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The Conservative American Revolution

I would argue that the American revolution was conservative। The Colony’s position was that they, like Englishmen in England, were entitled by Magna Charta to not being taxed by the king without approval by their elected representatives।

They added that approval by Parliament, elected by people in England and Scotland, didn’t count। The Glorious Revolution had established that if the King tried to subvert the government, he could legitimately be overthrown. (Some– especially New Englanders– would say that the English Civil War had already established that. Others might point to such examples as Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, and Richard III as what happened to kings regarded universally as bad.)

So the Colonies would have been content with the status quo of 1750। The innovation of a Federal Government, a navy, and an army were just the unfortunate consequences of having to ditch an irresponsible King (remember that formally the British army and navy and colonies were under the authority of the King and his Government, not Parliament)। And then it was necessary to restrain the Federal Government with a Bill of Rights।

Thus, the legal position of the American Revolution, from the American side, was not secession from England, or revolution, but replacement of the monarch by a new central executive.


Thomas Paine was far from mainstream. The conventional view in both Britain and America was that the King could impose taxes without the consent of the legislature, and if he did, he should be resisted with violence. English tories may have claimed they supported absolute obedience, but in 1688 they didn’t offer any help to King James and were clearly happy with his overthrow.

The Americans said that the appropriate legislature was the colonial legislatures; the British (including Blackstone, I think) said that the appropriate legislature was Parliament.

Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps everyone (I’ve just been reading Jefferson) made the parallel with England and Scotland in 1700, two nations with two legislatures and a common king. That was very common in Europe– a king would often hold several titles simultaneously, like a businessman who was president of several companies. Thus, while the King was the executive of the Colonies, Parliament was not the legislature. For it to become the legislature would take something like the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland, a merger of legislatures approved by both sides. The Colonies would not have approved such a merger without big concessions on trade rules (as I recall, free trade with England and han proportional representation were inducements for Scotland to merge).

The Declaration is a conservative document. It says a lot about government being for the good of the people, but that is conventional Lockean Whiggism, not revolutionary sentiment. It has no objections whatsoever to the old government system. Rather, it objects to innovations introduced by George III. There were those in Congress who also objected to the restrictive trade laws that existed even before George III, but the Declaration omits those as grievances. Instead, the argument is that rule by a law-abiding king is unobjectionable, but that the present king is, with the acquiescence of Parliament, attempting to become a tyrant over the Colonies, and has thereby forfeited his authority. Indeed, “He has abdicated Government here,” the same argument applied to the flight of James II in 1688. The Crown being vacant, the Colonies could have chosen a different king– Frederick the Great, for example– but instead they chose to become a republic. (Recall that the Calvinist Netherlands offered their throne to Queen Elizabeth of England during their revolt from Philip II, who tried to conquer them with troops from his bigger kingdom, Spain. She turned it down, and they decided to become a republic instead.)

To see this, look at the Declaration. It is mostly about the bad innovations of George III, and makes no objection to the legitimacy of the pre-1763 link with Britain.

When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, …

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us….

A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.

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