Wednesday, May 1, 2013

William Blackstone and the American Revolution

It is difficult to over-estimate the impact that the work of Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had on the American Founding era, during both the revolutionary period & the formation of the early Republic.  For the men of those times, Blackstone served as the source of their knowledge of the English common law tradition, as well as one of the major theorists of natural law. The close study of Blackstone was for many American lawyers their only academic exercise before qualifying for the bar, and more copies of Blackstone's mammoth Commentaries on the Laws of England sold in the American colonies & early United States than sold in England itself.  To say that Blackstone was a major intellectual force in American life is almost an understatement.

With all that in mind, head on over the The Imaginative Conservative and read Richard Samuelson's essay on Blackstone's influence on our nation's struggle for independence: The Blackstonian Causes of the American Revolution. Samuelson does a very good job of demonstrating how the American Founders were shaped by Blackstone's theory of English constitutionalism while at the same time Blackstone's embrace of parliamentary supremacy made reconciliation between the rising American colonies and the Mother Country all the more problematic.  Indeed, much of Blackstone's theory of the English constitution worked to push the two sides in the run-up to the Revolution ever farther apart. This eventually forced the colonists into the position of either submitting to Parliament without the limitation of the traditional rights & liberties of the colonies intact, or throwing off the authority of the King in Parliament to assert their own independence. As Samuelson sums up his work:
Blackstone made colonists choose between being free and being British. The necessities of an empire run by Parliament from the imperial center became incompatible with the liberties of British subjects living on the imperial periphery. In his essay, “The Irrelevance of the Declaration,” Reid points out that once one gets past the first two paragraphs, the Declaration of Independence is nothing more than a common law indictment of King George. In other words, declaring independence from Great Britain was a final act of devotion to the Whig constitutional principles that Anglo-Americans had imbibed since their settlement. Americans assumed a separate and equal station with their mother country so that they could enjoy the rights of Britons, and continue the mission of a free, protestant people in America.
Read it all.


Tom Van Dyke said...

while at the same time Blackstone's embrace of Parliamentary supremacy made reconciliation between the rising American colonies and the Mother Country all the more problematic.

The colonists solved it easily--they rejected the authority of Parliament*. Then all they had to do was secede from the King--or rather claim he had "abdicated," just as Britain itself claimed Charles II "abdicated" in 1688 [replacing him with William and Mary].

* "Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us."

** "He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us."

[BF mine.]

Mark D. said...


Eventually the solution was independence, but that solution was a long-time coming to most of the Founders. Even Washington said that he didn't support independence until he read Common Sense. John Adams, John Dickinson, James Wilson, even Benjamin Franklin were all hesitant to argue for a breach with England until it was clear that a negotiated settlement was impossible and the King withdrew his protection from the colonies. While the act of declaring independence was easy, it is very clear that Congress took such a step only after their attempts (Olive Branch Petition, etc.) had failed to get the King to reassert his protection over the colonies.

It is difficult for us to understand the difficulty in the Founders declaring the independence of our nation. For us, it seems so natural -- because we see them as the men that made our country free. But to them, it was a dramatic step, and one that made them re-think their own identity. They saw themselves as Englishmen, but then were forced to think of themselves as Americans.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Absolutely, Mark. They respected their sacred obligation to the Crown, which had granted each colony its charter before the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 brought about the supremacy of Parliament.

But the colonies never signed up to be governed by Parliament--Plymouth Rock of the 1620s was a charter from the Crown, the 1770s brought rule by a parliament, why the taxation without representation was such an effective argument.

"We hold our lands in America by virtue of charters from British monarchs, and are under no obligations to the Lords or Commons for them. Our title is similar, and equal, to that by which they possess their lands; and the king is the legal fountain of both. This is one grand source of our obligation to allegiance."

---Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775

Mark D. said...

Yes, we are on the same page here. The colonists rightly held that they were under the Crown, not Parliament. Part of their support for this position came from their argument that while the King of England was sovereign over the colonies, they were not part of Great Britain, any more than Hanover (of which George III was also King) in Germany was. Just as Parliament could not legislate for Hanover, it could not legislate for the the colonies unless the colonies consented to the legislation.

Franklin, btw, thought that the King by withdrawing his protection had declared American independent. His argument in the Continental Congress was that independence was a fact, given the King's decision with withdraw his protection. The Declaration of Independence was, in Franklin's view, simply a recognition of something that was already true.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Tom, have you read James Wilson's “Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament”? He lays out the case to support your claim.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. FortenB, as usual, your hound dog's nose for its historical prey amazes.

James Wilson is of course the most underrated Founder, the sharpest knife in the Founding drawer.

He adds an extra wrinkle to the argument:

That this supreme power is, by the constitution of Great Britain, vested in the king, lords, and commons: “That, therefore, the acts of the king, lords, and commons, or, in other words, acts of parliament, have, by the British constitution, a binding force on the American colonies, they composing a part of the British empire.”

Since the king's rule in a constitutional monarchy requires the assent of Parliament, and the UK Parliament is not a duly constituted magistrate in the American colonies--and the king doesn't receive or even seek the assent of America's duly constituted magistrates---the King's edicts can have no legitimacy either!

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Magistrate" is a key term in Calvin's theology of course, and once you're alerted to it, it's interesting how often it recurs in the Founding-era literature--for instance, In "Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament”, Wilson cites Montesquieu:

To give to any thing that passes in parliament the force of a law, the consent of the king, of the lords, and of the commonsh is absolutely necessary.i If, then, the inhabitants of Great Britain possess a sufficient restraint upon any of these branches of the legislature, their liberty is secure, provided they be not wanting to themselves. Let us take a view of the restraints, which they have upon the house of commons.

They elect the members of that house. “Magistrates,” says Montesquieu, “are properly theirs, who have the nomination of them.” The members of the house of commons, therefore, elected by the people, are the magistrates of the people; and are bound by the ties of gratitude for the honour and confidence conferred upon them, to consult the interest of their constituents.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Thanks, Tom. By the way, if you would like to read my take on Wilson's pamphlet, you can follow the link below to a short article that I wrote for the Federalist Papers Project:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Exc piece, Mr. Fortenberry. But you missed the punch line, the button, from the D of I itself:

"He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people..."