Today we celebrate the decision by thirteen colonies to break with England and declare themselves independent and self-governing. It was a revolutionary act, but not an unprecedented one and far from surprising. The seeds were sown more than a century earlier.
We’re usually taught that the colonies were good children vexed to action by the tyrannical behavior of a bad parent. Indeed, the Declaration tells us so with an extensive lawyerly summation of grievances against king and parliament, the “long train of abuses” the colonials had patiently borne before putting their case before the court of history and public opinion.
But that is to a great extent public relations. Much in the document dates from far earlier. The train of abuses phrase itself was offered by John Locke as justification for overturning a government in one of his treatises on Civil Government from 1693. These supply much of the philosophical underpinnings for the revolutionary case
But philosophy proceeds from lived experience, not vise versa. The grounds for the Revolution of 1776 were not laid by the Stamp Act, the Tea Party, quartering troops, searches and seizures and shots fired at Lexington and Concord. Rather the Revolution began in Jamestown and Plymouth as detailed in a new book I am in the process of reviewing for the Virginian-Pilot, “Between Two Worlds: How the English Became American” by Malcolm Gaskill.
He is not the first to tell the tale of British bungling in the New World which alternated feckless inattention to the colonies with overbearing interference and oppression as English subjects were treated as second-class citizens.
The first English subjects to populate America were granted royal charters for a variety of reasons by the Stuart kings. Often the crown’s motive was to reward courtiers without expense or to get poor people, criminals, religious dissenters and other troublemakers 3,000 miles away. Of course the hope of emulating the Spanish and Dutch by making a profit from the transaction was also acceptable as long as it didn’t cost anything.
Supplicants for royal favor were often less than forthcoming about their true reasons for seeking land in the New World. Many hoped to create a place safe from oppression, particularly after the fierce William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury and tried to suppress all dissent brutally. So Puritans headed for Massachusetts, Baptists split off to found Rhode Island, other Puritans to Connecticut, Quakers to parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Catholics to Maryland and acquisitive adventurers everywhere from Maine to Barbados but especially Virginia and Carolina.
Because the 17th century was a period of strife and drastic change in England, there were people willing to risk the transatlantic removal. Agricultural changes that enriched the great land owners and beggared many small farmers and tenants supplied manpower to America So did the endless sectarian strife that pitted Catholics against Protestants and Church of England against a burgeoning collection of dissenters. Before the century ended there was a Puritan Revolutions and a Glorious Revolution in the first of which a king lost his head and in the second another his crown. Each time the wheel of revolution and restoration turned new colonists were produced. For instance, distressed Cavaliers who lost great estates sought to recreate them with plantations in the South and Caribbean islands, and soldiers who had fought against Cromwell, many Scots like one of my ancestors, found themselves exiled to America.
Once out of sight, most of these troublous subjects were soon out of mind. Domestic and European politics preoccupied Britain. A few bedraggled cast-offs on a distant, barbaric continent weren’t worth a thought. Even when Indian attacks decimated the nascent colonies and they begged for help from home, little was forthcoming. Thus hearts were hardened and self-reliance taught.
Once the settlers began to make a go of it, however, began to produce valuable crops like tobacco and sugar and began to constitute a market for British goods, the mother country suddenly took notice. Then the crown decided charters should be retracted and royals governors put in charge, the loose leash was to become a choke chain, religious dissenters ought to conform, imports and exports ought to be taxed to enrich the low life colonists’ betters in Britain.
Where did the colonies get off passing their own laws and electing their own assemblies and acting like they were a law unto themselves while King and Parliament weren’t looking? Now that they were worth taxing, they must be brought to heel and reminded that they were subjects of the crown, either loyal or disloyal.
Sounds like a revolution was in store, yet all of this happened 100 years before 1776. Even then it was probably too late for the Brits to have transformed the colonists back into fellow Englishmen. Though most of them didn’t realize it yet, as they had made a New World the New World had remade them into Americans. There was no going back. It just took another century of English stupidity and burgeoning American self-confidence before they came out.