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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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Richard Stockton’s Plan to Save the Empire

I’ve written a number of items about Richard Stockton, the Continental Congress delegate from New Jersey who was captured by Crown forces at the end of 1776 and, in exchange for his freedom, promised to leave the independence movement. In this post I’m going to go back about eighteen months before New Jersey sent Stockton to the Congress.

In 1774, Stockton was a new judge on New Jersey’s highest court, formerly a Council member and highly respected lawyer. And he was worried about civil war. The First Continental Congress had met in Philadelphia that fall, issuing a call to boycott British imports. Gen. Thomas Gage was gathering military forces in Boston, determined to enforce the Massachusetts Government Act and quash the rebellion there.

On 12 December, Stockton sat down and wrote a document for William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth (shown here, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg), the London government’s Secretary of State overseeing North America. It appears that Stockton sent his document to a London merchant named Samuel Smith to pass on to the government. (This was not the Rev. Samuel S. Smith who preached at his funeral.) The judge’s grandson supplied a copy to the Historical Magazine, which published it in 1868. The document first warned Dartmouth and his colleagues of the colonists’ military strength and then suggested a peaceful way to resolve the political disputes.

An Expedient for the Settlement of the American Disputes humbly submitted to the consideration of his Majesty’s Ministers by an American

The State of American Affairs is so truly alarming at this time, that every real friend to the British Empire ought to suggest every probable expedient that occurs to him for the accommodation of the unhappy disputes between Great Britain and the Colonies.——to give the following suggestions their due weight; it must be premised——

1st. That the several North American Colonies, from New Hampshire to South Carolina inclusive [Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Canada, Georgia, and the Floridas had not sent delegates to the First Continental Congress], are able to furnish 500,000 fighting men: who are in general as fit for service as the English Militia, and many of them much more so, having been in actual service the last war.

2dly. That the great body of the people in these several Colonies are now (even to the astonishment of many Colonists themselves) perfectly united in a determinate opposition to the authority of the British Parliament, as to all internal Taxation.

3dly. That there is not the least remaining doubt, if the British Government should proceed to put the late Acts of Parliament respecting the Massachusetts Bay (or any other Acts which involve the Idea of an abso–uncontroulable power in the British Parliament over the Colonies) into execution, by force; but that the assd. Colonies would unite in attempting to repel force by force.——

To which may be added, what is as well or perhaps better known in Great Britain than in America, to wit,

4thly. That the certain consequences of this unnatural War will be dreadful to both Great Britain and America: and the probable effects thereof may be fatal to the whole British Empire.

Matters standing thus; and the three first propositions above premised being founded upon the most indubitable facts of which the writer of this, from his general acquaintance with America, is perhaps as competent a judge as any man whatever. It is humbly proposed to the Consideration of his Majesty’s Ministers, whether it would not be proper

1st. That a royal Instruction be immediately obtained, and sent over to the several Governors of the North American Colonies, requiring them forthwith to recommend it to their several Assemblies to pass, and to give their own assent to an Act which may be passed by the Legislatures of the several Provinces, empowering certain Commissioners therein to be named, to repair to England; with power to confer with his Majesty's Ministers or with Commissioners to be appointed by Act of Parliament, respecting the grand points in dispute between Great Britain and America; and finally to determine thereupon.

2dly. That to prevent all disputes in future the sd. American Commissioners be also impowered to confer and agree with the British Commissioners respecting the future government and regulation of the Colonies; either by framing One general System of Government for all the Colonies on the Continent, similar to the British, Or by making some material alterations in the present mode of provincial Government. In either of which systems, some effectual provision may be made for the adequate support of the American Government by the Americans themselves: And also for the payment of all such sums of money as may become due from America to Great Britain for the assistance of her Fleet and Army. These determinations of the sd. Commissioners to be subjected nevertheless to such alteration as the wisdom of his Majesty and his Parliament of Great Britain may make therein; and as shall be agreed to by the several provincial Legislatures.

3dly. That upon such Instructions being given to the several Governors, his Majesty be advised in his royal clemency to recommend it to his Parliament to suspend the operation of the Boston Port Act until the determination of the sd. Commissioners shall be had.

The Author of the above hints offers them with all humility, and with great diffidence of his own abilities, on so great and national a question. But some expedient must be immediately fallen upon, or we shall be involved in a civil war the most obstinate awful and tremendous that perhaps ever occurred since the Creation of the world.

He will esteem it a signal blessing of divine providence, conferred upon him, if any one Idea he hath suggested may be of any use at this dreadful Crisis: And if otherwise, he will at least be able to comfort himself with the uprightness of his intentions in this feeble attempt: and with the assurance that it can do no harm either to himself, or any other person.
This was a wealthy, well-connected lawyer’s solution to the troubles: colonial commissioners—no doubt chosen from the top of the political and legal class—talking with equivalent gentlemen in London and working out a compromise.

Although Stockton signaled he was open to other suggestions, he envisioned a system in which the American colonies would be basically self-governing within the British Empire, responsible only for paying the London government a fair price for military protection. The American colonies would have “One general System of Government...similar to the British,” which sounds like a North American parliament that worked with the king the same way the Parliament in London did. Most American colonists would probably have been satisfied with that resolution.

But the London Parliament would never have gone for it. The previous century and a half of British political history was all about Parliament establishing itself as the most powerful governmental institution—more powerful even than the monarch in whose name it acted. Parliament had deposed and executed Charles I, chased James II out of Britain, and passed over the Stuart claimants to bring in the Hanoverians. The legislature was so successful that George III, though more active in choosing government ministers than his successors would be, saw his job as working with Parliament.

Stockton’s scheme would have created a similar but independent parliament in North America, parallel to the one in London. And a future monarch, British politicians feared, might play one source of legislative power and revenue off against the other, thus potentially regaining the upper hand over both. The Parliament in London had to be the sovereign power in the British Empire.

So nothing ever came of Stockton’s proposal. I’m not even sure Lord Dartmouth ever saw it. But this document shows how in 1774 Stockton wished to find a way to preserve both American self-government and the British Empire.

TOMORROW: Richard Stockton, turncoat?

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