How did we move from the loss of confidence in our government, to the contemplation of rebellion?
Thank you for reading this essay. It is part of an ongoing series titled Old Friends and this is the fourth contribution on Barnard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.
Nothing disturbs me more than when someone mentions that we are on the verge of civil war. While I would concur we are deeply divided on many issues, it is a considerable leap from disagreement to armed conflict. Yet in the years proceeding 1776, the colonists came to that point of open rebellion. How did that happen?
Bernard Bailyn attempted to map out that transition by probing deeper into the world view of the resistance to the Crown. What was the intellectual basis of their resistance? What was their sense of liberty? What was their perspective on the nature of man? What was their view of power and oppression? And what sort of government would safeguard their liberty?
In the previous chapter, Bailyn puts forth the view that the colonists had simply lost faith in the Parliament. What was once esteemed as an institution that advanced the English constitution, that had dared to present against absolute monarchy the premise that liberty was essential to life and that power needed to be divided, had degenerated into a rubber stamp assembly of the Crown that had corrupted the institution as well as the electoral process. It explained why the governors and justices appointed by the Crown were increasingly indifferent if not hostile to the concerns of the colonists and to their elected representatives. In the least, the colonists had lost confidence in the Parliament to be defenders of liberty.
But to move from a loss of confidence to open rebellion is a huge step. Bailyn would assert that the first phase of the transition was a movement from a loss of confidence to that of a sense of conspiracy against their liberties.
They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America.1
The colonists believed the Crown, at best, was acting on bad information. And that deception was derived from the Crown-appointed officials in the colonies who saw their offices as a platform for power at the expense of the constitutional tradition that evolved in the individual colonies. The colonists eventually came to the point that what the officials said did not matter – it was by their actions they judged them. It was, from their perspective, the colonists’ well-reasoned demands that were being ignored by the Crown and by Parliament. Why was this? Somebody was relaying to the Crown a different narrative.
A List of Grievances
Thus the perceived over-reaction to non-consequential taxes. Historians have long been puzzled by the brouhaha over taxes. We have long heard the mantra “No taxation without representation.” Yet anyone with an ounce of common sense would know that to pay for the war against France that ended in 1764, the British would have to levy taxes. They did so in England. So why was this a problem in the colonies?
The level of distrust had elevated to the point that what would on the surface appear to be a minor tax was in fact feared to be a precedent that would be followed by more taxes. Time would show that fear to be true. Besides taxes, there were more restrictions on trade. The “representation” the colonists spoke of was not necessarily having one or two people sitting in Parliament in far away England. It was the right to approve of these taxes themselves. When the Crown levied the Stamp Tax upon the colonies, it was a decree. It was the Crown treating them as subjects. It was also a violation of long-standing tradition. Up until 1764, there was a recognition that the Crown had the right to tax commerce outside the colonies. But it was the right of the elected assemblies in the colonies to levy taxes on themselves. From 1764 onward, the Crown and Parliament felt otherwise.2
The unfettered ability to tax the colonists would only serve to spread the corruption already evident in Parliament. As Benjamin Franklin noted, governors were
generally strangers to the provinces they are sent to govern, have no estate, natural connection, or relation there to give them an affection for the country…. They come only to make money as fast as they can; are sometimes men of vicious characters and broken fortunes, sent by a minister merely to get them out of the way.3
This trend was particularly distressing with the judiciary. In December 1761, the Crown issued a directive that the issuance of judicial commissions was purely “the pleasure of the crown.”
But everywhere there was bitterness at the decree and fear of its implications, for everywhere it was known that judicial tenure ‘at the will of the crown’ was ‘dangerous to the liberty and property of the subject’ and that if the bench were occupied by ‘men who depended on the smiles of the crown for their daily bread,’ the possibility of having an independent judiciary as an effective check upon executive power would be wholly lost.4
For a society that had by then a longstanding tradition of “rule by law,” having judges partial to the interest of the Crown was alarming. Thomas Hutchinson is sited that Crown-appointed judges were ‘an enemy to the constitution, and has it in his heart to promote the establishment of an arbitrary government in the province.’5
The corruption of Parliament was further affirmed by the decision of Parliament to not recognize the election of John Wilkes. Not once, but four times. Wilkes was a man well ahead of his time. Consider what he stood for:6
- Opposed the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties
- Opposed Crown-appointed administrators over the colonists
- Alarmed at the compromise of an independent judiciary
- Was the victim of general warrants and opposed their use
- Stood for the sanctity of private property against confiscation
Colonists were shocked at his treatment.7
While the list of grievances grew, the patience of the colonists ended with the appearance of standing armies in Boston and Massachusetts. As Andrew Elliot wrote in September 1768,
Things are come to an unhappy crisis; there will never be that harmony between Great Britain and her colonies that there hath been; all confidence is at an end; and the moment there is any blood shed all affection will cease.8
This correlation between a standing army and impending violence was fed by news in May 1768 of a pro-Wilkes mob being confronted by soldiers in London, resulting in the deaths of many, including a boy. How odd that a similar confrontation would occur in Boston in February 1770 where an eleven year old boy was shot by a customs informer?9 A few weeks later would follow the infamous Boston Massacre. Parliament would pass the Quartering Act in 1774 permitting the occupation of vacant buildings for services of His Majesty’s troops. In the perspective of the colonists, this was a deliberate act of enslavement.
As an economist, I observed that Bailyn did not devote much space to economic incentives. But buried in a long paragraph that primarily focused on corruption, this phrase appeared, “the trade and manufactures of the nation be disregarded and trampled under foot.”10 Britain was constructing a trade system that saw the colonies as sources of inputs to the manufacturing firms in Britain. The colonists were expected to pay in full for finished products. So for each tax or regulation that affected commerce, the colonists paid dearly. Parallel to the tensions between the colonies and Britain was a rapidly emerging commercial trade industry in the Americas. The Parliament was increasingly favoring the interests of its own commercial fleet at the expense of the colonies. Remaining loyal to the Crown was becoming costly.
The ever-deepening cycle of perceived corruption, loss of confidence, and stiffer controls, were further affirmed by the growing opposition to Crown policies in Britain. Much of this rhetoric was mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic.
Chief amongst the British critiques of the Crown were Edmond Burke and William Pitt. Burke attacked the schemes of ‘a certain set of intriguing men … to secure to the court the unlimited and uncontrolled use of its own vast influence under the sole direction of its own private favor … [pursuing] a scheme for undermining all the foundations of our freedom.’11
William Pitt would observe,
an influx of wealth into this country which has been attended with many fatal consequences…The riches of Asia have been poured in upon us, and have brought with them not only Asiatic luxury but, I fear, Asiatic principles of government.
This foreign gold has “forced their way into Parliament by such a torrent of private corruption.” Pitt would, like the colonists, repeat the same triumvirate of vices: corruption, “the enterprise of the Crown, and the notorious decay of the internal vigor of the constitution.”
His urgent call? Reform the composition of Parliament based on where people live, not on constructed boroughs that can be purchased.
At the Threshold of Rebellion
John Adams would conclude by 1774 that it was going beyond hope. “Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul.” We cannot expect a remedy to emerge from England, where “luxury, effeminacy, and venality are arrived at such a shocking pitch”, where “both electors and elected are become one mass of corruption”.12
By 1775, Ben Franklin would give up hope for reconciliation. “I apprehend … that to unite us intimately will only be to corrupt and poison us also.”13
As an aside, it had not escaped the notice of the colonists how colonists were treated elsewhere in the world. The colonists could be forgiven as seeing themselves at the fulcrum of the cause of human liberty. “The cause of America ‘is the cause of self-defense, of public faith, and of the liberties of mankind. ‘In our destruction, liberty itself expires, and human nature will despair of evermore regarding its first and original dignity.’”14
Amazingly, it would be Jonathan Mayhew who would issue a remarkable prophecy, “.. who knows? .. our liberties being thus established, … on some future occasion … we or our posterity may even have the great felicity and honor to … keep Britain herself from ruin.”15
The logic was there. Yet the colonists still hesitated after the shots were fired in Massachusetts in 1775. Rebellion was in motion, but independence was yet to unfold.
Thoughts for Today
As I began this article, it is a dangerous thing to state we are at civil war or even considering such a notion. Yet the elements of rebellion that proceeded the declaration of 1776 are very much in place today. It begins with the lack of confidence. We have polls today and what the polls tell us is that very few Americans have confidence in the Congress and approval of the executive has ebbed and flowed. What remains as a force of stability is the judiciary. Yet it undergoes the same perils for two reasons. First, there is a vocal element of the Democratic Party intent on packing the court. When the Supreme Court is constituted by judges who are popularly elected by Congress to satisfy the whims of the majority, it ceases to be an objective interpreter of the Constitution. Secondly, the judiciary is deeply divided between the Federalists who believe the Constitution is an objective platform of law, to the evolutionists who see the Constitution as an “evolving” standard. The evolution camp has established dangerous precedents that have transformed the judiciary into a legislative branch, undercutting the democratic underpinnings of law.
As to conspiracy, the recent Trump administration is evidence enough of the deepening quagmire of what has been called “the Swamp.” The Russian conspiracy usurped resources for three years to determine what was an unsubstantiated claim, that Mr. Trump colluded with the Russians. On the flip side, the Trump administration challenged the honesty of the directors of the FBI and CIA, two very powerful institutions. Conspiracy is further ripened when you look at the habit of Congress to pass massive budgets that bury aspects of regulation that are abusive of our liberties, if not wasteful of our dollars. Their profligacy has expended economic and political capital of future generations.
Finally, I would like to bring to attention the quotes of Thomas Hutchinson. This man was quite eloquent when it came to describing the abusive power of the British government. Yet he would not vote in favor of independence. It is important at this point in our discussion to understand what is being looked at is the logic of rebellion – not rebellion itself. What I observe in our country today is the logic of rebellion. How deep it goes may depend on how well democracy works. It is one of the strengths of democracy that it acts as a pressure valve. When the government becomes to a degree oppressive or lacks transparency, the people often respond at the ballot box. Let’s hope that continues.
Yet what caused the radicalization of the Founding Fathers was the presence of armed troops. It was at this point that the government of Britain was actively engaged in enforcing its policies. We must be guarded how we enthusiastically embrace social policies that can only be enforced through coercion. Masks mandates, vaccine mandates, cancel culture and gender identity have morphed into policies that have only one net effect – to punish people you disagree with. The American public needs to ask itself how many people will be punished without endangering the republic. As more and more people lose their jobs, will this broaden the scope of resistance? It happened long ago in New England. Can it happen again?
1The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn, p.95. Henceforth, this title will be referred to as IOAR.
4IOAR, p.106, 107
5IOAR, p. 107, 108
6IOAR, p. 111
7IOAR, p. 112
8IOAR, p. 114
9IOAR, p. 115
10IOAR, p. 130
11IOAR, both Burke and Pitt are quoted on p. 134.
12IOAR, p. 135
13IOAR, p. 136
14IOAR, pp. 139, 140
15IOAR, p. 140
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner.