Six Innovations on the Road to the American Revolution: Innovation 3--Defining the Relationship of the Mother Country to the Colonies. Thoughts by August Glen-James

Six Innovations on the Road to the American Revolution: Innovation 3--Defining the Relationship of the Mother Country to the Colonies. Thoughts by August Glen-James
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Under the economic theory of mercantilism, colonies were subordinate to their Mother Country. Colonies existed primarily to enrich the Mother Country by providing raw materials for manufacturing and serve as a ready market for her commerce.

American revolutionaries denied this doctrine.

Here are some leading thinkers of the American Revolution and their thoughts about the relationship between colonies and a “mother country.”

A. Naturally, Thomas Paine had some ideas about the relationship between the mother country and the American colonies.

But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore, the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically [i.e., using subtle reasoning; crafty; sly; intriguing] adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.[1]

B. Silas Downer, a prominent lawyer who was active in Rhode Island politics, gave a speech at the dedication of a Tree of Liberty. The speech, entitled A Discourse at the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty, was published under the pseudonym “A Son of Liberty” and contained the following passage.

This claim of the commons to a sovereignty over us, is founded by them on their being the Mother Country. It is true that the first emigrations were from England; but upon the whole, more settlers have come from Ireland, Germany and other parts of Europe, than from England. But if every soul came from England, it would not give them any title to sovereignty or even to superiority. One spot of ground will not be sufficient for all. As places fill up, mankind must disperse, and go where they can find a settlement; and being born free, must carry with them their freedom and independence on their fellows, go where they will. Would it not be thought strange if the commonalty of the Massachusetts Bay should require our obedience, because this colony was first settled from that dominion? By the best accounts, Britain was peopled from Gaul, now called France, wherefore according to their principles the parliaments of France have a right to govern them. If this doctrine of the maternal authority of one country over another be a little examined, it will be found to be the greatest absurdity that ever entered into the head of a politician.[2]

C. John Dickinson, using the simple pseudonym A Farmer, wrote a series of influential works entitled Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The following passage sheds light on how some colonists characterized the history, development, and relationship with England.

Colonies were formerly planted by warlike nations, to keep their enemies in awe; to relieve their country, overburdened with inhabitants; or to discharge a number of discontented and troublesome citizens. But in more modern ages, the spirit of violence being, in some measure, if the expression may be allowed, sheathed in commerce, colonies have been settled by the nations of Europe for the purposes of trade. These purposes were to be attained, by the colonies raising for their mother country those things which she did not produce herself; and by supplying themselves from her with things they wanted. These were the national objects in the commencement of our colonies, and have been uniformly so in their promotion.
To answer these grand purposes, perfect liberty was known to be necessary; all history proving, that trade and freedom are nearly related to each other. By a due regard to this wise and just plan, the infant colonies, exposed in the unknown climates and unexplored wildernesses of this new world, lived, grew, and flourished.
The parent country, with undeviating prudence and virtue, attentive to the first principles of colonization, drew to herself the benefits she might reasonably expect, and preserved to her children the blessings on which those benefits were founded. She made laws, obliging her colonies to carry to her all those products with she wanted for her own use; and all those raw materials which she chose herself to work up. Besides this restriction, she forbade them to procure manufactures from any other part of the globe, or even the products of European countries, which alone could rival her, without being first brought to her. In short, by a variety of laws, she regulated their trade in such a manner as she thought most conducive to their mutual advantage, and her own welfare.
For all these powers, established by the mother country over the colonies; for all these immense emoluments derived by her from them; for all their difficulties and distresses in fixing themselves, what was the recompense made them? A communication of her rights in general, and particularly of that great one, the foundation of all the rest—that *their property, acquired with so much pain and hazard, should be disposed of by none but themselves.[3] [bold-faced type and asterisk added]
* “The power of taxing themselves, was the privilege of which the English were, with reason, particularly jealous.” –Hume’s Hist. of England

The forgoing is not exhaustive, but it does help explain the changes in the American colonies that prepared the American mind for secession from the British Empire.

[1] Paine, T. (1995). Common Sense. New York: Barnes and Noble. (Work originally published in 1776.)

[2] Frohnen, B. (2002). The American Republic. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, p.143.

[3] Frohnen, Ibid., 147.