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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·Retaliation by the British Government · CHAPTER V·»

From Reform to Revolution in America

The Doctrine of Natural Rights.—The dissolution of assemblies, the destruction of charters, and the use of troops produced in the colonies a new phase in the struggle. In the early days of the contest with the British ministry, the Americans spoke of their “rights as Englishmen” and condemned the acts of Parliament as unlawful, as violating the principles of the English constitution under which they all lived. When they saw that such arguments had no effect on Parliament, they turned for support to their “natural rights.” The latter doctrine, in the form in which it was employed by the colonists, was as English as the constitutional argument. John Locke had used it with good effect in defense of the English revolution in the seventeenth century. American leaders, familiar with the writings of Locke, also took up his thesis in the hour of their distress. They openly declared that their rights did not rest after all upon the English constitution or a charter from the crown. “Old Magna Carta was not the beginning of all things,” retorted Otis when the constitutional argument failed. “A time may come when Parliament shall declare every American charter void, but the natural, inherent, and inseparable rights of the colonists as men and as citizens would remain and whatever became of charters can never be abolished until the general conflagration.” Of the same opinion was the young and impetuous Alexander Hamilton. “The sacred rights of mankind,” he exclaimed, “are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human destiny by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

Firm as the American leaders were in the statement and defense of their rights, there is every reason for believing that in the beginning they hoped to confine the conflict to the realm of opinion. They constantly avowed that they were loyal to the king when protesting in the strongest language against his policies. Even Otis, regarded by the loyalists as a firebrand, was in fact attempting to avert revolution by winning concessions from England. “I argue this cause with the greater pleasure,” he solemnly urged in his speech against the writs of assistance, “as it is in favor of British liberty … and as it is in opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which in former periods cost one king of England his head and another his throne.”

Burke Offers the Doctrine of Conciliation.—The flooding tide of American sentiment was correctly measured by one Englishman at least, Edmund Burke, who quickly saw that attempts to restrain the rise of American democracy were efforts to reverse the processes of nature. He saw how fixed and rooted in the nature of things was the American spirit—how inevitable, how irresistible. He warned his countrymen that there were three ways of handling the delicate situation—and only three. One was to remove the cause of friction by changing the spirit of the colonists—an utter impossibility because that spirit was grounded in the essential circumstances of American life. The second was to prosecute American leaders as criminals; of this he begged his countrymen to beware lest the colonists declare that “a government against which a claim of liberty is tantamount to high treason is a government to which submission is equivalent to slavery.” The third and right way to meet the problem, Burke concluded, was to accept the American spirit, repeal the obnoxious measures, and receive the colonies into equal partnership.

Events Produce the Great Decision.—The right way, indicated by Burke, was equally impossible to George III and the majority in Parliament. To their narrow minds, American opinion was contemptible and American resistance unlawful, riotous, and treasonable. The correct way, in their view, was to dispatch more troops to crush the “rebels”; and that very act took the contest from the realm of opinion. As John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things.” Opinions were unseen, but marching soldiers were visible to the veriest street urchin. “Now,” said Gouverneur Morris, “the sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore.” It was too late to talk about the excellence of the British constitution. If any one is bewildered by the controversies of modern historians as to why the crisis came at last, he can clarify his understanding by reading again Edmund Burke’s stately oration, On Conciliation with America.


G.L. Beer, British Colonial Policy (1754-63).

E. Channing, History of the United States, Vol. III.

R. Frothingham, Rise of the Republic.

G.E. Howard, Preliminaries of the Revolution (American Nation Series).

J.K. Hosmer, Samuel Adams.

J.T. Morse, Benjamin Franklin.

M.C. Tyler, Patrick Henry.

J.A. Woodburn (editor), The American Revolution (Selections from the English work by Lecky).


1. Show how the character of George III made for trouble with the colonies.

2. Explain why the party and parliamentary systems of England favored the plans of George III.

3. How did the state of English finances affect English policy?

4. Enumerate five important measures of the English government affecting the colonies between 1763 and 1765. Explain each in detail.

5. Describe American resistance to the Stamp Act. What was the outcome?

6. Show how England renewed her policy of regulation in 1767.

7. Summarize the events connected with American resistance.

8. With what measures did Great Britain retaliate?

9. Contrast “constitutional” with “natural” rights.

10. What solution did Burke offer? Why was it rejected?

Research Topics

Powers Conferred on Revenue Officers by Writs of Assistance.—See a writ in Macdonald, Source Book, p. 109.

The Acts of Parliament Respecting America.—Macdonald, pp. 117-146. Assign one to each student for report and comment.

Source Studies on the Stamp Act.—Hart, American History Told by Contemporaries, Vol. II, pp. 394-412.

Source Studies of the Townshend Acts.—Hart, Vol. II, pp. 413-433.

American Principles.—Prepare a table of them from the Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress and the Massachusetts Circular. Macdonald, pp. 136-146.

An English Historian’s View of the Period.—Green, Short History of England, Chap. X.

English Policy Not Injurious to America.—Callender, Economic History, pp. 85-121.

A Review of English Policy.—Woodrow Wilson, History of the American People, Vol. II, pp. 129-170.

The Opening of the Revolution.—Elson, History of the United States, pp. 220-235.

«·Retaliation by the British Government · CHAPTER V·»