Monday, May 23, 2016

Scorpions in a Bottle: The Britannic Design


Today's section of Scorpions in a Bottle commences chapter 5, on the Britannic Design, the legislation that reshapes Britain's North American colonies into the Confederation of North America.

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While the Four Viceroys were working to restore the authority of the Crown in the Thirteen Colonies, and Greene’s followers were making the Wilderness Walk to Jefferson, the North ministry faced the task of putting the Carlisle proposals into effect. The chief obstacle to North’s efforts was the King himself.

Throughout the American Crisis, King George had been the strongest advocate of using harsh measures to bring the colonists to heel. Lord North had been personally unhappy with the hard line taken against the American colonists, but he had believed it was his duty as leader of the government to defer to the monarch’s wishes. It was only with the outbreak of the Rebellion that it became clear to North that the King’s judgment was faulty, and that it would be necessary to defy the monarch if he hoped to restore the colonies to British rule. [1]

The success of the Carlisle Commission in the face of the King’s displeasure encouraged North trust his own judgment. Despite demands from the King’s allies in Parliament for widespread reprisals against the colonists, North pursued his own policy of reconciliation. In an address before the House of Lords on November 12, 1778, he said, “Mistakes have been made in these chambers, as they have been in Boston and Philadelphia, but it will do little good to dwell on them. Instead, we must seek ways to preserve old institutions, and this will involve a serious reconsideration of the nature of our government, and of its relations with our North American brothers.” [2]

Several members of North’s government, notably Lord Germain, refused to support his “brotherhood policy” and resigned their Cabinet posts. North took advantage of Germain’s departure to bring the Marquess of Rockingham, a noted reconciliationist, into his government as Secretary of State for America. Lord Germain, meanwhile, became the leader of the “King’s friends,” who opposed North’s lenient policies towards the Americans.

Rockingham’s instructions to the Carlisle Commission and the Four Viceroys encouraged them to do everything in their power to “encourage a spirit of Forgiveness in our Friends, and restrain the impulse towards Vengefulness.” Rockingham also instructed that no further rebel leaders should be arrested for treason and sent to London for trial. Since the end of the Rebellion, ten of the most notorious rebels had arrived and were being tried: Hancock, the two Adams cousins, and Robert Treat Paine from Massachusetts; Washington, Jefferson, Henry, and Richard Henry Lee from Virginia; Roger Sherman from Connecticut; and the pamphleteer Thomas Paine from Pennsylvania.

The treason trials had become a cause célèbre among London radicals, as the rebels took the stand to defend their actions. Washington in particular created a favorable impression as he described his evolution from a loyal subject of the Crown to the commander-in-chief of the rebel armies. Thomas Jefferson was able to smuggle a copy of his Apologia out of Newgate prison and it circulated widely among radical circles in spite of efforts by the government to suppress it. [3] In the end, despite the opposition of the radicals, all of the defendants were found guilty. All but Washington, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1779. [4]

Lord North was forced to navigate a precarious middle path between the radicals, led by John Wilkes, and the reactionaries, led by Lord Germain. The need to oversee the restoration of order in North America, as well as the growing financial crisis in Britain due to the costs of the Rebellion, delayed work on drafting a final settlement for the American colonies. [5] In addition, Rockingham believed that it would be best to allow the passions inflamed by the treason trials to cool.

It was not until the early months of 1780 that the North ministry was able to devote its attention to the North American settlement. On the advice of Rockingham, North invited several American reconciliationists to London to consult on drafting the settlement, including Galloway and Dickinson. As he had proposed at the secret Cabinet meeting of February 1778, North chose Galloway’s Plan of Union as the template for a government for the North American colonies. However, the events of 1775-78 led to significant changes to Galloway’s initial plan.

Fearing that the creation of a single unified government for all thirteen colonies would increase the likelihood of a future second Rebellion, North proposed that three separate governments be established: one for the Southern colonies, one for the Middle colonies, and one for the New England colonies. Each regional confederation of colonies would be governed by a council chosen by the colonial governments for three-year terms and a governor-general appointed by the Crown. On the contentious issue of Parliamentary taxation, North agreed to compromise on the principle of Parliamentary supremacy by granting the councils the power to veto tax bills with a two-thirds supermajority.

Drawing on Franklin’s 1754 Plan of Union, each confederation would have the power to treat with the Indians: making war and peace, and regulating trade and purchases of land. It would also have the power to legislate for the colonies and levy taxes on them. Any legislation passed by a confederation government could be vetoed by Parliament within three years of its passage. Each council would include representatives from the other two confederations, and each would send nonvoting representatives to Parliament.

In order to resolve any issues that might arise between the confederations, there would be an annual meeting of the three councils, during which they would function as a Grand Council for all the colonies. The question of a permanent meeting place for the Grand Council proved to be a difficult one. Philadelphia would have been the logical choice, but the association of the city with the Continental Congress made it unacceptable to the North ministry. Thomas Moffat of Rhode Island suggested New York City, but this was rejected by the Southerners, who were led by John Connolly of Virginia and Robert Wells of South Carolina. Wells’ suggestion that a new capital be built on the Potomac River was rejected by the Northerners.

The issue was resolved by Connolly, who proposed Pittsborough, Pennsylvania as a compromise. Although the city had been founded just 20 years earlier, its location at the forks of the Ohio River made Pittsborough an attractive choice. The Ohio country was already being opened to settlement before the outbreak of the Rebellion, and it was clear that new colonies would soon be planted west of the Appalachian Mountains. It is likely that Connolly’s suggested was also motivated by the fact that he owned considerable land in western Pennsylvania that would gain in value once the North American capital was established there.

Unusually, the bill that the North ministry sent to the Commons for consideration was not given the straightforward descriptive name that was common for Parliamentary legislation at the time. The working title had been the North American Government Act, but at Dickinson’s suggestion the bill was given the name “The Britannic Design.” In the working draft of the Design, the union of colonies was referred to as the Confederations of North America. However, an error in the final draft of the Design left the final S off of Confederations, and this was never corrected. The new colonial union was known thereafter as the Confederation of North America.

The polarized state of opinion in Britain was reflected in the reaction to the Design when details of the legislation reached the public. The May 10, 1780 issue of Lloyd’s Evening Post denounced the Design: “Having expended so much blood and treasure in bringing the rebels to heel, are we now to grant them all they demand short of independence itself?” Lord Germain spoke out against the Design in a speech to the House of Lords, calling it “infamous” and “an insult to the many brave men who gave their lives to preserve our Constitution.”

By contrast, Edmund Burke praised the Design, saying, “Lord North has seen the wisdom of granting a generous peace to the Americans. This act will do more to ensure comity between England and America than a thousand hangings could have done.” The Courant and Westminster Chronicle, which had been highly critical of the North ministry’s handling of the American Crisis, described the Design as “well-conceived to end the troubles which have afflicted relations with the Americans.” [6]

Despite the opposition of Germain and the other allies of the King, it soon became clear that the Design had broad support in both houses. Nevertheless, in the course of the Parliamentary debate on the bill, it underwent several modifications. Most importantly, a number of members, mainly in the House of Lords, feared that the proposed New England confederation would be too likely to rise in rebellion again. Since the middle colonies were regarded as more loyalist, it was decided to combine them with the New England colonies to produce an enlarged Northern Confederation with its capital at New York City. The Southern Confederation would include all the colonies south of Pennsylvania and the Delaware colony, and its capital would be Norfolk, which had been Clinton’s headquarters since the end of the Rebellion.

Sir Guy Carleton, the Governor of Quebec, arrived in London during the debate over the Design. He proposed that his colony should also be included in the Design, to act as a further loyalist counterweight to the rebellious Thirteen Colonies. In order to prevent the Quebec Council from being outvoted by the councils of the other two confederations during Grand Council meetings, it was further decided to create two additional loyalist colonies from the territory of Quebec. The lands of the Ohio country that had been added to the colony by the 1774 Quebec Act were separated, and after some debate were given the name Indiana after the Indians who made up most of its inhabitants at the time. Its capital would be the French settlement of Kaskaskia on the Mississippi River, later renamed Fort Radisson. The lands north and west of Lake Superior were also separated and given the name Manitoba. Due to the lack of white settlers in the proposed Confederation of Manitoba, the western half of Rupert’s Land was also added, over the objections of Hudson’s Bay Company, which held title to the area. To satisfy the Company’s shareholders, it was agreed that the Company would be compensated for any cultivable land that was sold to prospective settlers. Eventually, the eastern half of Rupert’s Land was ceded to Quebec under the same terms. The capital of Manitoba would be the Company headquarters at York Factory on the coast of Hudson Bay, later renamed North City.

Franklin’s original Plan of Union had included an executive called the president-general who would be appointed by the Crown, and whose assent would be required for any legislation passed by the Grand Council. With the number of confederations increased to five, it was decided that a similar executive would be required to oversee annual meetings of the Grand Council in Pittsborough, and to serve as a permanent representative of the British government. With the Four Viceroys in control of the North American colonies, the new executive was named the Viceroy. It was widely expected that Burgoyne would be named to the post, which prompted the King to raise him to the Peerage as Duke of Albany, a name that commemorated his decisive victory in the Rebellion. [7]

Additional minor modifications were made to the Britannic Design to secure passage by Parliament. The confederation councils were limited to no more than twenty members, the supermajority required to veto Parliamentary taxation was increased from two-thirds to three-quarters, and the office of Lieutenant-Viceroy was created. With the final provisions of the Design now fixed, Lord North’s allies in the Commons spent two months maneuvering past the obstructions raised by the King’s allies, gaining final passage on January 9, 1781. A last-ditch effort by Lord Germain to block passage in the Lords was frustrated by Lord Shelburne, and the Britannic Design was sent to the King for his assent on January 23. Rumors filled London that the King would refuse his assent, or even that he might abdicate. Reportedly, it was Lord Germain himself who convinced the King that he would do more harm to the Constitution by his refusal to act than by giving his assent to the Design, and he finally agreed on January 26.

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1. Winthrop Wadsworth. King George III and Lord North: The Struggle for the American Soul (London, 1971), pp. 401-12.

2. Henry Collins. Lord North and the Rise of Parliament (New York, 1956), p.98.

3. Warner Jones. In Defense of Liberty: The 1778 Treason Trials (Mexico City, 1966).

4. Governor Theodorick Bland of Virginia, who had served under Washington in the Rebellion, personally interceded to allow him to serve out his sentence under house arrest at his Mount Vernon plantation. Washington remained there until his death in 1793. William Branch Bruce. The Life of Governor Theodorick Bland of Virginia (Norfolk, 1891), pp. 227-29.

5. Since the attempt to raise revenue in the American colonies had provoked the Rebellion, the North ministry gave up on this approach. Instead, it was decided that some of the cost of the Rebellion would be made up by ceding the Floridas back to Spain in return for a payment by the Spanish of £5 million.

6. Sharon Poorman. Designing the Design: Lord North, John Dickinson, and the Drafting of the Britannic Design (New York, 2013).

7. Sir Guy Carleton was named Baron Dorchester at the same time.

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