The last thing I would wish to do, as a Canadian and also as a British citizen, is dispute the worthiness of celebrating the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It is not in that spirit, but in the pursuit of historical accuracy, that I gently remind some readers of what that Declaration actually tells us.
Poor old King George III — Farmer George, a stubborn, not overly intelligent person who was intermittently mad as a result of porphyria — was certainly a limited man, but was not a bad man. Yet he is denounced in the most astonishing strictures by Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues on the editorial committee for the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman): George III “evinces [a] design to reduce [us] under absolute despotism;” he has been “waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.”
The king and his ministers were attempting to collect a tax, which was not in an excessive amount and was not an unwarranted ambition. The British, in the course of the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in the U.S.), had almost doubled the national debt and were running deficits as chronic as those in the U.S. today. The Americans had almost 30 percent of the population of the British home islands and the highest standard of living in the British empire.
The most expensive aspect of the Seven Years’ War — which was in some respects the first world war, as it was fought in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, West Africa, and India — was in North America. The principal British object in the war was to evict France from North America, and they succeeded in this, without which American independence would not have been feasible. The Americans could never secede from the British empire while the French empire was on the border of New England and New York; the possibilities for incursions by the French were extremely serious and could not have been resisted.
The British imposed on America the stamp tax, something the British were already paying, and they allowed for one year to pass before it took effect, so the Americans could suggest an alternative method of raising revenues from the American colonies. The only American to do so was Franklin, then in London as the representative of Pennsylvania and two other colonies, who proposed that the British government address the absence of paper money in America by setting up a credit bank that would issue credit at a fixed rate of interest, with an annual fee for renewal, and that this would, in effect, be a voluntary tax.
It was, as always with Franklin, a very imaginative idea, but the British government at this point — unlike during the Seven Years’ War, when it was under the influence of Pitt the Elder — wasn’t interested in thinking of a new tax. The British were paying the stamp tax, and if the Americans were going to compensate the British for the services they had rendered the Americans, it was up to the Americans to either pay the same tax or devise an alternative (Franklin had no authority to speak for his colonial countrymen). Instead, the Americans came up with the concept of “No taxation without representation,” but no sane people on earth would vote to tax itself if it did not have to do so.
The British had every right to expect the Americans to contribute to the cost of removing France from their borders. The British bungled the issue and made the fatal mistake of trying to impose a tax that was not in fact collectible. But they did not deserve, and the British king did not deserve, the sort of abuse that is the core of the Declaration of Independence, between its famous and soaringly eloquent opening and closing.
As a Canadian, and a native Quebecker at that, I take particular umbrage at the claim that the beleaguered George III, and those acting in his name, were guilty of “abolishing the free system of English Laws in a neighbouring province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.” This is an outrageous fiction.
The distinguished governor of Canada, Sir Guy Carleton, subsequently Lord Dorchester, produced a formula, adopted in 1774, for the governance of the 75,000 French Canadians in what is now Quebec (compared with 2.5 million free Americans and 500,000 slaves). At the request of the French Canadians, the British restored the civil law of France to Quebec, but undertook to establish a commission to codify French Canadian law in Quebec, promised not to interfere with the functioning of the Roman Catholic Church, which represented practically all French Canadians, and promised the retention of the French language, ensuring the cultural survival of French in North America.
The charges of Jefferson and his committee were a bit rich, given that the French Canadians received all they asked from the British, who did not threaten them with cultural assimilation, as the sea of English-speaking Americans did. The Continental Congress had attacked Roman Catholicism as “a bloodthirsty, idolatrous, and hypocritical creed . . . which had flooded England with blood, and had spread hypocrisy, murder, persecution, and revolt into all parts of the world.” The law objected to, the Quebec Act, was a liberal and generous measure that secured the loyalty of the French Canadians during the American Revolution, as Carleton, with only the support of a rag-tag of French militia, a few Indians, and a handful of British Redcoats, sent the then-loyal revolutionary Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin packing from Montreal and Quebec.
George III, that he might be spared nothing, was accused of having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages,” whom Jefferson accused of “an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” This is also wildly exaggerated, and the removal of the British from dealing with the Indians brought down on that benighted native people 160 years of theft and oppression by the United States government, highlighted by President Andrew Jackson tearing up the treaties, in defiance of the Supreme Court, and transporting 250,000 Indians by force to the West, to make way for more slave-operated plantations on the vacated Indian reserves.
Jefferson also attempted to blame George III for the importation of slavery into America, an unfounded charge (the king only assumed the throne in 1760). It was a bizarre accusation, given that the Sage of Monticello, who held “to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights (and) that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” was a deist and a slaveholder, who, it is generally reckoned, had six children with his comely slave, Sally Hemings. And though this relationship came after the Declaration of Independence was written, Jefferson’s committee colleagues suggested that the allegation against George III of foisting slavery on America was not appropriate. There was no more liberty in America after the Revolution than before, apart from having a resident, rather than an overseas, government, and Americans enjoyed no greater liberties than did the British, the Swiss, the Dutch, and some Scandinavians.
Having got all this off my chest, I must add that the Americans had the better part of the 1776 argument — that, as the leading British statesmen of the time, Pitt the Elder, Charles James Fox, and Edmund Burke, noisily asserted, the American complaints were well-founded and the king’s policy was, indeed, insane. Had they prevailed, along with their friend Franklin before he was completely alienated, the United States would probably today rule Britain and much of her former empire, including the treasure houses of Canada and Australia, thus increasing the present American population by 40 percent and tripling the natural resources of the United States. But they did not prevail, and Americans are right to celebrate July 4. The ensuing revolution and the representation of it as the dawn of human liberty have provided America with a powerful ethos, appropriate to the great country that it is, even if Jefferson took serious liberties with the facts, as revolutionaries usually do.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].