Of all the contemporary writers on the imperial crisis dividing Great Britain from its American colonies, none was more perceptive than Josiah Tucker, Dean of Gloucester Cathedral. Scarcely remembered, and in any case overshadowed by the great luminaries of the age such as Burke, Smith, Hume, and Gibbon, Tucker’s writings brilliantly illuminated the nature of the crisis and what, for Britain, was the only possible solution. His two best productions—“The True Interest of Great Britain Set Forth in Regard to the Colonies; And the Only Means of Living in Peace and Harmony with them” (1774) and “A Letter to Edmund Burke” (1775)—are both available online; perversely, the only modern edition of Tucker’s writings, published by Routledge in 1993, retails at over $1500, as if there were some cosmic conspiracy to keep his light from our besotted generation.
Both when I first approached the subject as a graduate student, and then again when I took up the subject in preparation for Peace Pact, I was struck by Tucker’s perspicacity and wit. There follows an extended extract from Peace Pact (without the notes) summarizing Tucker’s outlook on the American crisis:
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Tucker was as emphatic as Burke on the disutility of force. He conceded that the government, if it acted speedily, “might prevail, and America, however unwilling, be forced to submit.” But the blood and treasure that would be spent in that eventuality, the damage to commerce and manufactures that a hostile spirit would produce, and the impossibility of maintaining “a Superiority in it afterwards for any Length of Time” all argued for the absurdity of the attempt. In the event of a successful war, Britain would face the alternative of “permitting the Colonies to enjoy once more those Advantages of English Liberty, and of an English Constitution, which they had forfeited; or else a Resolution to govern them for the future by arbitrary Sway and despotic Power.” Tucker showed either alternative to be inadmissible, lamenting in the latter case the “baleful Influence this Government a la Prusse would have on every other Part of the British Empire” and in the former the return to the very situation—their ungovernability—the use of force was expected to resolve.
Tucker also rejected the idea of combining colonial representation in Parliament for the purpose of incorporating “America and Great-Britain into one common Empire.” Far from “proving a Means of Reconciliation, and a Center of Union,” the measure would instead “have a Tendency to beget endless Jealousies, Quarrels, and Divisions, between the Mother-Country and the Colonies.” Tucker saw two great difficulties from this measure: it would, in the first place, import into the British constitution doctrines of representation that would be inimical to the right understanding of parliamentary duty. Tucker shared with Burke and Whately the view that a member of Parliament was obliged to “to take Care of the Interests of all the People in general,” and that he could not, consistently with that duty, “pay any Deference to the Request, Instruction, Remonstrance, or Memorial, of his particular Electors, except in such Cases only herein he is convinced in his Conscience, that the Measures, which they require him to pursue, are not incompatible with the public Good.” Instructions sent by sovereign bodies were characteristic of diplomatic assemblies, but a similar procedure in the case of Parliaments threatened basic values of deliberation for the sake of an acknowledged common good; it seemed plain to Tucker that American notions of representation would challenge the normative order of the British Parliament and perhaps lead subjects at home into disobedience to the laws (since they had not, after all, actually consented to them).
Tucker’s second objection was directed against the assumption that colonial representation in Parliament would establish the legitimacy of parliamentary measures over America. That sanguine view ignored the evident difficulties of dividing powers between the national Parliament and colonial legislatures, based on what was external and internal, and what general and provincial: “who is to judge between the British Parliament and the Provincial Assemblies” when conflicts arose, as they surely would? The “very same Things justly pass under both Denominations, according as they are seen from different Points of View.” Barracks and fortresses necessary for defense were of a general nature, yet from another view every barrack might be denominated “as an odious Badge of slavery,” and every magazine “a Monument of Tyranny and despotic power, and Prerogative for destroying the few Liberties that were left.”
The proposals for colonial representation in Parliament had carried with them the evident implication, occasionally acknowledged, that “America should become the general Seat of the Empire.” Tucker was at his most mischievous in showing the absurdity of this scheme. “[W]hatever Events may be in the Womb of Time, or whatever Revolutions may happen in the Rise and Fall of Empires, there is not the least Probability, that this Country should ever become a Province to North-America.” The English would rather be governed by the French than the Americans. He acknowledged that his foresight was limited, but thought “this Island would rather gravitate towards the Continent of Europe, than towards the Continent of America; unless indeed we should add one Extravagance to another, by supposing that these American Heroes are to conquer all the World. And in that Case I do allow, that England must become a Province to America.” There was, in fact, as much probability of America governing England, as England governing America, and his demonstration of the impossibility of the one gave strength to his condemnation of the other. Having surveyed the extant options, and readily shown the defects of them all, Tucker arrived at his astonishing conclusion: “For if we neither can govern the Americans, nor be governed by them; if we can neither unite with them, nor ought to subdue them;—what remains, but to part with them on as friendly Terms as we can?” Those terms were to declare “them to be a free and independent People, over whom we lay no Claim” and to offer “to guarantee this Freedom and Independence against all foreign Invaders whatever.” The relationship would be reconstructed on the basis of mutual interest and beneficial exchange rather than obedience.
Tucker disposed readily of the proposition that the surrender of sovereignty would mean the sacrifice of the American trade. The reverse was true. The British could have it when it was in the interest of the Americans to do so, and those were, as a practical matter, the very terms on which they enjoyed it now. Besides, there was no better motive for denying Great Britain a trade prompted by interest than the injuries and retaliations incident to a war. Britain had already “become a Kind of a general Mart” for most commodities, and from an economic perspective it was clear that the colonies could not “trade with any other European State to greater Advantage than they can with Great-Britain.” As for fears that the French would take possession of the Colonies, Tucker deemed them “very wild, very extravagant, and absurd.” The notion supposed that the colonists, “who cannot brook our Government, would like a French one much better,” and that “our mild and limited Government, where Prerogative is ascertained by Law, where every Man is at Liberty to seek for Redress, and where popular Clamours too often carry every Thing before them,—is nevertheless too severe, too oppressive, and too tyrannical for the Spirits and Genius of Americans to bear; and therefore they will apply to an arbitrary, despotic Government” for their remedy. It was not only that the Americans would not submit to this inglorious yoke; the French themselves should certainly think thrice about it. Could an arbitrary government, Tucker asked, “dispose with such Liberties as a republican Spirit will require”? Could it incorporate, and still remain itself, “An absolute Freedom of the Press! No controul on the Liberty either of Speaking or Writing on Matters of State! Newspapers and Pamphlets filled with the bitterrest invectives against the Measures of Government! Associations formed in every Quarter to cry down Ministerial Hirelings, and their Dependents! The Votes and Resolutions of the Provincial Assemblies to assert their own Authority and Independence! No landing of Troops from Old France to quell Insurrections! No raising of new Levies in America! No quartering of Troops! No Building of Forts, or erecting of Garrisons!” All this fun was to show that France could not turn the balance of power in her favor by seeking dominion over the colonies; at all events, Great Britain, with her superior marine, would have in her hands the means to prevent such an acquisition if it seemed that a revival of French ambitions in America “would really and truly be an Addition of Strength in the political Balance and Scale of Power.”
Tucker’s sketch of the consequences such an abdication would have on the political relations between Great Britain and the American states emphasized the parlous unity of the colonials. “The Moment a Separation takes Effect,” he wrote, “intestine Quarrels will begin: For it is well known, that the Seeds of Discord and Dissention between Province and Province are now ready to shoot forth; and that they are only kept down by the present Combination of all the Colonies against us, whom they unhappily fancy to be their common enemy.” Renounce the claim of authority, and “the weaker Provinces will intreat our Protection against the stronger; and the less cautious against the more crafty and designing.” Tucker’s vision of Great Britain serving, in effect, as the holder of the balance in America, and being found useful by Americans as “their general Umpires and Referees,” was a highly plausible projection from his line of policy, and bore out his larger argument that the renunciation of all authority over the Americans would actually increase rather than diminish British influence with them. That it would have had momentous consequences for the political structures that emerged in North America after 1776 seems evident, for the centripetal forces operating on the American states after that date were almost all owing to the exigencies, oaths, sacrifices, and common institutions that emerged from the vortex of the War of Independence. That struggle cast its shadows long after its thunders were hushed in peace. For a generation and more, the great thing that Americans could agree on, when they could agree on almost nothing else, was that the British state, led by wicked and designing ministers, had conducted an infamous attack against the liberties of the American colonies. The development of the American union and the sentiment of American nationalism was bound part and parcel with the divorce from the British nation, and from the bitter passions that engendered.
Tucker shared in many respects Burke’s appreciation of “the spirit of liberty” that animated the American colonists, though he readily distinguished, as all observers did, between the northern and southern continental colonies. Burke had attributed that spirit in northern colonies to their religion. While all varieties of the Protestant religion were “a sort of dissent,” New England offered a refinement on this principle: it was “the dissidence of dissent and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.” In the southern colonies, by contrast, where “the Church of England forms a large body and has a regular establishment,” the “spirit of liberty” was “still more high and haughty” than in the north. . . . [see here]
Tucker accepted this basic portrait, though he reminded Burke that the first settlers in New England, conceiving “that Dominion was founded in Grace,” were of that strain of Republicans who thought “that they had the best Right in the World both to tax, and to persecute the Ungodly. And they did both, as soon as they got Power into their Hands, in the most open and atrocious manner.” Tucker acknowledged that the “present Dissenters in North-America retain very little of the peculiar Tenets of their Fore-fathers, excepting their Antipathy to our established Religion, and their Zeal to pull down all Orders in Church and State, if found to be superior to their own.” But these surviving traits raised strong doubts over the desirability of continuing “a Connection with a People who are actuated by Principles so very repugnant to our own Constitution both in Church and State, and so diametrically opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel.” The Puritans of Massachusetts, wrote Tucker, were “universally Calvinists of the most inflexible Sort” and professed enemies to popery and Arminiamism, yet they were “no Enemies to religious Establishments.” On the contrary, “their great Aim was, to establish the solemn League and Covenant, as the only System which ought to be admitted into a Christian State. Nor would they have suffered any other religious Persuasion to have existed, if they could have prevented it.” Though all in favor of “pulling down proud and lordly Prelacy,” they were “most indefatigable in erecting Classes, and Synods, and Elderships, in the genuine Spirit of High-Church, Presbyterian Hierarchy, and armed with the Terrors and Powers of an Inquisition. In short, their Aim was to establish a republican Form of Government built on republican Principles both in Church and State. But, like all other Republicans ancient and modern, they were extremely averse from granting any Portion of that Liberty to others, which they claimed to themselves as their unalienable Birth-Right.” Tucker thought that justice and policy required “That each Religious Persuasion ought to have a full Toleration from the State to worship Almighty God, according to the Dictates of their own Consciences,” but did not think that the Church of England would suffer in the colonies in the event of independence. Noting the “Persecution which the Church of England daily suffers in America, by being denied those Rights which every other Sect of Christians so amply enjoys,” Tucker attributed it to the fact that “The Americans have taken it into their Heads to believe, that an Episcopate would operate as some further Tie upon them” and would be “used as an Engine, under the Masque of Religion, to rivet those Chains, which they imagine we are forging for them.” Were the mother country to surrender its authority, “all their Fears will vanish away, and their Panics be at an End.” And so it did indeed prove to be.
Nor did Tucker dispute Burke’s contention that the American’s “ungovernable Spirit” of liberty was derived, in the southern colonies, from the “Domination of the Masters over their Slaves.” “For it seems, he that is a Tyrant over his Inferiors is, of Course, a Patriot, and a Leveller in respect to his Superiors.” Tucker did not let pass the opportunity of condemning the institution of “domestic or predial” slavery: it was “the most onerous and expensive Mode of cultivating Land, and of raising Produce, that could be devised.” Much to be preferred, in point of economy and morality, was “the Method of hiring free Persons, and paying them wages,” a fact that demonstrated that the “Laws of Commerce, when rightly understood, do perfectly coincide with the Laws of Morality.” But his larger point was that the very spirit that made slave-masters “haughty, insolent, and imperious in private Life” also made them “turbulent and factious in respect to the Public.” Republican governments, whether ancient or modern, were consequently “the most insolent and tyrannical upon Earth;” their subjects retained “less of Liberty, both in Form and Substance, than most of the Subjects even of monarchical Governments.” It was useless to appease such people in the hope of keeping them within the British Empire, and all the characteristics to which Burke had pointed in showing the necessity of governing them mildly showed to Tucker, and not unreasonably, that the British could not govern them at all. A man, he said, must have a high opinion of his eloquence who should think he should bind these “High Mightinesses” further than they wished to be bound.
Tucker’s animadversions on the American character, though unkind, were not terribly unjust. The levelling, intolerant, and fanatical ways of New Englanders, imbibed from their Puritan fathers; the haughty, insolent, and imperious ways of the southern gentleman, molded from birth by the institution of slavery—these cultural traits were not only real but also showed little sign of disappearing. Though Tucker took perverse delight in dwelling on the “refractory Behavior” of the colonies, he was far from charging them “with being Sinners above others.” On the contrary, it was the nature of all colonies “to aspire after Independence, and to set up for themselves as soon as ever they find that they are able to subsist, without being beholden to the Mother-Country. And if our Americans have expressed themselves sooner on this Head than others have done, or in a more direct and daring Manner, this ought not to be imputed to any greater Malignity, or Ingratitude in them, than in others, but to that bold free Constitution, which is the Prerogative and Boast of us all.” Employing the familial analogy so characteristic of discourse on the empire, Tucker recognized that America had come of age; for the parents to continue treating the young man like a child would simply confirm him in his childish behavior. Better to throw him out, and then re-establish the relationship on the basis of equal respect and mutual interest.
In terms of immediate policy, Tucker was not as far from Burke as his polemic might indicate. When Burke made his plea for peace—“Not Peace thro’ the Medium of War; not Peace to be hunted thro’ the Labyrinths of intricate and endless Negociations; not Peace to arise out of universal Discord, fomented from Principle, in all Parts of the Empire . . .”—Tucker had asked: “what is this Heaven-born pacific Scheme, of which we have heard so laboured an Encomium? Why truly; if we will grant the Colonies all that they shall require, and stipulate for nothing in Return; then they will be at Peace with us. I believe it; and on these simple Principles of simple Peace-making I will engage to terminate every Difference throughout the World.” Yet Tucker’s plan was vulnerable to the same satire, and in fact his real quarrel with Burke was that he and the Rockingham Whigs would not grant the colonies the freedom and independence that they really wanted, but rather continued to solicit from them an acceptance of their subordination to Parliament.