America just celebrated its 4th of July this past week, a holiday which, I must admit, is fun to watch. It does fill me with sadness to know how little Americans know of their own holiday and the origins of their own country. Today, after a pause to avoid direct offense of Americans too close to their national holiday, I wish to examine their Declaration of Independence and the history around it.
The American colonists had greatly helped precipitate the Seven Years War, a global conflict that resulted in Great Britain incurring massive debt and greatly straining relations with the Native Americans. In an effort to both rebuild relations with the Native Americans and to curb the tensions (mainly about fur trading and such) that led to the Seven Years War the King forbade colonists from settling the Ohio Country.
This did not sit well with a number of prominent colonists who had invested heavily in expanded trade in the Ohio Country. Indeed, this profit-seeking is what had led to the armed conflicts with French forces in French territory which triggered the Seven Years War! Another thing which many colonists despised was paying taxes, even though these taxes had been levied to cover the costs of the war which they triggered and which was largely fought on their behalf. Be that as it may, the Colonists struggled to avoid all taxes and duties and began to resort to smugglers for many staples.
The Colonies had long been a hotbed of lawlessness and they soon elevated criminals to a position of local prominence. John Hancock was a notorious smuggler and scofflaw. When he was arrested for smuggling riots broke out amongst the colonists who agitated for his freedom so they could continue to receive their illegal goods! When the British government determined a way to provide high-quality tea (a major item in the colonies) at a price even lower than smuggled tea while still earning money for the government. The response? Hancock funded an attack that dumped this low-cost, high-quality tea into the harbor so that colonists would be forced to purchase his more-expensive, less-quality tea. How did the colonists respond to this criminal-funded terrorist act that was aimed at fleecing them? They still celebrate the Boston Tea Party, as they call it, as a blow for freedom!
Hancock was involved with the creation of the Declaration, as was Benjamin Franklin (a philanderer, scofflaw, and con man who notoriously took the King's pay to inform Parliament and the Crown of the mood of the colonies then played both sides against each other for his own gain) and a number of other smugglers, tax evaders, and general renegades. But the selection of Thomas Jefferson to actually write the document was a perfect example of the corrupt nature of the group involved and the lionization of Jefferson by Americans to this very day is astonishing.
In the colonies living beyond your means was common but Jefferson took it to heights that even his contemporaries found amazing. Despite having a large, productive plantation Jefferson was perpetually buried under the debt incurred by his lavish spending on food, wine, clothes, and perpetual building projects. Despite taking a full 5th of the endowment of a college where he was trustee he still left behind so much debt his heirs were forced to sell the bulk of his estate to cover his outstanding loans and bills.
But how did these smugglers, tax evaders, con men, and other reprobates convince others, usually common men, to fight for them and their wealth?
Those not already on board through greed were recruited by lies and bigotry.
The Seven Years War had had a lot to do with French territory west of the Appalachians. After the war Britain now controlled that territory as well as formerly French Quebec. The Native Americans of the Ohio Valley had much better relations with the French of Quebec and were more hostile to the colonists to the East. The newly-conquered Quebecois maintained their relations with the Ohio Country. Further, many of the native leaders of the Ohio Country had rather mixed views of who controlled their territory. To maintain the peace, build better relations with the native rulers and mollify the conquered French of Quebec the King of England sensibly gave the Quebecois control of the Ohio Country and relations with the natives.
The leaders of the American Revolution cast this as the prelude to - Catholics! Yes, many of the Founding Fathers blatantly used a fear of Catholics settling in the Ohio Country to whip up anti-British fervor with Paul revere drawing a cartoon showing the treaty that gave Quebec authority over the Ohio Country being co-signed by Catholic bishops and the Devil.
Combined with such events as the Boston Massacre (where soldiers fired on an armed mob that was assaulting them but which the revolutionaries portrayed as an unprovoked attack) some colonists were ready to rebel against their own king. The Declaration of Independence was meant to be the paper that justified what was to happen next - treason.
The Declaration of Independence is singularly bad at what it purports to do, justify treason. Indeed, I have never understood why anyone who has read it thinks Jefferson is a good writer (there is a difference between 'florid' and 'good').
The opening is wordy but weak, essentially just an overly-long statement that the Declaration will explain why the colonies are justified in committing treason. His statement of basic rights is rather terse, considering the lead in, and unconvincing. And his contractual theory of government makes no sense - after all, the majority of colonists wished to remain subject tot he British Crown! If he truly believes in a contractual governmental theory this is just silly.
Jefferson then goes on to admit that treason is bad and that any rebellion must be well-justified with about 200 words when 20 would do.
And then the whining begins.
Jefferson then lists reasons he thinks the King is a terrible, no-good, very bad tyrant:
1) He vetoes laws. Well, under the parliamentarian system of the day, the King could, yes, veto laws
2) The King doesn't rubber stamp what the colonial leaders want. well, why should he? The colonies were under Royal charter and needed the King's assent to enact their own local rules. If the King declined it was no different than in Britain with the Parliament!
3) The King continues to treat colonies differently than parliamentary districts in England. Of course he does, they are different things. Indeed, originally the colonists were eager to be different because that meant they would have lower taxes!
4) I don't like where the King calls parliament and other such groups. Really? 'It is far' is a pro-treason argument?
5) He dissolves our local legislative groups when they refuse to enforce the law. I think this is one of the funnier complaints. Why? Well, it shows that even if the colonies didn't have seats in Parliament they did have local version of Parliament (which is also admitted above, twice) and that these could pass laws with the King's consent (again, already admitted) and that they had refused to obey the King's alw, so they had at least some authority. In other words, some of the complaints in the Declaration nullify many of the other complaints. "We don't have access to Parliament!' vs. 'He won't let our local Parliaments do whatever they want!'.
6) When the local legislatures refuse to enforce the King's laws he doesn't let us create another legislature just like it right away. Well, why would he? If the local legislature keeps being run by crooks, smugglers, and rebels why would he let them return to power?
7) The King is controlling immigration and territorial expansion. So the King is controlling access to and the growth of his colonies? How dare he! I mean, its not like we just had a massive war on 4 continents about improper territorial expansion! Oh,we did? well, so what! We want to do whatever we want anyway!
8) The King won't let us have our own judges. Well, considering the local legislatures are refusing to enforce the King's laws why would he expect local judges to be any better? I;d keep sending in judges I trust from home, too!
9) The King is in control of the tenure and pay of his judges. So the fact that the King's judges report to and are paid by the King is an issue? Why? And how is it different from 8, 6, 2, and 1, anyway?
10) The King has sent tax collectors, customs agents, and other people to enforce the laws we refuse to enforce. Of course he did! What else should he do?
11) The King has soldiers in the colonies even though the local legislatures don't want them here. First, Jefferson is again admitting that the colonies have local legislatures, obviating a lot of the whining about seats in parliament. Second, the colonies are on the edge of a vast wilderness full of hostile groups and they just finished fighting a massive war. Third, since some colonists are openly urging armed rebellion, what do you expect?
12) The military answers to the King, not the local legislatures. You mean the local legislatures that refuse to enforce the King's laws? The same ones that started the Seven Years War with colonial forces attacking French troops from ambush?
13) Our local legislatures can't override Parliament. OK, this gives a little more weight to complaints about 'no seats in parliament', but why would colonies expect anything different than this?
14) The King has soldiers here. Yeah, we heard you when you said that in 11.
15) Soldiers are subject to the King and British law and Judges, not local laws and judges. Well, of course they are! And after the fiasco of the Boston Massacre, who can blame them?
16) We can't trade with whomever we want. You are British trade colonies founded and protected at great cost to create trade with and for Britain. We know from the Seven Years War that the colonists had no trouble trading with the French during a war with the French started by the colonies, but that doesn't make it right.
17) We don't like paying taxes. Who does? But that war you started isn't going to pay for itself! And remember that bit about how the colonies were founded by the King at great expense?
18) Some trials aren't with a jury. OK - but how many? Are they a particular type, like contract disputes that are usually clear and a jury is only a chance for the guilty to emotionally sway other people? And is this a reason to commit treason?
18) Sometimes we are put on trial in England. England is the source of sovereignty and the place of superior courts, so why is this a surprise?
19) We don't like Quebec. Quebec was just conquered and is formerly French - of course it has slightly different laws than a British colony!
20) The King doesn't let us do whatever we want. I am unsure how many different ways he can ineffectually restate this same complaint.
21) The King doesn't let us do whatever we want. At least once more!
22) When we really, really refuse to obey the King;s laws he sends in soldiers. Jefferson keeps coming back to just a few points and repeats them in different ways over and over without making a real point.
23) He is putting down armed rebellion with force. Not a surprise, really, and I wouldn't expect any less.
24) He plans to continue to put down armed rebellion with force. See point 23.
25) Some British colonists are pressed into service to fight other British colonists who are in armed rebellion against the King. See point 23, again.
26) We are being attacked by loyalists and Native Americans, and the Native Americans are scary. In regards to the loyalists, see point 23 yet again. And as for Native Americans, how is that justification for treason?
27) We have been nice so far and the King has been mean. Remember, the Sons of Liberty would routinely tar and feather the King's agents (being tarred and feathered usually killed the target, if you didn't know that) and others they would outright lynch. The Boston Massacre was incited by the Sons of Liberty bringing in hundreds of armed men to attack soldiers. the Boston Tea Party was the agents of smugglers destroying government property to force people to resort to smuggled goods. If vandalism, riots, assault, terror, arson, and outright murder are "Petitions for Redress in the most humble terms" I have no idea what Jefferson considers violent!
28) No matter how much we threatened the King he still insisted on his laws being enforced in his colonies. I don't know why I would need to point out the issues with this.
Jefferson then concludes with a statement that God is on the side of the murderous, seditious, tax-evading, scofflaw traitors.
The Declaration obviously fails in its attempts to justify treason and war. With its rambling style and muddled statements I am also puzzled as to why anyone thought it an elegant document.