Pre-American History 1740 - 1775

Posted by John Tripp on August 17, 2012 


If we are to discuss the hows and whys of how the Framers of our Constitution came to their conclusions,  we must look to the three decades leading up to the Declaration of Independence as a major reference guide.  We talk about the British Common Law system as the enemy of our values and principles,  but the truth is exactly the opposite,  as I will try to convince all who are interested in a series of specific incidents and truths about the British Empire and her colonies.

The first union in the colonies - The need for a social compact between the new colonies was made very apparent by the daily Indian attacks and the French and Spanish desires upon this new land.  The New England Confederation,  established in 1643 was the first union of it's kind in the new world.  This model was used in all the other attempts to organize a cohesive compact between the 13 colonies.  It lasted for 40 years,  and was mostly ineffective in accomplishing it's goals.

After the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle,  which was actually only a truce,  the coming problem of the French was made clear.   Possibly the most important action during the later years is the Albany Act.  In 1753,  the Board of Trade ( the Crown's administrators for trade ) ordered all colonies north of the Carolina s,  directing them to to see that commissioners were sent to treat with the six nations and to renew the " Covenant Chain " with them.  The formation of some kind of union appears to have had the sanction of the British authorities.  In 1754,  after the Indian threat was dealt with,  the commissioners entered upon consideration of the need for union and cooperation between the colonies which surpassed the limits accepted by the Board of Trade dramatically.  Ben Franklin's first real influence on our history starts here.  It was he who is believed to put forth the proposal to unite the colonies in a social compact which included their own central government,  the separation of powers,  their own quasi-sovereign nation for all intent.  The colonies would all have equal representation,  a general treasurer was appointed to make loans and collect debts.  The colonies voted down this offer,  with major threats coming from the Crown,  in it's entirety,  but it foreshadowed the anxieties,  aspirations,  disputes,  and achievements of the years ahead.

The Writs of Assistance and the Revenue Act - In 1761,  an event took place that John Adams declared marked the birth of the American Nation.  " Then and there,  he declared,  the child of independence was born. "  The event was a speech in front of the Privy Council by James Otis against the new writs of assistance.   This speech contains sentences and phrases that Jefferson  used  verbatim in the Declaration of Independence. 

Before the death of King George II in 1760,  the colonies were allowed to pretty much disregard the regulations and red tape from the Crown.  England had much too many problems then to deal with the overt smuggling of goods by the colonies without tariffs.  British Law commanded that new writs of assistance be written within 6 months of a new King's ascendance to the Thrown.

A writ of assistance is a document allowing British troops to enter a colonists home without reason and search for illegal contraband.  Otis was the lawyer arguing for the colonies in front of the Privy Council,  the British Supreme Court.  His argument talked of the taking away of the natural rights granted by God,  which was a cornerstone of the British constitution,  threatening the sanctuary of one's dwelling and property.  He claimed all the citizens of the colonies had the same rights as British residents.  It was this argument,  which stated among other things,  that Parliament did not have the power to change Natural Law.  Man gave Parliament it's power,  and only man could take the power away.  Neither had power to challenge the rights granted man by God.  He quoted Locke and Burke.

So here we find within the sacred rights of Englishmen,  we find American doctrines.   He told the court it was their duty to void any law that went against the natural rights of man.  The logical conclusion from his statement is that an unconstitutional law is not necessarily a bad law,  or an inappropriate law,  or even a law running counter to endeared traditions;  an unconstitutional law is not law at all;  it is void;  and a court must so declare.  The statement declares there is indeed a limit to power,  constitutional limits to power.  This was to become the main plank in the foundation of America.  " Natural equity " were Otis's exact words.   Otis was successful in his efforts to stop the British troops from ransacking the colonists homes,  but King George III was not done with us yet.

It is of special importance that we recognize the significance of the English called their ruling document their constitution,  and it contained separation of powers,  natural law,  and limits of government.  In fact,  there is little difference between our system and theirs.  A State run religion,  which by law protected the freedoms of other religions to practice openly,  but in reality,  was no more accepting of any other than Americans were of our differences.  Freedom of religion only means more than words if persecution of others is not tolerated.   In the colonies,  the lines between the Lutherans in the South and the Calvinists in the North did not cross until need of safety for all was mandated.  Tiny Rhode Island was the only truly non preferential colony,  and the only one for more than a century that did not have a state sponsored religion.   Maryland and Pennsylvania being the most tolerant after that.  Their Senate,  the House of Lords are appointed for life and had to be land owners ( large land owners ).  Like our House of representatives,  their House of Commons is much larger and has more power over the everyday lives of their citizens.  Granted,  these two things are not small differences,  but the similarities are very eye opening.  In fact,  their judicial branch has upheld far more cases dealing with natural law than ours,  even today.


See part 2 - the Sugar Act,  Molassas Act and the Stamp Act.

 * This information taken from " A Constitutional History of The United States ", Andrew C. McLaughlan - published by D. Appleton - Century Company inc.  1936.  I recommend this very well foot-noted text to any who love American history.  It is as comprehensive as any I have read.  His other American history texts are also excellent.



Part II The Sugar Act,  Molasses Act and the Stamp Act.

The Stamp Act - Then the Showdown

    Posted by John Tripp on August 18, 2012 

The Stamp Act came from Parliament only a year after the Sugar Act was beaten back by the patriots,  and brilliant oration by James Otis in front of the rulers of Great Britain.  It was meant just as the Sugar Act,  to raise revenues for the Crown,  which was not done for this reason at any time in the Royal Colonies until King George III came to power.

George Washington sums the feelings of the patriots up far better than I ever could.  In 1765,  he wrote Parliament these two letters ( among others ) -

   The Stamp Act,  imposed on the colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain,  engrosses the conversation of the speculation part of the colonists,  who took upon this unconstitutional method of taxation,  as a direful attack upon their liberties,  and loudly exclaim against the violation.

   What may be the result of this,  and of some other ( I think I may add ill-judged ) measures,  I will not undertake to determine;  but this I venture to affirm,  that the advantage accruing to the mother-country will fall greatly short of the expectations of the ministry;  for certain it is,  that our whole substance already in a manner flows to Great Britain,  and that whatsoever contributes to lessen our importations must be hurtful to our manufactures.  The eyes of our people already begin to be opened;  and they will perceive that many luxuries,  for which we lavish our substance in Great Britain,  can well be dispensed with,  while the necessaries of life are mostly to be had within ourselves.  This,  consequently,  will introduce frugality,  and be a necessary incitement to industry.

   If Great Britain loads her manufactures with heavy taxes,  will it not facilitate such results ?  They will not compel us,  I think,  to give our money for their exports,  whether we will or not.  And I am certain,  that none of their traders will part with them,  without a valuable consideration.  Where then,  is the utility of these restrictions ?

#2 - also 1765 -

   As to the Stamp Act,  regarded in a single view,  one and the first bad consequences attending it,  is that our courts of jurisdiction must inevitably be shut up;  for it is impossible,  or next to impossible,  under our present circumstances,  that the Act of Parliament can be complied with,  were we even so willing to enforce it's execution.  And,  not to say ( which alone would be sufficient ) that we have not money to pay for the stamps,  there are many other cogent reasons which prove,  that it would be ineffectual.

   If a stop be put to our judicial proceedings,  I fancy the merchants of Great Britain,  trading to the colonies,  will not be among the last to wish for a repeal of the Act.

The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766,  after the stamp agents were intimidated,  some tarred and feathered,  and formal protests by both British merchant seamen and the colonists forced the Parliaments hand.  Patrick Henry's " Virginia Stamp Act Resolves " pamphlet had much to do with educating the masses.  This was not a unanimous decision by the colonies by any means.  Just as most of the issues in the constitution to come,  the various stances by powerful individuals in the colonies clashed often.  John Dickenson,  of Pennsylvania,  was the most vocal supporter of the Crown,  but many in Massachusetts also kept close to Britain.

We owe the Commonwealth of Virginia more gratitude than any other colony,  in my view.  It was the long line of great men from this area,  Jefferson,  Madison,  Randolf,  Washington,  Richard Henry Lee,  and Patrick Henry just to name a few,  who stood above all others in their un-altering,  uncompromising stances against King George.  It was Jefferson's throwing down the gauntlet to the Crown with letters such as this.

   " You King George,  are merely a functionary put in your office for our good,  no more than a Chief Officer of the people.  And if you ever cease to serve our purposes,  we would be justified in replacing you.  Let those flatter who fear,  it is not an American art. "  

Jefferson summed up his view with the claim, " the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time;  the hand of force may destroy,  but cannot disjoin them. "

This and more from the House of Burgesses came a decade later,  after many smaller squabbles.  The battle at  Concord,  on  April 19th,  1775,  started the end of any attempts of the patriots to keep ties with Britain.  The majority of the colonists however still wanted to remain loyal or were undecided.

On May 15,  1776,  Virginia's " Ruling Revolutionary Convention ",  or The May Convention,  as some call it,   adopted three resolutions:

1.   Virginia must have a republican constitution.

2.   Virginia must have a declaration of rights

3.   Virginia must seek federal relations with such other colonies as wanted then and alliances with whichever foreign powers would enter unto them.

The delegates then ran a Continental Union Flag up the flagpole at the old capital in Williamsburg.  As James Madison Wrote, " That night,  Virginia had established it's independence. "

Ben Franklin's stirring words, " the patriots must hang together or they will surely hang separately ",  spurred the Virginia Convention,  the ruling body in the early days of the revolution,  and the body instructed their delegates at the 2nd Continental Congress to secure a declaration of American Independence.  Virginia's Richard Henry Lee stood up to move, in language given him by the Virginia Convention,  that congress should declare " that these United Colonies are,  and of right ought to be,  free and independent states,  that they are absolved from all allegiances to the British Crown,  and that all political connections between them and the state of great Britain is,  and ought to be,  totally absolved. "

Thomas Jefferson,  who had the blessing of Franklin and Madison,  was chosen to write the words to the new Declaration of Independence.

Much more on Jefferson in my next article.

 Reference and Tutorial Links

 Additional Articles by John Tripp

Early American History 1740-1775

The Purpose of Government

The Birth of the Constitution





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