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The American Revolution Reconsidered

Eric Robson looks at the constitutional background - and legacies - of the American Revolution.

Sir George Otto Trevalyan, whose books on the American Revolution are still standard reading, fostered the argument, drawn from the contemporary opponents of George III, that the American colonists rebelled because they were the first to feel the full force of the King’s assault upon liberty. Their revolution “was a defensive movement, undertaken on behalf of essential English institutions (genuine national self-government and real ministerial responsibility) against the purpose and effort of a monarch to defeat the political progress of the race,” their success prevented —so this argument runs—a similar effort being made in Great Britain. The realities of the British constitution in the eighteenth century have since been revealed by Professor Namier; a careful reading of the manuscript sources of the reign of King George III likewise contradicts many of the conclusions that have been drawn about his attitude towards the American colonies, and on the struggle between them and Great Britain. Those who accept the charge of tyranny levelled against the King should consider, for example, his response to the request of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the American Department, for strong measures to be taken in 1769 against Massachusetts Bay and New York: “the altering charters is at all times an odious measure,” more calculated “to increase the unhappy feudes that subsist than to asswage them.” They should also ponder that had the King held the idea of overturning the constitution, the colonies, largely outside Parliamentary control, would have been his obvious allies. The opportunity existed, but was never taken.

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