AN EXPERIMENT IN SELF-GOVERNMENT – PART I America’s Beginning Occurred at a Perfect Time in History

1620 was a great time for a group of Separatists from the Church of England to establish a surviving settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  King  Charles I was not popular among the people, and he constantly quarreled with Parliament. The quarrels developed into the Thirty Years’ War (1619 – 1649) and led to Charles’ execution.  During the war many people chose Americas’ new colonies for their escape.  Thereafter, the Americas continued to attract immigrants from Great Britain.  By the time George II became king (1727 – 1760) England was peaceful.  He established a modern-day Parliament/prime minister-government.  At the same time the colonists had become self-governing in all domestic affairs.  The people elected colonial legislatures which, chartered townships, established courts, established procedures for municipal elections , such as sheriffs, justices of the peace and town government  officers.  The people improved property, created towns, established churches, educated their children, participated in elections and improved living standards.  Colonial living standards were higher and cost of living lower than England.  This also was attractive for immigration.   Every newcomer had equal opportunity to land and all the institutions of an established civil society.  Owning property and successfully providing for oneself made immigration worthwhile.  Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations(1776) describes the American colonies as follows:  

“Every colonist gets more land than he can possibly cultivate.  He has no rent, and scarce any taxes to pay.  No landlord shares with him in its produce, and the share for the sovereign is commonly a trifle.  He has every motive to render as great as possible a produce, which is thus to be almost entirely his own.  But his land is commonly so extensive, that with all his own industry, and with all the industry of other people whom he can get to employ, he can seldom make it produce the tenth part of what it is capable of producing.  Plenty of good land, and liberty to manage their own affairs their own way, seem to be the two great causes of the prosperity of [the] colonies.”  

The French and Indian Wars and The Seven Years War – 1756-1763 in North America and Europe were the cause of England’s political changes.  Prosecution of the war, including England sending its army and navy to fight the French and Indians, was a cause for raising taxes on the colonies.  Both wars ended in 1763 with separate peace treaties.  England, the victor, gained French Canada and Florida as well as shared-navigation rights with France on the Mississippi River.  England viewed the victory settlement as a reason to expect higher taxes from the colonies and reason for more political control over its American colonies for the next thirteen years. 

Britain’s economy was based on “mercantilism,” and accounts for Britain’s actions in the reign of George III. Countries measured their wealth on the amount of gold in their treasury.  Trade was merely a means to an end of securing more gold.  Terms of trade among nations were payment in gold.  In order to increase gold, a nation had to achieve a surplus of exports over imports.  Britain was able to use the colonies to produce gold by the following means: 1. Require the colonies to sell its surplus products only to Britain and, 2. require the colonies to buy all its imports only from Britain.  In particular, Britain’s surplus manufactured goods went to the colonies, and made domestic manufactured goods less competitive.  The cause of the Revolution was trade and commerce.  It is best understood by reading a “Speech of Edmund Burke, Esq. on Taxation: April 19, 1774”.  Adam Smith’s view was:

“To prohibit a great people, however, from making all that they can of every part of their own produce or from employing their stock and industry in a way that they judge most advantageous to themselves, is a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind.”  

Another cause of the American Revolution was development of an American culture, different from England.  The colonists were highly literate and imported from England large amounts of books and pamphlets that gave them a current view of Europe.  They considered indulgent spending and inefficient government to be a lack of virtue and a cause of corruption.  In fact, they were already living virtuous lives.  Below is Alexis de Tocqueville’s introduction to Democracy in America(1832).  

“No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.  It was easy to see the immense influence of this basic fact on the whole course of society.  It gives a particular turn to public opinion and a particular twist to the laws, new maxims to those who govern and particular habits to the governed.”

The North American colonies, settled by people from a single nation, speaking one language, and sharing common political traditions was a great opportunity to implement self-government.  But not quite politically ready in 1776.                                                                                                                                          September 26, 2019

A Perfect Time in History