Saturday, July 4, 2015

GW: July 4 - Why GW's Oxonian South Rebelled (Updated Dec. 22, 2015)

What we celebrate on July 4 - the Declaration of Independence.
This day in 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.


This document formally severed the colonies from the rule of the British Crown.

It laid the blame for the divorce at the feet of George III.

Just 364 days earlier, on July 5, 1775, the Continental Congress had adopted the "Olive Branch Petition". It was written by John Dickinson, worried about mob fever stirred up by rebel agitation. It appealed directly to George III, hoping for  reconciliation. Dickinson wrote:
Your Majesty’s Ministers ... have compelled us to arm in our own defense. 
His thought was that maybe George III was unaware of the mischief that his Prime Minister, Lord North, was making in the colonies. But King George refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition. During the year that followed, public opinion in the colonies turned round completely. The Declaration of Independence points the finger straight at George III: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations..."

What Turned Around the South?

The American Revolution began in Massachusetts and spread through New England. The Stamp Act and taxes on tea seem adequate explanations of the motives of the Yankees, who originated as  dissenters from the Church of England and the Crown. Their intellectual base was in Cambridge University (Cromwell was a Cambridge man. So was John Harvard.)

Dickinson was writing from a different perspective, that of Pennsylvania man. William Penn was not hostile to the Crown. He was a Quaker, but he had the blessing and a grant of land from the King.

In fact from New Jersey down to Georgiagrants from the British Crown were a major contributor to settlement of the region. Royalists abounded in the south in 1775.

What changed the minds of these royalists and united them against George III?  The New England perspective is not enough to explain it. The thinking of the leaders of the colonies in the south needs more emphasis. The religious-intellectual battles between Oxford and Cambridge as well as specific laws passed by Parliament are useful reference points.

How Britain's Civil War Affected the American Colonies

George Washington's grandfather and uncle left England for the American colonies for religious and economic reasons–the two factors were connected!

GW's great-grandfather Rev. Lawrence Washington was educated at Oxford and was prominent in expelling dissenters from the Oxford faculty when Charles I was on the throne believing in his divine right to rule.

When Cromwell and the Cambridge Puritans defeated and beheaded Charles I, Lawrence Washington was demoted from a grand Church of England parish to a small one. His wife was deeply embarrassed at the loss of status and comfort. She moved in with her uncle in Tring and arranged for two of her sons, John (GW's grandfather) and Lawrence, to emigrate to Virginia where their future looked more promising. A third child followed them, but eventually returned to Britain.

Most short histories of the United States make the issue between the United States and Britain to be one primarily of taxes, which works for New England. The dispute began with the first passage in 1765 of the Stamp Act.
  • Pitt the Elder (alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford) had championed the colonists by sending British troops to fight the French and their Indian allies. He forced the French up to Canada and prevailed there. The Stamp Act was a revenue-raiser to support a continued British army presence. From the British perspective, it seemed reasonable that the colonies should pay for their own defense, and preferably even for past wars on the colonies' behalf.
  • The colonists objected to “no taxation without representation” – but in truth they were less eager for representation than they were eager to stop being taxed.
Colonists convened the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765 to vocalize their opposition to the tax. With its enactment in November, many colonists called for a boycott of British goods and organized attacks on tax collectors and customhouses. Most of the hostility was on the part of the New England traders, who were more hostile to the British Crown in the first place. Many of the earliest New England settlers came to the colonies to get away from the Church of England. They were also the colonies most affected by taxes on trade, as agricultural goods from the South tended to go north to New England for processing and shipment.

The Cambridge Model of Colonization

The New England settlers could be said to have followed a Cambridge model of colonization –  dissenters seeking the right to pursue their religion without fear of being considered treasonous. These dissenter-traders were outraged by the Stamp Act. Their protests were enough to get it repealed in March 1766.

But most other colonies were not in such a revolutionary frame of mind until 1774. Even the Tea Act in 1773, which was more than a tax increase, would not have fomented a revolution. It gave the British East India Company a monopoly on the American tea trade by exempting it from the higher tax. Massachusetts colonists organized the “Boston Tea Party,” which resulted in the dumping of an estimated £18,000 of tea into Boston Harbor.

Parliament, outraged by the Boston Tea Party and other blatant acts of destruction of British property, enacted the Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by the colonists, in 1774. The Coercive Acts included closing Boston to merchant shipping, establishing British military rule in Massachusetts, immunizing British officials from criminal prosecution in America and requiring colonists to quarter British troops.

The Oxford Model

The Oxford model of colonization was one of getting a grant of land – sometimes a huge grant – in return for carrying the British flag to the American continent.

From the time of Sir Walter Raleigh, loyal Brits went to America in search of a place to settle and pursue a livelihood. Virginia was the first settlement and it was huge. From New Jersey to Georgia, every colony had an Oxford founder or large landholder.

The British Crown brought the south into the Revolution in two ways:
  • The Quebec Act of 1774, which threatened ownership of land.
  • The emancipation declaration of Lord Dunmore, which threatened ownership of slaves.
The Quebec Act, 1774

Ownership of part of the Virginia territories was disputed by
New York. But neither colony was happy when George III
claimed title with the Quebec Act in 1774.
What brought many southern royalists in the south into the revolution was the threat to their land ownership. The Quebec Act essentially took territory north of the Ohio River away from Virginia (which had been the entire North American settlement and was still a huge colony) and the other 12 colonies and annexed them to Quebec, which was then seen as more loyal to the Crown.

George Washington and other Virginians had begun staking claims to these lands as early as 1753. Although they were in 1763 nominally marked as an Indian reserve, Virginia and other colonies had their eye on them for purposes of westward expansion.

George Washington, a surveyor by profession, was deeply aware of, and involved in, investments predicated on the Virginian colonial government or other colonies, allocating the lands in the territories that the Crown essentially now claimed for itself – looking to benefit from selling the land off and keeping the money. After joining the British troops in the colonies to defend British interests against the French and Indians, Washington was promoted to Colonel and served under General Braddock in the war in Pennsylvania. After his military service, Washington claimed 30,000 acres of prime agricultural land along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers west of the Appalachians. He obtained settlers and "indentured servants" to establish and utilize his properties.

North America according to George III.
This map didn't fly.
Whereas New Englanders may have been looking for a reason to fight, the other colonies were not as belligerent and not as fully committed to rebellion – until a major part of their assets was threatened by the Quebec Act. It is important to understand this because:

(1) Without appreciating the importance of this Act, the importance of the Boston Tea Party could be exaggerated. The Tea Party may have been a key event in the conversion of Yankee traders, but the taxation issue resonated mostly with New Englanders and possibly New Yorkers – not so much  southern plantation owners.

(2) Without fully understanding the investments that Virginian landowners in the southerly colonies had made in the Virginia territories that the Quebec Act confiscated, it is hard to understand why they joined the American Revolution with such enthusiasm. This point is made by Thomas D. Curtis.

George III said smugly to Lord North on February 4, 1774 when the Quebec Act was passed:
The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph. [Emphasis added.]
The colonies did not submit.
  • They convened the First Continental Congress to consider united American resistance to the British. Massachusetts formed a shadow colonial government and established militias to resist the increasing British military presence.
  • In April 1775, the British Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Gage, ordered British troops to march to Concord to seize a known arsenal of militia weapons. On April 19, 1775, the British regulars encountered a group of American militiamen at Lexington. The first shots of the American Revolution were fired there and soon after at Concord. The British regulars retreated back to Boston.
Lord Dunmore's Emancipation Proclamation, 1775

The Quebec Act was a major prod to Revolution from London. In November, the Governor of Virginia, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, added an extra push that might have been a crucial blow against the southern colonies. He offered emancipation to any slave of a rebel slaveholder who joined the Crown's troops. Hundreds of slaves managed to get through to Dunmore, although many were captured and suffered from the attempt.

George Washington was seriously worried about this move. But news of Dunmore's offer traveled fast not only to slaves but the slaveholders in surrounding states. Within days, 150 volunteers headed north from the Carolinas to Norfolk, playing a significant role in the defeat of Dunmore on December 9, 1775.

Dunmore's troops were driven back to their ship (the Otter) along with the surviving slaves. Smallpox killed a majority of the remaining slaves.

The Contrasting Issues of Liberty

To King George III, the rebel resistance was something to be crushed. Parliament supported him in disciplining its unruly colonial children, refusing to negotiate and instead hiring Hessian mercenaries  to beef up British troops.

To the colonies, it was at first a struggle for their rights as British citizens. The Continental Congress passed measures abolishing British authority in the colonies. But the Quebec Act and Dunmore's Emancipation Proclamation fired up the south.

When in January 1776 Thomas Paine published Common Sense, more than 500,000 copies were sold in a few months to colonials nursing their grievances. In the spring of 1776, the colonies one by one added their support to the call for independence.

The Continental Congress urged each colony to form their own governments and it created a five-man committee to draft a joint Declaration. The work was completed mostly by Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who drew on the writings of John Locke (Christ Church, Oxford) and others.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to approve a Virginia motion calling for separation from Britain. This call was added to the Declaration, and the committee signed off.  Two days later, on July 4, the Declaration was adopted by 12 colonies after minor revision. New York, the last of the 13 colonies, did not approve it until July 19, and not till August 2 was the last signature added.

In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris with Britain – with Oxonians on both sides of the table – the United States formally became a free and independent nation, although another war was required in 1812 to convince the British abandoned that they could bring the upstart country back under control when they wished.


The Curtis Thesis – Theory propounded by economist Thomas D. Curtis that Virginians and other southerners were largely motivated by interests in properties in the Virginia Territories in deciding ti join the colonies in the north in rebellion against George III. Ed Dodson has posted a lecture by Curtis on the subject.

The Revolution in Virginia – Lord Dunmore had the key to controlling the south by dividing slaves and slaveholders. He didn't count on the swift reaction of slaveholders in other states.

No comments:

Post a Comment