The American Revolution (II): The Origin and Nature of Colonial Grievances
The Oxford History of the British Empire: The American Colonies in the British Empire, 1607-1776, ed. Stephen Foster (forthcoming, 2013)
Colonial grievances were not new in July 1776 but rather were as old as the British Empire and a constant feature of imperial governance. The continuous stream of grievances was not, however, evidence that “the spirit of the colonies demanded freedom from the beginning.” Paradoxically, grievances helped make the Empire work. They facilitated imperial development for two reasons. First, people lodging grievances could rely on a communication network for processing them, a system that helped integrate the many different subjects and places in the empire. Second, from the colonial perspective, the imperial grievance system had a safety valve: war. When the empire was at war, metropolitan policy-makers and local governors were more willing to compromise with provincial interests and acceded to claims that had been or threatened to become the source of grievances. The two together – the imperial grievance system and the leverage enjoyed by colonists during war – generated the sense throughout North America that the imperial constitution was a flexible set of institutions responsive to provincial claims and yet also efficient enough to facilitate common projects, like carrying out transatlantic commerce and waging war. The imperial constitution, with the grievance system at its core, provided the possibility for change that is essential to any workable constitution.
By the middle of the 1770s, however, the grievance network no longer performed effectively. A system that for over a century helped bind the North American colonies to the empire suddenly, after an unusually long and stable period of peace, fragmented and became an instrument of rebellion. Only then, in the Declaration of Independence, were the many and sometimes inconsistent colonial grievances compiled into a “history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” These grievances were irremediable and flowed outside the imperial constitution. The genre to which they now belonged was the international declaration of war.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Hulsebosch, Daniel J., "The American Revolution (II): The Origin and Nature of Colonial Grievances" (2013). New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers. 413.