given the inherent time limitations of long-distance sea travel, and even to this day there are complaints that a Parliament disproportionally dominated by unevenly-populated English boroughs is not an appropriate vehicle for governing territory beyond England itself.
Anyway, now we get to also ask, what did Parliament do that was so bad?
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;
Pretty easy to see why this made people mad: to have the government tell you, “Feed and house this soldier at your expense” would be quite invasive of one’s own home and private life. In fact, officers were generally welcomed, as they tended to be better-educated, willing to contribute financially to the household despite the lack of obligation to do so, and to value their reputations as gentlemen and therefore be relatively well-behaved. For Loyalists, there was even some prestige attached to hosting an officer. Common troops, however, were a rather different story.
For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states;
You may be thinking of the trial following the Boston Massacre, in which John Adams served as principal defense counsel. Adams acquitted himself heroically in that incident, but that’s not what this really refers to. Rather, there were two other incidents. Not far from Annapolis, Maryland in 1768, a dispute between civilian traders and some soldiers resulted in the soldiers shooting the civilians to death; they were tried in a court of admiralty rather than the regular courts of Maryland and acquitted. The locals thought the whole trial had been a sham and took as the real lesson from the affair that they could be shot and killed with impunity by King George’s men. Similarly, in North Carolina, a civil disobedience movement in response to arbitrary enforcement of tax and criminal laws grew to more forceful resistance (for example, in 1768 they interrupted court proceedings while brandishing arms) and organized into a group called the “Regulators” in the late 1760’s. By 1771, tensions between the armed resistors and the royal troops and the very-likely-corrupt royal governor reached a point that a number of these “Regulators” were shot, very likely without any immediate provocation. The trial of those soldiers afterwards was pretty obviously a show trial and there was never any real chance of a murder conviction.
For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world;
Again, we must focus on Boston and the blockade of Boston Harbor, particularly in the wake of 1773’s Boston Tea Party.
For imposing taxes on us without our consent;
Examples of this abound, and the description of the grievance is self-evident. Note, though, that as we see above, the imposition of taxes by a local legislative assembly is carefully carved out of this objection.
For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of trial by jury;
For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses;
Again with the military courts. Also, it’s worth your time to look into an incident called the Gaspee Affair, in which efforts to break up colonial smuggling resulted in locals burning a British Navy ship that had run aground on a sandbar in Rhode Island, and when those thought responsible were eventually rounded up, they were transported to Nova Scotia, away from the biased jurors and unruly local populace, in order that their convictions might be more easily secured. Which pretty much sucks from a due process perspective, at least the way I see it.
For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies;
Here, the objection was to the Quebec Act, which abolished the local civil government of Quebec and replaced it with direct military government and a hybrid of English criminal and French civil law. It also enlarged the boundaries of this territory to include pretty much all of the modern province of Ontario, and areas south of the Great Lakes including land north of the Ohio River, out to the limits of Britain’s claim at the Mississippi River. This was upsetting to the colonists in no small part because they considered that if these territories were allowed a measure of self-government, they too might join with the Atlantic-facing colonies and maybe join up with the Patriot cause. In short, the redrawing of the internal political map and manipulation of the internal political system to disenfranchise pro-Patriot voices and thus limit the political support opponents of the Crown might gather from these areas.
For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
By now, you’ll have been well refreshed on these grievances, though note that here Jefferson & Colleagues condemn not just King George’s imposition of martial law, but Parliament giving its blessing to these actions. In any event, the sidebar is done, and at this point the grievances return their focus in particular to the Crown. Massachusetts was the most prominent example of this, as well as the royal governor of Virginia dismissing the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775, but the Founders also remembered the abolition of the New York Colonial Assembly in 1767 here.
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
Oh, my! A king waging actual war against his own people, complete with sackings, plunder, and murder. Sort of. By “abdicated government,” there is reference to the flight of several royal governors from New York, South Carolina, and Virginia, because of prevalent rioting. And because of the rioting, soldiers imposed martial law, in sometimes brutal ways. Charleston, South Carolina was blockaded by the Royal Navy and effectively laid siege to during one of these riots. The references to the burning of towns refers most specifically to the military engagements between Patriots and Redcoats in Lexington, Concord, and Breed’s Hill near Boston, and the follow-up sacking of Falmouth, Massachusetts, and the use of Royal Navy ships to bombard Stonington, Connecticut and Norfolk, Virginia, both of which denied port privileges to the Navy in acts of protest. And while the Continental Congress was meeting, the military opened up again on Charleston, South Carolina, based on a conflict of murky origins. Finally, there were a number of civil seizures of ships by British customs officials based on suspicion (likely often-justified suspicion) of smuggling or tax evasion, from whence the reference to “plundered our seas.”
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun, with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
Odd that this gets buried so far down, though it does not come at the very end. Here is a matter of some urgency, as the Hessian mercenaries referred to here as reinforcements for the British Army were as of the end of June in 1776 known to be in transit and soon to arrive in force up and down the Atlantic Seaboard. This private military force was working under contract to and in conjunction with the regular army to suppress the unrest and resistance to Royal government. Even back in England, the use of these forces was controversial and probably lacked any real claim to popular support, although a Parliament docile to the Crown and under the firm control of a skilled Parliamentary tactician, the Earl of Guilford Frederick North, voted to implement this measure by a convincing majority. As Prime Minister leading a Parliament whose boroughs had been manipulated to produce a majority friendly to his Tories, Lord North was in a position where the popular will was at most a matter of secondary concern — keeping a good working relationship with the King and firm control over his legislative majority allowed him to govern as he saw fit, which included the hiring of the Hessians.
He has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
While it seems odd to my ears that hiring the feared and cruel-reputationed Hessians should not come last as the climax of this list, to contemporary ears, this next offense — impressing American sailors and other crew of vessels, under any flag, that made trade in an American port — rang even more shrilly. Perhaps it was the notion that a colonial could be impressed into the Royal Navy and thus forced to fight and kill his own countrymen that made it seem that much worse to the morals of the Founders. Impressment of American merchant sailors into British military service remained a practice of the Royal Navy through our second war with Britain and probably lingered on a for a bit even after that.
He has excited domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
Here is the climax. The particular object of this criticism was John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and the Royal Governor of Virginia. Dunmore did two things as he found that despite clenching his fist ever-harder on the disobedient Virginians he was tasked with governing, resistance to Royal government escalated all the same. First, after being forced to flee repeated threats of violence and rioting, he offered to manumit slaves who would take up arms and assist him in returning to power. Second, when that failed, he struck a deal with the Six Nations coalition of tribes and the Royal Governor of Quebec to sell arms to the Indians, in exchange for their joining forces with Loyalist forces and Redcoats in re-installing Dumore to his appointed position in Richmond. This second gambit found a measure of success; Cherokee and other coalition tribes made raids throughout Virginia’s western regions with coordination from British commanders in Fort Pitt, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths.
If we take the Declaration at face value, we see a regime that restructured its own structure of enfranchisement, so as to create a legislative majority that did not reflect the true wishes of its voters. It had abandoned meaningful democracy as a matter of fact, while still wearing the vestments of that system of government. The political power thus taken was used to protect first and foremost the interests of the powerful elite at the helm of the ship of state, and second to secure the obedience of young men with guns who made their power possible.
As popular resistance to this state of affairs escalated, the rule of law was taken away next, and after that, the ability of the protestors to economically support themselves. Finally, preferring to maintain formal power for itself rather than allow even the possibility of self-government by political opposition, that government took the glove off of its iron first, and used those young men with guns against its own people. Formal political independence is portrayed as a matter of not only basic moral right, but of actual survival in the face of an authoritarian oppressor.
The accuracy of this picture remains the subject of some debate, but it is the picture Jefferson and his colleagues in the Continental Congress paint in the Declaration. Every item described has actual events that really happened to which the Founders could point. These grievances were not fake news, even if they are reported in the Declaration through a partisan lens.
We generally call the Founders noble and high-idealed for then moving to the third rhetorical act of the Declaration, and formally renouncing their political ties to Great Britain. This was treason against King and Country, but treason committed for all of the right reasons, for all of the high aspirations of the Enlightenment, for motives and ideals that we profess to cherish and hold dear in this nation to this day. Close examination suggests that not all of the motives of all of the Founders were quite so pure as this — slave owners protecting their property and rum-runners looking to minimize the power of government to disrupt their businesses are not the most admirable of people; nor were North Carolina’s Regulators that much different from vigilantes. But none of that vindicated King George’s government and in particular Lord North and the crop of colonial governors he instructed to go to America and keep power at all costs, after a while, to keep power simply for the sake of keeping power rather than having to share it with the locals.
The Declaration is an argument that the Royal government had lost any claim to political legitimacy. Totally disconnected from and unresponsive to the governed, the government became an oppressor instead of a guarantor of its citizens’ freedom. It was this state of affairs that had brought about the American Revolution. The resistance to this state of affairs was called “patriotism” by our Founders, and it is what we Americans celebrate today.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone.
- I suggest not using that phrase for a Google Image Search if you’ve disabled the “child-safe” settings on your web browser. [↩]