Fabio Paolo Barbieri

The Pre-history of the Declaration of Independence

A guest post from Almost Chosen People commenter Fabio Paolo Barbieri.

To be honest, this post ought to be made on July 4; but if I waited that long, I would probably have forgotten all about it by then. I have repeatedly said that I regard the Declaration of Independence as just one step below the Sacred Scriptures, and its central statement – “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain [and] inalienable rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” – as words to live and die by.
However, while these words last for ever, there is a danger that the rest of the sentiments of the Declaration – a work very much of its time, after all, intended to bring about action and change then and there – can be misunderstood when not only the circumstances, not even the laws, but the very meaning of words have changed. The danger, in particular, is that our ignorance of the meaning of facts, laws and terms of language in the eighteenth century should give King George more credit than he deserves, and make the Founders, in spite of the nobility of their ideals, sound rather more sophistical in their political arguments than they actually were. In point of fact, once things are understood in their own contemporary colours, it will be seen that the case of Jefferson and Congress was literally unanswerable, because it was based on established law.
First and foremost, the meaning of the word colony has changed in the last two hundred years. To us, a colony is a distant territory ruled and administered from a distance, for whose governance it is the mother country – or colonial overlord – that is responsible. But that is by no means what a colony was in Jefferson’s time. In effect, imperial oversight and direct rule only became the norm after the shock of the great Indian war of 1858. The British government concluded, rightly or wrongly, that it had been caused by the maladministration of the East India Company, the private body that ruled India; and decided, even more arguably, that the answer was to dispossess the Company altogether and make the governance of India its own direct responsibility. This is in general the default reaction of the London government down the century to any crisis – take control from Westminster. But that the enormous Indian colony, much larger than the Thirteen Colonies had ever been, could have been administered until 1858 by a private corporation ought to show that direct control from the central government was, to say the least, not the universal rule of colonial governance.
In actual fact, the law and legal precedent under which the American colonies organized themselves has a surprisingly long prehistory. It begins with the huge legal difficulties experienced through the middle ages by the merchants who came from the Christian West to trade with the Muslim powers of Mediterranean Asia and Africa. To trade was indispensable to both parties, but neither would allow its citizens to be under the power of the other. A practice evolved – independently, to the best of my knowledge, from the temporary formation of crusader kingdoms that imported Western feudal law to Palestine, Syria and Anatolia – whereby Western merchants, mostly Italian, would settle closely together in single areas of Eastern harbour and trading cities, often a single street separated from the rest. These quarters were legally treated like independent Italian city states – their chief magistrates being called Consuls – even when they only amounted to a few families living in a Muslim and Eastern Christian sea of people. They were responsible for their own administration and justice, in so far as it didn’t clash with the larger government. At the same time they were regarded as colonies of the European mother countries from which the merchants came. I am not quite clear how this link worked in practice, but an offence made against a colony in Aleppo or Gaza would be felt as an act of war against the mother country. The largest number of these merchant settlements were Italian, but there were also quite a few from France, Aragon, and so on, and the principles on which they were based were universally understood in Europe. Continue reading

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