Unworthy the Head of a Civilized Nation: Waging War Against Us by Completing the Works of Death
“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
“He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”
Abdicated: Renounced; relinquished without a formal resignation; abandoned.[i]
After skewering the Parliament for their obnoxious legislation, Thomas Jefferson returns now with more charges aimed at the King:
On July 5, 1775, a little more than two months after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, assuring the King that the colonists remained “your Majesty’s faithful subjects.” It was signed on July 8 and finally delivered to Britain’s colonial secretary, Lord Dartmouth, by the colonies’ representatives on August 21. The King would not receive it, just as he had turned away a previous petition. Instead, two days later, King George officially declared the American colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion.“[ii]
The “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition” branded the American patriots “Traitors” and encouraged British subjects to report to authorities any persons they discovered to be carrying on “traitorous correspondence” with the rebels (this was well before Twitter).
“The Americans have only to return to their allegiance,” said John Lind in his Answer, “and by that very return, they are re-instated under the protection of the King.”[iii]
England was not unaccustomed to rebellions. Going all the way back to the Norman Invasion of 1066, various rebellions and uprisings had to be dealt with in the aftermath. Certainly, the nobles’ rebellion of 1215 that produced Magna Carta is another prime example. Several Scottish uprisings in the centuries afterward gave the English considerable practice at putting down armed rebellion. Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745 attempted to install first James II and then his son “Bonnie Prince Charlie” to their “rightful throne.” The Jacobite rebellions finally ended when King George I was brought over from Hanover, Germany, to sit on the English throne. No, these “upstart American colonists” were certainly not unique in British history.
“waging War against us?” In 1776, there would be plenty of that yet to come – as Jefferson was drafting these words, notice came to the Continental Congress that the British fleet was soon to arrive off New York City – but up to this point, the “war” had consisted only of the skirmishes at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, and a couple instances of naval shelling. But, even without these, Jefferson would have been technically correct in his assessment: a naval blockade such as the King had imposed on American ports the previous year, was an act of war under international law.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
While most Americans can name a few of the significant land battles of the Revolutionary War: Long Island, Trenton, Saratoga, Yorktown, to name several, few could name one of the naval bombardments of coastal America nor any of the significant naval battles of the war. The battle for Breeds (Bunker) Hill in June 1775 began with a ferocious naval bombardment of Charlestown. Falmouth, Massachusetts was attacked from the sea in October of that year. On New Year’s Day, 1776, British frigates bombarded Norfolk Virginia, burning a large part of the town to the ground.
As to naval battles, no doubt there would have been more if the Americans had more than a handful of ships. The greatest injury sustained from Britain’s vast navy lay in the cargo captured by British ships.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
While professional soldiers from the German State of Hesse-Kassel (Hessians) are commonly seen as the “mercenaries” Jefferson refers to, German soldiers from at least seven German states/regions made up the nearly 30,000 German professional soldiers hired by King George III, who, within the Holy Roman Empire remained known as the Prince-elector of Hanover (Germany). Individual Germans, notably, Frederick William Augustus and Baron von Steuben, volunteered their services to the Americans. After the war, only about 17,300 of the original 30,000 German soldiers opted to return to their homeland in the German states. Many of the freed POWs chose instead to make a new life in America.
That these Hessians were truly professional soldiers is best exemplified by this excerpt from David Hackett Fisher’s wonderful book “Washington’s Crossing.” Hessian prisoners taken during the Battle of Trenton “were sent from Philadelphia to Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, and then on to western Virginia in 1777. They were escorted by a company of Pennsylvania militia. When they reached the Pennsylvania state line, all of the militia went home except the captain, who told the Hessians, ‘whose affections he had won by his humanity,’ that ‘they must march on without an escort, as he himself should hurry on to Winchester (Virginia),’ When he met them three days later in Winchester, every Hessian POW answered the roll call.”[iv]
In his Answer to the Declaration of Independence, John Lind dismisses the king’s hiring of foreign troops “to bring [the Americans] back to their duty” as a benevolent gesture of the King intended merely to reduce the risk to the lives of his “loyal subjects in Britain.” Later, Lind explains the hiring as a necessity since the British Army was simply not big enough for the task.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
“IMPRESS’MENT, noun. The act of impressing men into public service; as the impressment of seamen.”[v]
Great Britain had practiced impressment since the reign of Queen Elizabeth. “Press gangs” would roam taverns and pubs seeking those too inebriated to realize they were “joining” the Royal Navy. “When a seaman was confronted by the gang he was first given the opportunity to volunteer. If he accepted, he was later paid the bounty. Many seamen preferred to be pressed and to refuse the king’s shilling, since they could not be charged with desertion should they flee the service and later be caught.”[vi] In the spring of 1757, three thousand British soldiers cordoned off New York City (it was a little smaller than) and plucked 800 “tradesmen and Negroes”out of the pubs and other favored gathering spots. Four hundred of these were “retained in the service”.[vii]
Keeping a vast naval fleet manned and ready was hard enough in peacetime; it was impossible in wartime without the use of impressment. Even the fledgling American Navy was forced to use impressment of American citizens in 1777.[viii] Yet, impressment of foreigners into service in the British Navy was against British law.[ix] In 1812, Americans would thus be protected, theoretically, from the practice; but the practice continued and became a major factor leading to the war. During the war for American Independence, however, Americans enjoyed no such protection.[x] American sailors captured in a naval exchange with the Royal Navy could the next day find themselves fighting their own countrymen or, as Jefferson put it: fall[ing] themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
The “domestic insurrections” Jefferson refers to were slave rebellions. There had been slave rebellions in the American colonies before so the British knew slaves, at least some of them, would fight their masters if given the opportunity.
The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave revolt to ever take place in the colonies. On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, supposedly a “day off” for slaves, about 20 slaves under the leadership of a man named Jemmy broke into a store, stole weapons and supplies and headed for the refuge of Spanish-ruled Florida, leaving 23 murder victims in their path.
But what Jefferson was most likely thinking of as he wrote these words was Virginia Governor Dunmore’s proclamation of November 7, 1775. The proclamation declared martial law in the colony and promised freedom for any slaves in Virginia who left their owners and joined the royal forces, becoming Black Loyalists.
In 1768, Britain decided to stop protecting the colonies from Indian attacks on the frontier. Various Indian tribes, eager to recoup land settled by the colonists, mounted attacks, some of them notoriously vicious.[xi]
This ends the complaints section of the Declaration of Independence.
As previously noted, the various complaints Jefferson raises in the Declaration, many the British had seen before, are an oft-overlooked section of this marvelous document. They show us in their reverse what good government is all about. And, it should not surprise us to find many of these “problems of government” solved in the Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was an answer to problems. By understanding the problems, one better understands the solution.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at
email@example.com, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).
Podcast by Maureen Quinn
[iii] John Lind, An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress, 1776, p. 94
[iv] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004), 379
[vi] Roland G. Usher, Jr., Royal Navy Impressment During the American Revolution, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review , Mar., 1951, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Mar., 1951), pp. 673-688
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