Friday, November 16, 2018

Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, Part XIII: Illogical, Unthinking, Hypocritical Britain, contd.

            Seeking perhaps a more tangible example of the kind of arbitrary power which he feared his government might one day come to embody, Price turned next in the text of his Observations to an event which had only recently transpired in the northern portion of Britain’s American possessions. It being the pinnacle of accepted wisdom, he explained by way of preamble, that, “A government of King, Lords, and Commons […] is the perfection of government [,]” then a government, “By a king only must be the worst [.]” History, again, would seem to have borne this maxim out, at least to the extent that the British people held it to be true. The notion of a singularly powerful and unchallenged monarchy had indeed been rejected by this selfsame population in the 1640s – with the execution of Charles I (1600-1649) – and in the 1680s – with the overthrow of James II (1633-1701) – the results of which were a widespread cultural aversion to and the codified political rejection of any form of government in which the executive power was wholly dominant. In spite of the weight exerted by this basic truth of British political culture, however, the North Ministry had shown itself willing to establish in America a related form of administration which it would have forsworn to exercise in Britain proper. That is to say, by passage of the Quebec Act and the Massachusetts Government Act, the government of Lord North had shown itself perfectly willing to subject certain groups of British citizens to the rule of specific political authorities over which they had – and could never have had – any influence whatsoever. 

            Quebec, it warrants recalling, had only recently come into British possession at the conclusion of the Seven Years War. Accordingly faced with the proposition of administering a vast swath of territory populated overwhelmingly by French-speaking Roman Catholics on the other side of a vast and turbulent ocean, successive British governments between 1764 and 1774 struggled with the notion of which form of government best suited the resulting jurisdiction. Civil administration – in which British common law formed the standard of jurisprudence and renunciations of Catholicism were required of all Canadiens wishing to serve the Crown – prevailed initially, though not without issue. Unwilling to abjure their faith, and generally unfamiliar with the nuances of the British legal system, most of the French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec chose not to involve themselves in colonial affairs, and so became increasingly disconnected from – or even resentful of – their newfound colonial rulers. Aiming to counter this potentially dangerous trend, and in large part responding to the pleas of Quebec’s British governor, one Guy Carleton (1724-1808), the ministry of Lord North succeeded in attaining passage of the aforementioned Quebec Act in June, 1774. Under the terms of this statute, the French language and the Roman Catholic faith received official sanction, French-style civil law was granted equal status to English common law, and a form of government whereby a royally-appointed governor ruled on the advice of a locally-appointed legislative council was put in place.

Noteworthy within this arrangement was the absence of an elected legislative assembly, a feature otherwise common to Britain’s various American dependencies. Granting that the creation of such a body would have represented a significant break with Quebec’s prevailing political traditions – an elected legislature having formed no part of the French administration of that province – the lack thereof nevertheless constituted a significant innovation on the part of the British government that sought to implement it. “Canada,” Price thusly noted, “According to the late extension of its limits, is a country almost as large as half Europe; and it may possibly come in time to be filled with British subjects. The Quebec act makes the king of Great-Britain a despot over all that country.” This was not a power that any British government would have dared to exert in Britain proper, barring some unforeseen alteration in the political convictions of the general population. The rights and liberties possessed by every citizen of the Crown and embedded in the British Constitution were fundamentally incompatible with such an all-encompassing assumption of authority, and it would surely had spelled the doom of any government seeking to introduce such a measure in Parliament. Bearing this essential truth in mind, Price was accordingly given to wonder what it was that gave the North Ministry the idea that this course of action – adverse to the liberties and abhorrent to the sensibilities of the contemporary British citizen – was permissible in Quebec.

Whatever one thought about the Canadiens personally, culturally, or politically, they had been collectively granted British citizenship upon the annexation of their homeland to the British colonial empire. They were, in consequence, entitled to the all of the same legal protections and guarantees to which the average inhabitant of Britain proper might proudly have laid claim. Just so, there was certainly nothing to prevent – and everything to encourage – native-born British citizens migrating into this newly-acquired colonial possession in search of some opportunity or another. Indeed, successive British governments seemed inclined to hope that exactly this trend would take hold and flourish, transforming Quebec from a kind of French-speaking hinterland of the British Empire into a thriving Anglo-American colony comparable in character and economic output to its southern neighbors in New England. In spite of the accordant implications of these basic legal and demographic circumstances, however, the terms of the Quebec Act begged certain troubling questions. Where all of these people, none of whom had committed any crime against the Crown or Parliament, to be denied their right to political representation simply as a result of fate or circumstance? Did simple existence within the boundaries of the province of Quebec serve to nullify their enjoyment of the liberties to which they were inherently entitled? As if Price’s answers to these question were not evident enough from the content of Observations thus far cite, his attempt to connect the implications of the Massachusetts Government Act to those of the Quebec Act made it abundantly clear that his understanding of individual sovereignty fundamentally clashed with that embodied by the policies of the aforesaid North Ministry.

The Province of Massachusetts Bay, governed since 1691 in accordance with the terms of a royal charter granted under the authority of joint monarchs William III (1650-1702) and Mary II (1662-1694), found itself increasingly at the center of the Anglo-American crisis as the 1760s gave way to the 1770s and tensions between the inhabitants of the colony and their nominal British governors became dangerously frayed. These tensions arguably came to a head in 1774 following a demonstration conducted in Boston harbor the previous year during which a substantial amount of British property was destroyed. Parliament, following the lead of the North Ministry, accordingly sought to punish Massachusetts for the intransigence displayed by certain of its citizens via the passage of a series of punitive statutes. Of these, the Massachusetts Government Act was perhaps the most alarming to the inhabitants of that selfsame colony. Under its terms, the colony’s formerly elected legislative council was transformed into a body of advisors appointed by and solely responsible to the royally-commissioned governor, with said office also gaining the rights to nominate, appoint, and remove nearly every other civil office then recognized by the colonial government. The beloved town meeting, by which the various communities whereof Massachusetts was composed were governed, was at the same time prohibited as a form of democratic administration due to its supposed vulnerability to insurgent elements within the general population. In all, the legislative assembly was the only institution over which the newly-empowered governor did not enjoyed near-unlimited authority. Even so, the body’s sitting membership was summarily dismissed at the time of the offending statute’s implementation so that fresh elections could be held.

It should be quite clear, given how much the terms cited above differed from those of the aforementioned colonial charter, that the people of Massachusetts would not have agreed to such a radical reorganization of the only government over which they were capable of exercising even a modicum of control if a proposal to that end had been placed before them for ratification. It was not, of course, placed before then, and for precisely that reason. Having damaged British property, defied the authority of Parliament, and generally made themselves nuisances in the eyes of the Crown, the people of the Province of Massachusetts Bay were to be punished, summarily and without their consent. Doubtless the North Ministry and its supporters believed there was justice in this, though Price maintained that it could not be so in fact. Whatever the people of Massachusetts – or perhaps, more accurately, the people of Boston – had done to injure Parliament, the Crown, or certain British merchants, he affirmed, nothing could justify the punishment they were dealt. Notwithstanding the abrogation of the 1691 charter which the Massachusetts Government Act embodied – an action which in itself Parliament was not legally capable of taking – no government duly formed under the auspices of the British Constitution could justly claim for itself the power to actively take rights away from British citizens in good standing without in any way gaining their permission to do so. The Bill of Rights had not been abolished and the Magna Carta was yet extant; the codified rights to which every British citizen was due were as viable as they had ever been. The majority seated in Parliament as of May 20th, 1774, led by the government of Lord North, had simply decided that certain of them should no longer apply to the inhabitants of Massachusetts.

Not only did this represent a legal impossibility, but the fact of it – offered without justification or formal limit – seemed to imply that there was yet more that Parliament could have accomplished. Seeking to propel his readers down exactly this avenue of thought, Price accordingly asked them in the penultimate paragraph of Part II, Section I of Observations to consider,

If all this in no more than we have a right to do; may we not go on to abolish the house of representatives, to destroy all trials by juries, and to give up the province absolutely to the will of the king?–May we not even establish popery in the province, as had been lately done in Canada, leaving the support of protestantism to the king’s discretion?

The unspoken conclusion evidently underlying these inquiries, and based on the logic of the North Ministry’s actions, would seem to have been that if the British Constitution could not protect the people of Massachusetts from losing certain of their rights, then it could neither protect them from losing all of them. That he believed his countrymen to be generally unbothered by the notion Price gave evidence throughout the preceding text of Observations. The average Briton, he affirmed, given little cause to consider very deeply the situation of the British Empire’s American provinces, was like to conclude on an almost unconscious level that the colonies – and everything in them – were essentially the property of the British nation, to be disposed of as the government and people thereof deemed fit.

Countering such a powerful expression of self-interest presented a steep prospect indeed, but one which Price attempted all the same. To that end, he asked his readers to effectively imagine themselves in the situation then being endured by their fellow subjects in Massachusetts. “Can there be any Englishman who,” he thus entreated, “Were it his own case, would not sooner lose his heart’s blood than yield to claims so pregnant with evils, and destructive to every thing than can distinguish a Freeman from a Slave.” This should not have been a particularly arduous request, for the same reason that the reaction of the North Ministry to the supposed effrontery of the American colonists made not the slightest bit of sense. The inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, alongside those of every other colony then in a state of rebellion, were subjects of the same Crown, protected by the same constitution, and possessed of the same rights as any and every citizen of Great Britain proper. Not only did this entitle them to expect the same treatment before the law as their brethren across the Atlantic, but it served to strongly indicate that their collective reaction to the arbitrary curtailment of their fundamental liberties would have been almost exactly the same as that likely to be manifested by a similarly aggrieved British population. What this meant, in essence – and what Price seemed increasingly keen to communicate – was that contemporary American resistance to the increasingly arbitrary policies of the government of Lord North constituted nothing more or less than what the British people themselves would do if faced with the same basic circumstances. The American people, therefore, far from rejecting the British Constitution and all that it stood for, were instead embracing it to precisely the extent that the values embedded therein required. That the government of Lord North and its domestic supporters appeared not to realize this accordingly indicated that they were exceptionally shortsighted in their decision making, and/or that their affirmations of patriotism and dedication to fundamental principles were almost entirely meaningless.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, Part XII: Illogical, Unthinking, Hypocritical Britain, contd.

In furtherance of his assertion that the policy of the government of Lord North towards the Thirteen Colonies – then engaged in a course of armed resistance to British authority – was inherently at odds with the basic tenets of the British Constitution, Richard Price next turned his attention in the text of his Observations to both the state of representative government in Britain and the impermanence of any claim to national superiority. Of these approaches, it is perhaps worth noting at the outset that while the former appeared to be of particular significance to Price – being, as he was, an avowed supporter of Parliamentary reform – both ultimately led to the same basic conclusion. Eager though he demonstrably was to promote a more sensible approach to policy on the part of his country’s administrative elite – to save Britain from itself, as it were – the concluding paragraphs of Part II, Section I of Observations begin to reveal a degree of resignation on the part of its author. Through clearly endeavoring to promote a deeper and more sincere appreciation on the part of his countrymen for the sovereign rights and liberties ostensibly guaranteed by the British Constitution, Price nevertheless also appeared to dread that his efforts would ever amount to the outcome he sought. Having argued that the North Ministry and its supporters were being illogical in their conduct towards the American colonies, that they rationale was hollow and baseless, and that time might easily undo many of their claims, he more than once appeared to throw up his hands and lament the evident likelihood that none of these assertions would serve to change British behavior one iota, and that it was perhaps more sensible to celebrate America’s principled resistance to Britain than hope that Britain would ever again be capable of rendering this resistance unnecessary.

Consider, with this sense of resignation in mind, Price’s aforementioned attempt to dispel any claims of America’s necessary submission to Great Britain by way of the contemporary state of parliamentary representation. Seeking to dispel yet another hypothetical argument on behalf of the government of Lord North, the author of Observations accordingly noted that, “The defective state of the representation of this kingdom has been farther pleaded to prove our right to tax America. We submit to a parliament that does not represent us, and therefore they ought.” It was, Price noted, a very strange way of thinking – simultaneously pragmatic and wholly illogical. “It is saying we want liberty [,]” he thus marvelled, “And therefore, they ought to want it.” Not only did such a position appear to suppose that the unrepresentative nature of Britain’s Parliament was essentially immutable, but it demonstrated a degree of pettiness and indifference that did not speak well at all of those who gave voice to it. Indeed, the interpersonal equivalent would seem to be that of an individual in ill-humor endeavoring to make everyone around then equally miserable for no other reason than it appears to them unfair that anyone else should be happy if they cannot feel that way themselves. Truly, it was not a particularly gracious sentiment, and one which Price would doubtless have affirmed was better pitied than made cause for a particular course of public policy. 

            In point of fact, the claim that the inhabitants of late 18th century Britain labored under a system of government that was almost comically incapable of actually representing their needs and interests was most definitely accurate. As discussed previously in this very series, the constituency boundaries by which Members of Parliament were elected in the 1770s had by and large been established over the course of the medieval era on an ad-hoc basis and in accordance with what were then the major centers of economic activity and population. In consequence, historic ports, markets, and church towns enjoyed preference over most other communities, property qualifications were the norm for access to the franchise, and the specific regulations by which a person was either permitted to vote or disqualified from voting varied extensively from one jurisdiction to another. The flaws inherent in this patchwork system of elections were particularly glaring in regards to the aforementioned pocket boroughs and the mercantile centers that emerged over the course of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. The borough of Dunwich, being a prime example of the former, was once the site of a thriving port in Suffolk whose fortunes gradually declined following its recognition in Parliament as the sea steadily swallowed the town itself and reduced its population by the beginning of the 18th century to something less than five hundred souls. By the beginning of the 19th century there were only thirty-two recognized electors in Dunwich, fully half of which were assigned on an election-by-election basis by a pair of local landholders. On the other end of the spectrum was the county constituency of Warwickshire, which, in spite of containing the burgeoning industrial city of Birmingham – whose population in the late 1770s exceeded forty thousand – registered only a few thousand electors and continued to be dominated by local landed interests. The significance of these kinds of disparities was that the voters of an underpopulated constituency – like Dunwich – enjoyed far more influence over the disposition of Parliament than did their counterparts in an overpopulated constituency – like Warwickshire. This state of affairs unequivocally represented a manifest injustice, and one whose ill effects were actively magnified as the years wore on.

            Richard Price would surely have been the last person to argue with this kind of assessment. Not only was he fully aware in 1776 of the deplorable state of political representation in his homeland, but he represented one of the few individuals possessed of significant social capital who was at that time yet willing to advocate for an appropriate course of reform. That being said, however, he would also have been one of the last people to agree with the hypothetical assertion that the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies should not expect to have their own woes regarding political representation addressed before those of their British resident counterparts. In this sense Price was perhaps something other than a nationalist, if that term can be said to apply in the context of the late 18th century. He was not someone who favored solving British problems first and foremost to the exclusion of all others. Nor did he seem to draw the same socio-cultural distinction between residents of Britain proper and the population of the larger empire that so many of his countrymen seemed to by default. Owing perhaps to his vocation as a Non-Conformist preacher, his upbringing on the fringes of mainstream British society, and his evident belief in Lockean ideas of sovereignty and justice, Richard Price instead seemed to tend towards the basic conviction that equality before the law was among the highest values to which any civilization could aspire. In his eyes it accordingly made no difference whether a person was born and raised in Britain or had never – and would never – set foot upon its shores; all were entitled to the same rights, the same liberties, and the same expectation of sensible and trustworthy government.

            Bearing this in mind, it was only natural that he would have recoiled at the notion that some people were entitled to the fulfillment of their rights in advance of others. The people of Britain and the people of America were equally deserving of truly representative government, and likewise equally entitled to pursue that aim by whatever means they had at their disposal. If Britain secured this outcome before their trans-Atlantic brethren, the latter had no call for jealously, bitterness, or resentment. On the contrary, they should be given instead to celebrate the realization of a goal to which they themselves attach a great deal of significance. Just so, if the people of America managed to achieve something like this same outcome for themselves – by, say, collectively extricating themselves from the authority of a government in which they were not represented – their British counterparts should likewise give praise that their shared goal had been in some measure accomplished in some corner of the globe. To do otherwise would be plainly hypocritical. And to blame the inhabitants of colonial America for the iniquities of the contemporary British Parliament would be senseless and cynical. On the contrary, the author of Observations asked of his countrymen, “Ought we not rather to wish earnestly, that there may at least be ONE FREE COUNTRY left upon earth, to which we may fly, when venality, luxury, and vice had completed the ruin of liberty here?” While this passage hardly speaks to any hope on Price’s part that his homeland was capable of being saved, it does powerfully affirm his conviction that liberty was something to which every human being was equally entitled, and that the creation of a system of government reflective of this basic truth should rightfully be encouraged in every quarter rather than understood as an object fit for competition.

            The discussion Price saw fit to devote to the subject of representative government in the text of his Observations, in addition to giving rise to the commentary cited above, also served to introduce an idea which subsequent passages of that selfsame document would shortly explore in greater depth. Specifically, it was the notion that the goal being then pursued by the American insurrectionaries – i.e. a government which respected their basic rights and liberties – represented nothing more or less than the embodiment of the values embedded in the British Constitution. The inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies, the relevant text affirmed, did not want more for themselves than what any British person would have claimed as their birthright, in no small part because both Britain and British America recognized the same socio-cultural touchstones and promoted the same political values. It accordingly represented a shameful pretense to claim that the American attempt to resist efforts intended to bring the colonies to heel constituted anything even remotely close to treason. If the members of the North Ministry and their supporters could not see this, it was perhaps because they had not considered the significance of their various policy initiatives from the perspective of the liberties they themselves would surely have claimed to cherish and uphold.

            Consider, to that end, a scenario Price offered his readers in one of the last paragraphs of Part II, Section I of Observations. “Britain is now,” he allowed – though perhaps, in hindsight, without much conviction – “The seat of Liberty and virtue, and its legislature consists of a body of able and independent men, who govern with wisdom and justice.” Conciliatory though this phrasing might seem to the position being firmly upheld by his nominal opponents, however, it in fact represented only the initial premise of substantially more challenging line of inquiry. “The time may come,” Price thus continued,

When all will be reversed: When its excellent constitution of government will be subverted: When pressed by debts and taxes, it will be greedy to draw to itself an increase in revenue from every distant Province, in order to ease its own burthens: When the influence of the Crown, strengthened by luxury and an universal profligacy of manners, will have tainted every heart, broken down every fence of Liberty, and rendered us a nation of tame and contended vassals: When a general Election will be nothing but a general Auction of Boroughs: And when PARLIAMENT, the Grand Council of the nation, and once the faithful guardian of the state, and a terror to evil ministers, will be degenerated into a body of Sycophants, dependent and venal, always ready to confirm any measures; and little more than a public court for registering royal edicts […] What will, as that period, be the duty of the Colonies?

Bearing in mind the various frustrations expressed by Price that have thus far been cited in this present series, it hardly seems a stretch to infer that the qualifying phrase, “The time may come” was almost certainly intended as a cover for his belief that in fact the time had already come when the disreputable conditions he thereafter named were actively manifest in the politics and policy of the contemporary British state. Britain was heavily indebted following its involvement in the Seven Years War (1754-1763), he explained, and eager to generate revenue from its American dependencies. Its legislature was wildly unrepresentative, and subject to chronic electoral corruption. And its executive government was too easily swayed by moneyed interests, subject to royal favoritism, and groaning under the weight of an over-inflated bureaucracy. Having seen these things for himself, however – and marked them out accordingly – Price was now asking his nominal opponents to consider them in turn.

    More to the point, he was asking them to determine what course of action the American colonies ought to follow should such a scenario come to pass. “Will they still be bound to unconditional submission?” he thus wrote. “Must they always continue to be an appendage to our government [,] and follow it implicitly through every change that can happen to it?” Fanciful though the scenario embedded in these questions might have seemed to many of his readers, Price maintained that the odds were decidedly against Great Britain remaining indefinitely the bastion of liberty so many of its inhabitants believed it to be. A crisis could occur, leading to a sudden – and perhaps entirely necessary – increase in the authority of the cabinet which in time might well become habitual. Jealous of its newfound power and disinclined to relinquish it, said cabinet may well then seek to disarm Parliament, establish a standing army to enforce its rule, and precipitate another civil war. A very similar train of events had occurred in Britain over the course of the 1640s. And while steps had certainly been taken since then meant to ensure that no executive could ever again usurp the power of a duly-constituted parliament, such measures were only effective if recognized and heeded by the major actors involved. Some future ministry might yet choose to disregard them, backed by an army paid and supplied by merchant and banking interests whose leaders believed they stood to gain by the abrogation of certain basic civil liberties. While, again, this might not have seemed the most likely scenario to the average reader of Observations, Price rather astutely pointed out that it didn’t have to be particularly likely to be relevant to the present discussion. “Can you give the Colonies any security that such a period will never come?” he thus demanded. That the supporters of the North Ministry could not offer this guarantee – nor, indeed, could anyone else – very much formed the crux of Price’s aforementioned anxiety.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, Part XI: Illogical, Unthinking, Hypocritical Britain, contd.

            The next several paragraphs of Richard Price’s Observations represented a slight shift in tone from that were preceded them. Whereas Price had theretofore attempted in Part II, Section I to explore and discount the various claims made by his countrymen to Britain’s inherent superiority over the Thirteen Colonies in terms of relative population, wealth, and intellectual achievement, financial investment, and even by way of the metaphor of the parent/child relationship, he now endeavored to focus on the logic of certain fundamental aspects of Britain’s political philosophy and political culture. Specifically, he asked his fellow Britons to project the implications of their various assumptions to their furthest extreme and then contrast the result against the basic constitutional principles by which the contemporary British state was supposedly governed. If contradictions surfaced as a result of this exercise – if what Britain was demanding of the inhabitants of America amounted to more than most British subjects would acquiesce to themselves – then the validity of the British position could accordingly be called into question. Price thus evidently attempted to turn the focus of the discussion surrounding the burgeoning conflict between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies away from what was essentially an accounting of power dynamics and towards an interrogation of what it was his countrymen actually believed about themselves, their nation, and their values as a people.

            The author of Observations made his entrez into this more theoretical area of discussion by first investigating the claim – again, made by the hypothetical supporter of the North Ministry and its policy towards America – that the colonies were of a right subordinate to Britain because, “The Land on which they settled was ours.” There appeared to Price, notwithstanding a number of philosophical questions having to do with the nature of sovereignty tied up in this kind of claim, several factual errors present therein. For one, he asserted, the fundamental right of property celebrated as one of the essential principles of the British Constitution could not easily be reconciled to the traditional European colonial practice of claiming vast swaths of land at a distance merely by way of a declaration to that effect. “If sailing along a coast can give a right to a country,” he mused accordingly, “Then might the people of Japan become, as soon as they please, the proprietors of Britain.” This was, of course, a nonsensical scenario, but purposefully so. Ridiculous as it was to imagine a Japanese vessel sailing up the Thames in 1776 and laying claim for the Emperor to every square inch of soil sighted by its crew, Price invited his readers to consider that the equivalent gesture on the part of 17th century English sailors exploring the coast of America was no more sensible as a means of establishing legal ownership over a given plot of land. Real property – in the sense of landed property – belonged to those who lived upon it, worked it, or improved it.

This was not a doctrine, it bears noting, which would have necessarily sat all that well with the contemporary British gentry or the Anglican Church. Both of these bodies collectively owned acres upon acres of land that they subsequently rented or leased to those who themselves made the actual improvements. But it certainly seemed to accord with Price’s evidently Lockean sensibilities when it came to matters of sovereignty. Observe, to that end, Price’s further claim in the same paragraph cited above. “If the land on which the Colonies first settled had any proprietors,” Price affirmed,

They were the natives. The greatest part of it they bought of the natives. They have since cleared and cultivated it; and, without any help from us, converted a wilderness into fruitful and pleasant fields. It is, therefore, now on a double account their property; and no power on earth can have any right to disturb them in the possession of it, or to take from them without their consent, any part of its produce.

The author of Observations thus demonstrated his understanding of property rights as being essentially opposed to that expressed by his hypothetical opponent. Whereas this supposed Northite appeared to believe that Britain had claimed America for itself by way of some mysterious right of imperial possession and then sold or rented the land to the various colonial founders, Price maintained that in fact the region’s indigenous inhabitants had possessed the original claim to the territory in question and traded it to the colonists in exchange for whatever money or commodities they possessed. While the difference between these perceptions might appear somewhat slight, the contrary is in fact the case.

Price posited a clear chain of possession from one title-holder to the next – from tribal polity to migrant community – with deed being transferred via a (theoretically) consensual procedure. His opponents conversely failed to explain precisely how the property in question passed into the hands of its American cultivators. Certainly they had agreed to purchase or rent it from Crown authorities – or else some agent of the same – but it was not at all clear how they themselves had come into possession of it initially. Certainly they hadn’t purchased it from a local authority in exchange for something of equal value, settlement tending to precede first contact during the formative years of the American colonial venture. And yet, some ineffable, alchemical process must have taken place for land that no English person had previously laid eyes on to suddenly become the possession of the English monarch. Presumably, the relevant individual(s), acting on behalf of the Crown, had just gazed upon the land from afar, decided that it should belong to England, and then it did. Impressive though such a power might have been, however – and certainly convenient for the monarch who wished to dole out land at will without having to pay for the privilege – the implications thereof were also nothing short of terrifying.

 By entertaining the notion that the Crown was the original owner of the land upon which the Thirteen Colonies were founded, one would at the same time be given to tacitly accept that this same authority – or its agent – could unilaterally claim a given piece of property by way of simple declaration alone. It did not matter if said property was already in someone else’s possession – as Price affirmed that the colonial territory was – and no exchange, discussion, or even notification was necessary. Bearing in mind that British authorities would very likely have been less inclined to exercise this privilege upon the property of their own subjects than upon the property of the non-Christian, non-European indigenous inhabitants of North America, there was nothing inherent to the principle itself that stood to prevent the former for occurring. If the Crown could claim property it had never seen some three thousand miles away with no more than a declaration to that end, why could it not do the same to the lots and acreages in its own backyard? How could something as comparatively narrow as property rights stand against as expansive a power as that? How could the Bill of Rights? How could any part the British Constitution? That there were no clear answers to these questions was doubtless in large part why Price tended to oppose the very idea. Allowing the British government to subvert property rights in certain cases arguably opened the door for it to subvert property rights in all cases. Better, then, to demand a clear derivation of authority, a clear chain of possession, and a clear rationale for intrusions upon individual sovereignty.

There was also, of course, the question of ownership by way of cultivation. As aforementioned, Price seemed to evince in the text of his Observations a very Lockean sensibility in matters of property and its possession. The paragraph cited above was particularly explicit on this count. Of the land settled by the American colonists, Price affirmed that, “They have since cleared and cultivated it; and, without any help from us, converted a wilderness into fruitful and pleasant fields.” Turning to the relevant text of John Locke (1632-1704) – i.e. Two Treatises of Government – one finds much the same explanation for the relationship between labor and property. “He that so imployed his pains about any of the spontaneous products of nature,” Locke asserted therein,  

As any way to alter them from the state which nature put them in, by placing any of his labour on them, did thereby acquire a propriety in them […] The same measures governed the possession of land too: whatsoever he tilled and reaped, laid up and made use of, before it spoiled, that was his peculiar right; whatsoever he enclosed, and could feed, and make use of, the cattle and product was also his.

By thus mixing one’s labor with what was otherwise common property – by tilling a field, picking an apple, killing and dressing a deer, or chopping down a tree – the object in question was made more useful and ownership was transferred from the commons to the individual. This was, at its heart, a matter of compensation, whereby productivity was rewarded with the outcome of the same. Consider, to that end the untilled field. Left fallow, it aides no one; made to sprout wheat, corn, barley, or buckwheat, however, it could feed any number of people or animals. In return for accomplishing this transformation – for making something useless to human society incredibly useful by the expenditure of certain resources – the laborer takes possession of the value they have created.

            Applied to the context of the American colonial project, this kind of Lockean analysis would seem to paint the colonists themselves – who worked the plots and acreages in question – as the truest owners of their land. However they acquired it – by purchase from its original indigenous possessors or by grant from the Crown – their efforts greatly increased its productivity, making it useful in a way that it had not been previously. And while it was certainly possible for the native peoples whose land it was originally to have accomplished this same feat of transformative labor – a number of the indigenous communities then residing in North America engaged in subsistence agriculture, after all – the likelihood thereof should form no part of the question at hand. Price did not claim that the ability of the colonists to improve the land they took possession of gave them a right to appropriate it from the native peoples they encountered. Indeed, he stated explicitly of said land that, “The greatest part of it they bought from the natives [.]” thus obviating any need to establish right or claim. Rather, he was arguably attempting to affirm that even if one really did believe the Crown to be the rightful original possessor of the land in question, there was no way that said authority could have improved it, cultivated it, or otherwise increased its value to a greater extent than the colonists. This task instead fell to the colonists who, in exchange for their labor, gained a superior claim to the land in question.

            One might in fact be inclined to say that the colonists gained an exclusive claim, but for the myriad complications then existing within the contemporary Anglo-American legal system vis-à-vis the use and possession of land. Granting that it was certainly possible – and far from uncommon – for a given acreage to be sold unconditionally and in its entirety by one individual to another, this was far from the only means by which the practical use of land could be transferred between parties. Concepts like entail and escheat, for example, served to ensure that certain estates could not be disposed of as their present owners desired and provided for the automatic Crown appropriation of property in the event of its holder expiring without a legally valid heir. In both cases, the notion that legal possession was fundamentally absolute – i.e. that holding the deed to a piece of property entitled a person to dispose of it as they wished – was called into question. Entailed estates arguably belonged as much to the original contract holder as any of their legal heirs in the way that they limited the ability of said estate to be sold piecemeal rather than as a whole. Escheat, by establishing the Crown as the default possessor of otherwise unclaimed land, meanwhile arguably implied that all property falling within the bounds of the British Empire actually belonged to the monarch of the same. Deeds stating otherwise were thus in some sense temporary, to be honored only so long as the relevant bloodline could be maintained.

Then, of course, there was the matter of rental. Land rental was exceedingly common in British America, consequent to the widespread use of freehold title. Within most of the relevant colonies, property was generally purchased on an individual basis from the appropriate government – said government having commonly acquired is through negotiation with or conquest of regional indigenous authorities – which in turn absolved the resulting tenants from all obligations save the annual payment of so-called “quit-rents.” Whereas these yearly payments historically functioned as monetary compensation for non-performance of various feudal obligations – military service chief among them – their remaining purpose by the end of the 18th century was generally to act as an ongoing acknowledgment of the property in question’s ultimate owner. As the aforesaid colonial governments were administered either by an executive appointed by the Crown or a proprietary owner possessing the sanction of the same, the payment of quit-rents thus effectively acknowledged that the paramount authority in matters of property in America was the reigning British monarch. Principles like entail and escheat arguably also supported this basic assertion by likewise implying that the average landholder in the Anglo-American world – the person who lived upon the land in question, worked it, and or otherwise made productive use of it – remained in a legal sense subordinate to a higher authority whose interest in or even knowledge of said property was often exceedingly limited.

            Price’s understanding of landed property – and by extension that of John Locke – tended to be somewhat simpler. Land, he affirmed in the text of his Observations, ultimately belonged to the individual(s) whose labor demonstrably increased the productivity of the same. And while the primacy of this principle did not preclude a plot or acreage from being transferred between owners absent an effort of improvement – via a payment of cash, say, or an exchange of goods, or even as a gift – it did imply that sufficient labor inherently generated interest. In consequence, regardless of who held the deed on a particular piece of property, the improvement of it conveyed a right upon the improver to determine the manner in which it was used. Indeed, taking Locke’s aforementioned definition of value and ownership at its most fundamental, it may even have conveyed the superior right. After all, to what extent could an absentee landlord contribute towards increasing the value of a given plot once they had assigned that task to a rent-paying tenant? And if it could be proven that said landlord had in fact contributed nothing at all, why should they then determine what became of the property in question? While the sheer complexity of contemporary British property law was not necessarily conducive to these kinds of questions being posed – nor, indeed, would landlords and leaseholders been inclined to answer them – they do at least serve to frame Price’s state of mind as compared to his hypothetical Northite opponent. Fundamentally a supporter of the status quo, a supporter of the North Ministry would likely have argued that the fate of all property always fell to the ultimate deed-holder. Conversely an advocate of individual sovereignty, Price would have meanwhile affirmed that the fate of a given property was rightly decided by the person(s) who actually made use of it.

            As it concerned the burgeoning conflict between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, this difference of opinion on matters of property spoke to the opposing perspectives of Price and his ideological foes on the aforementioned subject of sovereignty and authority. Holding that the Crown had been the original owner and granter of all land subsequently held by the American colonists, and at the same time maintaining that a transfer of physical ownership did not necessarily involve a transfer of legal authority, the theoretical supporter of the North Ministry would naturally be given to conclude that Britain remained the supreme power – the paramount feudal lord, as it were – over all matters transpiring in the aforesaid Thirteen Colonies. The amount of time that had passed since the transfer took place made no difference, nor did the fact that the relevant colonists had added tremendous value to the property itself. The Crown had owned the land originally, and in very real sense always would. Price, conversely maintaining that the colonists had purchased the land fairly and legally from its original indigenous owners, meanwhile asserted that the labor exerted by the individuals in question, and the value generated as a result, entitled them to a greater share of discretion than any authority claiming nominal ownership over their property. Quit-rents, leases, and escheats notwithstanding, the land belonged to those who made it useful, “And no power on earth can have any right to disturb them in the possession of it, or to take from them without their consent, any part of its produce.”

            Having established this basic ideological dichotomy between his own affirmation of individual sovereignty and his opponent’s support for a kind of perpetual tenancy, Price next attempted to juxtapose the implications of the latter against some of the essential principles of contemporary British citizenship. Granting, for the sake of argument, the basic premise to which he was opposed – i.e. that Great Britain had been the original possessor of the land subsequently distributed to the various American colonies – he asked his readers to then imagine what this logical construction said about the colonists themselves. Specifically, Price asserted that the original settlers of the various Anglo-American communities – Virginia, the Plymouth Colony, Pennsylvania, etc. – would have been unlikely to migrate from Britain to America had they known that the property they were thereby acquiring would belong to them in something less than an absolute sense. Being inculcated with the same understanding of their sovereign rights as those of their countrymen who chose to remain behind in Britain, these pioneering settlers would surely not have agreed to take part in such a hazardous venture where they not convinced that the liberties to which they were entitled as subjects of the Crown were guaranteed to the same extent in America as they had been in the land of their birth. That the colonial charters these same people labored under appeared to support exactly this expectation – documents, “Which promised them the enjoyment of all the rights of Englishmen; and allowed them to tax themselves, and to be governed by legislatures of their own” – appears very strongly to validate this claim.

And even if this weren’t the case, Price further avowed that the basic dictates of reason argued powerfully against the scenario that his hypothetical opponent seemed to be proposing. As he described their position, certain contemporary supporters of the North Ministry evidently believed that the original settlers of British America, by the act of migration, had tacitly agreed that the government they were ostensibly leaving behind – over which they would no longer possess even the barest measure of control – could and should continue to exercise final authority over the disposition of their property and the fulfilment of their rights. This particular understanding was undeniably a convenient one as suited the priorities of the North Ministry, fundamentally absolving them of any need to respect the claimed rights of the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies. To Price’s thinking, of course, it was also almost wholly illogical. “It is inconsistent with common sense to imagine,” he wrote accordingly, “That any people would ever think of settling in a distant country, on any such condition, as that the people from whom they withdrew, should forever be masters of their property, and have power to subject them to any modes of government they pleased.” Had terms to this effect been made plain to the relevant individuals at the time of their departure from Great Britain, it followed, the sense of their sovereign rights possessed by each of them would surely have prevent their departure, or else ensured that more reasonable stipulations were agreed to. To affirm that Britain was the original distributor of property in America, and that it retained final authority over the disposition of the same, was thereby also essentially to argue that the first settlers of said territory gave up their rights – knowingly or unknowingly – upon their departure in such a way as to make them impossible for their descendants to ever recover.

Doubtless Price’s intention was for his readers to interpret this scenario as being fundamentally preposterous. Not only was it essentially unthinkable within the context of Britain’s libertarian, rights-conscious political culture that any individual or group would agree to forfeit the exercise of their rights and those of their progeny in exchange for land and isolation, but it would surely have beggared belief for the average Briton to realize that their liberties could so easily be abrogated by way of physical distance and the possession of property. Certainly, it would be difficult to imagine any contemporary British observers of the ongoing Anglo-American crisis agreeing to make such a bargain themselves. Decades of cultural self-assurance, the mythologizing of the Glorious Revolution (1688) and the Bill of Rights (1689), and the consequent ideological sanctification of the British Constitution would have offered tremendous barriers to the same. Likewise – laying aside for a moment the functional novelty that the Thirteen Colonies represented – it would take a concerted effort of will to conceive of very many constituents of the contemporary British government who would have granted that Parliament and the Crown could ignore the fundamental rights of certain of their subjects depending on where they lived or from whom they acquired what landed property they possessed. Mainstream British constitutional theory simply couldn’t account for that kind of discretionary power. Even residents of under-represented boroughs – burgeoning industrial centers like Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow, for example – at least enjoyed the recognition of their property and the security of their basic civil rights. The inhabitants of British America were evidently to be denied even these seemingly meagre guarantees, and for no more convincing reason than that it suited the ministry of Lord North to do so.

Price quite naturally refused to countenance the kind of senseless, slipshod reasoning that would have to be deployed in order to support such a position. The founding settlers of the Thirteen Colonies, being proud, rights-conscious Britons, would no more have agreed to curtail their own liberties by migrating than would any of their 18th century counterparts. Nor would they have agreed to such an exchange if it had been clearly presented to them. It therefore only made sense to conclude that they had not done so, that their rights were in the same state upon arriving in America as they had been on departing from Britain, and that their descendants had inherited said rights undiminished and fully extant. Logic would accept nothing less. Neither would any right-thinking British person. Ever fond of granting a premise only to then tear it down, of course, Price carried this assertion yet further by arguing that even consent could not have altered the state of American liberties. Even if the pioneering settlers of the Thirteen Colonies had known what it was there were supposedly in for – if, for example, the limits to be placed on their rights were spelled out explicitly in their respective governing charters – he nevertheless avowed, “They would, in my opinion, be no more bound by them, than if it had been stipulated with them, that they should go naked, or expose themselves to the incursion of wolves and tigers.” Though this obviously represents a somewhat fanciful construction, the intention behind it was most certainly an earnest one. To Price’s thinking, being deprived of one’s sovereign rights – unknowingly or by mutual agreement – was tantamount to being exposed to potentially life-ending peril. No government had the power to compel its subjects to make such an agreement, or the right to hold them to one that was freely offered. Government – in the Lockean sense – being of essence the result of a consensual bargain whereby the lives of those involved were made more secure, stable, and safe, no institution so conceived could ever rightfully support policies that contributed to a loss of these same guarantees. The North Ministry, in this regard, was no exception, the claims of its supporters notwithstanding.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, Part X: Illogical, Unthinking, Hypocritical Britain, contd.

            The rationale that Richard Price next sought to examine and deconstruct in the text of his Observations for the continued submission of the American colonies to the British government was somewhat more figurative than those he had theretofore addressed. Whereas the claims he had investigated up to that point sought to invoke – albeit somewhat vaguely – the facts and figures that set America and Britain apart, this next assertion attempted to substitute allegory for even the appearance of logic. “But we are the PARENT STATE,” Price quoted certain of his countrymen as having declared, as if that phrase obliterated all doubt as to proper roles to be assayed by Britain and America, respectively. The author of Observations would have none of this, of course, and proceeded to dismantle the “parent state” argument in both its literal and figurative sense.
By claiming for Great Britain the title of parent to America’s presumed role as child, the advocates of British supremacy that Price was evidently citing were doubtless attempting to imply that the American colonies owed their origin to Britain, that they had enjoyed British guidance and support in the formative years of their existence, and that they consequently owed the British government some degree of deference and fealty. It would be difficult to say to what extent this hypothetical obligation extended, though the context would seem to imply an indefinite degree of submission over an indefinite period of time. Understandably – given his aforementioned understanding of the nature and significance of sovereignty – this was not a state of affairs to which Price could comfortably resign himself. For one thing, it seemed to him that the implications of the doctrine – if taken to their logical conclusion – extended beyond just the relationship between Britain and America. “The English came from Germany [,]” Price thus pointedly observed. “Does this give the German states a right to tax us?”

            In point of fact, England had indeed been settled between approximately the 5th and 7th centuries by an assortment of Germanic tribes – among them, most famously, the Angles and the Saxons. These various continental peoples migrated into what was then post-Roman Britannia, either as invaders or by the invitation of its native Celtic inhabitants, and proceeded to completely transform the cultural and political makeup of the region by about the end of the 9th century. This would not be the last time England would be invaded and settled on a large scale by an otherwise foreign people – the Norman conquest of 1066 having further redefined both the nature of English culture and its relationship to continental Europe – but it arguably represented the single most significant event by which a former province of the Roman Empire became a distinct socio-political entity.

            The purpose of Price’s question, therefore, was to draw a comparison between the settlement of America by various communities of English/British migrants over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries and the settlement of Britain by the Angles and Saxons over a millennium previous. Specifically, it was the implication of the “parent state” claim – i.e. that being the nominal originators of the American colonies gave Britain a claim to their continued obedience – that was being called to examination. If, Price was essentially asking, America ought continually to defer to Britain, submit to the authority of its government, and pay whatever taxes the legislature thereof assessed simply because the colonists and their ancestors originally came from Britain, did it not then follow that Britain should similarly submit itself to the governments then administering the lands from which their own ancestors migrated? This was, of course, a fairly ridiculous proposition. Not only were there far too many sovereign or semi-sovereign states then in existence in what is now Germany for it to be at all clear which one Britain owed its fealty, but a number of them were in fact its rivals for influence in the ongoing contest for regional dominance. Therein, however, lay the rhetorical strength of Price’s approach. Just as Benjamin Franklin had earlier satirized the “parent state” concept by writing a declaration ostensibly on behalf of the King of Prussia claiming his right to mastery over Britain – An Edict by the King of Prussia, publish September 22nd, 1773 – Price was using the plainly evident illogic of one situation to expose the same quality in another.

            Britain naturally had no reason to surrender its sovereignty to the Prussian government, or indeed to any government of any German state, and was under no legal obligation to do so. Granted, the ancestors of the contemporary English people had originally migrated from lands now falling within one or more of these states, but a great deal – on the order of one thousand years of history – had transpired since then. To expect Parliament to give way to some foreign sovereign simply because that sovereign ruled over the ancestral homeland of Parliament’s ancient forefathers was therefore plainly absurd. And while it perhaps also warrants acknowledgement that far less time had passed between the settlement of British America between the 1610s and 1730s and the emergence of the Anglo-American crisis in the 1760s and 1770s, the principle which Price was evidently endeavoring to expose still applied. At some point between the time that Germanic peoples set foot in England in the 400s and the establishment of the first Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the 500s, some threshold had been crossed whereby the relevant migrant peoples and their descendants were no longer bound by whatever tribal authority they had recognized in their native Germany. Impossible though it may be to pinpoint when and how this occurred, clearly it did occur. In consequence, it may fairly be inferred that the same shift was bound to take place within the Anglo-American relationship.

            At some point, for some reason, the American colonies would reach a stage in their development after which they would no longer be required to acknowledge the authority of their British forebears. Either that, or Britain was in fact still bound to obey the dictates of the German authorities that the ancestors of its citizens had long since left behind. Doubtless neither of these eventualities would have seemed particularly desirable to those among Price’s countrymen who continued to insist that American owed its allegiance to Britain, but that was most certainly the point. Either nations were the prime source of sovereignty, or people were. Either a person could define their own citizenship, or they – and their children, and their children’s children – were bound for all time to the authority under which they were born. British history certainly seemed to bear out the truth of the former. When the ancient Angles and Saxons migrated to sub-Roman Britannia, they did not thereby extend the authority of the Germanic chieftains whose authority they had previously been given to acknowledge. Rather, they formed a series of unique polities – Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, etc. – wholly outside the sovereignty of their homelands and possessed of governments of their own derivation and authority.

            Just so, Price seemed to indicate, the original settlers of the Thirteen Colonies had left the authority of Parliament behind when they departed from British ports and set sail for America. Granted, most of the relevant colonial ventures were conducted under the auspices of royal charters. And it also bears acknowledging that the resulting colonial governments did tend to acknowledge the authority of Parliament in certain matters of policy. These were, however, often described by the colonists themselves as essentially voluntary measures. Rather than pay homage to the reigning British monarch out of obligation – which their forefathers had been made to do while still residing in Britain proper – they did so out of a sense of tradition and fellow-feeling. Rather than bow to the authority of Parliament in recognition of the domestic supremacy thereof, they gave way to the dictates of the British legislature only as pragmatism and courtesy deemed necessary. Far from being dispatched by their government with express instructions to establish the authority thereof in North America, these migrants – among them religious dissenters, debtors, criminals, and utopians – had left of their own accord, in large part at their own expense, and proceeded to build communities for themselves that suited their needs and conformed to their respective visions of socio-political harmony. The reigning British government in 1776 could accordingly no better claim them than indeed the Elector of Saxony could realistically demand that the descendants of his ancient subjects in Britain render unto him the homage he was due. The settlements of Britain and America were neither of them wholly state-directed affairs, and the resulting communities were accordingly responsible for determining to whom – if anyone – their fealty was owed and to what end – if any – their sovereign efforts were directed.

            Even, however, if one were to indulge the notion of Britain as the “parent state” of the American colonies – with the former explicitly guiding and supporting the efforts and development of the latter – Price maintained that the colonists were yet still in the right to find fault with the manner in which they had theretofore been treated. “Children,” he thus affirmed in Part II, Section I of Observations, “Having no property, and being incapable of guiding themselves, the author of nature has committed the care of them to their parents, and subjected them to their absolute authority.” Nothing could be more natural or more obvious. At the same time, Price continued, “There is [also] a period when, having acquired property, and a capacity of judging for themselves, [children] become independent agents; and when, for this reason, the authority of theirs parents ceases, and becomes nothing but the respect and influence due to benefactors.” This, too, was an eminently logical outcome of the parent/child dynamic. At some point, every child who survives infancy becomes an adult, takes full responsibility for themselves and their actions, and enters the world on equal standing with that enjoyed by their parents. Affection (ideally) still remains between parents and child, along with, as Price acknowledged, some degree of respect and trust built upon years of successful and loving guidance. But the adult offspring ought not to feel bound by the dictates of their parent as they did when still a child. Having come into their own, they alone must determine in all things the proper course of action. Just so, the loving parent should openly welcome this day, as they themselves were guided to it by their own progenitors, and encourage their children to embrace the independence for which they have been prepared.

            Applying this same logic to the relationship between the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain, however – in light of the aforementioned characterizations of Britain as the “parent state” of the colonies – produced a somewhat less rosy outcome. Whereas, Price explained, successive British governments should accordingly have been lessening the extent to which Parliament exerted its authority over the colonies in anticipation of the day when they became wholly independent states, quite the opposite had been allowed to transpire. “Like mad parents,” Price asserted, “At the very time when out authority should have been most relaxed, we have carried it to the greatest extent, and exercised it with the greatest rigour.” Not only did this course of action – i.e. taxing residents of the colonies without their consent, garrisoning troops among them, restricting their commerce, abrogating their governments, etc. – represent an injustice in itself for the flagrant manner in which it violated the civil rights of the effected colonist, but it directly contradicted the notion that Britain ought to have been regarded as though it was the parent of the Thirteen Colonies. Having established themselves upon a firm basis of government, affirmed the rule of law within their borders, and taken to sustaining themselves via a robust commercial intercourse with Britain proper, the colonies of British America were clearly no longer in need of the kind of guidance and discipline that a child requires. It should therefore have followed that the colonies could not be considered children any longer, and that the government of Great Britain was obligated to release its accustomed hold upon American affairs and allow the inhabitant thereof to chart whatever course they desired. If this was not the case, of course – that is to say, if Britain refused to acknowledge that the time had passed when its authority was any longer required in America – then perhaps the colonies were not children, Britain was not their parent, and the entirely argument was well and truly moot.

            Such blatant inconsistencies between rhetoric and action were very much at the core of Price’s subsequent complaints. Proceeding in Part II, Section I of his Observations to interrogate the various explanations he had encountered in favor of Britain’s continued mastery over the American colonies, he thus hit upon – and wholly eviscerated – the question of financial investment. “But we have, it is said, protected them,” Price wrote, “And run deeply in debt on their account.” Vague though this claim may be, the thrust of it would seem obvious enough. From the beginning of the English colonial project in the late 16th century to what was then the present day of the late 1770s, successive British governments had indeed spent a cumulatively impressive sum protecting and helping to expand the various settlements of British America. The British Navy had protected colonial shipping and ensured that American harbors were safe from foreign depredations, the British Army had lent invaluable assistance to local militias in holding back both indigenous threats and the aggressive ventures of rival European powers, and British negotiators had signed treaty after treaty with neighboring native peoples, thus greatly expanding the available territory into which it was possible to migrate. The benefits of these measures to the inhabitants of British America were exceedingly substantial, not at all unlike the cost of the same to the contemporary British Treasury. The Seven Years War (1754-1763), while bringing about the final elimination of France from the North American colonial contest, proved to be a particularly expensive endeavor, having exploded the British national debt from £75,000,000 before the war to £130,000,000 by the beginning of 1764. Bearing this all in mind, it would thus seem quite fair to grant that Great Britain had indeed invested a great deal in the continued prosperity of its American dependencies, to the point of taking on theretofore unimaginable financial obligations.

            Richard Price did not claim otherwise. The degree to which successive British governments confirmed their interest in the American colonial project via repeated financial commitments was doubtless as plain to him as to any modern observer. He did, however, question the rationale behind these repeated investments. “Will anyone say,” he thereby asked of his countrymen, “That all we have done for them has not been more on our own account, than on theirs?” It would seem a rather obvious line of inquiry – that is to say, it might fairly be taken as a given that Britain did not act as it did out of pure altruism. To those among his countrymen who were so capable of deluding themselves as to imagine that Britain’s interest in the American colonial project was wholly selfless and compassionate in nature, however, Price was endeavoring to illustrate the various benefits America provided to its supposed European benefactor. “Have they not helped us to pay our taxes,” he asked,

To support our poor, and to bear the burden of our debts, by taking from us, at our own price, all the commodities with which we can supply them?–Have they not, for our advantage, submitted to many restraints in acquiring property? […] Has not their exclusive trade with us been for many years one of the chief sources of our national wealth and power? […] In the last war particularly, it is well know, that they ran themselves deeply in debt; and that the parliament thought is necessary to grant them considerable sums annually as compensations for going beyond their abilities in assisting us. And in this course would they have continued for many future years; perhaps for ever.–In short, were an accurate account stated, it is by no means certain which side would appear to be most indebted.

These were significant claims on Price’s part, to be certain. Indeed, it would have been difficult to conclusively confirm or deny them without fairly intimate access to any number of public and private accounts. That being said, the conclusion which followed was almost certainly an apt one. At its heart – and despite appearances to the contrary – the Anglo-American relationship was essentially a reciprocal one.

            This should not be taken to mean that it was also an entirely equitable association, of course. The core principle of mercantilism – then the guiding economic philosophy of most every major European power – was that there was a finite amount of wealth in the world, and that it was the purpose of trade, and taxation, and war, and just about every other power possessed by government to ensure that the largest sum of resources possible was collected and concentrated in the coffers of the nation. It would therefore not have made sense philosophically for Britain to engage in anything like a fair and unstructured commercial intercourse with its various American dependencies. Indeed, from the perspective of Britain itself the colonies existed almost entirely for the purpose of harvesting, processing, and exporting the natural resources of the American continent and turning its own output of manufactured goods into valuable hard currency. Price had rightly pointed out as much in the passage cited above, and it would have been difficult indeed for any but the most obtuse of his countrymen to deny that the advantages they and their government had thereby accrued were sizeable indeed. And while the inhabitants of the colonies were not blessed in return with economic opportunities equal to those enjoyed by their British counterparts – their trade, manufacturing, financial policy, and even physical movement were all subject to restriction by British law – they at least received the benefit of the aforementioned military and diplomatic assistance.

            The point that Price was attempting to make in the quoted section of his Observations would thus seem to stand very much as he intended it. Within the context of the Anglo-American relationship, Britain and the relevant colonies were certainly not equals in terms of the privileges they enjoyed and the benefits they derived. But nor could it be honestly stated that either rendered up an advantage to the other without receiving something very valuable in return. Britain, in exchange for admittedly extensive military and financial aid, gained in America an exclusive source of raw materials like timber and produce, as well as sole access to an expanding market for its yearly increasing output of manufactured goods. At the same time, by allowing certain aspects of its economy to be restricted via taxes and regulations in whose formulation it had no part, America enjoyed the largely unquestioning protection of one of the most powerful nations on the planet and access to a voracious market for its own output of natural resources. Certainly it wasn’t a perfect arrangement. Doubtless the British government would have preferred to spend far less money defending colonial interests while also avoiding having to so frequently wrangle with willful colonial governments. Just so, the American colonists would surely rather have enjoyed access to British markets and manufactures without having to submit to the accompanying economic regulations. At the very least, however, it was a functional relationship, and one in which most costs were clearly accompanied by corresponding benefits. While it might narrowly have been conceivable to craft something better in its stead, it would have been all too easy to replace it with something worse.

            The notion that Britain’s financial investment in the American project should entitle the government thereof to unquestioned superiority over the administration of the Thirteen Colonies would therefore seem to ignore the essential nature of the Anglo-American relationship. For over a century as of 1776, Britain had protected America in exchange (essentially) for access to its markets. At the same time, America had surrendered market access in exchange for military protection. Terms and definitions had been debated, reforms had been proposed, implemented, sustained, or discarded, and force of arms had been resorted to more than once. But the essence of the thing – the fundamental give-and-take – had persisted throughout, perhaps because there was little confusion on either side of the Atlantic as to what, precisely, the relevant parties were attempting to achieve. For the hypothetical British resident to ask, as Price posits them asking, why Britain’s various expenditures on behalf of America did not equate to ownership over the same thus effectively embodies a kind of willful misunderstanding. There should have been no confusion on the part of the average late 18th century Briton that their government’s protection of America entitled them to nothing more or less than a monopoly on American trade. Not a partial-monopoly, or preferential treatment, but complete and utter dominance in buying from and selling to the markets supported by the various American colonies. Likewise, it should have been absolutely clear that Britain had benefited tremendously from this privilege. America natural resources had fed a burgeoning British manufacturing sector, which in turn extracted even greater wealth from American consumers who had no choice – save resorting to smuggling and the black market – than to buy British products. That a given British government – as well as its various domestic supporters – should have expected more than this from the Anglo-American relationship should accordingly have been hard to fathom. Americans had made ample compensation for the protection they had received, Price accordingly affirmed. To ask any more of them would have been the essence of greed and a mockery of justice.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty, Part IX: Illogical, Unthinking, Hypocritical Britain, contd.

A further reason Richard Price had heard advanced for the rightness of Britain’s dominance vis-à-vis the Thirteen Colonies, he next affirmed, was the apparent, “Superiority of the British State.” In response to such vague rationale, the author of Observations was quite reasonably given to ask, “What gives us our superiority?–Is it our Wealth? […] Is it the number of our people? […] Is it our knowledge and virtue?” To each of these he answered in the negative, thus dismissing “superiority” as a possible criterion for political domination as well as exposing some degree of his own and his countrymen’s cultural and philosophical biases. To the question of wealth, for instance, Price responded that, “This never confers real dignity. On the contrary: Its effect is always to debase, intoxicate, and corrupt.” It would not be difficult to imagine that many of Price’s countrymen indeed thought that wealth was a source of dignity, and that the tremendous wealth collectively possessed by the British people at the end of the 18th century did rightly entitle them to claim a measure of functional superiority over their American counterparts. Given to exaggeration though the author of Observations might have been – especially when it came to the aspects of contemporary British society he found distasteful – banking, investing, stock-jobbing, and various other “new money” ventures really were in the midst of transforming the British state. As wealth became concentrated in the hands of those who in a previous era would not have possessed much, if any, social capital, values began to shift as money became revered nearly as much as landed title.

As Price noted, however, such vast accumulations of wealth were not solely a source of dignity and respect. Money makes people question their convictions, and in larger sums has an even greater effect. The wealth generated by Britain’s turn towards national banking, mercantilism, and territorial expansion was accordingly bound to have a proportionate effect on the integrity of that nation’s culture and institutions. Positions of power changed hands, favors were trades, bribes made and received. Such things seem to be inevitable in any sufficiently complex socio-political framework, and become more pronounced as more money and more power become available. Individuals have been known to resist, of course, and steps have certainly been taken historically by whole cultures and governments to negate the influence of excess wealth on the direction of public affairs. For this reason Price’s claim that the only effect of wealth “Is always to debase, intoxicate, and corrupt” represents something of an overstatement. That being said, it is very much in keeping with his aforementioned affinity for the reformist ideology of the Country Party and its successors. Having become convinced that any corruption represented an indelible stain on the national soul, and that what corruption Britain had theretofore experienced was the result of the conspiratorial machinations of a moneyed and connected elite, Price would naturally have been among the first to claim that wealth could never entitle a single person – let alone an entire nation – to unquestioned supremacy over their fellow man.

To the question of population, Price again answered in a way that perhaps implies more than it plainly states. “The Colonies,” he declared, “Will soon be equal to us in number.” While in retrospect it may seem a rather silly thing for one nation to claim a right of superiority over another based on a difference in population, the implication is perhaps not so difficult to grasp. One must assume, of course, that Price wasn’t misrepresenting his countrymen in thus describing their rationale. That he appeared not to question the premise of the question would seem to indicate that he was not. Bearing this in mind, it would appear likely that both Price and those of his fellow Britons he had set himself against were given to thinking of the relationship between different communities of people along roughly democratic lines. In Parliament, after all, MPs were elected to serve their constituents by a majority vote, and these representatives in turn approved legislation by the very same logic. While there existed in 1776 no assembly in which the combined representatives of Britain and America sat, it would nevertheless have been far from unnatural for a contemporary British citizen to envision the relationship between their own nation and its American dependencies according to much the same logic. If there were simply more people in Britain than America, why should not the intercourse between them proceed in the same manner as a debate in Parliament? Why shouldn’t Britain, representing the greater share of humanity, see its will triumphant over that of America? It was only logical, after all, whether a vote could actually be taken or not.

In truth, it’s rather curious that Price appeared to grant this premise at all. Sanguine though he appeared to be towards the principle of majority rule – there being no evidence to suggest that he was not – he had also made it fairly clear within the text of his Observations that he believed there was a crucial difference between the logic of relations among communities within a given state and the logic of relations among a group of separate states. The majority of the representatives sitting in a legislature – even if they represented only fifty-one percent of those present – had every right to determine which laws were to be put in place effecting one hundred percent of the population because every member of the society to be effected – in theory, at least – possessed some degree of input into the relevant process. Such a deliberative apparatus conversely did not exist between two sovereign, independent states. Within the context of the Anglo-America relationship, for example, power was the deciding factor in terms of which policies were enacted and which were not. Great Britain – circa 1776 – was militarily and economically more powerful than even a united America, thereby allowing it to effectively dictate what would and would not come to pass between them. That this power had nothing to do – or very little to do – with population should be exceptionally obvious. Certainly there were more people living in Britain at that time than lived in America, but that fact had no effect whatsoever upon how decisions were made. Parliament decided what was to become of America without paying any heed – or being legally obligated to pay any heed – to the stated desires of the inhabitants of British America. A sudden increase in the American population would accordingly have made no difference to this state of affairs. Inclined though certain British people made have been – quite possibly including Price himself – to think about public policy in terms of majority rule, therefore, the concept had no application whatsoever within the context of the Anglo-American relationship.

All the same – and for whatever reason – Price did engage with the idea. And his contention, as cited above, was that, “The Colonies will soon be equal to us in number.” Bearing in mind that the word “soon” can be variously interpreted to mean anything between “any minute now” and “within the next century,” Price might fairly be said to have been right. At the time of its first official census in 1800, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland contained something on the order of fifteen million people. The United States of America, in that same year conducting its second decennial census, was conversely home to slightly less than five and a half million. Twenty-five years, it would seem, was not enough time for Price’s prediction to come true. If one were to press forward, however, though the 1810s, 20s, 30, 40s, and 50s, the corresponding population data for 1860 appears to bear out its validity. At that point the population of the United Kingdom had reached a figure just shy of twenty-nine million. The United States, by comparison, was sitting at a total of thirty-one million. Without going into how this came to be – a discussion having to do mainly with the Industrial Revolution, the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the resulting explosion of European migration to America – it will here accordingly suffice to observe that Price was ultimately proven correct within about ninety years of his having made the claim in question.

Whether this fact has very much at all to do with the argument he was attempting to advance within the text of his Observations – i.e. that Britain had no inherent right to declare itself the master of America – is eminently debatable. Again, mere population seemed to have very little connection to the fundamental point he was trying to make. That being said, Price’s claim was rhetorically an effective one. In answer to the hypothetical assertion that Britain deserved to dictate to America because the residents of the latter outnumbered those of the former, Price declared that this would soon no longer be the case. While he was proven right within the span of a century, there was naturally no way for him – or anyone else, for that matter – to confirm this fact. Then again, there was also no way for a prospective opponent to dismiss it. Therein, arguably, lay its genius. By offering an effectively un-confirmable counter to a claim with which he disagreed, Price essentially neutralized it. No one could confirm in 1776 that the American population would one day meet and eclipse that of Britain. Nor could they deny it, however, beyond the shadow of a doubt. That being the case, it would surely have seemed foolish to the supporter of British supremacy to base their claim upon such an uncertain principle. Consider, for example, the likely result of a sudden famine in Britain. Millions might have perished, and as many might have migrated to America. Within ten years, or twenty, or thirty, Britain might accordingly have no longer possessed the larger share of the empire’s population. And what then of British claims of superiority? How then could anyone justify a smaller nation holding authority over a larger one? Population, in short, could not be taken a basis of argument. It could change too suddenly, too quickly. It was not solid. It could not be depended on.

This may well have been exactly the point that Price was trying to make. Again, it’s not clear why he felt the need to engage with the notion of demographic superiority when his fundamental point had been and would be better made by other means. But so long as he did choose to address the argument that Britain somehow deserved to rule over America because there were more British people than there were Americans, the implications of his counterargument were nonetheless highly significant. Numbers, in the context of national sovereignty, made no difference to whether a nation could govern itself or not, or whether it could govern another nation or not. Self-government was not a prize a state only gained only after breaking a given demographic threshold, nor was it something that could be accumulated in excess and exerted by one state upon another. Sovereignty was inherent, fundamental, and immutable, having nothing to do with population, wealth, or power and everything to do with the humanity, liberty, and dignity of the individual. It could be delegated, channelled, and even constrained by mutual consent. But it could not be taken away from one nation because another claimed to have more of something than its counterpart.

Not only would it have been fundamentally inhuman to accordingly treat the right of self-government like some kind of reward, but it would very shortly prove a very foolish basis upon which to justify one’s authority. Because population, just like wealth, military power, and cultural distinction, ebbs and flows according to trends predictable and unpredictable, artificial and naturally occurring. Rooting the authority of one’s nation – particularly in terms of its right to hold sway over other nations – in the possession of an advantage in any of these categories would therefore inevitably open one up to being conquered, subsumed, or overawed whenever fate happened to dictate a sudden change in material circumstances. Not only would this seem to present an intolerable state of affairs – i.e. nations constantly shifting between ruling others and being ruled – but it would once again appear to wholly discount the fundamental value of the human spirit. People, Price had earlier affirmed in the text of his Observations, were not livestock to be manhandled as those who sought to benefit from their existence saw fit. On the contrary, they were thinking, feeling beings to whom a quantity of basic respect was owed and from whose consent all forms of government necessarily derived.

The supposed “knowledge and virtue” of the British people was likewise dismissed by Price as being for the most part illusory. Britain may well have been able to boast of the keen minds and noble hearts among its many millions, but this hardly made it exceptional among nations. Indeed, Price avowed, the inhabitants of America, “Are probably equally knowing, and more virtuous. There are names among them that will not stoop to any names among the philosophers and politicians of this island.” As with the issue of population cited above, a claim such as this could not easily be confirmed. Certainly there were a handful of prominent Americans whose efforts in their chosen fields had indeed made them famous beyond their native environs. There were painters, for example, like John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and Benjamin West (1738-1820), both of whom migrated to Britain in the latter half of the 18th century in pursuit of the kind of exposure and patronage the colonies simply could not supply. West in particular met with great success, his work garnering him the sobriquet of “the American Raphael” among the British public. He was later appointed president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1792. Theologians were also among those Americans whose reputations managed the long Atlantic crossing. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was undoubtedly the most prominent of these, being one of the principal contributors to the trans-Atlantic religious revival that swept across the British Empire in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s – the so-called “First Great Awakening” – an ardent ally of reformist English preachers like George Whitefield (1714-1770), and the author of numerous books, pamphlets, and sermons that are in some cases still read today by British and American Evangelical Christians.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), of course, was without a doubt the most famous American of the pre-Revolutionary era, both among his countrymen in the colonies and the wider British public. A printer, writer, scientist, inventor, philosopher, and satirist, Franklin crossed the Atlantic numerous times over the course of his long life, becoming variously a public intellectual and man of letters in his adopted home city of Philadelphia, a diplomat and statesmen in the Court at Westminster, an early patron and member of the Royal Society of Arts in London, and pioneering natural philosopher with honorary doctorates from St. Andrews and Oxford universities. He was also a friend and contemporary of Price himself, alongside numerous other reformers, intellectuals, artists, scientists, and statesmen then living and working in late 18th century Britain. In consequence of these many and varied accomplishments and connections, Franklin was for many contemporary British citizens the only American they could easily name. That he was also one of the most prominent public figures of the era – a kind of 18th century celebrity, if you will – doubtless lends some credence to Price’s aforementioned claim. There may not have been very many Americans in the 1770s whose talents were being celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, but those few who managed to achieve this pinnacle of success certainly spoke well of the abilities of their fellow countrymen. West, Edwards, and Franklin were among some of the most successful and most acclaimed in their respected fields, to the point that their parochial origins ceased to stand in the way of their being embraced by the mainstream of contemporary British society.

Whether this could be said to validate Price’s claim of Americans being “equally knowing” when compared to their British counterparts remains an open question, however. After all, how does one measure the relative possession of knowledge or skill? Great Britain – as mentioned at length above – possessed the larger population circa 1776, therefore almost certainly guaranteeing that the number of particularly intelligent, knowledgeable, or accomplished individuals living therein was bound to be greater than comparatively minuscule America could hope to boast. Did that mean that Britain was the more knowledgeable nation? Or were such things best measured on a per capita basis? That is to say, was it valid to claim – with the aforementioned American luminaries as examples – that the most intelligent Americans were the equals of the most intelligent Britons? There were not – perhaps could never be – easy answers to these questions. All the same, Price was at the very least correct in asserting that Americans, as a people, were not less intellectually capable, artistically inclined, or morally upstanding than their British equivalents.

This once again seemed not to be the point, however. Proud though contemporary Americans had every right to be of the accomplishments of their various prominent countrymen, these accomplishments bore no relationship at all to their possession of certain fundamental liberties. Rather, as Price himself asserted in his Observations, they derived their entitlement to free worship, free movement, free property, and free government simply from their status as members of the human race. Relative wealth did not affect this, any more than did physical power, fame, knowledge, or numbers. People were free, he affirmed, by nature, and when they formed communities, those communities were free. And then those communities sought to administer themselves, the resulting governments were free. All derived from the fundamental autonomy of the individual, and all ceased to function if that autonomy was curtailed. Not only was this fairer than assigning sovereignty only to those whose communities could boast the smartest, strongest, ablest members, but it was infinitely more sensible. Late 18th century Britain had certainly given rise to more than its share of intellectual and artistic luminaries – to the point that it could fairly be said to dominate the Anglo-American public discourse – but there was simply no way to guarantee that this would always be the case. Consequent to any number of factors, America might suddenly experience a tremendous and unprecedented explosion of talent and expression in the arts, sciences, and humanities, thus drastically shifting the cultural balance in its favor vis-à-vis its nominal colonial master. What then? Should anyone living in the contemporary Anglo-American world thereafter expect Parliament to acquiesce to the dictates of the united colonies? Price’s answer – notwithstanding his evident willingness to engage with the basic premise – would almost certainly have been that such thinking was plainly ridiculous. The British and American peoples were each sovereign in and of themselves, regardless of how wealthy, or numerous, of intelligent they happened to be. This was only proper, only just, only right.