John Wilkes—The Warning

Background of the American Revolution

Shortly after the First Continental Congress concludes, the House of Commons debates declaring the colonies in rebellion. A member of the House, John Wilkes, rises to oppose and offers a prophetic warning.

I tremble, Sir, at the almost certain consequences of such an Address, founded in cruelty and injustice, equally contrary to the sound maxims of true policy, and the unerring rule of natural right.

Debate in the Commons
on an
Address to the King
upon the
Disturbances in North America.


VOTES of February 6, 1775.

RESOLVED , That it is the opinion of this Committee, “That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, to return His Majesty our most humble thanks, for having been graciously pleased to communicate to this House, the several papers relating to the present state of the British Colonies in America, which, by His Majesty’s commands, have been laid before this House, and from which, after taking them into our most serious consideration, we find, that a part of His Majesty’s subjects in the province of the Massachuset’s Bay have proceeded so far to resist the authority of the supreme legislature, that a rebellion at this time actually exists within the said province—that we beg leave, in the most solemn manner, to assure His Majesty, that it is our fixed resolution, at the hazard of our Lives and properties, to stand by His Majesty, against all rebellious attempts, in the maintenance of the just rights of His Majesty and the Two Houses of Parliament.”

And a motion was made, and the questions put, “That the said resolution be re-committed.”

The Lord Mayor, Mr. Wilkes, said:

MR SPEAKER:johnwillkes

THE business before the House, in its full extent, respecting the British Colonies in America, is of at great importance as was ever debated in parliament. It comprehends almost every question relative to the common rights of mankind, almost every question of policy and legislation. I do not mean to enter into so vast, so well-trodden a field. I will confine myself to the immediate business of this day. The Address now reported from the Committee of the whole House appears to be unfounded, rash, and sanguinary. It draws the sword unjustly against America; but before administration are suffered to plunge the nation into the horrors of a civil war, before they are permitted to force Englishmen to sheath their swords in the bowels of their fellow subjects, I hope this House will seriously weigh the original ground and cause of this unhappy dispute, and in time reflect whether justice is on our side; and gives a sanction to the intended hostile proceedings. The assumed right of taxation without the consent of the subject is plainly the primary cause of the present quarrel. Have we then, Sir, any right to tax the Americans? That is the great important question. The fundamental laws of human nature, and the principles of the English constitution, are equally repugnant to the claim. The very idea of property excludes the right of another’s taking any thing from me without my consent, otherwise I cannot call it my own. No tenure can be so precarious as the will of another. What property have I in what another person can seize at his pleasure? If any part of my property is subject to the discretionary powers of others, the whole may be so likewise. If we can tax the Americans without their consent, they have no property, nothing they can call their own with certainty, for we might by violence take the whole as well as the part. The words liberty and property, so dear to an Englishman, so pleasing in our ears, would become a cruel mockery, an insult to an American. The laws of society are professedly calculated to secure the property of each individual, of every subject of the state. This point is no less clearly determined by the great principles of that happy constitution under which we live. All subsidies to the crown have always been considered, and expressly declared, to be grants from the Commons of the realm, free gifts from the people. Their full consent is stated in the grant. Much has been said of the Palatinate of Chester, and the Principality of Wales, and the period of their taxation; but, Sir, there is a more remarkable case in point, which alone would determine this question. If gentlemen will search the Records in the Tower, and the Chapel of the Rolls, they will find that the town of Calais in France, when it belonged to the imperial crown of this realm, was not taxed till it sent a representative to parliament. A Thomas Fowler actually sat and voted in this House as a burgess of the town of Calais. From that period, and not till then, was Calais taxed. The Writ out of Chancery, and the Return in the reign of Edward 6, are still extant. I faithfully gave them to the public from attested copies.

It will, I foresee, Sir, be objected, Is America then to enjoy the protection of Great Britain, and to contribute nothing to the support of that parent state, which has so long afforded it safety and security, which has carefully and tenderly nursed it to this hour of its present strength and greatness? The Americans themselves have given the fullest answer to this objection, in a manner not to be controverted, by their conduct through a long series of years, and by the most explicit declarations. Equally in words and actions, of the most unequivocal nature, they have demonstrated their love, their ardour, their strong filial piety towards the mother country. They have always appeared ready, not only to contribute towards the expences of their own government, but likewise to the wants and necessities of this state, although perhaps they may not be over-fond of all the proud, expensive trappings of royalty. In the two last wan with France they far exceeded the cold line of prudence. With the most liberal hearts they cheerfully gave you nearly their all, and they fought gallantly and victoriously by your side, with equal valour against our and their enemy, the common enemy of the liberties of Europe and America, the ambitious, faithless French, whom now we fear and flatter. Our Journals, Sir, will bear witness to the grateful sense we had of the important services of our brethren in America, by the great sums we shall find voted to be repaid them for what they expended in the spirited warlike expeditions, which they carried through with equal courage and conduct. The siege and capture of Louisbourg, the various successful operations against the general foe, without the least knowledge, much less participation, on our part, are the fullest proofs of the warm affection of their hearts to this country, and of their readiness to bear more than their share of the public expence and burthen. But, Sir, the whole was the gift of freemen, our fellow-subjects, who feel that they are, and know they have a right to be, as free as ourselves. What is their language even now, at a moment when you are planning their destruction, when you are branding them with the odious appellation of rebels? In the late Petition of the Congress to the King, they declare, they are ready and willing, as they ever have been, when constitutionally required, to demonstrate their loyalty to his Majesty, by exerting their most strenuous efforts in granting supplies and raising forces. This is the unanimous resolution of a Congress, composed of deputies from the several colonies of New Hampshire, Massachuset’s Bay, Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the counties of Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and the Two Carolinas.

I have heard, Sir, of a plan of accommodation, which, I believe, would reconcile all differences. But alas! Sir, it does not come from any servant of the crown. It conies from the noble Lord [Earl of Chatham], to whom this country has the most essential obligations, to whom it is so highly indebted for its late splendour and glory. The plan is, to assemble another Congress in the spring; the parliament of Great-Britain and the deputies of the several colonies to meet together, jointly empowered to regulate the various quotas to be paid by each province to the general treasury of the whole empire. I would in addition to that plan propose, that a regulation, similar to what actually takes place with respect to Scotland, be adopted as to America. The proportion of each colony might be settled according to the land-tax in England, at one, two, or more shillings in the pound. I am not deep politician enough to know what the proportion should be of each province, which will vary greatly in half a century, but I speak of each quota being at all times to be regulated according to the land-tax of this country. The very extensive and flourishing colonies of the Massachuset’s Bay, Virginia, and South Carolina, for instance, should contribute more, the smaller and poorer colonies of New Hampshire and New Jersey less; but, Sir, I insist, not a shilling can be taken without their consent. After this day’s debate, should the Address now moved for be carried in this House, I greatly fear that not only this wise plan of the noble lord, but every idea of a reconciliation between this country and her colonies, will be utterly impracticable.

The Americans, Sir, have of late been treated, both within doors and without, in a manner, which marks no small degree of injustice, and even a wantonness of cruelty. We have been repeatedly told to-day, that they complain of the Navigation Act, and insist on the repeal of it. We have authentic evidence to the contrary. In the resolutions of the Congress, they desire only to be put on the footing they were at the close of the late war, “as to the system of statutes and regulations;” nor among the various Acts, of which they solicit the repeal, have they once mentioned either the Navigation or Declaratory Act. It has likewise been asserted, that they are forward and angry enough to wish to throw off the supremacy of the mother country. Many express resolutions, both of the General Congress, and the different Provincial Assemblies, are the fullest evidence of the sense, which the Americans entertain of their obedience and duty to Great Britain. They are too numerous to be quoted. Their full claim, as stated by themselves, is so explicit and clear, that I beg leave to read it to the House from their Petition to the King. It declares We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. Surely, Sir, no request was ever more modest and reasonable, no claim better founded. It expressly mentions, We wish not a diminution of the prerogative, nor do we solicit a grant of any new right In our favour. Your royal authority over us, and our connection with Great Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavour to support and maintain. What a contrast, Sir, does this make with the proceedings of administration at home! They are sedulously endeavouring to tear asunder those powerful ties, which have long and happily knit and bound us together.

The Address, Sir, mentions the particular province of the Massachuset’s Bay as in a state of actual rebellion. The other provinces are held out to our indignation as aiding and abetting. Many arguments have been employed by some learned gentlemen among us, to involve them in all the consequences of an open, declared rebellion, and to obtain the fullest orders for our officers and troops to act against them as against rebels. Whether their present state is that of rebellion, or of a fit and just resistance to unlawful acts of power, to our attempts to rob them of their property and liberties, as they imagine, I shall not declare. This I know, a successful resistance is a revolution, not a rebellion. Rebellion indeed appears on the back of a flying enemy, but Revolution flames on the breast-plate of the victorious warrior. Who can tell, Sir, whether in consequence of this day’s violent and mad Address to his Majesty, the scabbard may not be thrown away by them as well as by us; and should success attend them, whether in a few years the independent Americans may not celebrate the glorious æra of the revolution of 1775, as we do that of 1688? The generous efforts.of our forefathers for freedom heaven crowned with success, or their noble blood had, dyed our scaffolds, like that of Scottish traitors and rebels; and the period of our history, which does us the most honour, would have been deemed a rebellion against the lawful authority of the prince, not a resistance authorized by all the laws of God and man, not the expulsion of a tyrant.

The policy, Sir, of this measure I can no more comprehend, than I can acknowledge the justice of it. Is your force adequate to the attempt? I am satisfied it is not. What are your armies? And how are they to be kept up and recruited? Do you recollect that the single province of Massachuset’s Bay has at this moment 30,000 men well trained and disciplined? Do you not know that they can bring near 90,000 men into the field? They will do it, when every thing dear to them is at stake, when they have their liberties to defend against cruel oppressors and invaders. You will not be able to conquer and keep even that single province. The noble Lord [North] with the blue ribband proposes only 10,000 of our troops to be there, including the four regiments now going from Ireland; and he acknowledges, with great truth, that the army cannot enforce the late act of parliament. Why then is it sent? Boston, indeed, you may lay in ashes, or it may be made a strong garrison; but the province will be lost to you. Boston will be like Gibraltar. You will hold in the province of Massachuset’s Bay, as you do in Spain, a single town, while the whole country remains in the power and possession of the enemy. Your fleets and armies may keep a few towns on the coast, for some time at least, Boston, New York, St. Augustine; but the vast continent of America will be irrecoverably lost. A few fortresses on the coast, and some sea ports only, will remain in your possession. All the back settlements will be independent of you, and will thrive in the rapid progression of your violences and unjust exactions on the towns. A new and amazing landed interest will be created. The ancient story of the Carthaginian hide will be verified. Where you tread it will be kept down; but it will rise the more in all other parts. Where your fleets and armies are stationed, the possession will be secured, while they continue; but all the rest will be lost. In the great scale of empire, you will decline, I fear, from the decision of this day; and the Americans will rise to independence, to power, to all the greatness of the most renowned states, for they build on the solid basis of general, public liberty.

I tremble, Sir, at the almost certain consequences of such an Address, founded in cruelty and injustice, equally contrary to the sound maxims of true policy, and the unerring rule of natural right. The Americans will certainly defend their property and their liberties with the spirit ot freemen, with the spirit our ancestors did, and I hope we should exert on a like occasion. They will sooner declare themselves independent, and risk every consequence of such a contest, than submit to the galling yoke, which administration is preparing for them. An Address of this sanguinary nature cannot fail of driving them to despair. They will see that you are preparing not only to draw the sword, but to burn the scabbard. In the most harsh manner you are declaring them rebels. Every idea of a reconciliation will vanish. They will pursue the most vigorous measures in their own defence. The whole continent of North America will be dismembered from Great Britain, and the wide arch of the raised empire fall. But I hope the just vengeance of the people will overtake the authors of these pernicious counsels, and the loss of the first province of the empire be speedily followed by the loss of the heads of those ministers who advised these wicked and fatal measures.

The Speeches of John Wilkes (1777).

Courtesy of Democratic Thinker