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Independence from what?

On this day, 231 years ago, thirteen colonies declared themselves to be thirteen states.

Less known is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the “original Rough draught” of that declaration. Today is a good occasion to read in that rough draft what the full scope of grievances were before the representatives “in General Congress assembled” took the pen and scissors to it to assure unanimous support.

The last paragraph is the final treason of a treasonous document and had we lost the war that ensued, the greatest thinkers, doers and leaders of this continent would certainly have been executed for the crime of attempting the liberty of self determination.

We therefore the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled do, in the name & by authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce all allegiance & subjection to the kings of Great Britain & all others who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolve & break off all political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between us & the people or parliament of Great Britain; and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independant states, and that as free & independant states they shall hereafter have power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, & to do all other acts and things which independant states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.

Like they say, read the whole thing. It wasn’t just about tax. It wasn’t even primarily about tax. Some of the grievances have returned to us in force today and are worse perpetrated today by the government in Washington than they were by the government in Britain when this document was written. But some of the grievances may come as a surprise, particularly to some of you feeling the colonization by the EU. That is EU ‘colony‘ as in definition 2.

44 comments to Independence from what?

  • John F. MacMichael

    “…would certainly have been executed…” As worldly old Ben Franklin put it: “We must now hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  • Ron


    Bank Holiday Monday – 27TH AUGUST 2007, LONDON

  • Elijah

    In many respects it was another English civil war. Many Colonists still saw themselves as Englishmen and only reluctantly broke away…

  • nick g.

    If there is now no difference between the governments, does that mean you colonials want to come back? I’m sure the British could fit you all in at Westminster- it’s quite a roomy building, and we could add a few stories, in ye olde gothike style. And we could have the French fashion of having a PM AND a popularly elected prez, both ceremonially appointed by the reigning Monarch! The whole massive country could be called the United Democracies, or United Commonwealth. After all, with Parliament reigning supreme, able to appoint anyone to the position of monarch, UK is effectively a republic in reality. As soon as you drive on the left side of the road, we’ll be united!

  • faye

    I wanted to be the first to post this becuase its become an internet tradition whenever the subject of the former American colonies comes up.

    Ha! First! So stick it up your bum!


  • veryretired

    Happy 4th, Mid.

    I wish there was some way to express the profound, almost electric, emotion that roars through me when I read or see or hear some of the ideas so simply yet beautifully expressed in the Declaration.

    Or when I contemplate the unbelievable good fortune of receiving, as a birthright, a level of freedom and guaranteed liberties undreamt of by 99% of all the human beings who have ever lived.

    As the essay by Owens, referred to in a post at Powerline today, describes, these liberties were purchased at a very dear price, indeed, down through the generations since that first day.

    I have the honor, then, of being the spiritual child of the 1st Minnesota, the 20th Maine, the heir whose treasure is the memory of those whose courage and devotion purchased for me and my children a pearl of great price.

    Is there always room for improvement? Of course. This is the real world of imperfect men and flawed women, not Plato’s imaginary realm.

    An enormous amount of work— hard, tedious, frustrating intellectual and emotional, as well as physical, labor—will be required to recover and re-establish the various elements of our liberties that have been transgressed, of our freedoms that have been curtailed by the relentless encroachments of the state.

    But life is a challenge in any and all times, and what greater and more noble challenge can there be than to carry on the only true revolution in human history.

    The recognition, enunciation, delineation, and protection of individual human rights ignited a firestorm that, once lit, will never, and can never, be extinguished as long as independent minds and hearts exist.

    As in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, we do not know the day nor the hour when, in some way large or small, we might be called upon to act or speak in defense of basic principles. Not all herosim is reserved for the battlefield, and not all battlefields are reserved for soldiers.

    Even a humble electrician, or writer, may be called upon to do what needs to be done, to say what needs to be said.

    Many who come to this site bemoan the obvious loss of liberties in many areas, the infringments both great and small by the constantly enlarging power of the government and its cadres.

    Good. You have identified the problem. Now find your role in the solution.

    Your voice, your idea, your moment of courage and defiance, might make all the difference.

    What better memorial to pass on to one’s heirs than the knowledge that you made a contribution to the endless struggle to protect the liberty of free men and women.

    Truly, I could rest easy under a marker which said that about my life.

  • nick g.

    Here’s a good discussion point- how to fix the Constitution! The von-Mises blog thinks that the rot really set in with the 16th amendment, allowing the Congreff to impose income taxes. Should a central power be denied any income tax rights, and be forced to stick to customs levies? Should you insert a Property rights amendment, so land can never be resumed for any reason, but must be bought like any other buyer?
    What would you want in an ideal Constitution?

  • nick g.

    And we can always resolve the old aluminum/aluminium argument peacefully. Here in Australia, we use both Labor and labour. Labor stands for the party of labour, and labour is the word for ordinary usage.
    Aluminum could be the raw resource, and the refined derivative could be Aluminium.
    If every street became a one-way road with arrows pointing the way, that problem is solved!

  • animositas

    Less known is that Thomas Jefferson wrote the “original Rough draught” of that declaration.


    I think that one of the many things for which Jefferson is justly famous is, in fact, being the principle architect of the Declaration!

    Had this been posted by a UK Samizdatista I could let this slide but from Midwesterner (Wisconsin, USA)… come on.

    From an expat Yank who misses his homeland very much and might be just a little bit touchy and pedantic about such things.

    Ahem… nice reminder Midwesterner, and good comment veryretired.

  • Nick M

    Happy Independance Day to all US readers of this blog.

    I have my own personal reasons for venerating the fourth of July as an independance day. I plan on celebrating later on in one of Manchester’s taverns with a glass of Sam Adams and lighting-up a cigarette of the finest Virginian tobacco… Oh, shit.

    Anyway, USA, just keep it real.

    Because somebody has to and it ain’t the United Tyrannies of Europe.

  • Today is a good occasion to read in that rough draft what the full scope of grievances were before the representatives “in General Congress assembled” took the pen and scissors to it to assure unanimous support.

    Indeed, the Constitution of the United States lacked unanimous consent, and how many of the signatories of the Declaration signed the Constitution?

  • Rob

    It wasn’t just about tax. It wasn’t even primarily about tax.

    Even if it was, it strikes me as very unlikely that the signatories of the document would admit as such. Venal and fiscal aims are unlikely to please a populace of which a substantial proportion may have opposed independence.

  • Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness !

    You get to pursue happiness, you have no right to catch it.

    A government that promises happiness is about as honest as one that promises to repeal the law of gravity.


    Happy 4th everybody

  • Midwesterner


    I think about that birthright a lot. Especially since my family travels to and sometimes lives in the third world so much. And then I think of all of the spoiled rich kids and what they do to their birthrights. I hope we are not become a nation of them.

    nick g.

    My state of Wisconsin has an income tax that is rather benign. Every time state governments get a little bit carried away with the power to tax, we vote change. The problem is made intransigent at the National level by the 17th amendment. The one that destroyed the balance of powers make shifting the Senate’s loyalty from their own states to the National government.


    We are told to write here with the international nature of our audience always in mind. Most people know Jefferson did something, but they’re not exactly sure what. “The Constitution, maybe?” As a long time fan of Jefferson’s, I remember the glee I felt when I first read his draft. I would like to share this ‘discovery’ with readers facing similar situations elsewhere and Jefferson’s international popularity seemed a good lead in. And that point was picked up by Ron in the second comment. The parallels of our situtations are striking and they hit me for the first time when I re-read this draft in preparation for this post. I hope we can bring a lot of non Americans to read this draft. Or the final signed version even, for that matter. ‘The more things change … ‘

    Nick M,

    On the forth of July, I watch the parade wearing my favorite ‘Celebrate Independence’ Sam Adam’s T-shirt. Sorry about the tobaccy. Alas, you can’t even blame that one on the EU.

    Richard Garner,

    I have to confess that without looking it up, I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that both Elbridge Gerry (sp?) and one of my personal all time favorites, George Mason of Gunston Hall refused to sign the Constitution. George Mason was the principle author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and refused to sign the US Constitution because it incorporated no bill of rights. (That is why they are amendments.) For that ‘betrayal’ his next door neighbor, George Washington, never spoke to him again. For the rest of their lives, I believe. It just shows how, even among our heroes, basic understanding was often missing.

  • Paul Marks

    I can not usefully add to what has already been said here.

    Happy 4th of July, and may God bless you all.

  • Jack Olson

    From “The March of Folly”, by Barbara Tuchman: “Finally, it came down to attitude. The (British) attitude was a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable…The Grenville, Rockingham, Chatham-Grafton and North ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in the Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat or even fight as equals. In all their communications, the British could not bring themselves to refer to the opposite Commander-in-Chief as General Washington but only as Mister.”

    “The King’s final comment gained nothing in graciousness. He felt less unhappy, he wrote to (Secretary of State) Lord Shelburne about the ‘dismemberment of America from this Empire’ in the knowledge ‘that knavery seems to be so much the striking feature of its inhabitants that it may not be in the end an evil that they become aliens to this Kingdom.'”

  • Nick M

    WRT your comment on VR’s comment (I’m trying to keep this as unconvoluted as possible, oddly enough).

    A couple of years ago me and my inamorata (thanks Perry for that one, I may never use the term “girlfriend” again) went to the pleasant little seaside town of Southport. I spent quite a long time looking at it’s remarkably large war memorial and all those names.

    I felt almost ashamed.

    Then I went off and played on the beach, flew my kite, and had fish and chips and a couple of beers and I didn’t feel bad because I guess that’s what they died for.

    Wasn’t it?

    Thank you, every one of you who layed down your life chearfully or otherwise for my freedom.

  • Midwesterner

    Wasn’t it?

    It was. Provided that, as VR points out, when the times come to drop another coin in the freedom meter, we can and we do. Freedom ain’t free. It needs defended, and sometimes in needs reclaimed.

  • dearieme

    Mr Jefferson really was a gifted spin doctor. You have to admire the claim that the King made the reluctant colonists keep slaves. And the whine about the disgracefully liberal treatment of the Quebecois, in spite of their being foreign and catholic.

  • Midwesterner –

    It needs defended, and sometimes in needs reclaimed.

    Heh. So this is one of the features of midwestern dialect (dropping the “to be” in these constructions) that I read about before moving to Indiana. I was told lots of people here said things like that, but I’ve never heard it. Now I have it in writing. Cool. 🙂

    dearieme –

    Mr Jefferson really was a gifted spin doctor. You have to admire the claim that the King made the reluctant colonists keep slaves.

    I don’t see why. Anti-slavery sentiment was already starting to simmer at this time – and in fact Virginia (the colony Jefferson was from, if you’ll remember) tried to outlaw the (international) slave trade early on, only to have their bills vetoed by the Privy Council. Rhode Island outlawed the slave trade in 1774, and all colonies except Georgia followed suit.

    It’s true that the British Empire outlawed slavery before the US did – but that was several decades later. At the time of the Revolution, there was a lot of truth to Jefferson’s sentiment – that the crown was forcing participation in an international slave trade that many of the colonies wanted to limit.

    It will soon be argued that this (desire to restrict the slave trade) was simple protectionism or racism (don’t want more of “their kind” coming in, you see). This cannot be denied, I think. And yet, that doesn’t exclude that genuine concern for the morality of owning and selling another human being – even if you consider him an inferior human being – simultaneously played a prominent (and sincere) role in these debates. Just because you want to restrict a certain race from entering your country hardly means that you condone ownership of members of that race! This is always the problem with judging past eras by present morality: it can occur to people that something is immoral long before it is practically feasible to abolish it.

    However, it’s true that Jefferson didn’t free any of his own slaves (all of which he inherited) – save those whom he perhaps fathered.

  • “What would you want in an ideal Constitution?”

    “Congress shall make no law.”

    Period. Full-stop.

  • Nick M

    I know freedom isn’t free. I know it costs the earth. Every village in this country has a memorial to that.

    Whether it be Jihadis, NuLab, Greens, Commies, Fascists, Nazis, The Kaiser or Hannoverian Monarchs some bugger is going to try and take it away. At some point you have to draw a line and stand by it.

    As far as the freedomometer is concerned I positively jingle if shaken. I have so much change in my pockets.

    I may be no Washington or Jefferson but I’ve still had a gutfull none the less.

  • Paul Marks

    If we are going down the road of “the Founders were a bunch of slaver owners” John Adams always refused to own slaves (in spite of having the money to do so, and it being allowed under the Statutes of Massachusetts for most of his life) and, in spite of their being in rival parties, John Adams had much the same view of the role of the Federal government in economic life as Jefferson did (although his son John Q. did develop a taste for the government of the United States to provide various things he was interested in).

    As for Quebec:

    Government in Quebec had always been much more extensive than in the English colonies. Indeed in French Canada one basically had the choice of living under state direction (even land ownership was strangled with controls) or being a semi outlaw (as the trappers who went off into the wilds were breaking the regulations – although this was winked at in some ways).

    Americans like Jefferson associated the statism of Quebec with its Roman Catholic faith. They did not have a Murry Rothbard to tell them about good free market Catholic writers – they just looked at actual Catholic countries (most noteably France and Spain).

    Quebec under British rule lacked self government – it was ruled by people appointed by London. Hence such things as land, tax and regulation remained under the control of London (as they had once been under the control of Paris).

    This was not the state of affairs that most Americans wished to see being imposed in their own areas.

    Lastly, in case someone comes along with the counter argument “John Adams and other non slave owning Founders were from the north”.

    The men who defeated Ferguson’s pro British government Americans at King’s Mountain (perhaps the turning point of the war in the South) were not slave owners. These men were from the frontier, what today (and, oddly enough, even sometimes then) were called “Red Necks”. Their life style could be found as far north as parts of New Hampshire. The State motto, “Live Free or Die”, goes back a long way – although in their submission to unelected judges (on everything from taxation without consent to the rights of parents) the New Hampshire folk have forgotten what it means.

  • Ted Schuerzinger


    I’m intrigued by your comments about George Mason and the Bill of Rights. I’m sure you know that Ben Franklin took the opposing view; namely, that if there were such a bill of rights, future generations would look at it and say that if something wasn’t mentioned therein, then it was the intention of the drafters of the Constitution that we not have such a right.

    This, of course, led to the compromise that we got what should be one of the most important Amendments, the 9th:

    The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed so as to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Sadly, Ben Franklin was right: the 9th Amendment is overlooked nowadays, and instead we get statists coming up with so-called “positive” rights (really obligations on other people) due to the general welfare clause in Article I.

    Of course, I’m sure you know all of this; I just hope I’m not covering ground that our British readers are already aware of

  • Paul from Florida

    The Last Letter of Thomas Jefferson

    To Roger C. Weightman, Monticello, June 24, 1826

    The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. It adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. But acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

    I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the city of Washington and its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.

  • Midwesterner

    Ted S,

    Yes, I’ve heard Franklin’s views defended quite well. I think we owe the 9thth and 10 amendments in no small part to his concerns. And yet …

    Did it work for Britain? Is there anybody today who seriously thinks we would have faired better without the Bill of Rights? I personally hold unfettered democracy accountable for our failures. I believe the 17th is the first target on the list if we would return the balance of powers.

    The function of the Bill of Rights was to provide ammunition to empowered defenders of personal rights, not to, as some say, provide a bulwark protecting them. No document can ever do that. It was when the 17th amendment institutionally removed from the Senate the desire to protect those rights*, particularly the 10th

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    that their loss was set in perhaps irreversible motion. The first step in restoring liberty is restoring the Senate to its historic place in the balance of powers.

    *the Senate’s consent is required to enact legislation, declare war and most importantly, to approve a judge. This is where it has failed the constitution in the greatest way. When the senators no longer owed their jobs to the state’s governments, they no longer represented the states and state’s rights. And they no longer held out for judges who respected the constitution’s balance of powers. The senator’s allegiance did not switch from the governments of the states to the people of those states as the Populists claimed would happen. Senators switched their allegiance to using the National government to buy re-election through redistribution. (It started with agriculture subsidies, at that time farmers were the biggest voting block.)

  • Midwesterner


    … one of the features of midwestern dialect …

    I had no idea I spoke a dialect. Cool. I always thought of midwest-speak as the boringest of the boring. (Of course, it probably is.)

  • Kerry

    Dittos on the homesick expat blues on the 4th, Animositas… but my big, bad American flag was visible from quite a distance in my 24th floor window over Paris. It certainly made me happy when I drove down the street to see that Star-spangled banner. I then drove by the Arc de Triomphe, where there was a commemorative ceremony and the flag flying, even snapping, in the breeze. I swear that no one can possibly feel as sloppy and maudlin about such things as a homesick expat. It really gave me a punch to the solar plexus.

    So, the rest of you please lift a glass for me. Happy birthday, America.

  • bob

    Damn spambot ate my comment. Yes, the 17th Amendment was the beginning of the great descent(the dormant commerce clause comes a close second in my book). Imagine Linsay Graham saying “the will of the Senate will prevail” pre 1912. The man would have been lynched and rightfully so. Taking away the State’s electoral perogative in the Senate has insulated Senators from their electorate and changed the veto power. There is no threat of recall elections or legislative change in response to outrageous legislative action on the federal level. 20 years post FDR could threaten to stack SCOTUS and run roughshod over federal and state law with connivance of the Senate–never woulda happened before the passage of the 17th amendment.

    New Hampshire didnt change really. All those Massholes colonized its southern extremes. Take a trip to Londonderry…
    Not all the men in Kings Mountain were crackers. There were officiers.

  • Soylent Green

    Firstly: God bless, and happy birthday, America. I (a Brit) first visited America 30 years ago I fell in love with the country.

    However, to say that “A region politically controlled by a distant country; a dependency.” describes the member countries of the EU is puerile.

    I’m not here to defend the EU, but this is a far less accurate description of the relationship between the component countries of the EU and the EU itself, that it is of the relationship between the component states of the US and the US itself–and in the case of the US always have been. For just ONE example of many, the power to declare war remains with the individual nations of the EU; in America it is reserved to the Federal government.

    On Slavery: I don’t know anything about the Privy Council quashing a Virginian Bill to abolish Slavery (unlikely–the Virginian economy would have collapsed) but for certain slavery was abolished in Scotland as the result of a case at the Court of Session, the highest court there. in 1770, and a similar trial outcome in England two years later abolished it there too. About the same time, slavery was made illegal in Connecticut. The Declaration of Independence wall still a year or two away, but no-one tried to stop or reverse any of these decisions.

    In any case, we know that many in Virginia and other southern colonies were only persuaded to support independence because they had become convince London was about to abolish slavery through-out the empire. Indeed, thousand of slaves flocked to the British cause to fight the ‘rebels’ for the very same reason. After they lost the war, the British anti-slavery movement established the colony of Sierra Leone on the coast of West Africa (capital, Freetown) as a place for these freed slaves to go. Americans only established Liberia for the same purpose decades later.

    BTW, not all, but large chunks of the US Bill of Rights were lifted word-for-word from the British Bill of Rights that came into law as part of the settlement after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.`

  • nick g.

    Gordon Brown, the Scottish Nelson who expects every man to pay his duty, is proposing a Constitution for Britain! What should a British Con-job have in it? Can the American Colonies make a few suggestions?

  • Soylent Green-

    I said that Virginia tried to abolish the international slave trade – not slavery within its own borders. The bill in question was a 10% increase on tariffs on slaves that was designed to end the import of new slaves altogether. It was quashed by the Privy Council for that reason in 1767 – as had the original imposition of duties on slaves been in 1728. You can read an article about this here – though I have access to this as through Indiana University, and I’m not sure it will let you through. The reference is “Encouragement of the Slave Trade” William Riddell Journal of Negro History Vol 12. No.1 . It’s the first thing that my Google search turned up – but no doubt this is well-documented elsewhere.

    In any case, we know that many in Virginia and other southern colonies were only persuaded to support independence because they had become convince London was about to abolish slavery through-out the empire.

    Hmmm… Maybe – but the northern states had all abolished slavery by 1804 – ahead of the British Empire’s ban in 1807 (and which wasn’t properly enforced until 1833). The point being – as I said earlier, anti-slavery sentiment was alive and well in the American Colonies at the time Jefferson wrote his draft, and it is not at all difficult to believe that the line about slavery was not “spin-doctoring,” as dearieme would have it, but rather an accurate reflection of sentiments at the time.

  • Uain

    A great companion to reading the Declaration of Independence, are the Federalist Papers. Here you get to read Hamilton, Jay and others expand on the concepts in the Declaration and how they proposed a goverment based on such would operate. They also attempt to address the concerns and objections brought up by interested commentators of the time as well as the Anti-Federalists. It is fascinating reading when one considers that the idea of a leadership beholden to the unwashed populace was truly revolutionary at that time.
    Of course no discussion of the era is complete with out those who want to twitter about the slavery issue. It is always entertaining to see those who have no understanding of the times, hunkered in their own glass hovel, try to claim moral superiority. For those of you who value learning more about the era and the issue, I highly reccomend “His Excellency George Washington” by Joseph J. Ellis.

  • Midwesterner

    dearieme said:

    Mr Jefferson really was a gifted spin doctor. You have to admire the claim that the King made the reluctant colonists keep slaves.

    and Soylent Green said:

    In any case, we know that many in Virginia and other southern colonies were only persuaded to support independence because they had become convince London was about to abolish slavery through-out the empire.

    Since Virginia seems to be the colony of choice for this discussion and it is generally considered to be the heartland of slavery, the place where slavery was most strongly established, perhaps a few facts to oppose these hand scrubbing assertions might be appropriate. Remember, this is the colony generally considered to be the most invested in slavery.

    From this book, which is available in its entirety on line courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Bear in mind that the colonial governors were appointed by and under the instruction of the Crown. They had the power to disallow or veto the acts undertaken by the residents of the colonies. (My underscores.)

    7. Restrictions in Virginia.24 Next to South Carolina, Virginia had probably the largest slave-trade. Her situation, 20however, differed considerably from that of her Southern neighbor. The climate, the staple tobacco crop, and the society of Virginia were favorable to a system of domestic slavery, but one which tended to develop into a patriarchal serfdom rather than into a slave-consuming industrial hierarchy. The labor required by the tobacco crop was less unhealthy than that connected with the rice crop, and the Virginians were, perhaps, on a somewhat higher moral plane than the Carolinians. There was consequently no such insatiable demand for slaves in the larger colony. On the other hand, the power of the Virginia executive was peculiarly strong, and it was not possible here to thwart the slave-trade policy of the home government as easily as elsewhere.

    Considering all these circumstances, it is somewhat difficult to determine just what was the attitude of the early Virginians toward the slave-trade. There is evidence, however, to show that although they desired the slave-trade, the rate at which the Negroes were brought in soon alarmed them. In 1710 a duty of £5 was laid on Negroes, but Governor Spotswood “soon perceived that the laying so high a Duty on Negros was intended to discourage the importation,” and vetoed the measure.25 No further restrictive legislation was attempted for some years, but whether on account of the attitude of the governor or the desire of the inhabitants, is not clear. With21 1723 begins a series of acts extending down to the Revolution, which, so far as their contents can be ascertained, seem to have been designed effectually to check the slave-trade. Some of these acts, like those of 1723 and 1727, were almost immediately disallowed.26 The Act of 1732 laid a duty of 5%, which was continued until 1769,27 and all other duties were in addition to this; so that by such cumulative duties the rate on slaves reached 25% in 1755,28 and 35% at the time of Braddock’s expedition.29 These acts were found “very burthensome,” “introductive of many frauds,” and “very inconvenient,”30 and were so far repealed that by 1761 the duty was only 15%. As now the Burgesses became more powerful, two or more bills proposing restrictive duties were passed, but disallowed.31 By 1772 the anti-slave-trade feeling had become considerably developed, and the Burgesses petitioned the king, declaring that “The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your Majesty’s American dominions…. Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech your Majesty to remove all those restraints on your Majesty’s governors of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce.”32

    Nothing further appears to have been done before the war. When, in 1776, the delegates adopted a Frame of Government, it was charged in this document that the king had perverted his high office into a “detestable and insupportable tyranny, by … prompting our negroes to rise in arms among us, those very negroes whom, by an inhuman use of his negative, he hath refused us permission to exclude by law.”33 Two years later, in 1778, an “Act to prevent the further 22importation of Slaves” stopped definitively the legal slave-trade to Virginia.34

    1699, April. Virginia: 20s. Duty Act.

    “An act for laying an imposition upon servants and slaves imported into this country, towards building the Capitoll.” For three years; continued in August, 1701, and April, 1704. Hening, Statutes, III. 193, 212, 225.

    1705, October. Virginia: 6d. Tax on Imported Slaves.

    “An act for raising a publick revenue for the better support of the Government,” etc. Similar tax by Act of October, 1710. Hening, Statutes, III. 344, 490.

    1705, October. Virginia: 20s. Duty Act.

    “An act for laying an Imposition upon Liquors and Slaves.” For two years; re-enacted in October, 1710, for three years, and in October, 1712. Ibid., III. 229, 482; IV. 30.

    1710. Virginia: £5 Duty Act.

    “Intended to discourage the importation” of slaves. Title and text not found. Disallowed (?). Governor Spotswood to the Lords of Trade, in Va. Hist. Soc. Coll., New Series, I. 52.

    1723, May. Virginia: Duty Act.

    “An Act for laying a Duty on Liquors and Slaves.” Title only; repealed by proclamation Oct. 27, 1724. Hening, Statutes, IV. 118.

    1727, February. Virginia: Prohibitive Duty Act (?).

    “An Act for laying a Duty on Slaves imported; and for appointing a Treasurer.” Title only found; the duty was probably prohibitive; it was enacted with a suspending clause, and was not assented to by the king. Hening, Statutes, IV. 182.

    1732, May. Virginia: Five per cent Duty Act.

    “An Act for laying a Duty upon Slaves, to be paid by the Buyers.” For four years; continued and slightly amended by Acts of 1734, 1736, 1738, 1742, and 1745; revived February, 1752, and continued by Acts of November, 1753, February, 1759, November, 1766, and 1769; revived (or continued?) by Act of February, 1772, until 1778. Hening, Statutes, IV. 317, 394, 469; V. 28, 160, 318; VI. 217, 353; VII. 281; VIII. 190, 336, 530.

    1740, May. Virginia: Additional Five per cent Duty Act.

    “An Act, for laying an additional Duty upon Slaves, to be paid by the Buyer, for encouraging persons to enlist in his Majesty’s service: And for preventing desertion.” To continue until July 1, 1744. Hening, Statutes, V. 92.

    1754, February. Virginia: Additional Five per cent Duty Act.

    “An Act for the encouragement and protection of the settlers upon the waters of the Mississippi.” For three years; continued in 1755 and 1763; revived in 1772, and continued until 1778. Hening, Statutes, VI. 417, 468; VII. 639; VIII. 530.

    1755, May. Virginia: Additional Ten per cent Duty Act.

    “An act to explain an act, intituled, An act for raising the sum of twenty thousand pounds, for the protection of his majesty’s subjects, against the insults and encroachments of the French; and for other purposes therein mentioned.”

    § 10. ” … from and after the passing of this act, there shall be levied and paid to our sovereign lord the king, his heirs and successors, for all slaves imported, or brought into this colony and dominion for sale, either by land or water, from any part [port] or place whatsoever, by the buyer, or purchaser, after the rate of ten per centum, on the amount of each respective purchase, over and above the several duties already laid on slaves, imported as aforesaid, by an act or acts of Assembly, now subsisting, and also over and above the duty laid by” the Act of 1754. Repealed by Act of May, 1760, § 11, ” … inasmuch as the same prevents the importation of slaves, and thereby lessens the fund arising from the duties upon slaves.” Hening, Statutes, VI. 461; VII. 363. Cf. Dinwiddie Papers, II. 86.

    1757, April. Virginia: Additional Ten per cent Duty Act.

    “An Act for granting an aid to his majesty for the better protection of this colony, and for other purposes therein mentioned.”

    § 22. ” … from and after the ninth day of July, one thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight, during the term of seven years, there shall be paid for all slaves imported into this colony, for sale, either by land or water, from any port or place whatsoever, by the buyer or purchaser thereof, after the rate of ten per centum on the amount of each respective purchase, over and above the several duties already laid upon slaves imported, as aforesaid, by any act or acts of Assembly now subsisting in this colony,” etc. Repealed by Act of March, 1761, § 6, as being “found very inconvenient.” Hening, Statutes, VII. 69, 383.

    1759, November. Virginia: Twenty per cent Duty Act.

    “An Act to oblige the persons bringing slaves into this colony from Maryland, Carolina, and the West-Indies, for their own use, to pay a duty.”

    § 1. ” … from and after the passing of this act, there shall be paid … for all slaves imported or brought into this colony and dominion from Maryland, North-Carolina, or any other place in America, by the owner or importer thereof, after the rate of twenty per centum on the amount of each respective purchase,” etc. This act to continue until April 20, 1767; continued in 1766 and 1769, until 1773; altered by Act of 1772, q.v. Ibid., VII. 338; VIII. 191, 336.

    1766, November. Virginia: Proposed Duty Act.

    “An act for laying an additional duty upon slaves imported into this colony.”

    § 1. ” … from and after the passing of this act there shall be levied and paid … for all slaves imported or brought into this colony for sale, either by land or water from any port or place whatsoever, by the buyer or purchaser, after the rate of ten per centum on the amount of each respective purchase over and above the several duties already laid upon slaves imported or brought into this colony as aforesaid,” etc. To be suspended until the king’s consent is given, and then to continue seven years. The same act was passed again in 1769. Hening, Statutes, VIII. 237, 337.

    1772, April 1. Virginia: Address to the King.

    ” … The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your majesty’s American dominions….

    “Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech your majesty to remove all those restraints on your majesty’s governors of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce.” Journals of the House of Burgesses, p. 131; quoted in Tucker, Dissertation on Slavery (repr. 1861), p. 43.

    1775, Nov. 23. Virginia: On Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation.

    Williamsburg Convention to the public: “Our Assemblies have repeatedly passed acts, laying heavy duties upon imported Negroes, by which they meant altogether to prevent the horrid traffick; but their humane intentions have been as often frustrated by the cruelty and covetousness of a set of English merchants.” … The Americans would, if possible, “not only prevent any more Negroes from losing their freedom, but restore it to such as have already unhappily lost it.” This is evidently addressed in part to Negroes, to keep them from joining the British. Ibid., III. 1387.

    Also, much is made of Thomas Jefferson not freeing inherited slaves. Perhaps Jefferson spent too much time building a country at the expense of his personal finances. He was hugely in debt and was 100,000 dollars in debt at his death. He even sold his magnificent, world class library to pay debtors. In short, I doubt the slaves were his to set free. I think his creditors might have had issue with that. It seems a reasonable conjecture that retaining ownership of them was the surest way to keep them out of the slave market. I don’t know this to be his reasoning, but I think it is a reasonable conjecture.

  • Nick M

    I think (could be wrong) that Jefferson’s books ended up as the corner-stone of the Library of Congress. Alas, these volumes were used as kindling by the Brits when we burnt the original Capitol to the ground during the War of 1812.

    I think I got that from a tour guide around the US Capitol. Yes, he did ask, “Are there any British people present?” and we meekly raised our hands. But the US got it’s revenge on these Brits. I for one will never again Go HoJo. That one was emotional. And it looked ideal on the interwebulator. And yeah, it was clean and walking distance from the National Mall but Jesus Horatio Christ check-out was an experience…

  • Thanks to Midwesterner for looking up all the details I was too lazy to. It’s interesting reading, and I hope I’ll have time to get back to it later in the summer.

  • (The linked book, I mean!)

  • Paul Marks

    The position of the powers-that-be in the United Kingdom these days is that the Bill of Rights can be trumped by any Act of Parliament (or, indeed, Statutory Instrument under one of the moder vague Enabling Act style Statutes).

    Of course all this might shock (and anger) the people who created the Constitutional Club network in Britain and made up the British National Rifle Assocation (bigger than the American one in the early years of the 20th century) – but these men mostly died in the First World War and were not replaced.

    On the Tenth Amendment:

    Yes it is vital to understand that “the common defence and general welfare” is the PURPOSE of the powers granted to Congress – not a “general welfare power” in-its-self.

    Just as it is vital to understand that the power to “regulate interstate commerce” means commerce that crosses a State line – not commerce that has “an effect” accross a State line.

    Sadly these battles were lost in the 1930’s and 1940’s and there is little sign that the Republic will be restored.

  • Details details details.
    We are surrounded by the ignominy of the pretence that the British and the Americans possess anything but the shallowest of resemblances; it is co-option via common language.

  • Soylent Green

    The position of the powers-that-be in the United Kingdom these days is that the Bill of Rights can be trumped by any Act of Parliament (or, indeed, Statutory Instrument under one of the moder vague Enabling Act style Statutes).

    This is not quite right.

    The Act of Settlement after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established that Parliament, not the King, was sovereign. (Hence all the tirade against George III in the US Dec of Ind was misdirected: the King was personally blaimless)

    The Act also confirmend that no Parliament could bind its successor…

    … but no Parliament has ever repealed or attempted to repleal the Bill of Rights, therefore it stands.

    If anyone believes any Act of Parliament or Statutory Instrument is attempting to thwart the Bill of Rights, the remedy is in the Courts, who will (and occassion have) struck down the new/proposed measure. An appeal based on Magna Carta, etc., works the same way to preserve the constitution.

  • nick g.

    Here in the southern colonies, our judges have told us that the Bill of Rights is more a wish-list, and if our Australian Parliament makes a law that infringes on the Bill, tough luck, Bill! Hang onto that Bill whilst you’ve still got it!
    Re- Slavery. Outsiders have always been able to cast Americans as hypocrites, when the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence also kept slaves until he died. No nation seems perfect in this regard, except for Hutt River Province (a micro-state within Australia). As a Christian, I am conflicted. Whilst individual Christians are told to obey the powers that be, the ten tribes of Israel were allowed to break away from Jerusalem when Soloman’s son threatened to increase their tax burden. So the message seems to be that nations can object to taxes, but not individuals.

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry Soylent Green, you are wrong (I wish you were right).

    The courts have long decided that any later Act of Parliament de facto trumps the Bill of Rights – even if does not mention it (for example if an Act of Parliament said “you will be fined for such and such without the judgement of a court” that would be fine – without the Act having to say “this Act repeals the Bill of Rights”).

    Otherwise, for example, we would still be able to have firearms (although the British Bill of Rights says “Protestant” this was held to include Roman Catholics as the use of the word “Protestant” was in relation to the threat that James II was supposed to have been – of course the British Bill of Rights did not fully apply in Ireland which was not part of the United Kingdom till 1801).

    Of course recent court judgements have mentioned “constitutional measures” – but this has mostly been in relation to statutes giving the E.U. power. These are held to trump later statutes of Parliament (what was that again about no Parliament being able to bind later Parliaments?).

    However, it is still the case (I hope) that Parliament could formally repeal the various E.E.C./E.U. statutes – going back the European Communities Act itself.

    But it does not need to even formally repeal the British Bill of Rights.

    I repeat any Act of Parliament that is in conflict with it is held to trump it – even if it does not mention the Bill of Rights.

    So any lawyer who tells you different is just after your money.

    You can not defend the right to keep arms by appealing to the British Bill of Rights. There are a few things in the Bill of Rights that have not been de facto repealed by Acts of Parliament (or regulations derived from them) but not much – and they could go at any time.

  • Sandy P

    Midwesterner – read John Adams’ bio, McCullough, I think, doesn’t like Tom. Seems his debt problems were his own creation, he liked the finer things in life. especially when he was building his designs, there was an account set up for his admirers to settle his debts, but no one really contributed.

  • Paul Marks

    Of course Jefferson went bust three times – I forget whether there were two voluntary public bailouts and one government one, or two government bailouts and one voluntary one.

    Land graps at the expense of Indians (even though he was one of the first Americans to study Indian customs and knew that many tribes did have some form of ideas about the private ownership of land), dodgy personal finance, and (of course) slavery.

    Jefferson was the sort of American that Dr Johnson found an easy target to attack (although Johnson was dead before Jefferson became really famous). But that does not alter the fact that he was one of the greatest Presidents – ending all internal taxation for example (inculding duties on booze and other such).

    There are no perfect men in politics. One has to make a judgement on “will this person follow the right princples of policy in office”, not “is this man a saint”.

    Indeed a government of saints out to “do good” is to be avoided.