A Summary View of the Rights of British America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art.”

Summary Overview

In 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to review the colonists’ options with regard to the increasingly oppressive actions made against them by Great Britain’s king and Parliament. Before departing for Philadelphia, Virginia’s delegation to the congress received a set of instructions from the Virginia House of Burgesses. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft of these instructions, denouncing British rule, lashing out against the actions taken by the Empire against the colonists, and declaring colonial independence. Although the pamphlet was not adopted, it provided a clear illustration of both Jefferson’s writing prowess and his revolutionary fervor.

Defining Moment

By 1774, the relationship between the American colonies and the Crown had deteriorated dramatically. Parliament had passed laws that were perceived by many in the colonies as oppressive and tyrannical, including increased taxes on goods and services, as well as laws that allowed Britain to impose on the privacy and legal rights of the colonists. In 1774, Parliament responded to increased colonial protests (including the Boston Tea Party of 1773) by introducing the punitive Coercive Acts (or, as many colonists referred to it, the Intolerable Acts), which included restrictions on commerce and legal protections for British officials acting against the colonists.

In the fall of 1774, twelve of the thirteen colonies agreed to send delegates to Philadelphia to take part in the First Continental Congress; Georgia did not participate. The goal of the Continental Congress was to collectively develop a response to Britain’s actions. Each colony’s delegation was elected either by the people, colonial legislatures, or special committees within the colonial government. While the meeting’s organizers originally intended for the event to show a unified front, each of these delegations were sent to Philadelphia with a set of instructions developed solely by their respective colonies in anticipation of intensive debates and compromises that were likely to take place before the delegates would agree to a common course of action.

Virginia’s delegation, selected by the colonial House of Burgesses, was no different in this regard. It was comprised of some of the most prominent figures in the American Revolution, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee. Thomas Jefferson, a member of the House, was asked to draft the legislature’s instructions for this austere group to bring to Philadelphia. Jefferson’s draft was strong and defiant. He stated that the colonies were always independent of Britain, despite the Crown’s best efforts to keep them in the fold. He also lashed out against the King George III and Parliament, whose political and military actions in the colonies he deemed illegal.

Jefferson was not present at the House of Burgesses when it began to debate his draft language. The House deemed his draft too incendiary and instead opted for the final document to show a more moderate tone. However, Jefferson’s original draft was retained by his supporters and published as an independent pamphlet. Reaching readers throughout the colonies and even in London, the pamphlet solidified Jefferson’s reputation as a powerful communicator and revolutionary.

Author Biography

Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743. His mother came from a prominent Virginia family while his father was a successful planter and surveyor. Jefferson studied classical languages and mathematics at a prestigious private school near his home before he enrolled at the College of William and Mary in 1760. Jefferson studied law under the mentorship of attorney George Wythe. As a result of this mentorship, Jefferson developed into a successful attorney, practicing from 1764 to 1774. Jefferson also met his wife, Martha Skelton, during this period. The two had six children.

While practicing law Jefferson also worked as county lieutenant and magistrate. Jefferson’s burgeoning political career coincided with growing dissatisfaction with British rule and increasing revolutionary fervor. In addition to his work in local government, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. There, he connected with a group of like-minded radicals, including Patrick Henry and George Washington.

In 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which appointed Jefferson’s colleague, Washington, as commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. A year later, in light of the reception of “A Summary of the Rights of British America,” the Continental Congress asked Jefferson to work with John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence, although most of that document would be credited to Jefferson alone.

After his work with the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson returned to Virginia to serve as a member of its House of Delegates, a position he held from 1776 to 1779. From 1779 until 1781, he served as Virginia’s governor; his tenure ended when, in the view of his critics, he failed to show resolve and defiance against the advancing British army. Jefferson was drawn back into public service after the death of his wife in 1782. He returned to Congress in 1783 and was named the American minister to France in 1785. Upon returning to America in 1789, he was appointed to be President Washington’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1794. Jefferson was defeated by John Adams to succeed Washington, but was eventually elected as the nation’s third president in 1800. In 1809, Jefferson returned to his home at Monticello and founded the University of Virginia. He died in 1826.

Document Analysis

Thomas Jefferson wrote this essay with a number of goals in mind. First, he sought to underscore the severity of the situation between the American colonies and Great Britain. There was a long list of grievances that needed to be addressed during the First Continental Congress, many of which Jefferson believed were based on illegal actions undertaken by Great Britain. Their correction was integral to restoring the relationship between the two parties.

Second, Jefferson looked to remind the delegates of the full extent of responsibility borne by Great Britain with regard to these grievances. Although many thought that Parliament was the primary institution responsible for the oppressive measures imposed on the colonies, Jefferson held the opinion that the King George III was complicit in this oppression. If the Continental Congress did not find some way to address the actions of both Parliament and the monarchy, the situation would worsen.

Third, Jefferson looked to empower the delegates, reminding them of the importance of their posts to the present and future peace and prosperity of the American colonies. The delegates, he hoped, would maintain an American perspective, keeping in mind the ideals that Americans shared (namely, an appreciation of their natural rights and liberties). This approach would help ensure that these grievances would be resolved in a just and balanced manner.

Jefferson begins his essay by speaking to the issue of a sovereign dissolving a legislative body. He refers to the case of Robert Tresilian, a fourteenth-century chief justice under King Richard II. In light of both his position and his reputation as a strong disciplinarian, Tresilian had made many powerful enemies during his tenure. When Parliament (which contained many of Tresilian’s rivals) voted to restrict Richard’s powers, Tresilian wrongly advised him to dissolve Parliament. His enemies charged Tresilian with treason and had him executed. Jefferson says that none of Richard II’s successors made such an attempt—even when their subjects collectively petitioned these kings to dissolve a Parliament they found “obnoxious,” members of Parliament would loudly object to the petitions and claim that the king had no such right under the British Constitution.

Jefferson makes these historical references to illustrate the irony of the situation in the American colonies. When Parliament took issue with a colonial legislature’s actions, he says, it deemed it within its power to dissolve that body (even if such actions were unconstitutional). Jefferson was referring to three such incidents that took place between 1767 and 1769 in New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Each of these colonies’ respective legislatures was dissolved for refusing to comply with—or for simply protesting against—new laws imposed by Parliament.

Jefferson suggests that the king does indeed have the power to dissolve Parliament, but only if it has lost the confidence of the people it serves. If a legislative body tramples upon the rights of its constituents or assumes powers never given to it by the people, Jefferson says, that legislature becomes “dangerous to the state.” Such a status, Jefferson says, calls for immediate dissolution. In other words, Jefferson thinks it seems “strange” that colonial legislatures had been dissolved several times while Parliament remained immune from such a fate.

It is Jefferson’s belief that Parliament, the king, and the colonial governors (who were the ones who officially dissolved those legislatures) went far beyond the limits of the law in order to carry out this action. He adds that, when these dissolutions took place, the governors refused to form new legislatures, leaving the colonies that were administered by those bodies without a legal framework. As it is human nature to create laws for society, Jefferson argues, this power is assigned to the legislatures. Once those institutions are removed, the power reverts back to the people’s hands.

Following his accusations on the legality of dissolving colonial legislatures, Jefferson next suggests that the colonies themselves, from the very day they were founded, were already independent of British rule. He bases his argument on ancient feudal traditions he says were long forgotten, but never discarded. Jefferson says that Americans (by virtue of their English heritage) descended from the Saxons, whose land ownership practices were simple—they owned their lands without being beholden to any lord or other superior. The Saxons of the early eleventh century dubbed this practice “allodial” (absolute ownership).

When William the Conqueror, a Norman, defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he captured the lands owned by fallen Saxons, returning the lands to his new subjects at a cost (the premise of the feudal system). Then again, many of the lands owned by Saxons prior to the Battle of Hastings went uncaptured. These subjects, Jefferson says, were ultimately beholden to William through military conscription and taxation (“burthens”), but they remained independent landowners. In fact, William the Conqueror ultimately declared all lands in England to be owned by the Crown, but Jefferson says that this proclamation only applied to those under the feudal system. Any lands not identified as those owned by the king would be considered allodial. As generations and centuries passed, this tradition was maintained, if only in unofficial terms.

Six centuries later, Jefferson says, the rules of allodial property ownership still apply in America. The land and property acquired when the colonists arrived in America belonged to no one. The colonists simply chose unoccupied land on which to build houses, farms, and similar structures. Because they were so remote and unoccupied, these properties continued to operate outside of any designated royal lands and were never surrendered to William or his successors.

Jefferson acknowledges that the colonists, whom he describes as farmers rather than lawyers, are uneducated on this understated rule from ancient England. When they were told by the Crown that they had to pay taxes on their lands and properties, the colonists simply complied with what they believed to be the law. On the other side, the British did nothing to correct this rule, according to Jefferson. Instead, they accepted the long-standing (but “fictitious,” in the words of Jefferson) principle that any land acquired by subjects of the Crown belonged to England.

The British government therefore continued to grant, rent, and tax parcels of land to the colonists, even though those lands were not Great Britain’s property to administer. Jefferson adds that, by the mid-1700s, the king went even further. While the prices of land had previously been “reasonable,” Jefferson explains that the king started to raise the cost of ownership and make it difficult for colonists to live in America. The result of such policies would be a reduction in the population of the colonies.

Jefferson says that the colonists need to place the issue before the king, adding that that they should openly declare that the king had no right to grant land that was not his to distribute. Jefferson advises all colonists to state in no uncertain terms that, based on the commonly accepted nature and purpose of civil institutions, all lands within a geographic boundary established by a society are subject to allotment by that society’s legislature or through popular vote. In societies that lack such institutions, ownership would be defined by occupancy alone. No outside entity, including the monarch or Parliament, has the authority to administer and manage such property.

Jefferson next comments on the growing presence of British troops in the colonies. He says that the king’s troops are there to enforce the “arbitrary measures” that were implemented to punish the colonists for their protests. However, these troops are, in Jefferson’s opinion, in the colonies without justification. After all, they were not sent to America with the authorization of the colonial governments, nor were their numbers raised from among the colonists. Rather, Jefferson notes, the king was attempting to “swallow up all our other rights,” a regal privilege Jefferson questions.

Furthermore, he says, the king has no right to land a single troop on America’s shores. He adds that any British troops sent to the colonies should have been made subject to the laws of the colonial governments. This point meant that troops stationed in the colonies—whether they were there to put down riots, uprisings, and unlawful assemblies or to repel hostile forces—should have been placed with the sanction of the colonial government. If the armed forces failed to act appropriately under that sanction, they should be prosecuted according to colonial laws. If the troops are not in America under colonial oversight, Jefferson says, they are themselves the hostile force, invading the colonies in “defiance of law.”

Jefferson’s main point on this issue is that while the king maintains executive authority to administer the laws of each British state, he is also “restrained” by those same laws. Each colony, Jefferson says, has the duty to determine for itself how many of the king’s troops would be welcomed within its borders, what type of troops would be stationed there, and the restrictions under which the troops would operate within their jurisdiction. Furthermore, Jefferson says, King George III gave this military force virtual immunity from any civil law in force in the colonies. He had, in the words of Jefferson, made “the civil subordinate to the military.” In doing so, Jefferson argues, George III was replacing civil law with military law, which might succeed in suppressing rebellious activity but could not otherwise serve the public good. Jefferson adds that “force cannot give right.”

Jefferson states that the colonists had clearly laid before King George III this list of grievances, using the freedoms of speech and expression that free people are afforded through natural law. He tells the delegates, “let those flatter who fear,” an expression reminding them to be mindful of the rights due to all Americans under government. Only the corrupt (“venal”) might give praise and deference to the government even as it trampled on the rights of the people, Jefferson says, adding that this type of submissive behavior does not fit any society knowledgeable of its natural rights. Such societies understand that “kings are the servants” and not the people’s owners.

In light of the conditions, Jefferson implores Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress to open their minds to the extraordinary opportunity that lay before them. He asks them not to allow King George III to be one of many British kings recorded in American history. He also reminds them that, although they are part of the legislature, they work alongside British officials who are party to the tyranny that Jefferson asserts is increasing in the colonies. Furthermore, he says, no ministers of Parliament or other officials were chosen from among the colonists to represent America in British government.

Without the guidance and representation of anyone else, the delegates would need to think and act solely on their own counsel with the people’s best interests in mind. This task, Jefferson says, should be simple. Delegates know, based on their own cultural ideals, the difference between right and wrong. Jefferson states that, as government officials, these delegates need only to be honest and balanced—there is no need for them to sacrifice the rights of the people in one part of the British Empire to benefit the rights of other subjects. Similarly, no legislature (namely Parliament) should pass laws that infringe upon the rights and liberties of another.

Jefferson adds that these delegates are assuming an important post—one that could ensure the preservation of a great empire. Their task, as part of the First Continental Congress, is to seek reconciliation and to restore harmony to the mutually advantageous relationship shared between America and Great Britain. This task is critical, he says, as it is not the wish of the colonists to be separated from the British. Jefferson and his colleagues felt that the delegates should sacrifice everything (within reason) to resolve the issues between the two parties and return to “tranquility.”

Then again, Jefferson notes, it is also critical that the British make a concerted effort to restore harmony. Indeed, the British would need to make a similar sacrifice to reestablish the union. The onus, Jefferson insists, is on Great Britain to come up with terms that are acceptable and just. In the commercial arena, for example, both the British and the colonies should come to agreements that enable each party to benefit from the other’s enterprises. Jefferson also says, however, that the colonies should be allowed to diversify their international trade practices, particularly when Britain does not need a particular commodity or does not offer a particular product of need for the colonies. Additionally, Jefferson adds, the only institutions that should be allowed to tax and regulate the colonies should be the colonial governments themselves

Finally, Jefferson encourages the delegates to stand strong for the concept of liberty in the colonies. God, he says, eternally linked liberty and life, and although brute force could destroy life, it could never sever this link. He calls upon the delegates to keep this link in their hearts as they assume their roles. The delegates would be seeking satisfaction of the aforementioned grievances against the king and Parliament, working to allay the fears among the people about further British shows of force and laboring to establish harmony throughout the British Empire. While they undertake these tasks, Jefferson says, the link between life and liberty should remain at the fore of their minds. This principle, he asserts, is the key to building a long-standing sense of harmony across the British Empire.

Essential Themes

Jefferson intended “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” to be a guide for Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Virginia House of Burgesses ultimately opted for the delegates’ guide to use milder language, as Thomas Jefferson’s passionate words were seen as an indictment of the British approach to the colonies and as an empowering device for the colonists to stand tall against the British actions.

Jefferson first takes Parliament and King George III to task for assuming they have the right to control to the colonies. He specifically targets the Crown’s notion that it was within its power to dissolve legislatures, despite the fact that British history clearly indicates that neither the king nor his ministers have such authority. He also states that, under a centuries-old English tradition, the land and property claimed by the colonists were allodial—they did not belong to the king or Great Britain and, as such, were not subject to any British authority.

Jefferson also asserts that the presence of British troops in the colonies (and their apparent immunity from colonial laws while in America) is unauthorized. Jefferson states that there is no legal justification for the king to deploy his military forces to the colonies, and that the British had disregarded the authority of the colonial American governments by sending them.

In addition to outlining the colonists’ grievances with the British Empire, Jefferson uses this document to encourage Virginia’s Congressional delegates to take notice of the importance of their position. They were sent to Philadelphia as representatives of the American people, and he stresses the need for them to proceed with this fact in mind rather than deference to the British officials who served as their counsels in the Virginia legislature. Jefferson challenges the delegates to think independently as they pursue reconciliation with the British Empire.

Jefferson repeatedly makes a point that it was not the goal of the First Continental Congress to seek war or secession from Great Britain. Indeed, he encourages the delegates to work toward reconciliation with the Crown and restoration of the tranquility and harmony that relationship had brought. However, he argues, it is important for England to recognize the interests of the colonies and their people. This notion meant respecting colonial legislative authority, the basic rights of the people, and the colonies’ trade interests. While the goal of the First Continental Congress was reconciliation, Jefferson reminds the delegates, the British needed to work toward restoring the relationship as well.

Bibliography
  • Kurland, Philip B., and Ralph Lerner, eds. “The Founders’ Constitution: Rights.” The Founders’ Constitution. University of Chicago, 1987. Web. 13 June 2012.
  • Kindig, Thomas. “First Continental Congress.” US History. Independence Hall Association, 2011. Web. 11 June 2012.
  • “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” World Digital Library. World Digital Library, 2012. Web. 10 June 2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson Biography.” Biography. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of 1800.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, 2012. Web. 10 June 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

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