Long before cannons, muskets, blood, and bitter sacrifices settled the question of American independence, a revolution occurred “in the minds and hearts of the people,” John Adams recalled late in life.
The citizens of the British colonies of North America were raised with great pride in, and affection for, their mother country, he noted. They considered its government the freest on earth, with a strong Parliament ready to check the tyranny of any monarch who might get out of line. They thought of Great Britain, in Adams’s words, as “a kind and tender parent.” The Boston lawyer James Otis bore him out, declaring in 1764: “Our rights as men and free born British subjects” gave the colonists reason to be happier than “the subjects of any other prince in the world.” Otis added: “If I have one ambitious wish, ’tis to see Great-Britain at the head of the world, and to see my King, under God, the father of mankind.”
But Britain’s indifference to the colonists’ pleadings for a voice in taxation—some sign that they would not be treated as abject “slaves,” as the colonists often put it—poisoned that relationship. And Britain’s willingness to “dash” the Americans’ “brains out” in asserting its imperial prerogatives finally persuaded the colonists to risk all by fighting for freedom. “This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution,” Adams wrote.
That real revolution began 250 years ago this year, with Parliament’s imprudent implementation of the Stamp Act, a tax on virtually every paper product used by the colonists, from college diplomas to playing cards, intended to defray the costs of defending and overseeing the colonies. The tax infuriated Americans, inspired riots, and made it suicidal for any agent to try to enforce the act. It also ignited a world-changing debate about the purpose of government, the maintenance of empire, constitutional law, popular consent, and checks and balances. As Great Britain looked for new means to tax and subdue its American colonies, arguments raged in weekly newspapers and in pamphlets of 5,000 to 25,000 words—printed in relatively small numbers, but widely circulated in clubs and taverns.
This new two-volume set from the Library of America plunges us into the middle of that historic debate. Editor Gordon S. Wood, the great historian of the period, has judiciously collected 39 essential pamphlets and offers a lively, opinionated introduction to each of them. Wood takes meticulous care to include all sides, with prominent Englishmen (as well as Americans loath to separate from the mother country) challenging the views of bitterly unhappy colonists. Some very famous people speak out here: Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson.
A great deal of the debate centers on matters the modern reader might find arcane: just how much allegiance the colonists owe to Parliament, how the colonies might feasibly be taxed. In his pamphlet on The Rights of the British Colonies, Otis himself seems unsure about the limits of Parliament’s authority, though he does warn that Britain will court “the most fatal effects” if it employs “the arts of fraud and force” against the colonists.
There are many fascinating moments embedded in these 1,889 pages. Pragmatic Benjamin Franklin, stationed in London, notes that British leaders were once able to govern America “at the expense only of a little pen, ink and paper” and foolishly risked losing vast amounts of money by trying to extract taxes without consent. “They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one,” he warns. Many patriot leaders dwell on the example of their New England ancestors, who at a terrible cost established religious freedom and representative governments in a harsh new world. Joseph Warren calls out to his fellow Bostonians suffering under British occupation: “The voice of your Fathers’ blood cries to you from the ground: MY SONS, SCORN TO BE SLAVES!”
Thomas Paine calls for independence in his Common Sense, the most popular and inflammatory pamphlet of the period. Paine’s stirring cry to stand against evil still has resonance in our own age, with its leaders who prostrate themselves before terrorist regimes. “Hath your property been destroyed before your face?” Paine asks.
Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If . . . you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.