Your RDA of Irony

Taking Liberties With the American Revolution

Part I

George III spoke English and was faithful to his wife: that drove America to revolution. The American colonists had been spoiled by the first two Georges. They were a father and son team of German princelings, who had inherited the throne of England after Queen Anne drank herself to death. Those two Georges were content to babble in German, occupy themselves with remarkably ugly mistresses, and let the empire alone. Unfortunately, even in the dimmest of royal families, after 46 years of ruling a country, someone was bound to learn the native language.

Worse still, the third George’s marital fidelity left him extra time to run the kingdom. He was the type of man who confused conscientiousness with actual ability. A more assertive Parliament might have diverted George’s energies to opening exhibits on the Industrial Revolution. The Whigs regarded the monarchy as a nuisance and, when in power, limited the king’s responsibilities to being a Protestant. At the time of George’s succession, however, the Tories dominated the House of Commons. These country squires liked the idea of a domineering, swaggering monarch because they could identify with it.

Assured of a servile Parliament, the king turned his attention to the empire to see what he could improve, and he discovered America. Of course, it was a pleasure having those colonies if only to spite France and Spain, but America simply was costing Britain too much money. The British government did not want to get rich off America — it had India for that — but the Crown believed the colonists should pay more taxes. Americans suddenly were confronted with new taxes, more officials to collect the taxes, and more British soldiers to protect the officials, which in turn required more taxes to pay for the soldiers.

Confusing bureaucracy with tyranny, the Americans protested against the usurpation of their rights as Englishmen. The king, however, did not consider a tax-free status one of those rights. Nor, in the Crown’s view, was the right to dress up like Indians and dump tea in a harbor specifically guaranteed by the Magna Carta. The tarring-and-feathering of tax collectors was another uniquely American argument for home rule and full representation in Parliament. Given these provocations, the royal response was remarkably tolerant. Boston, for its antics, endured a naval blockade and martial law; Dublin would have been leveled. America’s lenient treatment reflected the king’s and his ministers’ views on child rearing.

Britain took the role of mother country quite literally, and the colonies were going to be brought up in the best traditions of the Tory nursery. While conception and birth required the presence of at least one parent, a proper British child tried not to be a further inconvenience. The good little Tory would keep a respectful distance and follow either his parents’ example or their advice, whichever was the more reputable. The bad little Tory, however, was not punished; the parents never bothered, and the servants never dared. Any physical or psychological abuse could wait until the daughters married or the sons went to Eton. If this was the proper way to raise a family, it also seemed a proper way to run an empire. The mother country had no compunction about beating the servants (Scotland and Ireland), but those precocious colonies simply needed the guiding hand of more British and Hessian nannies.

A policy of brutal repression might have been more tactful. British condescension spared lives but not egos, and wounded egos were dangerous — especially in Boston. The slight was more than Sam Adams , John Hancock and John Adams could endure: No one patronized a Harvard man! This was war, a revolution to free America from the rule of Oxford and Cambridge graduates. It is unlikely that the farmers of Lexington and Concord preferred Harvard’s imperialism to Britain’s, but Massachusetts felt obliged to support the local team, the other colonies felt obliged to support Massachusetts, and the Continental Congress felt obliged to rationalize the whole thing.

The colonial leaders hoped to justify an armed rebellion before world opinion, history and, in all probability, a British court martial. At the risk of treason and semantics, they asserted their rights as Englishmen to revolt against England. Citing British law and the autopsy report on Charles I, the Americans pointed out that Parliament guaranteed their right to resist tyranny. The one flaw in that argument was that Parliament did not guarantee the right to resist Parliament. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson came up with a plausible enough reason for American independence: The French said so.

Jefferson had read the works of Voltaire, Rousseau and the rest of 18th century France’s avant garde. The French, themselves, had absolutely no freedom whatsoever, but that never stopped them from being the foremost theoreticians on the subject. Out of envy as well as conviction, the philosophers contended freedom was not an English idiosyncrasy but the natural right of all mankind. To Jefferson, this meant that the Americans did not need an excuse for rebellion: They were free to be free. The Declaration of Independence was to take the liberty of plagiarizing French philosophy. Jefferson even expropriated Rousseau’s quote that “governments derive their consent from the governed.” Man’s inalienable rights apparently did not include copyrights.

(Gosh, what a cliffhanger!  Will this be only an embarrassing episode in the history of the United Provinces of America, and I will end up sounding like Jeremy Irons?  Find out): 

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    To quote Mr. Irons in “The Lion King:” “Oh, goody!”

  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    Truth be told, Eugene, I’ve always thought this series your absolute best work. It should be a documentary, directed in the style of Ken Burns, but with a Pythonesque twist.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Thank you.

      I imagine “Taking Liberties” as an animated feature. Tim Burton might be interested if I consented to Helena Bonham Carter playing Betsy Ross.


  3. Hal Gordon says:

    The FRENCH said so? I seem to recall that the Englishman John Locke said that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed in his Two Treatises on Government — published decades before Rousseau was born. Locke also believed that all men were created equal and were endowed with the right to “life, liberty and property.” Maybe it’s Locke who should complain that he was plagiarized by Jefferson.

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Well, we agree that Jefferson is a plagiarist. The dispute is over who should lynch him.

      Yes, Locke did say it first–although his definition of “all men” was confined within boundaries stretching from Cornwall to Northumberland. (I’m afraid you Gordons were a little too Jacobite to be included.) When the French “translated it”–and I am sure that they acknowledged Locke as an auteur, along with Sam Fuller and Jerry Lewis–the concept of “rights” transcended from an English idiosyncrasy to a Western European one.

      And, Hal, given your diehard loyalty to the Stuarts, John Locke and I still might begrudge you any rights more than a sheep and oatmeal.

      Happy Holidays.


  4. Howard Epstein says:


    More Colonial times irony: what do you think Deacon Adams would say if he knew there was now a beer named after his son, the one who ran his brewery into the ground by either incompetence or difference, or both?


    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Hello Howard.

      Given Sam Adams’ incompetence and malfeasance (he deducted the Indian war paint as a business expense), you’d expect that the Harvard School of Business would be named for him.


  5. Joan Stewart Smith says:

    Hmmmm, Jefferson expropriated Rousseau’s quote that “governments derive their consent from the governed?”

    Just heard Barbie in (Toy Story 3) say: “Authority should derive from the consent of the governed, not from threat of force!”

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