07 January 2016

Did Americans Invent the Commonwealth of Nations?

Eric Nelson is a professor at Harvard University who has written a book that examines a neglected aspect of the ideologies underlying the American War of Independence. If you want a taster, you can listen to an interview with him that is part of a series of podcasts under the rubric 'Ben Franklin's World'. It is about an hour long.

During the course of the podcast, he reminds us that the political problem the war of independence solved was more than one of the relationship between the colonies and the government in London. In fact, it was as much one of an Anglospheric one in that the Colonists tried to raise questions about the relationship between the British monarch and parliament. Nelson explains the constitutional history of Britain either side of the civil wars that took place in the British Isles in the middle of the seventeenth century. Nelson has reminded us of the fact that some colonists perceived the struggle not to be one between colonial assemblies and King George, but in fact as one between colonial assemblies and parliament. The colonists, in other words, saw the colonial assemblies as equals to the parliament in London.

In this sense at least some of the colonists were enunciating a version of Responsible Government, avant la lettre. Responsible government, of course, was the basis for the granting of dominion status within the empire, and the ideology of the British Commonwealth of Nations holds that present or past loyalty to the Crown unites free and equal polities. While pre-1776 British North American colonial administrations did not assert an authority to conduct an independent foreign policy (except in regard to American Indians, perhaps), the Patriots who blamed parliamentary over-reach for the crisis did assert the authority for their assemblies and governors to conduct an independent domestic fiscal policy.

The answer to my headline question, of course, is a definite 'no'. But the ideological debate during the American crisis does appear to foreshadow subsequent constitutional developments within the British Empire.

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