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

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

Pitt the elder ( Lord Chatham) was a retired statesman when England faced a growing rebelliousness in the American colonies. From the Stamp Act of 1765 to his death in 1778, the problems of empire and the rumblings of factional politics brought Pitt back to Parliament in a series of cameo appearances. If any one thing shaped the thinking of the aloof Pitt it was, perhaps, the personal satisfaction of knowing that he had been the architect of the most extensive empire to emerge in the West since Rome, and he was not about to see it dismantled either by factious politicians, inept ministers, or rebellious colonists. Yet Pitt was not above accommodation and, like Franklin during his long London sojourn, felt that American liberty and British supremacy were not incompatible. Thus Pitt would warn Parliament that America "was clamoring for a liberty which she already possessed," and would react vigorously, even violently, "if they were convinced that their dearly bought privileges were threatened."

As a practical statesman, Pitt anticipated the intellectual arguments already being proffered by Adam Smith and his disciples against an inflexible mercantilist approach to the organization of empire. Angered by the Declaratory Act, Pitt would blurt out to a deaf king and his equally deaf ministers that "Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England." And challenging Whig support for the Act, many of whom were showing obvious delight in the storm rising in America, Pitt would thunder: "Let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised . . . except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent."

Perhaps without fully realizing it, Pitt was suggesting a new imperial concept of subordinate political units, each possessing a modicum of autonomy. But for most of the kings men -- and many who were not -- this idea represented an incomprehensible paradox since the concept of home rule simply could not absorbed by 18th century thinking. Witness to this is the story of Ireland. Thus one must be careful not to subscribe too much to Pitt since his entire life was nothing less than the embodiment of a conscious imperialism. It is understandable, then, that even while asserting that the Americans

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