George III’s Legacy: Was the American Revolution based on false premises?

Burton Weltman

There are several ways in which we might ask whether the American Revolution was a mistake.  I will briefly discuss one way in this blog and others in future blogs.  The question I will discuss in this blog is whether the premises upon which the Declaration of Independence was based were accurate or whether the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of the situation in 1776? 

A more thorough discussion of this and other questions about the Revolution can be found in Chapter 2 of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  The chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.

Much of the discussion in this blog is based on The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).  Over forty years after its publication, this book remains, I think, the best discussion of the Revolution and its aftermath and continues to be the foundation of most scholarship about the Revolution.

Were the premises upon which American revolutionaries based their call for revolution accurate or were they mistaken in their analysis of the situation in which they were in?  

The Revolution of 1776 was a preemptive strike to prevent the establishment of a tyranny over America.  It was based on two key premises.  The first was that the King was becoming a tyrannical dictator over England and the colonies.  The second was that if the colonies did not achieve independence immediately, they might never again have another chance to do so.

Despite the impression created in most conventional American history textbooks, the Declaration of Independence does not claim that the colonies were currently being subject to tyrannical rule.  Gordon Wood has noted that “Americans were not an oppressed people.  In fact, the Americans knew they were probably freer and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and hierarchal restraint than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century.”  It was the prospect of future oppression that worried the revolutionaries and led them to act.

In justifying the Revolution, the Declaration claims that the King’s actions demonstrate his “having the direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny.”  That is, the revolutionaries were convinced that George III’s recent actions in reforming the British empire and enforcing British rule were the prelude to what we today might call totalitarian rule.  They were concerned that the King was creating a dictatorship in which they would be smothered in the future if they did not act immediately.  In this context, the list of grievances against the King which is the heart of the Declaration has a prospective tone of portending harm rather than current actual harm.

The first several grievances on the list in the Declaration do not even complain about things the King had done but about the refusal of the King to agree to things that the colonists wanted done, seemingly to the colonists an ominous portent of future oppression.  And many of the specific acts of oppression that are complained about were reactions by the King to the illegal attack on British property that we call the Boston Tea Party and to other violent American attacks on British targets.  In sum, the revolutionaries claimed that although the King was not yet a tyrant over America, his actions, including his reactions to violent American actions such as the Boston Tea Party, were conclusive indicators of his intention to become a tyrant.

In retrospect, it is clear that the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of George III.  Historians generally acknowledge that the King was not becoming a tyrant over England or the colonies and never had any intentions of doing so.  Majority opinion about George III in England during the 1770’s seems to have been the same.  Even most of his opponents in England believed that the King was merely wrongheaded but not that he was aiming for tyranny.

George III was, in fact, merely trying to be an active king within the existing British King-in-Parliament system of government.  Unlike his grandfather, George I, and his father, George II, who had been Germans by birth, had barely spoken any English, and had very little interest in England, George III was a native-born Englishman who was interested in his country and in fulfilling his duties as King.  And this is the view of the King that many leading revolutionaries, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, tacitly acknowledged after the Revolution when they promoted negotiations and close relations with the government of George III.

The revolutionaries were also seemingly mistaken in their second premise that it was now or never in 1776 for independence.  As England developed parliamentary and democratic government during the nineteenth century, Britain gradually granted independence to its English-speaking colonies, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Each of these colonies got first home rule and then complete independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  And each of these former colonies developed as a democracy that is overall as prosperous and free as the United States.

In fact, at the very time the American revolutionaries were declaring their independence, British emissaries of King George III were sailing from England to America with an offer of what amounted to home rule for the colonies over their domestic affairs, the main thing that most of the revolutionaries were demanding.  If the Americans had waited a few weeks before issuing their Declaration of Independence, the Declaration might never have been issued and the Revolution might never have happened.  And if the American colonies had not made the Revolution, they might have followed the same path to independence as the other English-speaking British colonies and would not have had to suffer through the eight years of war and devastation of the Revolution.  Would this have been the better choice?

What do you think?

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