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Colonial History Reconsidered

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

The Colonial Background of the American Revolution,
Four Essays in American Colonial History. By Charles M. Andrews, New Haven: Yale University Press. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press.

In this fine treatise we have under one title four essays on related subjects, each of which is sufficiently complete to stand alone. I. The British Colonies in America. II. The Mother Country and Its Colonial Policy. III.  Conditions Leading to the Revolt of the Colonies. IV.  General Reflections. As stated by Dr. Andrews, the author, in his short preface, their aim is to stimulate a more accurate interpretation than has been hitherto attempted of the causes that led to the American Revolution. Possibly the essay “General Reflections” might have been advantageously put first, with a few changes, for its chief characteristic is that it clears the way and lays the ground for the excellent discussions that are set forth in the other three illuminating articles.

In his “General Reflections” Dr. Andrews is at pains to show that American scholars have taken too narrow a view of Colonial history on account of certain “obstructions,” which dominate American thought generally. Among these he notes “propaganda”—the use of historic antecedents and parallels to affect or enforce some present purpose,—hero worship, through which men and events connected with our Colonial past are enveloped in an atmosphere of piety, patriotism and perfection; partisanship which presents only one side of a story; and lastly but not leastwise the unwillingness of most men to enter upon any prolonged and fatiguing examination of authorities which any great subject involves, and the tendency to take short cuts to conclusions, which on this account are too often ill-formed and undigested. Plainly then, the student must be prepared to lay aside these mental attitudes if he really and truly desires to appreciate what Dr. Andrews has to say in the three essays preceding his “General Reflections.”

In them Dr. Andrews, with a wealth of thought and scientific consideration truly admirable, undertakes to explain our early history in terms of colonial relationship, implying a mutual knowledge of the divergent aims of Mother Country and Colonies.

Such a method of treating the subject is applied in the first essay to the “British Colonies in America.” An enquiry into how they were regarded by the British Government is declared as essential to any proper knowledge of colonial history. According to Dr. Andrews the colonies did not take themselves very seriously until 1763 when they had grown strong and self-conscious. Up to that time, he contends, they were not particularly assertive of any authority and their legislatures acted as the occasion permitted or demanded. As English colonies they each had a law-making body but the contention is that until 1764, when the Imperial Policy was inaugurated, the relationship of the local Assembly was one of subordination and dependency on the Parliament in England.

Now here is ground which has to be further explored. That the supremacy of Parliament was not disputed in New England, even after the enactment of the Sugar Bill, is perhaps true, but the Virginia patriots appear to have taken a different view. Repeatedly it was declared in Virginia during years antecedent to 1763 that no tax could be laid upon the people without their consent given in their own Assembly. This doctrine was asserted by the Virginia legislature in 1753 in the quarrel over the imposition by Dinwiddie of the pistole fee, which was a tax laid by the representative of royalty—similar to the Stamp Act imposed eleven years later by Parliament. The patriots of Virginia were very careful not to commit themselves on the question of supremacy. Indeed, in 1760 the committee of correspondence expressed the view that an act of the Virginian Assembly was of as high authority as any act of Parliament.

In the next essay “The Mother Country and Its Policy” we are told about the commercial system instituted by Parliament, in which, as Dr. Andrews explains, the relationship between the Colonies and England, as parent and child was practically acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. The child might cry sometimes at some real or fancied injury, but that did not make it a “grown up” or the equal of the mother. The object of the commercial laws was to make the colonies a paying asset to England, but within the strict bounds of the system the Mother Country was remarkably generous especially to New England, which received extensive bounties upon her fisheries, masts, oil, furs and other produce.

In the third essay, and the last as I would have it, Dr. Andrews successfully shows that it was not the commercial policy, as most writers have supposed, that caused the American Revolution but the introduction of an entirely new policy, consequent upon the great successes of the French and Indian War. This was what he calls the Imperial Policy, quite a different thing from the Commercial Policy. No better evidence of this can be afforded than the fact that the English merchants were strenuous opponents of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Revenue Act of 1767, and contributed all in their power to procure their repeal. They regarded them, in fact, as hostile to the interest of commerce. Indeed, for ten years, mainly through their influence, things were kept on a balance, and it was not till Lord North’s blundering policy regarding the East India Company and its tea that the radicals in America got the upper hand and forced the country into war.

Dr. Andrews has given us a delightful and informing book, and we are pleased to see that his references to Virginia are always kindly and handsomely made. Indeed to my mind he seems rather too hard on Samuel Adams, one of his own countrymen whom he represents at the bottom of all the trouble—a radical of the radicals. I don’t think he is quite fair to him, when he lets off another radical, Patrick Henry, to the extent of not mentioning him once in the whole book. Henry was much more of a radical than Adams, and ought to have had some of the blame, if indeed he was blamable. Certainly had Henry remained as silent as Samuel Adams did at the time of the Stamp Act, the whole Imperial Policy would have carried and there would have been no Boston Tea Party and no war. Then the doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy which Adams recognized in the protest prepared by him and adopted by the Massachusetts Assembly in 1768 against the Revenue Act was never admitted by Henry. His resolutions in the Stamp Act three years before declared the omnipotence of the Virginia Assembly in matters purely local. In the matter of the Tea Party, the responsibility for which Dr. Andrews ascribes to Adams, there is no evidence that Adams had anything to do with the ruffians that threw the tea over board in Boston harbor. Adams may have been a defaulter and all that, but he was too brave a man to disguise himself as an Indian and shirk responsibility.

The speeches of Adams at the Boston town meeting possibly did have some effect in stirring up the lawless element, but there is no doubt that Adams himself was influenced in all he said and did by another radical from Virginia of almost as pronounced a type as Henry, and that was Dr. Arthur Lee, who had written the “Monitor’s Letters” which, with John Dickinson’s “Farmer’s Letters,” had stimulated Adams and the Massachusetts Assembly in 1768 to the action taken at that time. In a letter written from England in 1773 to Adams he had urged that the landing of the tea be opposed.

However, this is only by the way. Allowance must be made for the fact that Dr. Andrews is a New England man, and with all his broadmindedness cannot escape some suspicion that even he, without being conscious of it, believes in the supremacy of the New England type. What if Sam Adams was a political rascal, he was a New Englander and, therefore, the greatest of his kind! It is enough to know that Dr. Andrews is set against propaganda, hero worship and partisanship, and in such a man there is always hope, not to say inspiration.

In the general make-up of the book one misses marginal references and an index. It is a brave experiment in these days to publish a book without either. But for this absence, the reason is apparent. To have given either in the marvelous sweep of the work through two centuries, would have doubled its size, and perhaps have run counter to the description which the author modestly gives to the work himself as “a Contribution of Tentative Character.” It is far more than that.


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