1765 and 2009; A Colonial Exchange Worth Reading

Colonel Isaac Barre gave a speech before Parliament in 1765 that resonates strongly today. I encourage all to read it. Here’s a little back history.

In 1764 and 1765, tensions simmered between the British Parliament and the Colonies over revenue streams. Both sides agreed that the Colonies needed to contribute more revenue to help alleviate the British debt resulting from defending and administering the growing Colonies.

On the table was the Stamp Act. Many Colonists questioned the authority of Parliament to levy such a tax and most wanted to raise the revenue in their own assemblies. Parliament was desperate to raise revenue and was upset that the Colonists questioned their authority.

A series of debates took place to argue the merits of the Stamp Act, but one stands out. It was an exchange between British Politician Charles Townsend and Colonel Isaac Bruce. Although a Member of Parliament, Bruce had spent considerable time in the Colonies. He fought in the French-Indian War and injured himself at the Battle of Quebec. Although he resided in England, he maintained great reverence for his colonial Brothers.

Townsend, speaking in favor of the Act, famously stated:

And now will these Americans, Children planted by our Care, nourished up by our Indulgence until they are grown to a Degree of Strength & Opulence, and protected by our Arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?

To which Barre famously, beautifully and prophetically replied:

They planted by your Care? No! your Oppressions planted em in America. They fled from your Tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable Country—where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human Nature is liable, and among others to the Cruel ties of a Savage foe, the most subtle and I take upon me to say the most formidable of any People upon the face of Gods Earth. And yet, actuated by Principles of true english Lyberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with those they suffered in their own Country, from the hands of those who should have been their Friends.

They nourished up by your indulgence? they grew by your neglect of Em: —as soon as you began to care about Em, that Care was Excercised in sending persons to rule over Em, in one Department and another, who were perhaps the Deputies of Deputies to some Member of this house—sent to Spy out their Lyberty, to misrepresent their Actions & to prey upon Em; men whose behaviour on many Occasions has caused the Blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them; men promoted to the highest Seats of Justice, some, who to my knowledge were glad by going to a foreign Country to Escape being brought to the Bar of a Court of Justice in their own.

They protected by your Arms? they have nobly taken up Arms in your defence, have Exerted a Valour amidst their constant & Laborious industry for the defence of a Country, whose frontier, while drench’d in blood, its interior Parts have yielded all its little Savings to your Emolument.

And believe me, remember I this Day told you so, that same Spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still.—But prudence forbids me to explain myself further. God knows I do not at this Time speak from motives of party Heat, what I deliver are the genuine Sentiments of my heart; however superiour to me in general knowledge and Experience the reputable body of this house may be, yet I claim to know more of America than most of you, having seen and been conversant in that Country. The People I believe are as truly Loyal as any Subjects the King has, but a people Jealous of their Lyberties and who will vindicate them, if ever they should be violated—but the Subject is too delicate & I will say no more.

Our battle now is the same as it was then. 244 years later our country has come full circle. Charles Townsend could be a modern liberal. To both, we are subjects; Beneficiaries of the government’s “indulgence”. To both, the American people are “children” who are, or need to be, “planted” and “nourished” by the government. What good we have, we owe to the government. Are we not obligated to pay down the government’s debt, since we are indebted to the government for our welfare?

This episode in history is known for the statement “no taxation without representation”, but the issue at stake was much greater. It was about the relationship between man and state. About the destiny of a self-governed people, who prospered despite the government, not because of the government. About subjects versus free men.

Barre went on to became a hero to the Colonist. Ten years after his speech, his dire warning became true. “A people Jealous of their Lyberties” vindicated them. It was Barre who first used the term “Sons of Liberty”, which was adopted by the leaders of the Revolution. Today, towns across the Northeast are still named after him.

A prescient man he was. Although things are now as they were then, lets hope his last dire statement does not need to come true this time around, as it did last time around.