It is, undoubtedly, most appropriate to describe the Declaration of Independence as the greatest polemic document in American history. The precise wording, whose meticulous and strategic composition by Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, holds in itself the key to understanding not only the political and cultural inclinations of the Americans, but also the manner in which British despotism led them to the very document in question. The arguments set forth and authored, thus, were a testament to the manner in which His Royal Majesty King George III engineered the ultimate dissatisfaction of the American colonies and the breeding of independent political association and thought. Therefore, the section of the document known as the ‘Indictment’ can be understood as a series of accusations against King George starting as early as 1761. All of the grievances pertained, to varying degrees of specificity, to certain moments, acts, proclamations, and British impositions over the Thirteen Colonies. It is for this reason why they are the perfect means to a glimpse as to why independence became the only option for escape from Britain’s rule. Although the times warranted for political exaggeration for the purpose of the Revolutionary cause, it was highly unlikely that the ‘Indictment’ section of the document held any such exaltations.Through the art of thorough analysis, it can be evidenced that all of Jefferson’s grievances have in them historical basis of all the things King George III and the Parliament had unlawfully imposed upon the colonies between 1761 and 1775. Thus, as Jefferson clearly stated, they were indeed factual accusations, ready for a “candid world”.
As most historians would argue, Jefferson’s 27 facts were strategically placed, generally, in distinct groups within the document. The first, pertains to King George’s abuse in his executive powers over the colonies and the disembodiment of their legislative capabilities. The second, is a collection of accusations that centre around the imposition of unfair taxes, economic reforms, quartering of soldiers and other administrative abuses. The last group, also serves as the most important and severe accusations, perhaps the reason it was also left for last, was King George’s proclamation of war and the violent measure which he undertook to subdue the American Congress and Revolution. The reason Jefferson allocated them in distinct groups served as a way to identify the accusations’ effects on different levels of severity. However, for the purpose of this paper and its length constraints, only the most specific and relevant grievances will be discussed, and how they pertained to the period leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The first spark to cause increased tensions between the colonials and the British was the militarization of the colonies. Thus, the first accusation which warrants attention is grievance number 11. It deals with the stationing of troops during times of peace within the colonies. And it was rightly so, as immediately after the Seven Year War, King George III stationed 10,000 British troops across the Thirteen Colonies for defensive measures. Although it seemed entirely justified, as the devastation of the Seven Year war had ravaged the colonies and plunged them and Britain into a severe post-war economic recession, most officials such as Jefferson did not see it as necessary. However, the real problem, as stated within the grievance, was the fact that the King went about this without consulting the local colonial legislatures. To understand why this was more severe than it sounds, one must begin to understand what effects and tensions forced militarization might produce on a society. The reason this grievance is also the most important is the fact that it lay the roots to numerous taxes and acts that were set up to financially support and maintain the British army. A perfect example is the Quartering Act of 1765, which is also referred to in grievance number 14. Jefferson understood the colonial dissatisfaction with the quartering of British soldiers in American public barracks, inns, and houses. However, the more serious issue was that the act forced the Americans to provide the British with provisions and pay a portion of their wages. King George III sought fit that it was only natural for the Americans to pay a portion of the expenses as it was in their best interest. Interestingly most Americans did not want the British armed presence within their colonies, not only because of the costs of upkeep but also because of the abuses of power they inflicted on the colonials. For instance, grievance number 15 mentions that soldiers were protected by mock trials, referring to the times when they ‘murdered’ colonists during rebellions. This was true under the Administration of Justice Act. The militarization efforts were not well received, and later on led to conflicts, such as the Boston Massacre of 1770. Moreover, the defining section of grievance 11 is that the soldiers were stationed in “times of peace”. Essentially, what is meant by this is that although the King had the constitutional right to place British soldiers during the Seven Year War, he pushed the ‘boundaries’ by imposing soldiers at the colonies’ expense. Yet, the British faced a much serious issue of financially supporting the standing armies which was to be achieved through colonial taxation.
The issue of taxation became prevalent throughout the colonies, as King George imposed numerous taxes, not only to support the British army, but also to indirectly balance Britain’s exaggerated deficit. It is for this reason why grievance 17 specifically highlights that taxation was imposed without the “Consent” of the colonies. It is important to understand that the Colonies’ main problem with taxation was that it was instituted without their full and legal representation in Parliament, and secondly, that the physical taxes were all structured to support British institutions, such as the army, within the colonies, rather than colonial matters. This was the case for most of the Acts passed after the Seven Year War.
Grievance number 17 referred to numerous taxation policies. Among the most significant was the Stamp Tax of 1765, which required all printed paper to carry a Royal Stamp of approval at the cost of British currency, in order to be approved. The Stamp Tax, unlike the Sugar Act of 1764, had a more profound effect on the Colonies because of its tenacious institution. As a result of the tax, all prices within the colonies rose significantly, affecting all societal levels.Moreover, because the stamps could only be purchased using British currency, colonial money further depreciated in value affecting traders and merchants. This only intensified the fall in value of colonial currency, as the Currency Act of 1764 already had instituted measures to impose the use of British currency only. The colonial response to the Stamp Tax was immediate both politically and physically. The first political body to hold a majority of the colonies was formed, known as The Stamp Act Congress. However, the congress’ lobbying and appeals to the King was, to an extent, ineffective. It was rather the extensive boycotts of traders that hurt Britain, which finally led them to repeal the tax later on in 1765. However, in 1767 the Revenue Tax Act, as part of the Townsend legislations, had already imposed heavy taxation on imports, in order to satisfy British costs. The Tea Tax of 1767, was the determining factor in the colonial shift in opposition towards British rule. The tax forced colonial merchants to only buy British East India tea, in order to sell off the companies’ massive surplus. At the same time, the British government would be able to tax the imported tea through the Revenue Tax Act. The act led to the famous Boston Tea Party, which signified the beginning of increased strained relations between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain.
Despite the fact that Jefferson’s main issue with the Tax Acts was that they were imposed without consent, they also played an important role in pronouncing the economic recession that enveloped the colonies. One main reason for the economic depravity was due to Britain’s mercantilism that forced the colonies to ban trade with all other parts of the world, except for Great Britain. This was specifically designed to further increase Britain’s wealth through the colonies, as they themselves remained economically constrained. It is also for this reason why Jefferson chose to place this grievance pertaining to trade restrictions right before the grievance that accuses the King of imposing taxation without consent. These two complement each other, as both taxation and mercantilism were carefully structured to subdue the colonies under British rule. However, both served as indirect means of control, as Britain was already imposing more direct legislation, as expressed in the grievances.
The British imposition of absolute continental rule began with the institution of the Declaratory Act of 1765, as delivered by grievance number 22, which infers that the British “invested with the power to legislate for [the colonies] in all cases whatsoever”. This, perhaps, was the point in which all the colonies felt the true extent of despotism under British rule. Along with the tax acts, Britain imposed under the guidance of parliament a series of legislations that sought to subdue the increasing protesting caused by the prevalent taxation, known as the Coercive Acts. This collection of tyrannical legislation was King George’s response to the increasing violent protests such as the Boston Massacre of 1770 and, the Tea Party. However, above all, they were put in place to subdue the greater menace of political organization, as a result of American Enlightenment. Jefferson pertained to some of these measures and proceeded to denounce them systematically. For example, grievance number 21 specifically deals with the passing of the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774, which is explained as “altering fundamentally [the] Form of [colonial] Governments”. The act itself gave power to the British Governor of Massachusetts, to completely control the political bodies of the state at his own will. For instance, town meetings were made illegal, unless they were called by the Governor. Also the self-governing executive council was entirely dismantled, and would only be elected or dismissed at the King’s demand. This act of extreme despotism by Britain was maintained to further hold power of the colonies, but ultimately failed by fuelling colonial rage and even want for independence. This was further exacerbated as Britain sought to tighten its grip over the colonial justice system. Jefferson provided two accusations, in this context, one which implied that trial by jury was at times denied, and the other that colonials were transported across the sea for unfair and “pretended offences”. It is impossible not to correlate these two grievances with the Administration of Justice Act, which legalized the normalcy of unfair and prejudice trials, specifically after the Boston Tea Party affair. The act was designed to give the Governor power to move trials to other colonies and Great Britain in order to provide a prejudice jury to both colonials and British soldiers involved in violent rebellions. Thus, British soldiers would have the benefit of being found not guilty at the hands of a British jury, while colonials were tried for in-existent offences.
One of the most controversial acts of 1774, was the Quebec Act because of its reinforcement of the outlines proposed in the Royal Proclamation. The act essentially expanded Quebec’s territory into the southern mainland, cutting off colonial access to westward expansion. Moreover, the act gave the Quebec the right to follow the French Civil Code rather than British laws. Jefferson describes this move, in grievance number 20, as the institution of an “arbitrary government”. The reason he does this is because he describes it as an “instrument” of expanding British despotism to the colonies. Although, Jefferson did not take into account the needs of the French living in Quebec, it is understandable as to why he saw this as an offensive move by the British. Especially, because Quebec’s expansion cut off colonial economic expansions into the west. The Quebec Act was the last major legislation to set off colonial reaction, such as the institution of the First Continental Congress and talk of Independence.
The last group of accusations also dealt with the most recent events just before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. More precisely, Jefferson states in grievance number 23 that the King “abdicated Government” and declared them as traitors. He is most likely referring to the Proclamation of Rebellion of 1775, where King George officially declared war on the Thirteen Colonies by proclaiming them as rebels within the Empire. Jefferson makes an obvious attempt at imposing the inevitableness of the war on King George, by laying the accusation directly unto him. And it was rightly so, as Jefferson also states after the grievances that the Americans petitioned the King, but were only answered with “repeated injury”. Here, he referred to the Olive Branch Petition of July, 1775, which was the last attempt of the Continental Congress to appeal to the King in order to prevent hostilities. However, King George did not even recognize the petition and immediately gave Assent to the Proclamation of Rebellion. It is for this reason, that Jefferson depicts the King as “Tyrant, unfit to be the ruler of a free people”. The precise placement of these accusations thus imply that the American Colonies did try to prevent war, but it was forced upon them by King George III.
Overall, Jefferson’s Declaration formulated a specific history of the Thirteen colonies that pertains to ideals of rebellion and defiance of tyranny. It is more important to note that the Declaration itself was a statement of all the liberal and republican ideas that were born out of the European and American Enlightenment. Essentially, it was an example of the successful institution of liberal republicanism within the formation of a new nation state. It is for this reason why the Declaration defines the way historians study the Thirteen colonies as a building up of tensions towards Independence. Moreover, the intensity found in the Declaration has created a relationship in historical scholarship where American side is viewed as the protagonist and the British as the antagonist. This, however, was not due to exaggeration on Jefferson’s’ part, but historians failure to understand and study the British viewpoint during that era.
Jefferson’s 27 grievances played an important part in promoting the ideology of independence, and revolution. This was achieved because of the effectiveness of the factual accusations. It is easy to see why some historians believe that Jefferson might have exaggerated for political reasons, as the wording was constructed in such a way as to attack King James and Britain for their efforts to impose despotism over the colonies. Moreover, the forceful language further gravitated the accusations, but was done so to legitimize the Declaration, and to prevent the labelling of the document as a factor in the establishment of arbitrary government. King George’s policies and acts, all played a role in the systematic institution of totalitarian rule over the colonies in order to secure the economic advantages of trading. Jefferson, along with the rest of the committee, understood these factors all too well. It is for this reason they chose to refer to the accusations as “facts”, and more importantly they hoped that the world would be objective enough to understand them.
By Milad Doroudian
Eric, Nellis. “The Long Road To Change:America’s Revolution, 1750-1820″.(University of Toronto Press,2007)”Decleration of Independence: A Transcription” in “The Long Road To Change:America’s Revolution, 1750-1820”. ed Eric Nellis. (University of Toronto Press,2007),285.
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.