J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

How Things Looked from London

Today I’m availing myself of the Eighteenth-Century Reading Room blog to share quotes from two publications that express the British/Loyalist side of the conflict. Both examine the primary mystery that baffled imperial politicians of the period: how could Britain’s American colonists could be so blind and/or selfish as to fight to get out of the finest form of government that humanity had ever developed (and, by implication, would ever develop)?

John Andrews (1736-1809) was a London historian and pamphleteer. (He is different from the Boston merchant John Andrews whose letters I like to quote.) Andrews’s four-volume History of the War with America, France, Spain; and Holland; commencing in 1775 and ending in 1783, published two years after the Treaty of Paris, shows how the London establishment viewed the colonies as the political conflict started.

The state of the British Colonies at the Aera of the general pacification [after 1763], was such as attracted the attention of all the politicians in Europe. Their flourishing condition at that period was remarkable and striking; their trade had prospered in the midst of all the difficulties and distresses of a war, in which they were so nearly and so immediately concerned. Their population continued on the increase, notwithstanding the ravages and depredations that had been so fiercely carried on by the French, and the native Indians in their alliance. All this shewed the innate strength and vigour of the constitution of the British Colonies.

The conclusion of the quarrel between Great Britain and France, placed them immediately on such a footing as could not fail to double every advantage they already possest. — They abounded with spirited and active individuals of all denominations. They were flushed with the uncommon porosperity that had attended them in their commercial affairs and military transactions. The natural consequence of such a disposition was, that they were ready for all kind of undertakings; and saw no limits to their hopes and expectations.

As they entertained the highest opinion of their value and importance, and of the immense benefit that England derived from its connection with them, their notions were adequately high in their favour. They deemed themselves, not without reason, entitled to every kindness and indulgence which the mother-country could bestow.

Though their pretensions did not amount to a perfect equality of advantages and privileges in matters of commerce, yet in those of government, they thought themselves fully competent to the task of conducting their domestic concerns, with little or no interference from abroad. Though willing to admit the supremacy of Great Britain, they viewed it with a suspicious eye, and with a marked desire and intent speedily to give it limitations.
Today’s second extract is from a pamphlet titled Plain Truth; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America. Containing Remarks on a late Pamphlet, Intitled Common Sense; Wherein are shewn, that the Scheme of Independence is ruinous, delusive, and impracticable.

This pamphlet was advertised for sale by the Pennsylvania Ledger in March 1776, a few months after Thomas Paine’s republican manifesto. It was signed “Candidus,” who has since been identified as James Chalmers (1727-1806), a Maryland planter. Born in Scotland, Chalmers went to the Caribbean as a teenager and earned enough to bring several enslaved people and £10,000 to the mainland when he decided to settle there in 1760. As the war moved closer to his colony, Chalmers wrote:
I have now before me the pamphlet intitled Common Sense; on which I shall remark with freedom and candour. It may not be improper to remind my reader, that the investigation of my subject demands the utmost freedom of enquiry; I therefore entreat his indulgence, and that he will carefully remember, that intemperate zeal is an injurious to liberty, as a manly discussion of facts is friendly to it.

“Liberty, says the great Montesquieu, is a right of doing whatever the laws permit; and if a citizen could do what they forbid, he would no longer be possessed of liberty, because all his fellow citizens would have the same power.” In the beginning of his pamphlet the author asserts, that society in every state is a blessing. This in the sincerity of my heart I deny; for it is supreme misery to be associated with those who, to promote their ambitious purposes, flagitiously pervert the ends of political society. . . .

Our political quack avails himself of this trite expedient, so cajole the people into the most abject slavery, under the delusive name of independence. His first indecent attack is against the English constitution, which, with all its imperfections, is, and ever will be, the pride and envy of mankind. . . . This beautiful system (according to Montesquieu) our constitution is a compound of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But it is often said, that the sovereign, by honours and appointments, influences the commons. The profound and elegant Hume agitating this question, thinks, to this circumstance, we are in part indebted for our supreme felicity; since, without such controul in the crown, our constitution would immediately degenerate into democracy.
Anything but that.

7 comments:

Robert S. Paul said...

Regarding the second pamphlet:

Didn't most of our founding fathers also hate "democracy"? Isn't that why we have a representative democracy rather than a true, full one?

Although, admittedly, with the repealing of the 17th Amendment and elected officials pandering to the populus more and more, we're not that far off, anymore.

J. L. Bell said...

The most influential thinkers of the 18th century indeed worried about democracy, which they thought would devolve into dictatorship or anarchy. “Democracy” thus had bad connotations for most of those writers and the people who read them.

The more progressive of those influential thinkers preferred a republic led by society’s best men (not women). The less progressive thought a constitutional monarchy would be more balanced. And within each school there were debates about how democratic or monarchical the ideal should be.

One thing all those ideal structures had in common was that they all came from wealthy and/or educated men. Another common quality is that they all provided for an outsized role in government for wealthy, educated men. There just aren’t many working-class political voices from the period, but we can be sure most of those would have been more expansive in their definition of who deserved a share of power.

People recognized that a complete democracy would be impossible on a national or even state scale. Even in New England towns, which governed themselves democratically, there were selectmen and other officials to carry out the voters' general wishes in specific cases. So for practical reasons the colonies and states were always representative rather than direct democracies.

In the immediate aftermath of independence, some states set up governments that came closer to democracy than their later forms. Pennsylvania, for instance, had a unicameral legislature; the prevailing (aristocratic) orthodoxy insisted that an upper house was necessary to keep popular passions from overflowing. Rhode Island and Vermont also had relatively populist governments. John Adams’s constitution for Massachusetts was more aristocratic, and that state therefore had friction with its neighbors in the 1780s.

With the ratification of the Constitution in 1787-89, the U.S. of A. moved away from democracy to a mixed system with elite governors. For the first time, American men voted directly for representatives to the national government. But those representatives were outweighed by other officials elected indirectly (Senators and President) or appointed (cabinet and judges).

Within a generation of the Revolution, the word “Democratic” was being associated with a political party, and by Andrew Jackson’s time that was the party’s main label. That party’s opponents—Federalists and then Whigs—tried to maintain “democracy” as a dangerous idea. But they lost favor with the voters, and they lost power.

I'm not sure what you mean by “the repealing of the 17th Amendment.” I didn’t think the direct election of Senators was in danger.

Robert S. Paul said...

What I meant about the 17th is that, previously, Senators were chosen by the state in whatever means they saw fit (often times directly appointed by a governor or a state legislature). This ensured some state representation, rather than just more representation of The People.

This no longer happens, so we get things like forced speed limits and the Real ID Act.

Robert S. Paul said...

Er... sorry, that is to say, I mistyped. I meant the repealing of the way Senators were elected WITH the ratification of the 17th.

J. L. Bell said...

Okay, I’ve caught up now. Thanks.

It’s quite true that in the early years of the Constitution, state legislatures usually elected Senators. I’m not sure I see the connection between the end of that system and the mandates that have come with federal highway funding.

You seem to be saying that a legislatively elected Senator would represent the interest of his state rather than his voters. But I suspect he’d be more concerned with a small, elite group of voters—the state office-holders who chose him—than with the abstract state.

Well before the 17th Amendment, the U.S. of A. had mandates from the national government that could be highly unpopular locally: whiskey tax, Fugitive Slave Act, &c.

Greg Afinogenov said...

For what it's worth, I think Charles Inglis' "The True Interest of America Impartially Stated, in Certain Strictures on a Pamphlet Intitled Common Sense" to be the best reply to Paine. Inglis does an especially great job at eviscerating Paine's scriptural arguments.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the recommendation. For folks who want to sample Inglis's argument, here’s an extract. The original pamphlet was 70+ pages.