• Guy Chet

Why did imperial governance become so hotly contested in the 1760s-70s?


  • In these blogposts, I discuss questions and issues that students have raised in my classrooms during the previous semester. They are good springboards to classroom discussions/debates about the Revolution, American history, and history itself.

A former colleague of mine described the relationship between Parliament and the American assemblies as a longstanding marital relationship, in which many things go unspoken, which allows the relationship persist and flourish smoothly. Discussing his own marriage, he said, “I know that I am the leader in my own household, and the final authority when it comes to important family decisions. I’m sure that my wife is as convinced that she is the leader and that what she says goes. And we’ve been living like this, side by side, for almost fifty years. Now imagine what would happen if I came home one day and told her, ‘now, Diana, we are going to talk this out and settle exactly who holds ultimate authority in this household when it comes to major purchases, plans for retirement, decisions on family affairs, and the like.’ What do you think would happen to our nice marriage?”


According to my colleague, this was exactly what happened in the British Empire – during the long era of salutary neglect, many things went undefined and unmentioned in the transatlantic working relationship between Britain and its provincial assemblies. And then in 1763, right after the French and Indian War, Parliament began an earnest conversation about who was in charge of what in that relationship. Pretty soon, both sides lawyered up, and things went downhill from there.


The question, then, is why this happened all of a sudden in 1763. What prompted this destructive debate about the system of government in the empire?


It could have been money problems. Just as financial woes might prompt spouses to argue over who decides on how to raise and spend the family’s money, the debate between Parliament and the assemblies might have been a product of the huge national debt Britain had incurred during the French and Indian War.


It could have been accusations of disloyalty. Just as infidelity might prompt spouses to argue over their respective responsibilities to one another within the marriage contract, the debate about the empire’s governing structure might have been the product of accusations of widespread breaches of trust on the colonists’ part during the war – smuggling, trading with the enemy, profiteering, obstruction of imperial military plans, and the like.


It could be that one partner was “evolving” within the relationship. In the century that followed the Glorious Revolution (1688), Parliament was gradually growing into itself, feeling its power, and taking the reins of authority firmly in hand vis-à-vis the king. Parliamentarians steadily entrenched the notion that everywhere the king held power, he was checked by Parliament, or shared authority with Parliament. This doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy encouraged centralized managerial control not only within Britain, but also in the empire (especially during and after the French and Indian War). Such Parliamentary absolutism was very much in line with European (royal) absolutism, but it clashed with the traditional English habit of local governance. It thus triggered a traditionalist and localist resistance movement in England and Scotland (the Jacobite movement) and, in time, also in the colonies.


It could have simply been cohabitation itself. The war’s North American campaigns brought colonists and British authorities into close and constant contact with one another. Not only did imperial authorities have to work more closely than ever before with provincial assemblies to sustain the war effort, but the war also placed the British Royal Navy in position to act as a law-enforcement agency in American waters. Additionally, tens of thousands of British redcoats served alongside provincial troops during the long war, and then lived among provincial civilians for more than a decade after the war. Perhaps this close interaction, in such close quarters, made both sides prickly about their privacy and autonomy, prompting a debate about who was in charge of what in the provinces.


It could be that the global conquests of the war brought other parties into what had previously been a simple and intimate relationship between Britain and its colonists. Before the war, the British Empire was a settler empire – it was made up of colonies in which British settlers governed themselves. Such decentralization was viable and sustainable because these colonies were populated by loyal and patriotic Britons. The recent war, however, brought various conquered peoples under British rule, not only in the American West, Spanish Florida, and Canada, but also in India and West Africa. In this new context, a decentralized empire of self-governing provinces made no sense at all, since these newly-acquired possessions (populated as they were by disloyal populations) would break away from Britain if allowed to govern themselves freely.


From their central position in London, imperial authorities (including Parliament) had to devise a new way to govern these newly-conquered territories and peoples. But this reconceptualization and reorganization of the British Empire took place throughout the empire, rather than just in its new non-Anglo components. The only alternative was to have two British Empires – a decentralized empire for settler colonies like Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Jamaica, and Barbados, and a centrally-governed empire for conquered possessions like Florida, Quebec, and Bengal. Since this would have been bureaucratically and intellectually schizophrenic, Britain shifted quickly from the decentralized model of a settler empire in which local populations governed themselves, to that of a conquered empire governed from the center. As one would expect, the settler colonies bristled at and resisted this abrupt shift, prompting a frank and open discussion between Britain and its American settlers about their relationship – what kind of relationship was this, how was it structured, and who wielded authority within it.

©2020 by Guy Chet. Proudly created with Wix.com