Colonial Americans responded to British attempts to assert additional control over their political and economic affairs with varying degrees of resistance. For the most part, the colonists attempted to balance their desire for imperial recognition of their traditional rights with statements of loyalty and affection towards the British king (and, to a lesser extent, Parliament). Public gatherings, for example, often included toasts that honored individual members of the British nobility, the long heritage of royal governance, the traditional rights of Englishmen, and the achievements of America in rapid succession. In a tempestuous time, these were not seen as contradictions: indeed, for Gouverneur Morris, the tensions between these concepts might have been all that stood between the colonists and complete anarchy. On the other hand, neither Thomas Jefferson (in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, August 1774) nor General Thomas Gage (in his letter to Peyton Randolph) appears to feel any tension over the question of loyalty whatsoever.
Joseph Galloway’s Plan of Union attempted to use the political confusion constructively, by proposing a new type of political union between the colonies and Britain in which political sovereignty would be divided more evenly. The Continental Congress ultimately rejected this solution, and it was never proposed to the crown.
Peter Force, ed., American Archives: A Documentary History, 4th ser., 6 vols. (Washington, D.C.: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1837-53), 1:342-43. Gouverneur Morris (1752–1816) was a leading New York politician and signer of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
You have heard, and you will hear, a great deal about politics, and in the heap of chaff you may find some grains of good sense. Believe me, sir, freedom and religion are only watchwords. We have appointed a committee, or rather we have nominated one. Let me give you the history of it. It is needless to premise, that the lower orders of mankind are more easily led by specious appearances than those of a more exalted station. This, and many similar propositions, you know better than your humble servant.
The troubles in America, during Grenville’s administration . . . stimulated some daring coxcombs to rouse the mob into an attack upon the bounds of order and decency. These fellows became . . . the leaders in all the riots, the bellwethers of the flock. . . . On the whole, the shepherds were not much to blame in a politic point of view. The bellwethers jingled merrily, and roared out liberty, and property, and religion, and a multitude of cant terms, which everyone thought he understood, and was egregiously mistaken. . . . That we have been in hot water with the British Parliament ever since everybody knows. . . . The port of Boston has been shut up. These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them; and now . . . the heads of the mobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question. While they correspond with the other colonies, call and dismiss popular assemblies, make resolves to bind the consciences of the rest of mankind, bully poor printers, and exert with full force all their other tribunitial powers, it is impossible to curb them.
But art sometimes goes farther than force, and, therefore, to trick them handsomely a committee of patricians was to be nominated, and into their hands was to be committed the majesty of the people, and the highest trust was to be reposed in them. . . . The tribunes, through the want of good legerdemain in the senatorial order, perceived the finesse; and yesterday I was present at a grand division of the city, and there I beheld my fellow citizens very accurately counting all their chickens, not only before any of them were hatched, but before above one half of the eggs were laid. In short, they fairly contended about the future forms of our government, whether it should be founded upon aristocratic or democratic principles.
I stood in the balcony, and on my right hand were ranged all the people of property, with some few poor dependents, and on the other all the tradesmen, etc., who thought it worth their while to leave daily labor for the good of the country. The spirit of the English Constitution has yet a little influence left, and but a little. The remains of it, however, will give the wealthy people a superiority this time, but would they secure it they must banish all schoolmasters and confine all knowledge to themselves. This cannot be. The mob begin to think and to reason. Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and before noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this. Their committee will be appointed, they will deceive the people, and again forfeit a share of their confidence. And if these instances of what with one side is policy, with the other perfidy, shall continue to increase, and become more frequent, farewell aristocracy. I see, and I see it with fear and trembling, that if the disputes with Great Britain continue, we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions; we shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.
A. Consider the enumerated lists of persons and things toasted; what do they suggest about how those attending the celebrations understood the ideas of “loyalty” and “rights”? What issues or concerns do they seem to have? Would you expect such persons to be “revolutionaries”? How do Gouverneur Morris and Thomas Jefferson respectively understand the political moment? How would you characterize the Galloway Plan in light of the other documents? Where does Joseph Galloway’s loyalty seem to lie?
B. Taken as a whole, how do these documents suggest citizens draw the line between “rights” and “loyalty” when considering their political activism? Compare this to the range of responses one might gather from later periods in American history, like the Civil War. What differentiates these situations from one another?
C. How does the understanding of “loyalty” of those advocating for American security in the twentieth century compare with the understanding of “loyalty” presented here? How would we evaluate the legacy of these early American political leaders and citizens against the arguments about “the end of history”?
- The mob, with perhaps a play on the word “nobility.”
- Tribune-like. The Tribunes in the Roman republic were officials who represented and protected the interests of the common people.