Friday, May 2, 2014

A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, Part I: Context

Whiplash-inducing though it might be, I’d like to return to 1770s again for this next series of posts, and to the pen of one Thomas Jefferson, for a somewhat more in-depth discussion of the perceived grievances that helped to bring about the America Revolution. Specifically, I’d like to look at a pamphlet that Jefferson originally submitted to the First Continental Congress in 1774 entitled, A Summary View of the Rights of British North America. Intended by Jefferson to provide a brief overview of the historic relationship between the British government and the Thirteen Colonies and an outline of the abuses he believed said government had committed in the 1760s and 1770s, A Summary View shows Jefferson at his eloquent, radical best. Though it may not be as well-known as certain other contemporary documents, it’s representative of a series of similar pamphlets and declarations that were published in several of the colonies in the years leading up to the Revolution. In particular, it provides insight into how some of the colonists viewed their relationship with their supposed mother country, and how they defined their rights as (colonial) British citizens.

    I’ll note here that Jefferson will be a frequent subject of discussion going forward. This is not because I think he’s the most important Founding Father. Their various personal and professional disputes aside, I think it’s important to think of these men as working in tandem toward a common goal (however ill-defined it may be at times). But I do think he may be one of the most influential, if you consider the way that his words have been repeated and adapted over the almost two centuries since his death in 1826, and he was certainly among the founding generation’s most prolific writers. Few men did so much to create the essential vocabulary of the national and political consciousness of the United States, and few men had so many opinions about so many things. And at the same time few of the Founders cut as enigmatic and often contradictory a figure as Jefferson continues to do. He was a passionate man with deeply-held convictions who was as often wrong as he was right, and so, I think, quintessentially American. For these reasons, and because I simply have access to more of Jefferson’s writings than anyone else’s, he will figure into my reflections frequently from this point forward.       

   As I began to say about A Summary View, it was not the first document published in the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s and 1770s that attempted to take stock of the ongoing dispute between the British government and those of the colonies themselves. Though I recall that I outlined said conflict briefly during my discussion of the Declaration of Independence, I think under the circumstances a bit more depth is required before I go on.

Essentially, the American Revolutionary era began in 1763 with the end of the Seven Years War (more commonly known in North America as the French and Indian War) and the victory of the British over their French rivals. Though successful, Britain had nearly doubled its national debt over the course of the conflict and was in earnest need of some new form of revenue to help defray similar expenses in the future. Since, in the minds of certain notables in the government of the day, the war had been primarily fought in North America for the benefit of the colonists, they should help to pay for their own defence. To that end, a series of laws were imposed on the colonies, first levelling taxes on sugar and regulating the issue of paper currency (the Sugar Act and Currency Act of 1764), then authorizing British soldiers to be housed by colonial residents at their own expense (the Quartering Act of 1765), and finally introducing taxes on many forms of paper goods, from legal documents to newspapers to playing cards (the Stamp Act of 1765). Though the taxes themselves were not particularly high, the majority of the colonists refused to accept them on the grounds that the British Parliament, in which no representatives of the colonies sat, had no right to impose taxes on colonial citizens. In addition the British troops that were garrisoned in the colonies, which the taxes were intended to pay for, were viewed by many as being in violation of their established right to be free of an excessive military establishment in times of peace.     

The colonists met these laws with varying forms of resistance, including public demonstrations, boycotts on British goods, declarations, pamphlets and petitions. These efforts ultimately culminated in the convening of the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October, 1765, which included delegates from nine of the Thirteen Colonies. The assembled delegates eventually issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which attempted to both assert the loyalty of the colonists to the British Crown and establish the rational for their continued protest of Britain’s efforts at colonial taxation. While it is debatable how successful this early congress was at influencing British policy (indeed, it’s likely Parliament responded more readily to the plaintive calls of British merchants whose livelihood was injured by the colonial boycotts), the Stamp Act was repealed in March, 1766. On the same day Parliament also passed the American Colonies Act (commonly known as the Declaratory Act), wherein it asserted its authority to pass binding laws for the colonies in the same way that it did for Britain proper.

The spirit of resistance on both sides of the Atlantic reared its head once more in 1767 with the passage of the Townshend Acts, which levied a series of taxes on essential goods like glass, paper, lead, and tea. These taxes led to further protests, which were exacerbated in March, 1770 by an outbreak of violence in Boston wherein garrisoned British troops fired into the unruly mob that had been harassing them. Eleven people were injured and five killed, and though the soldiers responsible were ultimately acquitted (thanks to the spirited defence of Boston lawyer John Adams), relations between Britain and its colonies entered a downward spiral in the years that followed. The breaking point seemed to arrive with the passage of the Tea Act in 1773. This act mandated the purchase of surplus East India Company tea by the American colonists in an effort to prop up the organization’s sagging fortunes. Because this tea was also subject to an import tax, many colonists believed that its purchase would have amounted to a tacit endorsement of Britain’s entire colonial taxation scheme. The resulting Boston Tea Party of December, 1773, during which protesters snuck aboard an East India Company ship in Boston Harbour and threw chests of tea overboard, called forth the wrath of Parliament in a form the colonists had yet to experience.

In an attempt to both reimburse the East India Company for their lost property and make it clear to their American cousins that further civil disobedience wasn't going to be tolerated, British lawmakers passed a series of statutes that exacted severe punishments on the colonies, and on Massachusetts in particular. These acts of Parliament, subsequently known as the Intolerable Acts, closed the port of Boston until the damaged property was repaid (the Boston Port Act), revoked the governing charter of the Massachusetts (the Massachusetts Government Act), reinforced the right of Parliament to authorize the housing of soldiers in citizens’ homes (an update to the Quartering Act), and ensured that any British official charged with a crime in one of the colonies would face trial in Britain only, with potential witnesses forced to travel at their own expense (the Administration of Justice Act, known colloquially as the “Murder Act”). Hoping to isolate the radicals in Massachusetts by making them the cause of shared misfortunes, the British government met with even stronger resistance than before. In fact, the sympathy that the Intolerable Acts generated for Massachusetts actually drew the colonies closer together than they had ever been before and led to the convening of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in September, 1774. It was there that the assembled delegates (representing all of the Thirteen Colonies, save Georgia) agreed to a complete boycott of British goods until the hated Acts were repealed, and, perhaps more significantly, to come to the defence of Massachusetts in case of British military intervention.

I’ll leave the play-by-play there, I think. Hopefully you understand a bit more about the nature of the disagreement that led to the American Revolution, and if nothing else have a degree of background for what I'm going to talk about next. In that light, I’d also like to speak very briefly about Thomas Jefferson himself. After all, it was in 1774 that he first emerged onto the American stage.

Son of a planter and surveyor and recipient of a classical education, Jefferson’s background and early experiences were typical of the Virginia landholding class to which he belonged. At the College of William & Mary, which he attended from age 16 to 18, he studied mathematics, metaphysics, philosophy, Greek, and Latin. Upon graduation he served as a clerk under his mentor and former professor George Wythe, read the law, and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. In 1769 he stood for election to the Virginia House of Burgesses (the colonial legislature), where he served as a delegate until June, 1775.

So he was an intelligent young man, reasonably wealthy, and a reasonably successful lawyer. It was, all told, a pretty conventional life for a man of his social class; unremarkable, even. But the passage of the Intolerable Acts lit a fire in Jefferson, only 31 in 1774, and inspired him to pen a lengthy defence of colonial autonomy and a denunciation of the repeated abuses of the British government. This commentary, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, was written with the intention of being presented to the delegates at the Continental Congress for their approval. The subsequent debate found the assembled representatives favouring a more moderate approach, and A Summary View was later published in pamphlet form and widely distributed.         

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