Not only does the text of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms appear to support this somewhat paradoxical interpretation of America’s place within the contemporary British Empire – at once an enthusiastic member of the whole and a fundamentally separate people – but it seems to align rather closely to the position taken by one of the authors of that selfsame document in a treatise published the previous year. Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America – discussed at length many moons ago in this very series – indeed proposed that the manner by which the colonies that comprised British America were founded entitled their later inhabitants to a degree of autonomy somewhat at odds with the plainly observable facts. In attempting to first establish the basis of his claim that the inhabitants of British America were a wholly sovereign and autonomous people, for instance, Jefferson declared that,
America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expence of individuals, and not of the British public. Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement, their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.
As with his and Dickinson’s later Declaration, the circumstances of the colonial founding were restated in such a way as to valorize individual initiative and omit any explicit mention of private enterprise or official patronage.
While it was most certainly true that the British public did not fund the establishment of any of the colonies for whom Jefferson professed to speak in 1774, nor were the individuals whose “fortunes” were “expended” in the process solely those who participated in the project as migrants. A number of these selfsame colonies were, as aforementioned, the product of joint-stock ventures by which individual shareholders staked their investment upon the possibility that the settlement of North America would generate a significant dividend. The involvement of these financiers was certainly of a different quality than that of the colonists themselves – they did not spill their blood, for instance, nor suffer the countless hardships with which the American wilderness abounded. They were, nevertheless, a vital element of the process as a whole. Their financial contribution, after all, is what made the transportation of peoples from Britain to the New World possible and further provided for the material support of the transplanted settlers during the often strained circumstances of the opening phase of colonization. For Jefferson to have claimed of the founding colonists that, “For themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold [.]” thus represents an oversimplification very much in keeping with those previously cited in his and Dickinson’s 1775 Declaration. While the 17th century architects of the Jamestown or Plymouth settlements may have believed with all sincerity that they were indeed laboring for their own personal or communal benefit, the owners of Virginia Company stock may have understood with equal candor that these same migrants were enduring toil, disease, starvation, and death for the purpose of increasing the average share price. While the former conception is far nobler – and far easier to adopt as the basis of a robust socio-cultural identity – the latter is no less accurate.
A further parallel between the self-perception of American autonomy represented in Jefferson’s 1774 A Summary View and his and Dickinson’s 1775 Declaration can be found in their shared – though qualified – admission of the benefits America derived from its association with the British Empire. The latter, in attempting to affirm both the solidity of the Anglo-American relationship and define the manner by which it had become strained, described the,
Harmonious intercourse [that] was established between the Colonies and the Kingdom from which they derived their origin. The mutual benefits of this union became in a short time so extraordinary, as to excite astonishment. It is universally confessed, that the amazing increase of the wealth, strength, and navigation of the Realm, arose from this source [.]
Note the use of the phrases “mutual benefits” and “the Realm.” Rather than explicitly acknowledge the various advantages that the inhabitants of British America derived from their close association with one of the wealthiest empires in human history, Jefferson and Dickinson styled the dividends of the Anglo-American relationship as being either reciprocal or having strengthened Britain itself. The implication of this phrasing would seem to be that Britain derived greater advantage from its continued involvement in North America than the colonists themselves and/or that the only reason Britain continued to offer support to the American colonies was out a desire for mutual gain.
While expressed more overtly and more harshly, A Summary View gives voice to essentially the same perspective on the same topic. In likewise discussing the significance of the aid Britain had recently extended to the American colonies during the course of the Seven Years War (1754-1763), Jefferson made a point of remarking that,
Not a shilling was ever issued from the public treasures of his majesty, or his ancestors, for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had become established on a firm and permanent footing. That then, indeed, having become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes, his parliament was pleased to lend them assistance against an enemy, who would fain have drawn to herself the benefits of their commerce, to the great aggrandizement of herself, and danger of Great Britain.
As with his and Dickinson’s later Declaration, A Summary View seeks to establish the motivation behind Britain’s continued investment in North America as having been purely economic, strategic, or otherwise self-interested. While not half so kind as describing the benefits of the Anglo-American relationship as being mutual, Jefferson’s assertion that America received active aid as a result of it “having become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes” would seem to amount to essentially the same thing. Britain, both documents affirmed, did not seek to protect or to assist the people of America out of a sense of kindness, charity, or fellow feeling, but because the former believed that there was sufficient advantage to be derived from doing so. Likewise, as Jefferson and Dickinson’s 1775 Declaration ascribes to the Anglo-American relationship an “amazing increase of the wealth, strength, and navigation of the Realm,” so A Summary View assigned British support for the American colonies during the Seven Years War to an essentially defensive measure intended to prevent some rival power from drawing to themselves “the benefits of their commerce [.]” Again, though via markedly different language, both documents characterized British support for the American colonies as being primarily mercenary. It was a desire for gain rather than any sense of justice that brought forth British generosity, it seemed, and Americans would have done well – in 1774 as in 1775 – to recognize the fact of it.
The significance of these cited parallels to the discussion at hand – having to do with the somewhat contradictory nature of the position put forward by Jefferson and Dickinson in their 1775 Declaration – would seem to pivot upon the notion of mythology as identity. As cited above, the premise that the inhabitants of the united colonies were the beneficiaries of a philosophical and material legacy wrought solely by their virtuous and long-suffering forbears – to the extent that armed resistance became justified when that legacy was actively threatened – represents a gross oversimplification of the forces and mechanisms that gave rise to the English colonization of North America. The 17th century colonial founders did not live, and toil, and die in a vacuum, they were not constantly under siege by hostile indigenous peoples, and their successes were not wholly the product of their own perseverance. Jefferson’s stated belief to the contrary, therefore, represents faith in a story whose veracity was questionable but whose emotional or psychological appeal would have been difficult to deny.
There would seem to be little glory and less satisfaction to be derived from an acknowledgment that large swathes of British America were settled in consequence of corporate enterprise or royal patronage. A people would thus be better inclined to locate their origins – indeed, the meaning of their existence – in a narrative of repression, exodus, personal sacrifice, and eventual triumph, particularly when it appears to confirm the things they already know about themselves. Americans were an isolated people, and by necessity had developed habits of autonomy and self-reliance. They practised a number of religious faiths among them, many of which were subject to official persecution in Britain proper, and they were often subject to attack by native peoples whose martial traditions could be quite harsh and unforgiving. Jefferson’s theory of the colonial founding – as represented in both A Summary View and his and Dickinson’s 1775 Declaration – gave significance to these observations by tying them to a narrative that inspired pride and encouraged fidelity. The people and polities of British America were not merely by-products of the growth and evolution of an increasingly complex global empire, he asserted thereby, but the living manifestation of the dreams and aspirations harbored by a band of tireless seekers after personal, political, and confessional liberty.
Stirring though this conception of what it meant to be American might have been, however, Jefferson’s intention to deploy it in his and Dickinson’s 1775 Declaration would seem to present something of a contradiction. As written, the document in question appears to both celebrate the Anglo-American relationship as a way of allaying accusations that the united colonies hoped to break away from the British Empire and affirm the sanctity of American liberties as a way of vindicating a resort to armed resistance. Forgoing the latter – establishing the official justification for war between Britain and the united colonies solely upon the basis of loyalty, affection, and the amelioration of momentary disagreements – would surely have been the simpler course, and more likely to succeed in convincing British authorities that revolt was not the aim of their fellow subjects in America. That Jefferson, Dickinson, and their colleagues in the Continental Congress declined to do so – that they all approved of openly declaring that the people of British America identified the source of their rights as something other than their status as British subjects – accordingly speaks volumes about the strength of the contemporary American national identity and the unwillingness of colonial leadership to sublimate the same while seeking to resolve a particularly volatile political crisis.
As noted previously, the notion that the colonies of British America were founded wholly via the initiative and endurance of the settlers themselves – and absent any aide from official sources in Britain – represents a fairly egotistical understanding of why and how the British colonization of the New World came to pass. Just so, an insistence upon this founding narrative as the source of American liberties and the justification for an armed defence of the same by the delegates to the Continental Congress within a text otherwise assertive of American membership in the contemporary British Empire would seem to present a similar quality of socio-cultural vanity. When pressed, it seemed – when confronted by something on the order of an existential crisis – the representative body of the united colonies could not help but assert that Americans were an essentially sovereign people and that the rights they were willing to die to defend had been sanctified by the suffering of their forefathers. Again, simply acknowledging the pride and affection with which most Americans continued to regard British law, British culture, and British institutions would have seemed a surer method of achieving reconciliation. There were no guarantees, of course – arguing that America opposed certain policies, governments, or officials rather than Britain itself was bound to irk those who failed to see a distinction between the nation proper and its various appendages. That being said, assertions of the exceptional nature of American liberties – i.e. anything that described them as being separate from or differently derived than the rights supposedly possessed by all British subjects – could not have but met with even greater consternation. It was one thing, after all, to argue that the aggrieved colonists were not being granted the respect and consideration due to them as subjects of the Crown, and quite another to declare that contemporary British authorities had failed to recognize the significance of the legacy left to the colonists by their settler ancestors. One was most likely to arouse sympathy, the other to generate suspicion.
Jefferson, Dickinson, and their fellow delegates, however, appeared unwilling or unable to grant this premise. Forced to explain – to their fellow countrymen as well as to the contemporary British government – why it was they had determined to undertake a campaign of armed resistance against British authority in America, it was evidently beyond their collective ability to forego an expression of national autonomy in favor of a successful reconciliation. They were too proud of themselves, it seemed, or too haughty, or perhaps too sensitive of the dishonor they would visit upon their ancestors by failing to acknowledge the importance of their legacy. Jefferson had done as much in his capacity as a private citizen – Americans derived their autonomy from the circumstances of the colonial founding, he argued in A Summary View, and attributed the value of their rights and liberties to the suffering that the founders themselves had endured. Whether this proved a particularly influential doctrine or the treatise in question had simply given voice to what most Americans already understood to be true, its inclusion within a statement of public policy arguably represented a turning point in the history of American national identity.
Having endured a decade of British government attempts to tax the colonies, to regulate their trade, to alter the nature of their governments, and to affect a permanent military presence therein, the authorities which laid claim to the government of British America seemed no longer able to offer the patient reassurance that the sum total of what they desired was the recognition of their accustomed status as British subjects. By June of 1775, in the midst of open warfare between the Continental Army, the British garrison in North America, and their respective civilian supporters, something about the struggle at the heart of the Anglo-American crisis had changed. Americans remained exceptionally fond of their British cousins, reciprocated the affection they were shown by figures like William Pitt and Edmund Burke, and made known their desire to remain a vital part of Britain’s ever-expanding global empire. But now they joined their praise with a caution and a claim. What was at stake in the present conflict, they appeared keen to assert, was not merely their rights as British subjects, but the sanctity imparted to those rights by the blood and treasure expended by the founders of British America. And while the Continental Congress and the colonial governments it represented were doubtless willing to go to some lengths to see further conflict between Britain and the united colonies averted, they were now making clear – via Jefferson and Dickinson’s Declaration – that there were some things that they collectively valued more than the prospect of reconciliation. In so doing, they effectively made the distinction between being British and being America something more than a set of practical circumstances or the pet theory of a gentleman philosopher. That Americans were a people of distinct derivation from their fellow subjects of the Crown was now a matter of public record. Not only were the inhabitants of British America now prepared to argue this fact in public, but, as the text of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms made clear, they were willing to die for it.