Friday, 9 May 2014

A Summary View of the Rights of British North America, Part II: Foundations

The content of A Summary View, deemed radical by many in 1774, did much to establish Jefferson’s reputation as an eloquent political writer and philosopher, and was likely responsible for his election to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and his being chosen as the principle writer of the Declaration of Independence. Among other things it accomplished two basic tasks. First, it laid out Jefferson’s view of the political and social relationship between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies. And second, it discussed the roots of the ongoing conflict between those two bodies. The latter had been tackled before, by individual writers and various colonial legislatures, and Jefferson’s views didn't diverge all that much from what had already been said. His conception of the colonies’ foundings and their place within the larger British Empire, however, was more than a little unconventional, and was likely what raised the ire of the more moderate delegates at Philadelphia in 1774.

Jefferson’s theory was fairly straightforward, if a bit unusual, and followed from a series of factual declarations. First he asserted in paragraph two that when his ancestors and those of his fellow colonists first arrived in America they did so as free inhabitants of the British Empire. Like all British subjects they were possessed of certain basic, natural rights, and by choosing to inhabit a land heretofore unsettled (by Europeans, anyway) and accordingly establishing new societies of their own design, these same rights were not rendered null and void. The Saxons of antiquity, a tribe of Germanic barbarians that settled in England beginning in the 5th century, did so in a similar manner to the earliest English colonists in America. The Saxons worked, and warred, and spilt their blood and sweat in attempting to take England for themselves, and consequently whatever gains they made were their property, and not those of whatever authorities existed in Saxony. Just so, Jefferson argued, the people of Virginia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania owed whatever prosperity they enjoyed to their own hard work, their own toil and suffering, and not to British authorities whose financial assistance was minimal, recent, and self-interested.

Indeed, Jefferson continued, the then-recent Seven Years War that pitted Britain and France against each other yet again and saw battles rage across their respective North American colonies was conducted for Britain’s benefit. The colonists would have been pleased to trade with France or any of its colonies to their mutual satisfaction had Britain not felt threatened by this proposition and made war as a result. And though, Jefferson conceded, the financial assistance that Britain had granted the colonies had indeed been useful, it did not give Parliament the right to legislate for those colonies, any more than British aid to Portugal allowed them to regulate the laws of that sovereign kingdom. Rather, Jefferson believed, the colonies were tied to the British crown by choice. They had adopted models of government similar to that of Britain out of a sense of familiarity, and had chosen to acknowledge the British monarch as their own for similar reasons. Thus, the colonies that could be said to constitute British North America were not subsidiaries to Great Britain itself, but separate and equal political entities linked by a shared king. Jefferson followed this in paragraph four by definitively stating that whatever political divisions had been undertaken in British North America in the 17th century by the granting of land to favourites and followers of the monarch were fundamentally unjustified.

Simple enough, right? Virginia, Georgia, New Hampshire; these and their sister-colonies were established by the colonists themselves, and Britain’s assistance was mercurial at best. Thus, the colonies of British North America were independent political entities, with the right to make their own laws, collect their own taxes, and refuse to recognize any authority other than that of their legally accepted sovereign (who also happened to be the British monarch). As I said, this was a radical view in 1774, but did it have a basis in fact? Was Jefferson right, in spite of the more conservative views taken by many of his colleagues?

To answer that, I’d like to look at how each of the Thirteen Colonies was founded and test Jefferson’s hypothesis against the facts as they are now understood. Bear with me, if you would.

Deep breath.

   1) Province of Virginia: following failed attempts at colonization during the Elizabethan era, the London Company (a joint stock company) was granted a royal charter by James I in 1607 and authorized to settle along the coast of North America between the 34th and 41st parallels. The Company was required to pay all costs themselves, but in return reserved the right to all property and resources within their territory. The intention of the investors was to establish a permanent settlement, extract what resources they could in the way of minerals, timber or produce, and export and sell them in Britain at a profit (hopefully). After several disastrous years of famine, falling stock prices, lawsuits and conflicts with Natives, the Company had its charter revoked and Virginia became a crown colony in 1624. Though it was certainly intended to be an independent venture, and the early colonists did not receive aid from the British government, the colony’s inability to establish a firm footing, and its founders’ frequent financial missteps, ensured that little permanent success was achieved prior to the imposition of royal authority in the 1620s. Let’s say Jefferson was half-right in reference to his native land, but only just.

   2)Province of Massachusetts Bay: Massachusetts was formed of a merger of two earlier colonies: the Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1628), and the Plymouth Colony (founded 1620). Both were founded with the help of private investment, either through the London Company or one of its competitors. Colonists in these territories tended to be religious dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants) who borrowed money to obtain colonial charters and were actively fleeing persecution in Britain. In spite of hardships they managed to survive the harsh conditions in North America and developed into thriving centres of trade and agriculture. After several decades of virtual independence the colonies experienced a period of tumultuous relations with Britain from the 1660s through the 1680s, culminating in the merger and founding of the Province of Massachusetts Bay under royal authority in 1691. Because the colony/colonies enjoyed a lengthier period of independence from British governance than Virginia, and were generally less likely to have received aid due to their status as havens of religious dissent, I’d argue that Massachusetts fits more closely to Jefferson’s model (though it too was eventually reorganized under royal auspices).
  3) Province of New York: founded in 1614 by a chartered Dutch trading company as Nieuw-Nederlandt, it remained a private venture until captured by the English in 1664 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Thereafter the territory was granted to the Duke of York, who never visited the region himself and governed it through a series of appointed officers and administrators as a proprietary colony (one that is essentially owned by a single individual and governed via a royal charter). In 1685 the Duke ascended the throne and became King James II, whereupon New York became a crown colony. Unless Jefferson considered the Dutch period to be within the scope of his evaluation, I don’t suppose New York could have ever been considered particularly autonomous (or at least not in the way he described).

   4)Province of Pennsylvania: a proprietary colony founded in 1681 by Quaker William Penn after King Charles II awarded him a 45,000 square mile grant in payment for debts the crown owed to William’s father, Pennsylvania remained in the hands of the Penn family until the Revolution. William Penn parcelled out land to a host of prospective settlers, helped establish a frame of government (which was considered very progressive at the time) and took pains to enforce religious freedom. The colony subsequently became one of the most successful and cosmopolitan European settlements in North America. More than most, I’d say Pennsylvania adheres to Jefferson’s vision of an independently founded and prosperous colony that owed little of its success to British assistance. That being said, without that initial land grant from Charles II it’s unlikely that Pennsylvania would have ever existed.

  5) Province of New Jersey: established in 1665 after the Duke of York granted territory between the Hudson and Delaware rivers in his colonial holdings to Sir George Cateret and Lord Berkeley of Stratton, New Jersey was administered as a proprietary colony, then split into East and West Jersey in 1674, and then recombined as a crown colony in 1702. A reasonably successful colony with a fitful history, New Jersey seems to fall somewhere between autonomy and dependence. Again I’d say that Jefferson is perhaps half-right.

With several more colonies to go, I think I’ll break off here and pick things up in the next post. So far, though, Jefferson’s argument is not necessarily being borne out by the evidence.    

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