By John F. Di Leo -
The term had a special meaning, and was a badge of pride, no matter whether the individual had a drop of English blood or not.
The people of the thirteen Atlantic coast colonies in those years were already a diverse group, as these colonies had been settled by not just Englishmen but Scots, Irish, Dutch, Germans, Swiss, Danes, Frenchmen, and still others.
These settlers, or their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, had come to these shores for many reasons – religious liberty, freedom from persecution, a fresh start in a land without the same old social classes as back home, a chance to prosper in a land brimming with opportunity.
There were other colonies too, all over the world, that they could have chosen. The French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch also had established colonies, in South America, Africa, and Asia. But these settlers didn’t choose those countries. Brazil, Quebec, Argentina, India, Mexico, and many more of these other colonies had natural resources, lovely scenery, exotic locales. But there was a reason that our ancestors chose to settle on what is now the United States’ east coast: There they would be settling alongside Englishmen, and they would become Englishmen themselves.
The Legacy of the Magna Carta
The English had a different relationship with royalty than most other countries. The French and Spanish had absolute monarchs; the Italian and German city-states had a mixture of kings and dukes and emperors who often got away with ruling by fiat. The rights of man were often denied by the might of royalty.
But the English had seen a steady improvement in the relationship of the people and their government over the centuries. Not just a flash in the pan moment like Macchiavelli’s brief Florentine republic, but a steady decline in the power of the British crown, a steady increase in the power of the British Parliament.
This process had begun centuries before, when English nobles forced King John to the table and made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215. The Provisions of Oxford followed in 1258, establishing an elected council of 24, and ensuring that Parliament would meet three times a year.
The Petition of Right came along in 1628, forbidding the king from billeting soldiers in people’s homes, restraining him from issuing his own taxes in addition to Parliament’s, restricting his ability to impose martial law or imprison British subjects without cause. The Bill of Rights followed in 1689, further limiting the king by codifying the freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, certain religious liberties, guarantees of regular elections.
There were many more such acts throughout the centuries. Great Britain has no single Constitution like our own, but this gradual march toward ever-greater liberty served as a beacon to a certain type of immigrant – the right kind of immigrant – and caused people seeking that new start to gravitate toward Great Britain’s colonies over those of her rivals’. And of all Britain’s colonies, those on the North American coast seemed the most evocative of the mother country; more English in feel, with the added freedom of distance and open land for expansion.
It was the perfect place for the right kind of immigrants – those who valued the opportunity to prosper from hard work, to practice the worship of the Good Lord in the Judeo-Christian denomination of their choice, to write and speak and participate in the community without fear of the crushing boot of government.
The Erosion of Rights
Unexpectedly, however, the 18th Century saw an erosion of these rights in the American colonies.
Perhaps in a reaction to the Bill of Rights of 1689, the British monarchs began to act out… they started restrictions on our very independent colonies. During the 1700s, they began ever-increasing controls on the mercantile options available to the colonists, because Parliament gave the king greater latitude abroad than it gave him at home.
During the 1700s, Parliament strengthened itself in England, establishing the cabinet-style government, led by a prime minister, that it retains to this day. Prime Ministers like Sir Robert Walpole ensured that the people of England were secure from the infringement of their long-established rights by a foreign-born king. The Hanoverian kings weren’t detested, but as the first two of the three Georges were born abroad, the people wanted a strong Parliament to ensure that the rights of Englishmen were not abused by “German despots.”
And so these three King Georges made a show of fully respecting the English, at home… and fulfilled their fantasy of old-style autocratic power by taking advantage of the fact that colonists had no seats in Parliament to speak up for them. By the 1750s, colonies were beginning to send representatives to London to find some manner of redress, most famously, Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, who traveled to England in 1757 to represent Pennsylvania alone, but ended up the hired diplomat for Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey too by the end, serving in this capacity through the outbreak of hostilities in 1775.
There were colonies in which the King forbade certain Christian denominations… or compelled the taxpayer support of a favored one. There were colonies in which going businesses had their licenses yanked outright, as the king decided to grant monopoly rights to English firms. George Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon, for example, had its own foundry, which had been closed at the king’s order, to force colonists to be dependent on the mother country for such things.
By the late 1760s, most American colonists were forbidden from trading directly with other countries; George III decreed that if we wanted to trade with Holland, or Italy, or Denmark, or India, we would have to buy and sell through factors (middlemen) in London. These London factors, no matter how honest and well-intentioned, were an often unnecessary additional burden on the process of international trade, making commerce costlier, ever more indebting the colonists, wrecking the plan of limitless potential for prosperity that our Founders and their ancestors had expected from this open land.
Those who think of our Founders’ complaints as mere “taxation without representation” are unaware of the extent of these denials of the Colonists’ freedoms. It wasn’t just a matter of raising tax rates from two percent to three, or from three percent to four.
The king had shuttered manufacturers on these shores. He forbade our direct sale of goods to most other countries. He had broken promises to support westward expansion, and worse, broken promises of that western land to colonial veterans who had served England honorably in the French and Indian War. He had quartered troops in our homes, more to threaten us than to threaten invaders. He had authorized his governors to disregard traditional English rules governing prosecutions – holding prisoners without trial, and denying trial by jury.
Worst of all, he repeatedly closed American legislatures, denying the public their right as Englishmen to self-government, enshrined in the English psyche since 1215. And he even put one town – Boston – under martial law for seven years.
Is it any wonder the Americans finally had enough?
Who to Blame?
One of our Founders’ greatest challenges was allocating blame for all these injustices. Since we knew we had friends in Parliament – the Rockingham/Burke faction – we long assumed our opponents were the majority in Parliament.
So our Founders long retained their traditional pride in being Englishmen, directing their anger at Parliament. Only at the very end did it become truly clear that King George III was acting the role of a tyrant – that not only his obvious direct actions, but the negative actions of Parliament as well, were all the doing of King George.
Bristling at the constraints placed upon the monarch by five centuries of English patriots, King George III became adept at the art of corruption. He utilized techniques worthy of a Chicago or Tammany Hall machine to control the majority in parliament. By doling out appointments, favors, knighthoods, contracts, and monopolies, George III was usually able to see that his man became prime minister.
Prime Minister Frederick North, therefore, the focus of colonial fury throughout the 1770s, was in fact a mere puppet of George III. The corrupt Lord North became what Tolkien fans would think of as “The Mouth of Sauron,” a man who had long since traded away his ability to think for himself, a man who was merely the incarnation of his master in another body, another place.
Much of this was only discerned by later historians, amazed at the machinations by which George III had managed to direct a theoretically independent Parliament. But even by 1776, enough was understood that the American colonists could properly focus their anger – not at the British people, not at the legitimately elected Members of Parliament like the Marquess of Rockingham and Edmund Burke – but at this tyrannical king alone.
The Declaration of Independence
And so it was, in June and July of 1776, that the delegates to the Continental Congress finally voted to pass and sign the Declaration of Independence – authored by Virginia Delegate Thomas Jefferson (but much amended) – a document that would set forth before the world the grounds under which we were issuing this separation.
What many forget, when they read this magnificent document, is that it is not a radical declaration of rights that an upstart nation is claiming for itself. Rather, the Declaration lists specific violations of our people’s rights as Englishmen. These were rights guaranteed to us by five and a half centuries of British law, which a corrupt and tyrannical king sought to illegally deny. He could never have gotten away with such abuses on English soil, but because the colonists were an ocean away, lacking direct representation of their own, it was possible for awhile.
He got away with it, in fact, more and more every year, despite the screams of a vocal minority in Parliament to oppose it. “You CAN’T do this!” they would scream at Lord North, but they were drowned out, voted down by a majority that didn’t represent the colonies, so they didn’t care, or that was too dependent on the king’s favors to act independently, even when the right move was so crystal clear.
The Declaration of Independence, so cherished by Americans for over two centuries now, was a declaration of a tyrant’s personal action, a recognition that this tyrant had severed the bonds between our lands far more permanently than even an ocean could ever do. This tyrant made it necessary for us to separate from England, in order that we might again have the birthright that patriots for centuries had worked to guarantee for us.
That declaration set in motion a world war – along with a revolution in philosophy, economics, and political science – and established the eternal obligation of American statesmen to devote their focus to the preservation of these rights.
The question of how best to accomplish that goal – how best to design a government that would secure these rights for all time, and protect against corruptors and corruptees like George III and Lord North – would have to wait another eleven years, until the magnificent Constitutional Convention produced the document that has guided this nation ever since.
But today, and every year on July 4, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, that bold move in which we Americans took it upon ourselves to declare and secure our own liberties. And we celebrate the Founding Fathers themselves, those courageous visionaries who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor that we might be free, more than two centuries thereafter.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance manager. A former president of the Ethnic American Council and a former Milwaukee County Republican Party Chairman, he has now been a recovering politician for over sixteen years.
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