The American Founding | Pepperdine University | School of Public Policy

The American Founding

Important Documents


A Summary View of the Rights of British America

Thomas Jefferson

Resolved, that it be an instruction to the said deputies when assembled in general congress with the deputies from the other states of British America, to propose to the said congress that an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty, begging leave to lay before him, as chief magistrate of the British empire, the united complaints of his majesty's subjects in America; complaints which are excited by many unwarrantable incroachments and usurpations, attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire, upon those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.  To represent to his majesty, that these his states have often individually made humble application to his imperial throne, to obtain, through its intervention, some redress of their injured rights; to none of which was ever even an answer condescended:  humbly to hope that this their joint address, penned in the language of truth, and divested of those expressions of servility which would persuade his majesty that we are asking favours and not rights, shall obtain from his majesty a more respectful acceptance.  And this his majesty will think we have reason to expect, when he reflects that he is no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and circumscribed with definite powers, to assist in working the great machine of government, erected for their use, and consequently subject to their superintendance.  And in order that these our rights, as well as the invasions of them, may be laid more fully before his majesty, to take a view of them from the origin and first settlement of these countries.

To remind him, that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them; of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.  That their Saxon ancestors had, under this universal law, in like manner left their native wilds and woods in the North of Europe; had possessed themselves of the island of Britain, then less charged with inhabitants, and had established there that system of laws which has so long been the glory and protection of that country.  Nor was ever any claim of superiority or dependence asserted over them by that mother country from which they had migrated; and were such a claim made, it is believed his majesty's subjects in  Great Britain have too firm a feeling of the rights derived to them from their ancestors, to bow down the sovereignty of their state before such visionary pretensions.  And it is thought that no circumstance has occurred to distinguish materially the British from the Saxon emigration.  America was conquered, and her settlements made and firmly established, at the expence of individuals, and not of the British public.  Their own blood was spilt in acquiring lands for their settlement; their own fortunes expended in making that settlement effectual; for themselves they fought, for themselves they conquered, and for themselves alone they have right to hold.  Not a shilling was ever issued form the public treasures of his majesty, or his ancestors, for their assistance, till of very late times, after the colonies had become established on a firm and permanent footing.  That then, indeed, having become valuable to Great Britain for her commercial purposes, his parliament was pleased to lend them assistance against an enemy, who would fain have drawn to herself the benefits of their commerce, to the great aggrandisement of herself, and danger of Great Britain.  Such assistance, and is such circumstances, they had often before given to Portugal, and other allied states, with whom they carry on a commercial intercourse; yet these states never supposed, that by calling in her aid, they thereby submitted themselves to her sovereignty.  Had such terms been proposed, they would have rejected them with disdain, and trusted for better to the moderation of their enemies, or to a vigorous exertion of their own force.  We do not, however, mean to underrate those aids, which to us were doubtless valuable, on  whatever principles granted; but we would shew that they cannot give a title to that authority which the British parliament would arrogate over us, and that they may amply be repaid by our giving to the inhabitants of Great Britain such exclusive privileges in trade as may be advantageous to them, and at the same time not too restrictive to ourselves.  That settlements having been thus effected in the wilds of America, the emigrants thought proper to adopt that system of laws under which they had hitherto lived in the mother country, and continue their union with her by submitting themselves to the same common sovereign, who was thereby made the central link connecting the several parts of the empire thus newly multiplied.

But that not long were they permitted, however far they thought themselves removed from the hand of oppression, to hold undisturbed the rights thus acquired at the hazard of their lives, and loss of their fortunes.  A family of princes as then on the British throne, whose treasonable crimes against their people brought on them afterwards the exertion of those sacred and sovereign rights of punishment reserved in the hands of the people for cases of extreme necessity, and judged by the constitution unsafe to be delegated to any other judicature.  While every day brought forth some new and unjustifiable exertion of power over their subjects on that side the water, it was not to be expected that those here, much less able at that time to oppose the designs of despotism, should be exempted from injury.

Accordingly that country, which had been acquired by the lives, the labours, and the fortunes of individual adventurers, was by these princes, at several times, parted out and distributed among the favourites and followers of their fortunes, and, by an assumed right of the crown alone, were erected into distinct and independent governments; a measure which it is believed his majesty's prudence and understanding would prevent him from imitating at this day, as no exercise of such a power of dividing and dismembering a country has ever occurred in his majesty's realm of England, though now of very ancient standing; nor could it be justified or acquiesced under there, or in any other part of his majesty's empire.

That the exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world, possessed by the American colonists as of natural right, and which  no law of their own had taken away of abridged, was next the object of unjust encroachment.  Some of the colonies having thought proper to continue the administration of their government in the name and under the authority of his majesty king Charles the first, whom, notwithstanding his late deposition by the commonwealth of England, they continued in the sovereignty of their state; the Parliament for the commonwealth took the same in high offence, and assumed upon themselves the power of prohibiting their trade with all other parts of the world except the island of Great Britain.  This arbitrary act, however, they soon recalled, and by solemn treaty entered into on the 12th, day of March 1651, between the said commonwealth by their commissioners and the colony of Virginia by their house of burgesses, it was expressly stipulated by the 8th article of the said treaty, that they should have "free trade as the people of England do enjoy to all places and with all nations according to the laws of that Commonwealth.”  But that, upon the restoration of his majesty King Charles the Second, their rights of free commerce fell once more a victim to arbitrary power;  and several acts of his reign, as well as of some of his successors, the trade of the colonies was laid under such restrictions, as shew what hopes they might form from the justice of a British parliament were its uncontrouled power admitted over these states.  History has informed us that bodies of men, as well as individuals, are susceptible of the spirit of tyranny.  A view of these acts of parliament for regulation, as it has been affectedly called, of the American trade,  if all other evidence were removed out of the case, would undeniable evince the truth of this observation.  Beside the duties they impose on our articles of export and import, they prohibit our going to any markets northward of cape Finesterre, in the kingdom of Spain, for the sale of commodities which Great Britain will not take from us, and for the purchase of others, with which she cannot supply us, and that for no other than the arbitrary purpose of purchasing for themselves, by a sacrifice of our rights and interests, certain privileges in their commerce with an allied state, who in confidence that their exclusive trade with America will be continued, while the principles of power of the British parliament be the same, have indulged themselves in every exorbitance which their avarice could dictate, or our necessities extort;  have raised their commodities, called for in America, to the double and treble of what they sold for before such exclusive privileges were given them, and of what better commodities of the same kind would cost us elsewhere, and at the same time give us much less for what we carry thither, than might be had at more convenient ports.  That these acts prohibit us from carrying in quest of other purchasers the surplus of our tobaccoes remaining after the consumption of Great Britain is supplied;  so that we must leave them with the British merchant for whatever he will please to allow us, to be by him reshipped to foreign markets, where he will reap the benefits of making sale of them for full value.  That to heighten still the idea of parliamentary justice, and to shew with what moderation they are like to exercise power, where themselves are to feel no part of its weight, we take leave to mention to his majesty certain other acts of British parliament, by which they would prohibit us from manufacturing our own use the articles we raise on our own lands with our own labor.  By an act passed in the 5th year of the reign of his late majesty king George the second, an American subject is forbidden to make a hat for himself of the fur which he has taken perhaps on his own soil; an instance of despotism to which no parrallel can be produced in the most arbitrary ages of British history.  By one other act, passed in the 23d year of the same reign, the iron which we make we are forbidden to manufacture, and heavy as that article is, and necessary in every branch of husbandry, besides commission and insurance, we are to pay freight for it to Great Britain, and freight for it back again, for the purpose of supporting not men, but machines, in the island of Great Britain.  In the same spirit of equal and impartial legislation is to be viewed the act of parliament, passed in the 5th year of the same reign, by which  American lands are made subject to the demands of British creditors, while their own lands were still continued unanswerable for their debts; from which one of these conclusions must necessarily follow, either that justice is not the same thing in America as in Britain, or else that the British parliament pay less regard to it here than there.  But that we do not point out to his majesty the injustice of these acts with intent to rest on that principle the cause of their nullity; but to shew that experience confirms the propriety of those political principles which exempt us from the jurisdiction of the British parliament.  The true ground on which we declare these acts void, is that the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.

That these exercises of usurped power have not been confined to instances alone, in which themselves were interested; but they have also intermeddled with the regulation of the internal affairs of the colonies.  The act of the 9th of Anne for establishing a postoffice in America seems to have had little connection with British convenience, except that of accomodating his majesty's ministers and favourites with the sale of a lucrative and easy office.

That thus have we hastened through the reigns which preceded his majesty's, during which the violation of our rights were less alarming, because repeated at more distant intervals, than that rapid and bold succession of injuries which is likely to distinguish the present from all other periods of American story.  Scarcely have our minds been able to emerge from the astonishment into which one stroke of parliamentary thunder has involved us, before another more heavy, and more alarming, is fallen on us.  Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.

That we next proceed to consider the conduct of his majesty, as holding the executive powers of the laws of these states, and mark out his deviations from the line of duty:  By the constitution of Great Britain, as well as of the several American states, his majesty possesses the power of refusing to pass into a law any bill which has already passed the other two branches of legislature.  His majesty, however, and his ancestors, conscious of the impropriety of opposing their single opinion to the united wisdom of two houses of parliament, while their proceedings were unbiassed by interested principles, for several ages past have modestly declined the exercise of this power in that part of his empire called Great Britain.  But by change of circumstances, other principles than those of justice simply have obtained an influence on their determinations; the addition of new states to the British empire had produced an addition of new, and sometimes opposite interests.  It is now, therefore, the great office of his majesty, to resume the exercise of his negative power, and to prevent the passage of laws by any one legislature of the empire, which might bear injuriously on the rights and interests of another.  Yet this will not excuse the wanton exercise of this power which we have seen his majesty practice on the laws of the American legislatures.  For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reason at all, his majesty has  rejected laws of the most salutary tendency.  The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state.  But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hither to defeated by his majesty's negative:  thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.  Nay, the single interposition of an interested individual against a law was scarcely ever known to fail of success, though in the opposite scale were placed the interests of the whole country.  That this is so shameful an abuse of a power trusted with his majesty for other purposes, as if not reformed, would call for some legal restrictions. 

With equal inattention to the necessities of his people here, has his majesty permitted our laws to lie neglected in England for years, neither confirming them by his assent, nor annulling them by his negative; so that such of them as have no suspending clause, we hold on the most precarious of all tenures, his majesty's will; and such of them as suspend themselves till his majesty's assent be obtained, we have feared might be called into existence at some future and distant period, when time, and change of circumstances, shall have rendered them destructive to his people here. And to render this grievance still more oppressive, his majesty by his instructions has laid his governors under such restrictions that they can pass no law, of any moment, unless it have such suspending clause; so that, however immediate may be the call for legislative interposition, the law cannot be executed till it has twice crossed the Atlantic, by which time, the evil may have spent its whole force.

That these are our grievances, which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate:  let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art.  To give praise which is not due, might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature.  They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.  Open your breast, Sire, to liberal and expanded thought.  Let not the name of George the Third be a blot in the page of history.  You are surrounded by British counsellors, but remember that they are parties.  You have no ministers for American affairs, because you have none taken from among us, nor amenable to the laws on which they are to give you advice.  It behoves you, therefore, to think and to act for yourself and your people.  The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them, requires not the aid of many counsellors.  The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.  Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.  No longer persevere in sacrificing the rights of one part of the empire to the inordinate desires of another; but deal out to all equal and impartial right.  Let no act be passed by any one legislature, which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another.  This is the important post in which fortune has placed you, holding the balance of a great, if a well poised empire.  This, Sire, is the advice of your great American council, on the observance of which, may, perhaps depend your felicity and future fame, and the preservation of that harmony, which alone can continue both to Great Britain and America, the reciprocal advantages of their connection.  It is neither our wish, nor our interest, to separate from her.  We are willing, on our part, to sacrifice every thing which reason can ask, to the restoration of that tranquility for which all must wish.  On their part, let them be ready to establish union and a generous plan.  Let them name their terms, but let them be just.  Accept of every commercial preference it is in our power to give for such things as we can raise for their use, or they make for ours.  But let them not think to exclude us from going to other markets to dispose of those commodities which they cannot use, nor to supply those wants which they cannot supply.  Still less, let it be proposed that our properties within our own territories, shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.  This, Sire, is our last, our determined resolution; and that you will be pleased to interpose with that efficacy which your earnest endeavours may ensure to procure redress of these our great grievances, to quiet the minds of your subjects in British America, against any apprehensions of future encroachment, to establish fraternal love and harmony through the whole empire, and that these may continue to the latest ages of time, is the fervent prayer of all British America!