Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, Part III: Foundations, contd.

A quick recap before I pick up where I left off: Virginia and Massachusetts were founded by companies of investors and enjoyed varying levels of success before being reorganized as crown colonies; Pennsylvania and New York were founded as proprietary colonies, and Pennsylvania remained so while New York became a crown possession; New Jersey began as a proprietary colony, was split, and then recombined as a crown colony. So far only Pennsylvania began and ended its colonial period as an independent venture, and even then it partially owes its existence to a royal land grant.

            So far Jefferson’s argument isn’t looking so good.

   6 Province of Maryland: a proprietary colony formed via a land grant from Charles I to Cecil Calvert, Baron Baltimore in 1632, Maryland was intended by Calvert to be a haven for persecuted English Catholics. Subsequently the Calvert family was removed from power by a Protestant rebellion in 1688, succeeded by a series of royal governors, and then restored to their proprietary office in 1715 (where they remained until 1776). Similar to New Jersey in its rather turbulent history, Maryland doesn’t quite seem to fit Jefferson’s purported model of colonial autonomy either.

   7 Connecticut Colony: a merger of several smaller colonies, Connecticut actually began its existence as an outgrowth of Massachusetts (effectively make it a colony of a colony). In 1636 a group of Puritans who were dissatisfied with the growing Anglican dominance in the Bay Colony moved south and founded a settlement at Hartford on the Connecticut River. This settlement and its surrounding area was subsequently combined with the Saybrook Colony and the New Haven Colony and granted a royal charter in 1662. Essentially Massachusetts in microcosm, Connecticut seems to hew a bit closer to Jefferson’s vision of a colony that was founded on the exertions of private individuals, made to prosper through their hard work, and only later granted royal approval.

    8 Delaware Colony: beginning its life as a collection of Dutch and Swedish settlements founded in the 1640s and 1650s, the territory later known as Delaware passed into the hands of first the Calverts of Maryland in 1669 and then the Penns of Pennsylvania in the 1680s. William Penn subsequently attempted to assimilate the “Lower Counties of the Delaware” into his larger proprietary holdings, but was stymied by local resistance, granted the region its own assembly, and governed it as a de-facto autonomous colony. Because of its initially uncertain governance and ability to resist the centralizing efforts of authorities in Pennsylvania, Delaware could arguably be said to have been self-founded and self-governed for most of its early history (thus Jefferson’s description would not be entirely inaccurate).

   9 Province of Georgia: the youngest colony at the time of the American Revolution, Georgia was founded via royal charter in 1732 by General James Oglethorpe as a haven for debtors. For twenty years the colony was governed by a council of trustees, who among other things banned the sale of rum and the possession of slaves, and enjoyed annual subsidies from the British government. Indeed, because the colony was on the frontier of potentially hostile Indian territory, and because the crown believed that Georgia could serve as a buffer between Spanish Florida and the Carolinas, they were more inclined to lend direct financial and military aid than with other colonies. Unfortunately Parliament’s interest in Georgia waned by the 1750s and in 1752 the trustees, no longer able to effectively govern, allowed Georgia to be re-chartered as a crown colony. Because of its historically dependent relationship with the crown, Georgia seems the least self-sufficient and functionally independent of the Thirteen Colonies that Jefferson was presumably referring to in 1774.

  10 The Province of North/South Carolina: Though initially founded in 1629, it wasn’t until Charles II re-chartered the colony and granted it to a group of eight Lords Proprietors in 1663 that the Province of Carolina really came into being. After several decades of modest success the Proprietors were forced to grant separate governments for North and South Carolina in 1712 due to their increasing inability to act decisively in the face of a colonial rebellion and recurrent conflicts with local Natives. By 1729 seven of Proprietors had sold their shares to the crown, and North Carolina and South Carolina were re-chartered yet again as royal colonies. Another mix of autonomy and dependence, the Carolinas were settled under the auspices of the Lords Proprietors and enjoyed several decades of virtual independence from crown authority, though it was a royal grant that brought them into existence to begin with. I’d say that Jefferson was right in part on this score, though the reality was somewhat more complicated than he painted it in the 1770s.

   11 Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: like Connecticut, Rhode Island was in many ways colony of Massachusetts; and like Delaware, it was formed out of a collection of smaller settlements that were able to resist being absorbed by Massachusetts and were granted a royal charter in 1663. Because these initial settlements were founded by religious dissenters like theologian and preacher Roger Williams and Puritan radical Anne Hutchinson, Rhode Island developed into a colony known for its dedication to religious freedom, progressive attitudes toward debt and capital punishment, and opposition to slavery. Again like Delaware and Connecticut, Rhode Island seems to conform to Jefferson’s vision of self-sufficiency more than most of its colonial brethren.

   12 Province of New Hampshire: initially settled via a series of land grants in the 1620s, New Hampshire effectively became a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641. In 1679 a charter was granted that restored the colony’s independence, which was again rescinded in 1686 and restored once more in 1691. Like several of its fellow New England colonies New Hampshire was settled by a combination of English transplants and religious and political exiles from Massachusetts, and though it was eventually made a crown colony it spent a good portion of its early existence being either loosely governed or possessing no formal government at all. Once more I would argue that Jefferson’s theory may apply, but only loosely.

Now I’ll bet you’re wondering what the point of all that was. Well, besides being an interesting exercise in and of itself, I hope that a few things have now become clear about how the various Thirteen Colonies were founded, and why Jefferson’s argument in A Summary View is significant in light of these facts.

To begin, Jefferson’s vision of the colonial founding, wherein industrious colonists worked their hands to the bone to carve out a slice of civilization in a hostile foreign environment only to have the fruits of their labours seized by greedy crown officials, doesn’t quite grasp how complicated the early history of many of the colonies where. Though some started out as joint-stock ventures or were founded as independent settlements of religious dissenters, others began as land grants to private individuals or members of the British aristocracy. Some required frequent royal assistance, like Georgia; others had to be taken under royal control after their independent governors failed to adequately administer them, like Virginia. Some even spent significant portions of their early history operating under little or no formal government, like Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. All told, no two colonies could be said to have followed the same path, and though most of them ended up being administered by the British crown, the ways by which they arrived at that conclusion were many and varied.

But more to the point, I think, is the fact that none of the colonies operated entirely outside of the apparatus of British government. Though Pennsylvania was the personal property of the Penn family, and Maryland of the Calverts, both came into being thanks to land grants made by the reigning monarch. Just so, Massachusetts and Virginia began as business enterprises that derived their legitimacy from royal charters, and even independently founded colonies like Connecticut and Rhode Island sought out royal approval in an effort to maintain their autonomy, not from the British government but from other colonies. Indeed, there was no colony among the Thirteen that didn’t eventually seek royal approval for their existence in some form or another. So in point of fact Jefferson’s blanket description of the colonies as self-founded and fully autonomous political entities is something of an oversimplification. Rather than viewing them as either independent entities or subsidiaries of the British government, it would perhaps be more accurate to characterize the relationship between the colonies and the Crown as a fluctuating network of autonomy and dependency, resistance and compliance.

But the point of this exercise wasn’t necessarily to prove that Jefferson was wrong, though what he seemed to believe was at least partially at variance with reality. No, the point is that Jefferson believed he was right, and that the colonies were, and had always been, functionally independent. In his mind, and the minds of others no doubt, the right of the colonies to refuse to comply with British legislation was derived from the nature of their foundation, indeed their very existence, as sovereign states. If Virginia, or Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania, were founded by free British citizens, and those citizens possessed certain natural rights, then the governments that they founded must also be free and retain similar rights. Unless at some point in their history the colonist voluntary gave up some of the privileges they enjoyed, and Jefferson certainly didn’t think that was the case, then there was no way to explain how the colonial governments could have become beholden to Parliament (a reality Jefferson refused to acknowledge). Within this particular historical arrangement, therefore, the American Revolution was less a violent rupture of an existing relationship than an acknowledgement of fact: the colonies were independent because they always had been.

In all I’d say there are two things particularly worth taking away from this exercise, and from this initial reading of A Summary View. The first is that the colonial foundings, and indeed the American Revolution itself, were complex events that have often been collapsed and simplified by how they are remembered. Jefferson seemed to see colonial history as a relatively straightforward progression of settlement, toil, personal sacrifice, and attempted British usurpation. Just so, people have tended to characterize the Revolution as just about taxes, or just about freedom. In both cases, real understanding can only be attempted once the true complexity of events is fully embraced. It is, I think, the essential difference between a myth and a fact: myths tell us who we think we are; facts tell us who we really are.

But there is still value to be found in myths. Jefferson believed in the myth of colonial autonomy, however much it may have ignored certain facts. It was of value to him, and to others, because it helped him to explain and to understand the world in which he was living, and the problems that he and his fellow colonists were preparing to confront. Attempting to understand how and why Jefferson came to believe in this myth is central to understanding how the colonists viewed themselves and their history, how they made certain decisions, and perhaps why they were ultimately driven to seek complete and formal independence from the most powerful empire in the history of the world. 

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