Liberty is the greatest blessing that men enjoy, and slavery the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of. – This being so, makes it a matter of the utmost importance to men, which of the two shall be their portion. Absolute Liberty is, perhaps, incompatible with any kind of government. – The safety resulting from society, and the advantage of just and equal laws, hath caused men to forego some part of their natural liberty, and submit to government. This appears to be the most rational account of it’s beginning; although, it must be confessed, mankind have by no means been agreed about it: Some have found it’s origin in the divine appointment: Others have thought it took it’s rise from power: Enthusiasts have dreamed that dominion was founded in grace. Leaving these points to be settled by the descendants of Filmer, Cromwell, and Venner, we will consider the British constitution, as it at present stands, on revolution principles; and, from thence endeavour to find the measure of the magistrate’s power, and the people’s obedience.
This glorious constitution, the best that ever existed among men, will be confessed by all, to be founded by compact, and established by consent of the people. By this most beneficent compact, British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws to which themselves have some way consented, and are not to be compelled to part with their property, but as it is called for by the authority of such laws: The former is truly liberty; the latter is really to be possessed of property, and to have something that may be called one’s own.
– (“The Rights of Colonies Examined.”, Stephen Hopkins, Providence, Rhode Island, 1765, vol. I, p. 125)
The American Revolution, as distinct from the War for American Independence, did not begin with a musket shot in Lexington, Massachusetts in April 1775. Rather, it began a decade before with a war of ideas fought in newspapers and in pamphlets sold for a shilling. There, colonial and imperial leaders held forth on issues of liberty, representation, and the limitations and virtues of the British constitution (and Parliamentary power) as it related to the original thirteen North American English colonies. Both sides, the nascent Patriot and Loyalist/Imperial, often alluded to Greco-Roman orators as being the ultimate source for their arguments on these topics. In hindsight, what was transpiring just over 250 years ago is rather amazing, as civil discourse became increasingly intertwined with violence (tarring and feathering, burning of officials’ houses, the Boston Massacre of 1770, etc.) and yet until the very end the rhetoric never truly (with a few notable exceptions) directly alluded to these violent acts. It was as though there were two conflicts being acted out simultaneously and yet never truly in concert with each other.
American historian Gordon S. Wood (author of the award-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution) in this two-volume Library of America set, The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776, has chosen 39 pamphlets published during the period between the passage of the Sugar Act and the Declaration of Independence that present the breadth and depth of the arguments made in favor or in opposition to increased American autonomy in the aftermath of the French and Indian War. He prefaces each pamphlet with a short précis of the pamphlet’s general arguments and later actions of the author. These 1-2 page summaries help non-specialists get the gist of the arguments being presented, as there are times that the authors make so many allusions to classical writers and to legal aspects of the documents that comprise the British constitution that it can be difficult for some readers to grasp what exactly is being argued and why.
Yet a closer examination of these pamphlets and how Wood has juxtaposed them reveal some fascinating undercurrents. In the preface to the pamphlet quoted above, Wood references Rhode Island’s rather unique political system (rotation of the colonial capital among five towns, semiannual voting for assemblymen, a “modern” two party/faction system). The information there makes Hopkins’ observation about how absolute liberty might be incompatible with any form of government seem not just the abstract musing of a quasi-anarchist but rather a wry commentary from someone who is intimately versed in decentralized politics.
Immediately following Hopkins’ pamphlet is Martin Howard Jr.’s “A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax, to his Friend in Rhode-Island, Containing Remarks upon a Pamphlet, Entitled, The Rights of Colonies Examined.” This pamphlet is not just a point-by-point response to “Rights of the Colonies Examined,” but it also is one of the earliest and most forceful defenses of the Imperial viewpoint that the colonies by their very foundation by people of English descent have submitted themselves to the strictures of the English constitution:
Our personal rights, comprehending those of life, liberty and estate, are secured to us by the common law, which is every subject’s birthright, whether born in Great-Britain, on the ocean, or in the colonies, and it is in this sense we are said to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Englishmen. The political rights of the colonies, or the powers of government communicated to them, are more limited, and their nature, quality and extent depend altogether upon the patent or charter which first created and instituted them. As individuals, the colonists participate of every blessing the English constitution can give them. As corporations created by the crown, they are confined within the primitive views of their institution. Whether therefore their indulgence is scanty or liberal, can be no cause of complaint; for when they accepted of their charters, they tacitly submitted to the terms and conditions of them. (I, pp. 150-151)
Howard, as part of a faction that wanted to revoke Rhode Island’s charter and have its radically democratic colonial assembly come under direct royal control, came under direct attack during the Stamp Act protests and he later had to flee to England to avoid physical harm. These threats, including those made to the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, lie as a dark shadow upon the arguments presented during this time. In the case of Hutchinson, a native of Massachusetts, he became one of the most hated men in North America because of his principled stance in favor of continued union with England, even as more and more colonial leaders and thinkers, especially after 1770, began to advocate autonomy, if not outright independence, as a solution for the problems surrounding representation and taxation. In his January 1773 speech to the Massachusetts Assembly, Hutchinson outlines his opposition to this increasingly popular viewpoint:
If what I have said shall not be sufficient to satisfy such as object to the Supreme Authority of Parliament over the Plantations, there may something further be added to induce them to an Acknowledgment of it which I think will well deserve their Consideration. I know of no Line that can be drawn between the supreme Authority of Parliament and the total Independence of the Colonies. It is impossible there should be two independent Legislatures in one and the same State, for although there may be but one Head, the King, yet the two Legislative Bodies will make two Governments as distinct as the Kingdoms of England and Scotland before the Union. If we might be suffered to be altogether independent of Great-Britain, could we have any Claim to the Protection of that Government of which we are no longer a Part? Without this Protection should we not become the Prey of one or the other Powers of Europe, such as should first seize upon us? Is there any Thing which we have more Reason to dread than Independence? I hope it will never be our Misfortune to know by Experience the Difference between the Liberties of an English Colonist and those of the Spanish, French or Dutch. (II, p. 10)
As reasoned as Hutchinson’s speech may be, he could not fathom truly the depth of desire for separation. For him and other future Loyalists, Parliament was the protector of freedoms and to reject parliamentary suzerainty was tantamount to abandoning security in a wild goose chase for liberty unmoored from centuries of traditions accreting around the acts and documents that comprised the English constitution. Therefore, the response made by certain members of the Massachusetts Assembly, including future American leaders John Hancock and John Adams, likely baffled him in their rejection of this view of Parliament being the protector of English and colonial freedoms:
We fully agree with your Excellency, that our own Happiness as well as his Majesty’s Service, very much depends upon Peace and Order, and we shall at all Times take such Measures as are consistent with our Constitution and the Rights of the People to promote and maintain them. That the Government at present is in a very disturbed State is apparent! But we cannot ascribe it to the People’s having adopted unconstitutional Principles, which seems to be the Cause assigned for it by your Excellency. It appears to us to have been occasioned rather, by the British House of Commons assuming and exercising a Power inconsistent with the Freedom of the Constitution, to give and grant the Property of the Colonists, and appropriate the same without their Consent. (II, p. 24)
This grounding of the main points of contention within this perceived usurpation of constitutional power by Parliament set the framework for later arguments during the people immediately preceding and following the Battles of Lexington and Concord two years later. Most of the subsequent pamphlets in the second volume follow, in their support or dissent, upon the premises established here. By 1776, the argument had switched from a direct focus on Parliament’s regulatory power in the colonies to a debate on the source from whence liberty and popular representation commenced. Wood does an excellent job in weaving these strands together to present a powerful argument that the American Revolution did not begin with a shot but instead with a thorough debate, via printed media, on the origins of political powers and human rights. Although this debate had occurred over a century before during the English Revolution through the use of broadsides (and later, the English Civil War), these ideas found their mature expression during the 1764-1776 gestation period that led to the birth of the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents written in world history. What followed after was messy, with consequences that still affect us today. The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776 serves as a excellent look at these written documents that spawned the modern representative republic form of government now seen in much of the world today.