By Jesse Sumpter
In celebrating Independence Day, it is important to take time and set forth the political and historical principles behind the American Revolution. We often hear about the issue of taxes in the American colonies but we frequently don’t understand why that was an issue. Some might think the taxes were too high. But that was not the issue. The key issue was about legitimate authority and what to do when an authority breaks the law.
Some characterize the colonists as wild rebels, disobedient even to God. But that was not the case. There were a few specific principles guiding the Continental Congress as they worked through this issue. In looking at these principles, we will see that Congress and the colonists were in fact right and just to declare independence from the British king. The principles that they used are central to understanding the birth of our nation and how to respond to tyranny today (1).
Feudalism and Charters
To begin, the central issue was who in the British government had authority over the American Colonies: was it Parliament or was it the King?
In order to get into this issue, we need a couple of quick history lessons.
First, a crash course in Medieval Feudalism. In this system, there was a covenant or oath made between the lord and his vassals. This oath was not a casual “hey, let’s be friends” kind of thing. This was a blood oath which required both parties to take their responsibilities and duties seriously. Work, property, families, and life itself depended on this oath. The lord had the authority to tax, to issue the death penalty, and to call to arms. He also had the responsibility to protect his people and ensure peace for them. The vassal in turn had the responsibility to pay dues to the lord and submit to him for the peace of society. Medieval scholar Barbara Tuchman explains the principle behind this oath. She writes that the lord’s oath to his vassals “…was as binding in theory as theirs to him—and theirs was binding ‘only so long as the lord keeps his oath’” (Tuchman, p 17).
Both parties were bound to obey this oath. And both parties could evaluate the other to see if that one was being faithful to the oath. If the oath were broken, each party was allowed to either seek reconciliation or dissolution of the oath. Reconciliation was the process of making the relationship right and bringing both parties back into full fellowship. Dissolution was the formal recognition that the oath had been broken in a serious way by one party which meant that the other party was allowed lawfully to separate and go its own way.
The second quick history lesson is the nature of the relationship between the colonies and Britain. When the colonies were established in the new world, the first two colonies–Plymouth in 1620 (Massachusetts) and Jamestown in 1607 (Virginia)–were established based on charters, which were set up between the King of England and the colonies. The other colonies had similar charters (Gentz, p 39-40).
These charters granted the colonies certain freedoms and liberties, allowing them to have a certain amount of self-governing authority that was independent of the king. One historian writes about the colonies, saying that, “…they treasured every privilege of self-governing autonomy” (Marshall, p 256) The colonies under these charters were bound to obey their oath to the king and the king likewise.
Over the years, there were debates between the colonies and the crown about these liberties and charters. At a couple different points, different British kings tried to revoke these charters, which finally did happen in 1689 (Marshall, p 262) but when that happened, the status of the colonists as freeborn Englishmen along with their rights remained intact. Even with this reorganization of the relationship between the colonies and the king, the colonies continued to remain under Crown-appointed governors, “who were to accept the advice and counsel of the Colonies’ elected representatives” (Marshall, p 262). In this way, we see that the primary relationship between the colonies and England was a covenant between the colonies and the king, as the lord with his vassals.
King and Parliament and the Colonies
In the years leading up to the war, King George III both sought and allowed British parliament to gain larger control over the colonies. He established a larger British military force in America without the colonies granting consent (Gentz, p 262). The colonies were also taxed by Parliament to pay for these troops and the previous war. Other taxes were also imposed on the colonies (e.g. Navigation Act, Stamp Act, etc).
The key issue here is that the king was breaking his oath to the colonies. First, he was imposing on them more than what had been agreed upon with their agreements. Second, the king was not treating the colonies like British citizens with full rights. He and Parliament were making decisions without input from the colonists. This violated the status of the colonists as Englishmen and also violated the authority of the elected representatives in the colonies that the king had established.
Gentz writes, “The inhabitants of the colonies, in every sense of the word, were Britons, no man questions; and the parliament, which thought itself authorised to tax them, even in that, recognized them as fellow citizens. Yet had they no representatives in parliament, and owing to their distance, could properly make no pretentious to it” (p 18).
This is where the issue of taxation without representation comes into the story. In these tax acts, the king was treating the colonists as less than citizens because he was allowing parliament to have authority over the colonies. But parliament did not have the right or authority to impose its power on the colonies. Gentz explains, “In no single colony, however its constitution, in respect to its dependence upon the crown, was organized, was there a trace of a constitutional and legal authority, vested in the British parliament” (p 40).
The colonies’ relationship was to the king and as such they did not have elected officials in Parliament. This meant that the colonies had no say in the decisions of Parliament. The colonies did have local representatives which communicated with the king. But Parliament attempted to deny the power of these local representatives by appealing to the “legal supremacy of parliament” (Gentz, p 42). But, as Gentz writes, “The parliament was, in regard to the colonies, to be considered as a foreign power” (p 43).
The king had authority over the colonies but Parliament did not. By allowing Parliament to dictate to the colonies policies and taxes, the king was abandoning his agreement with the colonies and abusing the very political system he had set up in the colonies. Gentz explains, “The king confirmed the hostile acts of parliament; he ceased to be the constitutional monarch of the colonies, and entered into an alliance with those, whom they considered as usurpers in a legal point of view” (p 48-49).
The Declaration of Independence itself faults King George, “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”
The Colonies Respond
The colonies responded by appealing to the higher standard over King George: the law of their oath. If the king continued to break his oath with the colonies, the colonies had the right to separate and walk away from the oath.
There were a number of precedents the colonies could cite to show that King George was a tyrant. One historian says the colonies could claim the king was being a tyrant: “By the Magna Carta, which established English common law, it is when a ruler ceases to act under that law and denies his subjects their rights, as guaranteed by that law” (Marshall, p 260). And also by looking to King James I who said, “A king ceases to be a king, and denigrates to a tyrant, as soon as he leaves off to rule according to his laws” (Marshall, p 260).
In this way, we see that when King George broke his oath, the colonies were free from it as well.
However, the colonies did not rush to make this decision. They recognized the importance of honoring governing authorities as well as the common good of retaining political bonds even if the king were tyrannical.
The colonies first followed all lawful authorities as far as they could. Gentz explains that they set up the Continental Congress: “A congress of fifty-one deputies from all the provinces assembled on the 4th of September, 1774, at Philadelphia, to consult upon the common grievances, and upon the means of averting the common danger” (p 30). These deputies were lawful lesser authorities that represented the colonists in this interest. In this way, the colonies were following the law of the king as well as the precedent of English law.
The Continental Congress tried every alternative to war before declaring independence. The war really was a last resort. Gentz writes, “Although every hope of peace had now well nigh vanished, the Congress were not however so far discouraged, as to decline venturing, even at this period, a last attempt at conciliation” (p 33).
The Continental Congress tried to reconcile with the king a few different times. The last attempt was called the Olive Branch, written in July 1775, where the Congress wrote, saying “…that we wish nothing more ardently than the restoration of the former harmony between England and the colonies” (Gentz, p 61).
The Congress knew the cost of war and revolution. They were willing to forgive the wrongs done and stay under the authority of King George if he restored them to the original relationship before the abuses. The Congress, in the Olive Branch, wrote, “If the grievances, which now bow us down with inexpressible pain to the ground, could in any manner be removed, your majesty will at all times find your faithful subjects in America, willing and ready, with their lives and fortunes, to maintain, preserve, and defend the rights and interests of their sovereign, and of their mother country” (p 62).
These requests and appeals were not heeded. British parliament rejected their request to be heard (p 58). When the Congress also appealed to the king, they were told that no answer could be given (p 62). Having tried every option to avoid war, the Congress was forced to declare independence from the King because the old oath, which the King had broken first, was no longer binding on them as colonies.
Lessons for Times of Tyranny
From this history we can learn several key lessons.
First, the laws of the land are binding not just on the citizens but on the government as well. The king, president, governor, and mayor are not free to set the laws of the land aside. They must obey the laws just as the citizens must.
Second, tyranny happens when the ruler does not follow the laws of the land. If he breaks the law, then the citizens should recognize the tyranny at work. If this continues and the ruler is not brought back into alignment with the laws of the land, then the people are free from following the ruler. That is the pattern and historical precedent set by the American colonies.
Third, there are ways to push back on the authorities and their abuse of power given in the laws of the land. So we should use the rights that we have been given by our constitution to reform and correct unlawful authorities: vote, appeal, protest, resist, sue, etc. These should be the first actions taken.
Last, outright revolt and war should be the last option. As far as possible, we should be at peace with all men and obey our authorities. Civil authorities and laws are a common good that we should be reluctant to destroy unless it is absolutely necessary. Even tyrannical rulers provide some stability to society. However, no government authority has absolute power. And we should recognize the highest authority in our land is the binding oath of the US Constitution. Our leaders must obey their oath to that law or it is lawful for the people to walk away from those leaders.
1. In this article, I will be following the excellent resource of Friedrich von Gentz and his book The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution.
Gentz, Friedrich von, The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution, 1800.
Marshall, Peter and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory, 1977.
Tuchman, Barbara W., A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 2014.