Invasions on the Rights of the People: Dissolved Legislatures, and the Declaration of Independence
“He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
In the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress included a list of grievances against the king. The colonists complained that they had suffered “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” One of the complaints was that the king had fundamentally violated the right of the colonists to government by the consent of the governed. They asserted specifically that George III had “dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
The Declaration of Independence established free government in a natural rights republic based upon equality. From that equality flowed the idea that all members of the political regime equally gave their consent to a representative government. The Declaration stated the purpose of that government was to protect the rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The American republican government was rooted upon a continuing consent of the sovereign people through their representatives in legislatures.
The American colonists consistently appealed to the principle of consensual government in the decade of resistance before the Declaration of Independence. The main argument of the American Revolution was “no taxation without representation.” The colonists were willing to pay taxes as British subjects. During the colonial period, colonial legislatures would tax the people by their consent and then offer some of the revenue to pay royal officials in the colonies or to the crown as a “free gift.”
However, the continued attempts at taxing the colonists in the Stamp Act (1765), Townshend Acts (1767), and Tea Act (1773), among other taxes, demonstrated to the colonists that the British ministry was bent on tyranny in the colonies. The British government was burdened by a massive debt incurred in fighting the Seven Years’ War and wanted the colonists to pay for thousands of redcoats stationed in forts out west. The Americans responded by demanding in countless pamphlets, newspapers, petitions, declarations of rights, and speeches that they could only be taxed by their consent.
The American colonists also forcefully resisted the taxes and other acts of tyranny, and asserted their rights in their colonial legislatures. In late 1765, General Thomas Gage stationed troops in New York and requested that New Yorkers comply with the Quartering Act by provisioning the troops. When the assembly refused several times over the next year, Parliament responded by passing the Suspension Act that suspended the New York legislature. Because the legislature would not submit to violations of property rights by a standing army in time of peace, the people were stripped of their right of self-government.
In 1767, the Townshend Acts introduced a series of taxes on the colonists for various goods including glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. In February 1768, the Massachusetts assembly adopted Samuel Adams’ proposal denouncing the taxes. It stated that the taxes were “infringements of their natural and constitutional rights” because the colonists did not give their consent. This Massachusetts Circular Letter appealed to other colonies to “harmonize with each other” in protesting the taxes. In London, the ministry was outraged by what it considered sedition and instructed Governor Francis Bernard to coerce the assembly to revoke the letter. When the assembly refused, Bernard suspended the legislature.
In Virginia, the House of Burgesses passed resolutions on May 16 that stated the “sole right of imposing taxes on the inhabitants of this his Majesty’s colony and dominion of Virginia, is now, and ever hath been, legally and constitutionally vested in the House of Burgesses.” The new royal governor, Lord Botetourt, responded, “I have heard of your resolves, and augur ill of their effect. You have made it my duty to dissolve you; and you are dissolved accordingly.”
The Burgesses marched down the street a short distance to the upper room of Raleigh Tavern where the people’s representatives appointed a committee to draw up a nonimportation agreement. They agreed to the boycott, which was drafted by George Mason with George Washington’s help, on the following day. For Washington, self-government was a moral principle and must be defended. “That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment to use arms in defense of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends.”
Perhaps the most infamous dissolution of a colonial legislature was introduced by the Coercive Acts which Parliament passed in 1774 to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. The Massachusetts Government Act wiped out town meetings and altered the Massachusetts charter and government to place it under royal control. This “Intolerable Act” was a gross violation of colonial self-government.
True to form, Virginia royal governor, Lord Dunmore then dissolved the House of Burgesses for resolving to hold a Day of Fasting and Prayer in support of Boston on June 1 to “give us one heart and one mind to firmly oppose, by all just and proper means, every injury to American rights.” The Burgesses again marched to Raleigh Tavern and agreed to boycott British goods. The indefatigable colonists then answered a Massachusetts call for the people’s representatives to assemble in Philadelphia for a Continental Congress to deliberate on “wise and proper measures” to preserve self-government.
In Federalist #39, James Madison described the republican principle of consent: “We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period.” Madison’s quote represents the source of American resistance to British violations of colonial representative self-government and why the Declaration of Independence made its charge against George III.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn
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We should be drawing ever closer to renewing our Patriotic commitment to fight the absolute Coercive acts being forced upon our great nation at this time.