The Declaration of Independence and “Honorable Treason”

By Amanda Wallace

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson levels thirty charges against King George III. The intention of these charges was to argue that George III had established a tyranny over the thirteen colonies. By demonstrating George III’s guilt, the patriots justified their quest for independence. Many of the accusations Thomas Jefferson brings against the king are rooted in historical fact, although he also writes in half-truths, omits details deliberately, and uses sweeping generalizations in order to obscure reality — that being that the British colonists in North America were not always innocent victims of tyranny. Here I will argue that in spite of the fact that many of the charges against George III were true, Jefferson remains guilty of oversimplifying complicated issues involving the division of the North American colonies from Great Britain.1 In reality, it was not Jefferson’s hyperbolic claims that solidified the accusation of tyranny leveled at George III, but rather it was the king’s own stubborn determination to keep the colonies at all costs that made him vulnerable to these claims.

In 1763, many colonial British in had a positive opinion of their king.2 By 1775, however, George III’s economic policies regarding the North American colonies had resulted in increasing dissatisfaction.3 This critical attitude initially seemed to be directed at the ministry or parliament rather than the king.4 In fact, up to the year 1775, George Washington referred to his British counterparts as “the ministerial army” or “parliament’s troops.”5 But the king then allied with his men, and was perceived by others to do so. Political scientist William Liddle writes:

[B]y [George III’s] proclamation of August 23, 1775, declaring the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, by his formal speeches from the throne, by his assent to still more punitive parliamentary legislation, and by his government’s energetic search for foreign mercenaries…George III demonstrated his solidarity with the ministry and the parliament.6

Many British colonists in North America renounced George III quite late in the revolution, but when they did, they seemed to break all bonds of allegiance, and rejected the king in what Liddle calls, “a fit of furious disillusionment.”7

The Declaration of Independence was composed a year after the tide of public opinion had turned against the king, and Jefferson criticized both the king’s actions and his character. According to historian David Hawke, Jefferson depicted George III as “an evil monarch who had attempted to corrupt the [American] way of life.”8 Jefferson begn the Declaration with passages that were both “eloquent” and “restrained” and then proceeded to list the king’s many offensive misdeeds.9 His portrayal made it seem that the patriots in North America were only seeking independence after they had suffered endlessly at the hands of a tyrannical monarch.10

In composing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson appropriated the preamble to the constitution of Virginia, which he had also written, numbering and re-arranging the charges already leveled against George III in that manuscript.11 This list of grievances was intended to demonstrate that “George III had endeavored to pervert the government of Virginia into a detestable and insupportable tyranny.”12 The Declaration of Independence was not very different from Jefferson’s more domestic rhetoric in that Jefferson intended to persuade both the North American colonists and the rest of the world that the actions of the king were an attempt to “establish an absolute tyranny.”13

When the Declaration of Independence was first made public, loyalists seemed to have relished disproving the charges made against the king.14 According to Pauline Maier, many patriots then and even professional historians now have had a difficult time finding facts and events that supported many of Jefferson’s accusations. She notes that “[this] is not surprising since even some well-informed persons of the eighteenth century were perplexed.”15 Thomas Hutchinson, a loyalist historian and the ex-governor of Massachusetts, declared that the charges against George III were deliberately stated in an obscure way to disguise the treason of the Americans.16 Another contemporary of Jefferson, writer John Lind came to the same conclusion and stated that the document suffered from a lack of “truth” and “sense.”17 Of course, while Hutchinson and Lind both have a point, it seems that in many cases Jefferson told the truth, but only a particular side of it.

In order to demonstrate Jefferson’s manipulations, it is helpful to examine in greater detail several of the charges brought against George III in the Declaration of Independence. In the fourth charge, for example, Jefferson writes, “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”18 John Adams had suggested this grievance to Jefferson, on account of the fact that the royal government had moved the Massachusetts House of Representatives from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1768.19 However, the reasoning behind the move was not as malicious as Jefferson makes it seem. The legislative body had convened at Harvard University because its public rooms were convenient and smallpox had broken out in Boston.20 Thus, while it was true that the legislative body had been moved, it was not for the reason that Jefferson cited.

Conversely, there are accusations against the king that can be confirmed as being historically accurate. In the ninth charge, Jefferson states, “He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”21 Indeed George III had forbidden the issuance of colonial judicial commissions for any term without the permission of the crown and was paying the salaries of judges in Massachusetts state.22 The fifth seems also seems a justified charge. It states that George III “has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”23 According to historical documents, George III did suspend both the New York and Massachusetts assemblies for opposing acts of parliament that they deemed unjust.24 Furthermore, George III was additionally guilty both of the eleventh and the twelfth charges against him, which pertained to his maintaining a standing army without the consent of the legislature.25 British troops had been sent to Boston in both 1768 and 1774, and a military government had been established there without the legislature agreeing to their presence.26 Finally, the twenty-seventh charge accuses George III of using “large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death…”27 This accusation also seems to be accurate: George III was very aggressive in recruiting mercenaries from both Germany and the Scottish highlands to attempt to control the rebellion that had erupted in the North American colonies.28

Yet Jefferson still makes a number of claims that align with historical evidence only partially, as they contain small, but important exaggerations. The best example of this is the tenth charge, which claims George III “has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”29 Here Jefferson is referring to the increase of commissioners serving on the American Board of Customs. The people in Massachusetts compared the board’s increase in members to plagues of locusts, when George III actually increased the number of customs officials in all colonies by thirty or forty men. The comparison of thirty or forty men to a plague of locusts seems to be another example of political hyperbole.30

According to current historian Jeremy Black, when fighting broke out in the British North American colonies in 1775, George III closely followed the conflict.31 He was soon grieved by the events that unfolded and grew determined to maintain his royal authority.32 Unfortunately, George III’s determination resulted in a “crisis in relations with the American colonies that led to revolution there in 1775.”33 Because of George III’s unwillingness to release the colonies and his “stiff opposition to what he saw as rebellion,” the king, who was once fondly regarded, was blamed for the problems of the patriots.34 I argue that at fault in all of this was George III’s stubbornness. In 1778, he writes in a letter to Lord North, “I trust in the justness of my cause and the bravery of the nation.”35 The king was afraid of the consequences of the independence of British colonists. Most of all he feared a domino effect in the British Empire resulting in numerous, uncontrollable uprisings. This angst is evidenced in his speculation that “if any one branch of the empire is allowed to cast off its dependency then the others will infallibly follow the example…”36 Overall, in his correspondences as well as in his actions toward the American colonies, George III displayed “a firmness that could seem petulant.”37

In a letter to Thomas Townshend, for instance, George III bemoans parliament’s decision to grant independence to the American colonies once the British army had been defeated. He writes, “Parliament…to my astonishment has come into the idea of granting a separation to North America, [which] has disabled me from longer defending the just rights of this kingdom.”38 This letter makes it very plain that the decision to grant America the independence it had won was not the king’s choice. As a matter of fact, in this letter, the king had originally written the word “independence” instead of separation, but had later crossed out “independence,” revealing his complete unwillingness to admit his irrevocable loss of sovereignty in the American colonies.39 Moreover, George III’s stubbornness can also be attributed to his belief that “the loss of America would put Britain in a very low class among the European states.”40 In another letter to Lord North in September of 1774, George III writes, “the dye is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph, I do not wish to come to more severe measures but we must not retreat.”41 According to historian John Bullion, “no politician was more convinced of the need to prevent the breakup of the British Empire than George III.”42 As is clear from his letters, George III’s reluctance to concede the independence of the North American colonies was epic, a recalcitrance that caused the matter to be placed in parliament’s hands.43 Nevertheless, when it became clear to him that the British army had been defeated, George III declared, “America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow? Or have we resources that may repair the mischief?”44

Against George III’s strong will, Jefferson’s Declaration succeeded in its purpose — it succeeded in portraying the king as an unjust, power-hungry tyrant, and in convincing a significant number of colonists that revolution and independence were necessary. As the patriots’ numbers grew, the armed momentum became impossible for George III and his soldiers to stop, but many of these former British colonists were first convinced to join the revolution by Jefferson’s words. According to William Raymond Smith, “The Declaration is a somewhat overly formal argument, based upon a implicit syllogism (an attempt to establish despotism necessitates revolution; George III attempts to establish despotism; therefore, revolution is necessary).”45 Upon final review, it seems absolutely essential for Jefferson to demonstrate that George III was a tyrant in order to justify revolution, even if it meant stretching the truth. George III’s intent toward the American colonies may not have been as totalitarian as Jefferson implies, but the king’s determination to keep the British Empire intact at all costs gave just enough ground for the argument to be made successfully.

1 Ibid., 137.

2 William D. Liddle, “A Patriot King, Or None: Lord Bolingbroke and the American Renunciation of George III,” The Journal of American History, 65:4 (March 1979): 951-970.

3 Ibid., 951.

4 Ibid., 960.

5 Ibid., 965.

6 Ibid., 965-6.

7 Ibid., 952.

8 Liddle, “Patriot King,” 136.

9 Hawke, Treason, 136.

10 Ibid., 136.

11 Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 105.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 106.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Declaration of Independence (1776).

19 Maier, American Scripture, 110.

20 Ibid., 111.

21 Declaration of Independence (1776).

22 Maier, American Scripture, 110.

23 Declaration of Independence (1776).

24 Maier, American Scripture, 115.

25 Declaration of Independence (1776).

26 Maier, American Scripture, 115.

27 Declaration of Independence (1776).

28 Frank Whitson Fetter, “Who Were the Foreign Mercenaries of the Declaration of Independence?” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 104:4 (October 1980): 510.

29 Declaration of Independence (1776).

30 Maier, American Scripture, 110-11.

31 Jeremy Black, The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty (London: The Hambledon Continuum, 2004), 126.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., 127-8.

35 Ibid., 128.

36 Ibid., 129.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., 203.

39 Ibid., 204.

40 John L. Bullion, “George III on Empire, 1783,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 51:2 (April 1994): 305.

41 Allan J. McCurry, “The North Government and the Outbreak of the American Revolution,” in The Huntington Library Quarterly, 34:2 (February 1971): 143.

42 Bullion, “George III,” 305.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid., 306.

45 William Raymond Smith, “The Rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence,” College English, 26:4 (January 1965): 306.