Did King George III Deserve To Be Overthrown?


Numerous men and women sprinkled throughout the Conservative/Libertarian movement have taken inspiration from the original Tea Partyites of December 1773 – the good Patriots of Boston who dumped 342 chests of British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor as symbolic resistance against imperial taxation. Politics is indeed theatrical. And what would otherwise have been an ordinary act of waterfront vandalism has been elevated to the lofty status of the quintessential American political protest.

Courtesy of my ex-wife Peggy who worked on his American Tax Reduction Movement staff, I had the distinct privilege of knowing personally Howard Jarvis, the late-leader of the modern American tax-revolt movement – an outstanding gentleman who spearheaded the passage of Proposition 13 in California and its progeny nationwide. Jarvis, a self-styled student of American history, bandied about a very effective slogan – "Death and taxes may be inevitable. But getting taxed to death isn't!" – which cleverly tapped into the Boston Tea Party legend along with an echo of Virginian Patrick Henry's famous cry: "Give me liberty or give me death!"

Today it's a cardinal article of faith that the America colonists were completely justified revolting against King George III and British colonial rule. However, the beauty of comparative history is that it allows us to look at this episode in broader perspective so that the alleged uniqueness of events often fade as larger patterns are identified. In fact, the American Revolution looks a great deal less wholesome – indeed rather unnecessary – upon sober reflection.

Now it goes without saying that some regimes are clearly so evil that they deserve to be overthrown. The American people may oftentimes lack sophistication regarding foreign affairs, but they instinctively know despotic government when they see it. The list of suspects who justly earned the opprobrium of the American citizens include such rogues as Kaiser William II, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Ferdinand Marcos, Manuel Noriega, and Saddam Hussein, to name just a few.

So just how bad was the British Government in April 1775 when hostilities erupted? A number of criteria might be employed to answer this question.

(1) Political Prisoners: Despotic regimes fill their jails with political prisoners. But the exact number of political prisoners held by the British colonial authorities in the ten years of intense agitation leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution was exactly zero. Equally significant, British authorities made no effort to interfere with the assembling of the First Continental Congress of 1774 in Philadelphia. One doubts if, say, a Mussolini, or a Castro would have ever permitted such an independent gathering to convene unmolested.

(2) Suppression of Free Press and Public Opinion: The American colonies (like the British homeland itself) enjoyed a vigorous press that helped stimulate a lively public debate.

(3) Free Elections: Reflecting one of the world's most-advanced 18th-Century parliamentary systems, Americans seem to have voted in higher numbers (percentage-wise) than the Brits at home. Every colony featured popular assemblies and a considerable degree of self-rule. Meanwhile, Americans did not vote for their colonial governors who were either royal appointees or appointees of the proprietor/owner (the Penn family in Pennsylvania and the Calvert {Baltimore} family in Maryland). However, as an indication of a maturing American political culture, some royal governors on the eve of the Revolution were colonial Americans – the most prominent being William Franklin, Ben's son, the Governor of New Jersey and, when the Revolution came, a firm Tory supporter.

In addition, Americans did not vote for members of the British House of Commons. But the Brits had a different theory of representation – M.P.'s were seen as representing the interests of the entire empire not merely their individual constituencies – surely a point of dispute on both sides of the Atlantic but hardly worth an eight-year war.

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Be that as it may, regardless of any theory of representation, American colonial interests were well advocated in London and American sensibilities were often taken into consideration. As a prime example, when the Parliament enacted the highly unpopular Stamp Act Tax of 1765 on the Americans, after much brief vehement agitation the Parliament repealed the unpopular measure.

(4) Trial by Jury: Virtually without precedent elsewhere, citizens of both Britain and her colonies enjoyed trial by jury. And some of the few civil-liberty violations (such as warrantless searches that seemed to alarm the colonists) could be seen by London, not as a campaign of oppression and infringement on their rights, but as a justifiable measure taken against the chronic and highly profitable smuggling trade with enemies that Americans routinely engaged in during wartime.

(5) Troops Patrolling City Streets: Stretching back to Oliver Cromwell, Anglo-Americans had exhibited a healthy suspicion of military occupation of their cities. And the modern world has sported far too many instances of soldiers demanding that citizens produce identity papers, engaging in petty harassment or arbitrary arrest, or committing outright murder.

In the ten years of ceaseless agitation prior to the Revolution, British troops "occupied" only one city – that of Boston – for a period after October 1768, in response to the severe gang situation. Indeed the good law-abiding citizens of Boston welcomed the occupation. Soon two of the four regiments were actually removed from Boston the following year.

Inevitable friction between soldiers and civilians led to street confrontations, the most famous being, of course, the March 1770 Boston Massacre, which left five Bostonians dead. The victims were hardly angels as Patriot propaganda later depicted. For Sam Adams' Patriot faction had long recruited street thugs to intimidate its political adversaries. At any rate, regrettably, but probably in self-defense, the beleaguered soldiers panicked and fired into the mob.

The redcoats did stand trial for murder, but only a pair of them were convicted – and on the lesser counts of manslaughter. The Patriots afterwards claimed that the soldiers had gotten away with murder due to the connivance of colonial authorities. Indeed in his Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson mentions the incident as a charge levied against the British king: "For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States." Of course, Jefferson and his cohorts must have appreciated the irony of the charge since John Adams, who helped edit Jefferson's draft, had served ably as one of the soldiers' defense attorneys! (Imagine attorney Johnnie Cochrane screaming that O.J. Simpson had gotten away with murder.)

Interesting enough, even if the Boston Massacre had been an egregious case of cold-blooded murder, it remained the only such incident in a decade-long period of intense political agitation – a remarkable demonstration of restraint on the part of the supposed British "oppressors." Forget for the moment the 1989 Chinese Community crackdown of demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. How many innocent bystanders have been "mistakenly" killed by rogue cops in any number of big American cities in just the past year alone?

Meanwhile, the allegedly unresponsive British Government immediately withdrew its troops from Boston proper for the next three-plus years until the Boston Tea Party forced them to return.

Elsewhere, speaking of British troops, only about 8,000 men were ever stationed permanently in the American colonies during peacetime prior to 1775. And many of those soldiers were stationed on the frontier primarily to prevent the White settlers from encroaching on Native American lands. Look at your map. How much repression could 8,000 men inflict on the American mainland which north to south stretched 2,000 miles? By comparison, roughly 40,000 cops patrol New York City and you still can't ride the subway without being mugged.

So who was defending colonial America? Why Americans! The various colonies had at least 100,000 men (at least on paper) who were enrolled in the various colonial militias. So in 1775 Americans with muskets outnumbered British redcoats 12 to 1. No wonder when the fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord, the British government had such a difficult time stamping out the incipient rebellion.

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(Incidentally, for you Second Amendment devotees, this lesson was well learned by the Americans once the United States was formally organized as a nation. For up until World War Two, during peacetime it was always viewed as a prudent policy for the various state governors to have at their collective disposal more potential men under arms than did the central government.)

As a matter of record, far from disarming the colonists, London had long favored a policy that had regarded the militias as an integral part of imperial defense against assorted North American threats emanating from the French and Spanish, marauding Caribbean pirates, along with restive frontiersmen, hostile Indian tribes, and rebellious slaves.

At any rate, even the Redcoat ranks contained a good measure of native-born colonial American recruits. And during the last year of the War of Independence, when General Washington's Continental Army had been reduced to 9,000 men (as per some calculations), it appears that an equal number of American colonials were enrolled in the British ranks.

It's a huge mistake to see the American Revolution as a struggle between the home-grown Patriots and a bunch of foreign British "oppressors." In actuality, the conflict was more akin to a civil war waged between two groups of Americans – one of which (the Loyalist or Tory faction) welcomed the British Army for support while another faction (the Patriots) called in the mighty French. Guess which side prevailed? Here's a hint: Picture the Statue of Liberty.

(6) Commercial Restrictions: It has been fashionable to see the Revolution as the handiwork of a group of entrepreneurial-minded colonials chafing under various British imperial commercial restrictions. In other words, the Patriots of '76 struck a telling blow for freer trade. But the single strongest bastion of Patriot support – Tidewater Virginia – benefited enormously from the imperial tobacco monopoly that restricted cultivation of the weed elsewhere. And many of the New Englanders who objected to imperial restrictions directed their ire at the insistence that American colonials suspend their lucrative (and illicit) trade with Britain's foreign enemies during wartime.

Elsewhere, while politically connected colonists were doubtless often in cahoots with the royal or proprietary governors and their clique (and hence received economic favors), the same dynamic regrettably holds true today. Just check who recently got huge federal government bailouts. Again we are talking about proportion – a measured response – to sweetheart insider deals and market distortions. Would an eight-year war be the appropriate remedy?

The same holds true for taxes – the grievance so near and dear to contemporary Tea-Party folks' hearts. Without the Leviathan state, colonial Americans enjoyed a very light tax burden compared to that extracted today. In fact, the colonists appear to have been among the lowest-taxed citizens in the entire civilized world.

The Stamp Tax of 1765 engendered much opposition from Americans – not just from future-Patriots but from colonists who wound up a decade later firmly in the Loyalist camp. The reason: The Stamp Act was very unpopular and colonial politicians of all stripes tried to utilize the issue in order to make political hay.

Soon the issue was framed as a principled stance against the idea of "No taxation without representation!" Indeed Pennsylvania colonial agent Benjamin Franklin made an eloquent plea before the Parliamentary leaders in London that helped galvanize sentiment for repeal. Of course, Ben's hypocrisy was manifest. Before he discovered how unfair the Stamp Tax was, he had recommended one of his friends back in Philadelphia to become the stamp distributor – a lucrative patronage job. It was only later, when a member of a better-connected clique was awarded the franchise, that Franklin discovered his strident opposition to the measure!

By the way, there was no item that was subject to the Stamp Act that nowadays would not be subject to some sort of tax or fee – probably one much higher percentage-wise than that of 1765. At the outset of the American Revolution many of the imperial taxes had been reduced or eliminated altogether. But the modest Tea Tax had become a lightning rod for colonial protest. Again it's a simple issue of proportion. Should one live by such narrow abstractions that one would rip apart a well-functioning empire over the issue of "No taxation without representation" – especially involving such a non-essential item as tea?

Meanwhile, some regimes evidently do deserve to be overthrown, but it's difficult to locate any substantial economic, civil liberty, or human rights grievances to galvanize the American colonists to revolt. So what gives?

Historians and other observers have long made a serious mistake attempting to identify the supposed "issues" at stake – the so-called "causes" of the American Revolution. For, in actuality, there were no "issues" at stake – at least none of the traditionally listed ones.

Here's where comparative history comes in. If we look at, say, the city-states of late-Medieval and Renaissance Italy, we can identify a very similar political dynamic at play. In both we find an assortment of states under lax imperial supervision. For neither the Holy Roman Empire nor the British Empire had enough muscle on the ground to dictate affairs. In what constituted a power vacuum, the various mischievous political factions ran wild – indeed in the case of Italy, the factional infighting often lead to foreign wars – as my ambitious war-research study – www.worldwidewarproject.org – amply demonstrates. City-state "wars" don't have any real "causes" other than the fact that various issues – some often very mundane – somehow become intertwined with the vicious political infighting. Such dynamics can be found in Florence of 1400 as well as in Sam Adams' Boston of 1775.

Within traditional city-states (or the American colonies) family feuds (stylized by William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet featuring the Capulets v. the Montagues) often create the pivot around which politics revolve. The fact that in New York the Livingston family and their entourage embraced the Patriot cause in 1775 had more to do with the fact their traditional adversaries, the De Lancey family, had remained in the Tory camp than a dispute over any supposed "issue." History frequently chronicles this "agitation for agitation's sake," which emanates from ceaseless political jockeying.

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At any rate, by examining the flash points for hundreds of wars, it becomes quite apparent that Sam Adams and his Boston faction sought to score points by continually tweaking the nose of the British. And if a skirmish did erupt, Adams was under the misperception that the mere news of the outbreak of hostilities would bring down Lord North's Tory regime in Parliament to be replaced by a regime more favorable to his cause – known, appropriate enough, as the "Friends of America." But Adams miscalculated and wound up provoking a full-scale war. In passing, such delusions are quite frequent, historically speaking. The South-African Boers launched a military attack on the powerful British in 1899 fully expecting to instigate a cabinet crisis in London. Of course, this never happened and the Boers eventually suffered a total defeat. A similar delusion seems to have infected British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in early September 1939 when he acquiesced in a declaration of war against Germany thinking that the mere inauguration of formal hostilities would induce "responsible" Nazis in Berlin to overthrow that unscrupulous adventurer, Adolf Hitler.

Curiously enough, Sam Adams and other American Patriots were ultimately rescued from their own folly by these same "Friends of America" alluded to above. For the British Whigs, prayed for – indeed actively sought to undermine their own nation's war effort – lest the British Army subdue the colonists and then, flush with "victory," return home and assist George III in establishing military-style rule to suppress domestic political adversaries in the fashion of Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, or the future Napoleon Bonaparte.

Then too, in the aftermath of the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 the Opposition Parliamentary Whigs, who had actively schemed for years for the British to "lose" the war, somehow managed to cobble together enough of a Parliamentary majority to bring down Lord North's Tory administration and replaced it with a new one committed to "peace." Elsewhere, despite the Yorktown debacle, the British had hardly lost the struggle and could very well have continued had political support for prosecution of the war held firm in London. Curiously enough, in similar fashion, the Johnson administration began the process of abandoning the Vietnam War in March 1968 even though – despite the temporarily setback of the Tet Offensive – the United States had hardly been "defeated."

On another front, while so-called "gentry republics" have been far fewer in number than city-states, we should view colonial Virginia in such fashion. Factional politics likewise played a crucial role, but the presence of slaves – a full 40% of the population in 1775 – made it much less likely that Virginia would cavalierly opt for war. A foreign invasion leading to conquest would be the only realistic way that the Blacks might work themselves free – a situation which eventually did come to pass in 1865 at the conclusion of the American Civil War when advancing Northern troops (unwittingly or not) emancipated the slaves.

Nonetheless, if we survey the assorted grievances that the colonists raised prior to 1775, most appear to have originated in Massachusetts (or to a lesser extent in New York) and involved issues of a more commercial, maritime nature. And so only the gravest threat to Southern slavery itself would have induced the plantation colonies to take up arms against their traditional protector – the British.

Did the British government pose some sort of existential threat to the South's "peculiar institution?" I believe the answer is yes, which if true, serves to place the American revolutionaries, not only on the "wrong" side of history (so to speak), but clearly on the wrong side of an ever-evolving appreciation for basic human rights.

In truth, the British government circa 1775 led the world in the protection of the rights and the concern for the well-being of the so-called natives. As an example, the Proclamation of 1763 designed to prevent White settler encroachment on Indian lands naturally provoked opposition from land speculators and frontiersmen. Indeed the Proclamation of 1763 is lumped together with other assorted colonial grievances. But its purpose was in part humanitarian – to protect Native Americans from rapacious Whites.

Meanwhile, the legal status of American slaves brought by their masters to the British Isles proper remained somewhat ambiguous until the historic 1772 Somersett Decision rendered by the King's Bench (the equivalent of the British Supreme Court) appeared to strike a blow for freedom. Chief Justice Lord Mansfield had issued a narrow verdict in favor of the particular slave in question, James Somersett, in this one specific case. Indeed Lord Mansfield (by his own admission) had never intended to effect a general emancipation of all British slaves. Nonetheless, exaggerated news of the Somersett ruling quickly reached the colonies and surely alerted Southern colonists to the alarming possibility that if, say, Virginia or South Carolina remained part of the empire, Parliament might someday decree the abolition of slavery – a development which ultimately came to pass in 1833.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson lists as one grievance against King George III: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us" – a clear reference to the panicky decision by the out-gunned Virginia Royal Governor Lord Dunmore, who, at the outset of the revolution in an effort to frighten slave owners from joining rebellious Massachusetts, invited local Blacks to abandon their masters and enroll in the British army and receive their freedom for their effort. So Tidewater Virginia wound up enthusiastically joining the American Revolution in order to protect slavery, not to abolish it.

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All told, it remains doubtful that the majority of the inhabitants of the American colonies actually benefited from the Revolution. Surely the 20% who were Black slaves (and largely remained so until 1865) or the 20% Native Americans destined for displacement if not outright extermination, hardly benefited from the severance of their connection with their potential or actual imperial protectors. Elsewhere, approximately 100,000 Loyalist refugees fled the country during and immediately after the war – a higher percentage than later fled from either the French Revolution of 1789 or from the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finally, a good number of American colonists remained scrupulously neutral but still suffered the adverse effects from an eight-year struggle having been waged on their soil.

Granted, the legendary giants of the Patriot cause – men such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson – surely deserve their stellar reputation as visionary thinkers. But two points must be noted that remain largely forgotten today. First, the soaring rhetoric of the American Patriots was matched by equally soaring rhetoric from their adversaries, the American Loyalists. This was the eighteenth-century style and the words "freedom" and "liberty" were frequently employed by both sides in political debates. The Revolution's ultimate losers, the Tories, were no less "American" than their opponents and no less committed to a set of human rights and civil liberties that had long made Britain one of the world's most advanced nations.

Surely there must be something unsettling about the American colonists speaking the language of the Enlightenment while holding 400,000 Blacks in slavery. If any government circa 1775 deserved to be toppled for gross oppression it was the planter slaveocracy throughout the South, not the relatively mild British colonial administration.

Second, far too much attention has been focused on the Continental Congress and on General Washington's Army which, at many points during the struggle, played a very marginal role. In contrast, the Revolution centered in the individual states where the local Patriot faction (led by many now-forgotten vicious state politicians) managed to terrorize the other faction into submission. It wasn't pretty but it was extremely effective.

Nowadays American Tea-Party enthusiasts entertain many justifiable grievances against their own dysfunctional government. Nonetheless, they might consider evoking the memory of far better role models than the Patriots of '76.

February 4, 2010