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.