Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

The controversy over the Stamp Act in 1765 first brought the sustained attention of Englishmen toward the mainland colonies, although Franklin would continue to complain that the West Indies absorbed the greater amount of time in Parliament. What confused both merchant and gentry -- especially the former -- was the fact that American complaints were based not on economic arguments but rather constitutional principles. Thus the only consistent support, especially after England was at war again with France in 1778, came from the so-called "radicals" who saw the real enemy to England as the monarchy with its pretentious claims to protect and expand its prerogatives at the expense of Parliament -- that is, a true parliament with a wider base of representation. Yet the radicals themselves were divided in their attempt to protect the fundamental principles of the British constitution. Not all could agree with the Rev. Christopher Wyvill on just what were the "genuine principles," and the conservative Whigs had no stomach for the reforms suggested by such radicals as John Wilkes. But Whig alarm grew after Wilkes was thrice ejected from Parliament after being duly elected each time, since these actions were interpreted as an obvious victory of the prerogatives of the crown over the privileges of parliament. After all, Wilkes was far from a revolutionary; but, if so, Parliament would determine that.

After the Declaration of Independence it became increasingly clear that as far as the gentry and merchants were concerned, opinions were formed according to the cash balance. The burden of taxes on the landholding gentry, together with the commercial disruption produced by the global conflict after 1778 involving both merchant and manufacturer, eventually produced a coalition not of parties but of feeling which swiftly led to the end of the North ministry and the support for colonial independence. As Edmund Burke expressed it, albeit in a different context. "The proposition is peace; not peace in the juridical determining of perplexing questions . . . [but] simple peace."

The following essay by Sir John Plumb is an excellent overview of the complexities of English politics during the crises of the 1770's and 1780's -- both domestic and imperial. And of especial importance is the clear delineation of the fact that with respect to the revolt of the colonies, the Americans were defended not for love; rather the "American problem" was increasingly interpreted in English terms, terms often far removed from the plight of the colonists on the American mainland.

-64-

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