Monday, July 29, 2013

Ferguson: The Case for War

Adam Ferguson, a member of the Republic of Letters and the distinguished author of Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), supported the determination of the British government to repress the rebellion of the American colonies. His short speech in the House of Lords, in 1775, distills the basis of the government's policy. 

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That gentlemen should differ about some particular points of colony government, as, for example, how far it was expedient or inexpedient to tax America, considering how much that question was involved in difficulty, and how much could be plausibly said on the one side or the other, was not much to be wondered at: but it was matter of no small surprise to him, that they were still likely to differ in opinion, when the question was no longer confined to taxation, or to any particular exercise of the authority of Great Britain, but extended to the very being of the sovereignty itself, and to those rights of which this kingdom had been in possession ever since the existence of the colonies. The honourable magistrate who spoke last had said, that the congress had declared they did not aim at independence. They certainly had done so in general terms: but how did their particular claims correspond to this general assertion? He was afraid, if these were examined, it would appear that the pretensions of the congress went the length of a total exemption from the power and authority of parliament.

They had declared in the most express terms, that parliament had no right to intermeddle with their provisions for the support of civil government, or the administration of justice. Their language was, that while parliament pursued its plan of civil government within its own jurisdiction, they insisted upon pursuing theirs without molestation, plainly claiming an authority in each of the colony assemblies, exclusive of that parliament. An exclusive right of legislation in all matters of internal policy had been, in the most express terms, asserted by them, and not only the late acts of parliament more particularly complained of, but every other which touched upon the internal polity of the colonies, had been treated by them as unjust encroachments of parliament upon the rights of a legislature as independent as itself.

In military matters, their pretensions were equally extravagant. They expressly denied that Great Britain had a right to keep a single soldier in the whole extensive continent of America, without the consent of the legislature of that colony where the troops were kept. With regard to revenue, had not a declaration been made. in words intelligible to all mankind, that America never would be taxed by parliament, unless they refused to contribute their proportion to the common expences of the state? They even knew, that any reasonable sum would be accepted of; but they would not gratify this country so far as to say that they would contribute a single shilling. The only particular in which they seemed inclined to admit the authority of parliament was in what related to the regulation of their trade: even with regard to that, they expressed themselves with a sufficient degree of caution; but in every thing else they asserted an absolute independence on parliament.

In what manner things had been brought to that unhappy dilemma, did not seem the proper object of their present enquiry. The present object was to remedy the evil. Were he to give his opinion upon that subject, he should be apt to say, that no ministry, since the time of the Stamp-Act, had been altogether free of blame: but he should at the same time add, that, perhaps more than any ministry, those had been to blame, who, not satisfied with expressing their disapprobation of particular measures, had argued, both within and without doors, against the authority of the supreme legislature itself; who, from an excess of zeal in support of America, seemed too much to forget the interest of the mother-country; and, from an apprehension lest the colonies should be ruled with too heavy a hand, seemed inclined to adopt measures which had a tendency to exempt them from the dominion of Great Britain altogether, and to erect them into so many sovereign independent states.

But instead of investigating the causes of the evil, it was more material now to consider what was proper to be done to remedy it, and in this he saw but one choice, either to support with vigour the authority of Great Britain, or to abandon America altogether. Some speculative men have said, and published their opinions to the world, that it would be no such fatal stroke to Britain as is generally imagined, were America to be abandoned altogether: he had not opinion enough of his own foresight to say with certainty what the consequence would be, but so much benefit had he reaped from these speculations as to hope that the prosperity of Great Britain would not be desperate even were such an event to happen. But who would be bold enough to advise such a measure? and who could, with certainty, answer for the effects of it? If no person would, what remained, but that they should exert every nerve to reduce their rebellious subjects to obedience? After they had reduced them, and convinced them of their inability to resist the power of this country, then, and not till then, would be the time to shew them all possible indulgence. Any further concession now would be considered as extorted from them by their fears, not as the voluntary effect of their favour.

But can this country reduce them to obedience, or must the contest be given up for want of power? If it must, there is no help for it: but, at least, let us put it to the trial; for his own part, he could not entertain a doubt of it; he did, indeed, see that those were mistaken who said the Americans would not fight: but those were at least, as much mistaken, if there were any such, who would entertain a doubt of their being reduced by a proper exertion of the power of Great-Britain. As he could not doubt of the strength of Great Britain to reduce them, so he hoped if that strength was exerted it would be done effectually. If a force is sent to America, both prudence and humanity required that it should be such a one as, humanly speaking, would carry its point. The error hitherto had been to have too small a force there; to continue the same error still, was to protract the horrors of a civil war. He did not mean merely that such a force should be sent as would be sufficient to beat their opponents; it ought to be such a one as would deprive them of all idea of resistance.

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Parliamentary History of England, XV: 737-40, October 26, 1775, House of Lords.