“If we are ever so unfortunate to be made Slaves; which God avert! what Matter is it to us whether our chains are forged in London, or at Constantinople? Whether the Oppression comes from a British Parliament, or a Turkish Divan?”
George Mason’s letter is part of the effort of the leading political thinkers of the American colonies to explain to both the British and themselves the causes and nature of the developing constitutional crisis between Great Britain and its American colonies. Mason’s letter is a response to a February 1766 letter from a Committee of Merchants in London in which the writers argue for future American restraint in their relationship with Britain following the 1765 Stamp Act crisis. American concerns stem from deep constitutional issues and are not merely the result of Americans being against taxation. Mason’s 1766 letter comes after writers such as John Dickinson, Daniel Dulany, and James Otis had voiced the concerns of the colonists. The letter is an overview of the concerns being express by the Americans during the early days of the crisis and is a context for understanding the evolving thinking of the colonies’ relationship with Britain.
The world the British and the colonists had known dramatically changed after 1754. The French and Indian War (1754–63) consolidated the British hold on eastern North America (and other parts of the world), removed the Spanish from North America east of the Mississippi River, and removed France from most of the continent. At the time, the war was the most expensive in British history. Americans were active participants on the British side during the conflict, and most Americans saw themselves as British.
The British government under Prime Minister George Grenville irritated the Americans by proposing the Revenue Act of 1764, but the Stamp Act of 1765 is considered the event that altered the course of British and American colonial relations. While the immediate dispute between the sides was taxation, the real concern for Americans was the nature of the British constitution and its application to the colonies, especially those in North America.
The British had not directly taxed the North American colonists since the creation of the first permanent settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. In the British constitutional tradition, any power not used is forfeited; therefore, by 1764, Americans were under the impression that taxation was not a constitutional power of the British government, even if it were legal. The constitutional relationship between Great Britain and the colonies was even understood by George Grenville, which is why the stamp tax made sense to the British government. It would be small, relative to the British counterpart, and self-enforcing. However, the act’s primary purpose was not to raise revenue but to change the taxation precedent, allowing the British government to point to a history of direct taxation that would, in turn, allow Parliament to directly tax Americans. The Americans understood the underlying meaning of the act and responded through both direct action and intellectual activity.
Numerous Americans tried to explain the concerns about both taxation and the constitutional relationship with the British empire. The efforts were uncoordinated and often at odds. In the long run, the lack of cohesion made it difficult for the British government to respond appropriately to American colonists and to restore the relationship with British North America.
George Mason was born on December 11, 1725, the eldest son of George and Ann Thomson Mason. Mason was part of the planter class, the economic elite of Virginia. He became a significant player in the Revolutionary War era and was one of the colonies’ leading political thinkers during the creation of the new American republic. His advice and counsel were sought by men such as George Washington. He tended to prefer a life at home, but he stepped into the public sphere when he saw it as necessary; he spent one term in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the American Revolution.
After the French and Indian War, many in the planter class, including Mason, saw British policy choices as hostile to colonial interests. The creation of the proclamation line of 1763 was such a decision: Mason, like many others of the planter class of Virginia, was a partner in the Ohio Company, and the proclamation line limited colonists’ access to the west. The Revenue Act and the Stamp Act, the two significant revenue acts of the day, were also seen as damaging to the colonies. At the end of the Stamp Act crisis, Mason wrote “Letter to the Committee of Merchants in London.”
Two occasions on which Mason moved into the public sphere had to do with the formation and powers of government, such as his letter to the merchants. In 1776, Mason became the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which has become a central document for understanding American constitutional development. He was also a member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, withholding his signature from the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights.
Mason’s letter is often overlooked when examining the colonial crisis of the 1760s as it comes during what is often considered a period of temporary calm in the relationship between the American colonies and Britain. In general, the letter is an overview of the concerns of the colonists. Mason touches on many issues that were, and would become, important in the crisis of the empire, in and around the Revolutionary War era. The themes in the letter are part of a common thread of thought throughout the colonies during the time period. Otis, Dulany, and Dickinson all discuss many of the same issues in greater detail in earlier works, but Mason’s letter is a good starting point for understanding the concerns and views of the colonists in the mid-1760s because it addresses many of the major concerns expressed by other letters in a single, relatively short document.
Mason states that it is not only bad policy but also bad politics and bad economics to attempt to change the constitutional relationship between North America and Britain. The letter touches on the attitude of the British toward the North American colonies, the wisdom of the Stamp Act, the nature of the relationship between the imperial government in London and the colonies, the use of parliamentary power, the dangers of attempting to impose the will of the imperial government on the North American colonies, and the loyalty of the Americans to Britain. All the points that Mason discusses are connected to the bigger, but not directly mentioned issue, of the constitutional relationship between Britain and the colonies.
Unlike the US Constitution ratified in 1787, the British “constitution” is not a single written document. It is composed of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, court decisions, and general legal tradition. The first three sources give the constitution flexibility and have allowed for change with a minimal use of force, while tradition, which can be seen as the most important single source, gives the system stability. The constitutional arguments made by Mason and other colonial writers deal with the role of tradition in the constitutional relationship between Britain and its colonies.
The beginning of Mason’s letter is a response to the traditional language often used when discussing the relationship of Britain to its colonies, that of a parent to a child, and he complains about the language used by the British in correspondence with Americans: “We rarely see anything, from your Side of the Water, free from the authoritative Style of the Master to the School-Boy.” Americans’ views of themselves had evolved by 1763, as they considered themselves equal members of the empire, in part because of their role in the success of Britain in the French and Indian War. The language used by the British in correspondence with Americans is, in the mind of Mason, “a little ridiculous” considering it addresses millions of loyal British subjects. Mason implies that the way in which Britain sees its relationship with the American colonies is no longer accurate, and that some found Britain’s treatment of the colonists insulting .
One of Mason’s major issues is the constitutional relationship between the imperial government and the colonies. He points to a distinction between legislation and taxation, which was an important one in the American constitutional debate about the Stamp Act. The colonists acknowledged Parliament’s right to pass legislation regarding the colonies, especially in areas of trade, commerce, duties, and tariffs (although they would later contest these areas). What colonists did not accept was the power to directly tax the population or, more accurately, create internal taxes such as the Stamp Act. The issue led to the often misinterpreted phrase “no taxation without representation.” The intent of the slogan was not to argue for representation in Parliament, but to point out that Parliament could not tax the colonists because they were not represented in that governmental body. Americans were arguing not against all taxation but that colonial legislatures were the only bodies that could impose taxes on the colonies.
While Mason (and most of the other writers of the day) accepts a legislative role for Parliament, he argues that parliamentary power must be used with caution and thoughtfulness when dealing with the people in the colonies. The encroachment of Parliament into the lives of the colonists, by limiting or removing their rights as British subjects, was a real concern for the colonists. To make his point, Mason goes beyond the issue of taxation. He discusses the colonists’ concern about the right to trial by jury. Because the right to a jury trial was limited, the power of judges expanded and was a threat to the wealth and well-being of the colonists.
Mason also touches on concerns about various manufacturing and navigation acts, issues that became bigger as the Revolution approached. Since 1640, the British had passed numerous acts over the years that limited the ability of the colonists to export their goods; the limits of exportation were of particular concern for the southern plantation class, whose tobacco crops were part of the regulated trade. The issue was not nearly as important in the middle colonies, where many of export crops saw little regulation, or in the Northeast, where many benefited from the limitation of foreign competition in shipping.
Mason argues that the American colonists are English and deserve to be treated the same as citizens residing in Great Britain. “We claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours.” Mason’s point echoes the thought process of the leading political writers of the day. They saw themselves as displaced Britons, not as a separate group. British Americans had not given up their rights as British subjects just because they had moved overseas. The argument is generally accurate as far as the northern and southern colonies are concerned, but it becomes problematic in the middle colonies where other European groups, most notably Germans, had begun to immigrate. A major concern with the argument that American colonists deserved the same rights as the British at home was the nature of the British constitution, which was not written or static.
Understanding the nature of the constitutional relationship between British and Americans became a big problem. The two sides did not agree on the very nature of the constitutional relationship about which they were having an argument. The Americans tended to believe that rights of the constitution were fixed, while the British government saw them as changeable.
Mason also deals with the argument that the Americans are better off within the British empire than under the control of some other state, pointing out that governmental control is the same whether it comes from Britain or some other nation. “If we are ever so unfortunate to be made Slaves; which God avert! what Matter is it to us whether our chains are forged in London, or at Constantinople? Whether the Oppression comes from a British Parliament, or a Turkish Divan?” In the end, Mason’s statement is a warning that Americans would be on the lookout for any form of government that could be considered tyrannical.
The latter part of the letter contains warnings to the British as to what might happen if the imperial government tries to enforce its will in British North America. His statement about the “Turkish Divan” was intended to let the British know both that Americans were unwilling to give up what they saw as their rights as British subjects and that tyranny from any source would be resisted by the colonists. He points to the size of America, the interests of Britain, and European rivals as problems that Britain would need to overcome to successfully subjugate the colonies.
Mason warns the merchants about the potential for economic disaster in a conflict between Britain and the North American colonies. His discussion of the “credit chain” illustrates a grim prospect in few words. He points out that the amount of credit owed by the colonies to the merchants is large enough to harm the merchants and the people to whom they owe money, creating a potentially devastating economic calamity. The idea of economics as a weapon was a tactic used successfully by the Americans in the 1760s, and it later became a standard response from the United States when dealing with adversaries. The British government appears to have been looking for ways to get revenue out of British North America without resorting to force.
Mason asks the merchants if it is even possible for the British government to impose its will by force. The British government’s ability to enforce its will hinged on two important questions: Was the public willing to support such an effort, and, if so, was it possible to enable a sufficiently large army to carry out the effort? Mason doubted the British public was willing to support armed conflict with Americans, and at the time, he may have been right; however, but by the time of the American Revolution the relationship between Britain and the American colonies had become so strained that political elites were willing to use force and send a sizable army to enforce British will. Mason was better aligned on the question of whether a British army could pacify a region so large. He was correct that the sheer vastness of the North American colonies would be a significant problem for the British armed forces.
Mason notes that the size of British North America, in both geography and population, is a major roadblock for Britain to physically enforce its will. Mason seems prescient about the problems the British faced during the American Revolution. He argues that the country, more than two thousand miles in length and with a population of more than three million, would be difficult to pacify. While most Americans would be neutral during a war with the British, the British would be able to pacify and control only those areas in which they had troops. The size of the American population meant that even if only a small percentage of Americans were actively resistance, the number would still be too large for the British forces to defeat. Mason asks if it is possible for Britain to enforce its will even if the residents of the British isles were willing to put up the necessary man power and finances.
Mason even alludes to the possibility of European interference in the affairs of the colonies. He uses the English role in the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a reminder that European countries would not likely sit on the sidelines while the British tried to subdue the American colonies. The warning that Mason offers are made with the context of Americans as British subjects, a status that many colonists desired to change.
Ever though it outlines the difficulty the British would have in subduing a colonial uprising, Mason’s letter contains a significant number of references designed to reassure Great Britain of American loyalty. Nonetheless, the letter discusses the nature of that loyalty. Mason argues that the Americans owed allegiance to the British empire, but he limits his reasons for why that loyalty is owed. He argues that the colonies were created under the protection of Britain but not “at the Expence of the private Adventurers our Ancestors.” Mason argues that the British government has protected and nurtured its colonies, but that the colonist built the colonies. Furthermore, until the French and Indian War, British protection was often limited in size and short in tenure.
Mason also argues that the relationship between Great Britain and its American colonies is one of mutual benefit, not one in which Britain pays for the colonies without recompense. In fact, Mason argues, the British are getting a good deal out of the relationship because “you can never grant [Americans] too much; because you can hardly give them any thing, which will not redound to the Benefit of the Giver.”
Mason’s conclusion begins by noting the interrelationships between the British and Americans. He points to the common language and ideas of government shared by the two groups. He argues that the British and Americans are a single people separated by an ocean, and he pleads with the British not to break the bonds that hold the empire together.
Mason attempts to show why the efforts to change the constitutional relationship between England and the colonies is bad policy, bad politics, and bad economics. His letter is both a warning and an appeal, and it also lays part of the groundwork for justifying revolution.
Mason’s letter can be seen as a condensation of many of the ideas driving colonial concerns in 1766. In that respect, it fits with other significant colonial writings with similar themes such as Otis’s The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764) and A Vindication of the British Colonies (1765), Dulany’s Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies (1765), and Dickinson’s works, including The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies (1765). The British saw its constitution as having some flexibility. For Americans, however, it was fixed in terms of America’s relationship with the British government. The Americans considered the Stamp Act and other such acts as both a violation of the constitution as they understood it and an effort to oppress the colonists. The Americans understood themselves to be British, claiming to have the same rights and liberties as their brethren living in Great Britain.
Mason’s letter was written during a period of crisis for the British empire, and like the other authors of the day, Mason espouses a desire for colonists to remain loyal, active members of the empire. Mason’s letter and similar writings were not written by revolutionaries but by men who were trying to preserve a political world they understood. They were not interested in independence; they were still looking to repair the relationship with the British government. In the end, the events of the following decade would make many of these men revolutionaries.
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