The last thing I would wish to do, as a Canadian and also as a British citizen, is dispute the worthiness of celebrating the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. It is not in that spirit, but in the pursuit of historical accuracy, that I gently remind some readers of what that Declaration actually tells us.
Poor old King George III — Farmer George, a stubborn, not overly intelligent person who was intermittently mad as a result of porphyria — was certainly a limited man, but was not a bad man. Yet he is denounced in the most astonishing strictures by Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues on the editorial committee for the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman): George III “evinces [a] design to reduce [us] under absolute despotism;” he has been “waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.”
Were Jefferson and the others delusional? What on earth were they writing about? None of this had happened or was an ambition entertained by the king, sane or mad. This was from a lengthy sequence of charges Jefferson launched against the king that is scarcely less grave in its content nor more temperate in its tenor than the charges against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg.
The king and his ministers were attempting to collect a tax, which was not in an excessive amount and was not an unwarranted ambition. The British, in the course of the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in the U.S.), had almost doubled the national debt and were running deficits as chronic as those in the U.S. today. The Americans had almost 30 percent of the population of the British home islands and the highest standard of living in the British empire.
The most expensive aspect of the Seven Years’ War — which was in some respects the first world war, as it was fought in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, West Africa, and India — was in North America. The principal British object in the war was to evict France from North America, and they succeeded in this, without which American independence would not have been feasible. The Americans could never secede from the British empire while the French empire was on the border of New England and New York; the possibilities for incursions by the French were extremely serious and could not have been resisted.
The genius of the Founders, Benjamin Franklin in particular, was to help persuade the British to throw the French out of North America, and then to persuade the French to help the Americans expel the British from the United States. That these colonists were able thus to manipulate the two most powerful governments in the world was an astounding achievement.
The British imposed on America the stamp tax, something the British were already paying, and they allowed for one year to pass before it took effect, so the Americans could suggest an alternative method of raising revenues from the American colonies. The only American to do so was Franklin, then in London as the representative of Pennsylvania and two other colonies, who proposed that the British government address the absence of paper money in America by setting up a credit bank that would issue credit at a fixed rate of interest, with an annual fee for renewal, and that this would, in effect, be a voluntary tax.
It was, as always with Franklin, a very imaginative idea, but the British government at this point — unlike during the Seven Years’ War, when it was under the influence of Pitt the Elder — wasn’t interested in thinking of a new tax. The British were paying the stamp tax, and if the Americans were going to compensate the British for the services they had rendered the Americans, it was up to the Americans to either pay the same tax or devise an alternative (Franklin had no authority to speak for his colonial countrymen). Instead, the Americans came up with the concept of “No taxation without representation,” but no sane people on earth would vote to tax itself if it did not have to do so.
The British had every right to expect the Americans to contribute to the cost of removing France from their borders. The British bungled the issue and made the fatal mistake of trying to impose a tax that was not in fact collectible. But they did not deserve, and the British king did not deserve, the sort of abuse that is the core of the Declaration of Independence, between its famous and soaringly eloquent opening and closing.