By Professor François Charbonneau
Slavery, my dear mother, we cannot think of: we detest it. If this be a crime, remember, we sucked it with your milk. We boast of our freedom, and we have your example for it. We talk the language we have always heard you speak. Britons will never be slaved. This is your own language, and your children have learnt it of you. - We must be free and leave the inheritance to our children. Do you blame us, can you blame us, for imitating the noble example of your fathers and ours?
— Anonymous, Boston Gazette,
September 7, 1767
IT IS NOT WELL known, at least outside the realm of professional historians, that George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army fighting the British redcoats in 1775, often enticed his troops to action before battle by proposing a toast to the health of King George III of Great Britain. Of course, the practice ceased after July 1776, but it is undeniable that Washington, and by definition his cheering troops, paradoxically understood his fight against the King’s armies as both legitimate and compatible with submission to the British monarch. Although this anecdote may seem surprising, Americans were hardly original in this matter.
Whether within England’s empire or elsewhere in the Atlantic world, multiple uprisings, peasant or otherwise, such as the 1675 Stamp Act riots in Brittany, had often been mounted in the name of the King, against the alleged corruption of his ministers. To criticize the ministers or counsellors, instead of the King himself, was a long-standing practice of the feudal world. As Blackstone explained it in his Commentaries on the Law of England, the “king cannot misuse his power, without the advice of evil counsellors” and thus “the King can do no wrong.” It is therefore not surprising that Washington, and more generally the American press, would dub the King’s troops the ministerial army to distinguish them from the King himself. But was Washington merely observing a longstanding practice — refraining from criticizing the King — or was there more to the gesture?
Perhaps because we know that Washington was about to become the most prestigious of the founding fathers of a new nation, it is hard for us to understand properly the meaning of the revolt that would eventually lead to a full-blown war against Great Britain and eventually to the independence of thirteen of her colonies in America. Hindsight leads us to assume that Americans must have had a sense of their distinctiveness and that the independence movement can only be properly understood as the final episode of a long process by which, from the secessionist Puritans of New England in the sixteenth century to Samuel Adam’s mobs roaming the streets of Boston in the 1770s, Americans must have become increasingly aware of their own national identity, leading inevitably to the break with Great Britain, whatever the pretext, taxation or otherwise.
In my book, Une part égale de liberté (Liber, 2013), I suggest that, perhaps counterintuitively, the exact opposite is nearer the truth. The closer we get to independence, the more Americans lay claim to their Englishness. Just as it made perfect sense for George Washington to toast King George III, British colonists in America increasing believed, throughout the period from 1763 (the Treaty of Paris and the first rumours that direct taxation was on its way) to April 1775 (when the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington), that they were the true Englishmen. In other words, they came to believe that it was their duty as Englishmen to fight the redcoats. The King, they hoped, would eventually come to realize that his most loyal subjects lived on the other side of the Atlantic.
IN ORDER TO understand this apparent paradox, one must appreciate how Englishmen thought of themselves, especially after the Glorious Revolution. The English, whether in the colonies or in the mother country, saw themselves as very different from other nations. They believed, or rather they knew, that they were freer than most people. What made the English unique, especially after the adoption of the Bill of Rights of 1689, was that they understood the political nature of freedom and its secrets. Not only did they have no doubt that their political system was the best, they were also completely convinced that they had fought for it to be so. In other words, they deserved the freedom that was theirs. By the same token, they didn’t think highly of the rest of the world, such as the “[t]he base effeminate Asiaticks and Africans, […] careless of their liberty, or unable to govern themselves.”1 Both Englishmen in Great Britain and in the Americas boasted constantly of their liberty. Discussion of the nature of their political system was an everyday affair in newspapers throughout the Imperial crisis, from 1763 to 1776. It was an absolute banality for newspapers to quote Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Montesquieu or Trenchard, and Gordon. At the time, political thought was certainly not the appanage of philosophers.
So what precisely was the political secret that Englishmen were convinced they had found and that allowed them to be so free? The starting point of their reflection lay in how they understood what it meant to be free, that is, in the way that they conceptualized the difference between a slave and a freeman. Very much influenced by Roman law, they believed that the fundamental difference between the two lay in the fact that a freeman, unlike a slave, does not depend upon the will of another. Roman law came up with this definition because it faced a real legal conundrum. Some free citizens could, through debt or otherwise, be reduced to a state of slavery. Likewise, it was possible for a slave through manumission to become a free citizen. If the difference between a slave and a freeman is therefore not found in nature, what definition could best be used to describe what it means to be unfree? Dependence became the operating word. To depend upon the will of someone else is to be in a state of slavery.
The English extended this Roman concept to the nation. They thought that a free nation was one that was not dependent upon the will of anyone, especially its own Monarch. Through its Parliament, the English nation had the capacity to acquiesce to taxation, making it a gift to the King rather than an imposition. When you “choose” to give your resources to the King, albeit through your representatives, you are not dependent upon him, but he upon you. In comparison with France, where the Estates General hadn’t been summoned for well over a century, the English parliamentary system seemed to guarantee that the English nation would never toil under the yoke of an arbitrary will. In their mind, theirs was a limited government.
THROUGHOUT THE 18th century, and especially after the victory over the French during the Seven Years War, English patriotism, grounded on a blaring assertion of political uniqueness, was prevalent in every class of the population. It was boasted that the English had instituted a certain number of devices allowing them never to be in a situation of dependence upon the will of others. Trial by jury allowed for judgment by your peers rather than by a judge (himself dangerously dependent upon the will of the monarch), Habeas Corpus guaranteed that you would not be imprisoned without just cause, and so on. Of course, the most important institution of all was the Constitution, a word that did not refer to a single document but translated roughly to the idea that “this is who we are” or, “these principles constitute us.” They could therefore be explicit or implied, written or unwritten.
There was one nagging question that kept being asked at the time and whose answer the English nation did not doubt. Why was the English nation so free, while the rest of the world seemed to toil under the iron fist of tyranny? The English were convinced that liberty is intrinsically fragile, that it isn’t part of normalcy in human affairs. A very few nations in history had ever known freedom and all had eventually lost it. What distinguished the few free nations from the rest of mankind was that the former understood that liberty and power are by definition at odds with each other. Power being intrinsically dangerous to liberty, it must therefore be kept in check. What made the English unique was that they knew how to do so.
Although the English had institutions that served to guarantee them against the power of the monarch, ultimately neither parliament nor tribunals were immune to eventual corruption. The ultimate stalwart of freedom was the people itself and its capacity to rise up against any attempt made by those in power to usurp it for other purposes than those intended (that is, power is a necessary evil that can only properly be used to guarantee everyone in their liberties and properties). In other words, the national mythology of the time went something like this: if the English were free it was because they had always stood up for their liberties, sword in hand, whereas other nations had sheepishly succumbed to the Sirens of luxury and corruption. The true mark of the Englishman is his unwavering willingness to defend his freedom.
Most important of all was the Constitution, not a single document but that translates roughly as the idea that ‘this is who we are’ or ‘these principles constitute us.’ They could therefore be explicit or implied, written or unwritten.
AND SO WHEN in 1765 the English Parliament tried to tax English subjects in America, the Americans were only incidentally fighting to defend the principle that no taxation should be levied without representation. There is no doubt that they believed in the soundness of this principle, but what really serves to explain the magnitude of the reaction in the colonies is the indignation of those that were, by the very means chosen to impose tax upon them, treated as non-Englishmen. They too were proud Englishmen, convinced that they had an obligation to themselves to defend the liberties that they had inherited from their forefathers and that they intended to leave to their posterity. The fact that they were now being asked to pay taxes without representation was received in all of the colonies, including in some that did not choose independence, as an expression of British parliamentarians’ contempt towards them. It seemed to them that they were being treated as a conquered people, not as Englishmen proper.
We must not forget that the reaction to the proposed taxation did not have to be framed in such a fashion. Prior to 1765, quite a few of the future Patriots, such as Benjamin Franklin, were trying to secure for themselves or their friends the jobs associated with the creation of the proposed taxes. But one man struck a chord with Englishmen throughout the colonies when he framed the contest between parliament and the colonies as an attempt by Parliament to treat the Americans as non-Englishmen.
By presenting the Virginia resolutions in the House of Burgesses in 1765 that declared those who supported the new taxes to be enemies of America, Patrick Henry gave an entirely different tone to the opposition. Henry’s resolutions asked a simple, but extremely powerful question, one that resonated throughout the colonies, in the minds of those men who, living on the periphery of an empire, were all the more sensible to the risk of being considered as foreigners by their fellow subjects back home. When Henry asserted that taxation through representation is “the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist,” and that “the colonists ... are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England,” he was unwittingly echoing Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” by asking the English Parliament: “aren’t we just like you, Englishmen”?
Americans increasingly considered themselves to be the true “Sons of liberty” and showed, by their often violent opposition to the English Parliament, that they were true Englishmen — as they understood that the mainstay of freedom is the capacity to defend it. In other words, Americans entered in 1765 a conundrum in which, in order to prove their worth as Englishmen, they had to fight against their mother country.
This fact should not be understated: Americans would engage in open warfare for 442 days between April 1775 and July 1776 before reluctantly coming to terms with the idea that the only way out of their predicament was to declare independence. And, as our Canadian readers know, quite a few of them would never resign themselves to the idea of becoming non-Englishmen and would choose, by crossing the northern border, to remain loyal to the Crown.
1. Algernon Sidney (1698), Discourses Concerning Government, 1990, p. 9.
François Charbonneau is Assistant Professor of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. He obtained his Ph.D. at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). He is the former director of the Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne and is director of the intellectual journal Argument, published twice per year by Éditions Liber, of Montreal. This article was originally published in the Spring-Summer 2014 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 92-94.
"Americans would engage in open warfare for 442 days between April 1775 and July 1776 before reluctantly coming to terms with the idea that the only way out of their predicament was to declare independence."