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They Made A Discovery: The Anti-Libertarian Designs On The Colonial Mind During The American Revolution

“The conviction on the part of the Revolutionary leaders that they were faced with a deliberate conspiracy to destroy the balance of the constitution and eliminate their freedom had deep and widespread roots—roots elaborately embedded in Anglo-American political culture,” writes Bernard Bailyn in his 1967 book The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. It is tough to know exactly how far back these roots go.

Stemming back to at least a half-century before the actual Revolution, Bailyn outlines the attitudes and ideas of the American Revolution. “[T]he dominant elements in this pattern were the fear of corruption—of its anti-constitutional destructiveness—and of the menace of a ministerial conspiracy.” 

When the first signs of conflict between the colonies and the King’s administration appeared, certain anti-administration leaders such as Oxenbridge Thacher could only “suppose…that no design is formed to enslave them,” rather than know.  His pro-administration fellows, such as Martin Howard, Jr., were forced to refute the arguments for design.

The notion of the colonists, as well as some in England, facing a deliberate, anti-libertarian design grew quickly, particularly where the polarization of politics was at an extreme and where radical leaders expressed their apprehensions freely.

“But in some degree it was present everywhere; it was almost universally shared by sympathizers of the American cause,” wrote Bailyn, highlighting the cautious John Dickinson, who conveyed the idea that a conspiracy existed and understood the “psychological and political effects of thinking” in such conspiratorial terms. 

Dickinson, in discussing the reign of Charles I’s, noted that “acts that might by themselves have been upon many consideration excused or extentuated derived a contagious malignancy and odium from other acts with which they were connected. They were not regarded according to the simple force of each but as parts of a system of oppression. Every one, therefore, however small in itself, became alarming as an additional evidence of tyrannical designs. It was in vain for prudent and moderate men to insist that there was no necessity to abolish royalty. Nothing less than the utter destruction of the monarchy could satisfy those who had suffered and thought they had reason to believe they always should suffer under it. The consequences of these mutual distrusts are well known.”

In his Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770), Burke argues that Parliament was on the brink of falling  “under the control of an unscrupulous gang of would-be despots” who would destroy the constitution. In Thoughts, Burke largely concerns himself with a conspiratorial cabal at work. According to Ian Christie, this would “give momentum in due course to a radical movement in the metropolis.” 

Catherine Macauley saw “a system of corruption [that] began at the very period of the [Glorious] Revolution and…was the policy of every succeeding administration.” Horace Walpole believed that Burke did not date the conspiracy far back enough, and, as was believed in England and America, that Bute’s secret influence was behind the trouble of the time. 

After Bute departed his office, Chatham delivered a speech in the Lords and spoke out against  “the secret influence of an invisible power–of a favorite, whose pernicious counsels had occasioned all the present unhappiness and disturbances in the nation, and who, notwithstanding he was abroad, was at this moment as potent as ever.” 

Rockinham believed that Bute’s secret influence had destroyed his administration in 1765-1766. He wrote in 1767 that his party’s “fundamental principle” was to resist and restrain “the power and influence of Lord Bute.” 

Although printer and publicist William Strahan liked Bute, he agreed his secret influence outlasted his time in office after his resignation. John Almon, Strahan’s colleague, blamed the evils of the time on Bute and believed the Rockinghams were conspiring with him.

Bute’s opposition viewed him as a puppet. Such views abounded in pamphlets and news sheets, including cartoons. As a central planner of the time, Bute became a primary subject of opposition ideology. “[It] contributed forcefully to the belief, in England as well as in America, that an active conspiracy against the constitution was underway.”

Not everyone, however, agreed there was an activity conspiracy to undermine the constitution. Fewer still agreed with the republican radicals that the Coercive Acts were designed to “enslave America; and the same minister who means to enslave them would, if he had an opportunity, enslave England.” 

This  “contemporary belief in such a threat” as an active conspiracy helped to fuel the American crisis, and indeed was also a “powerful stimulus to demand for reform” in English domestic affairs. The firmly held belief remained widespread and powerful. 

Accusations of conspiracy hardened by February 1776, resulting in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s claim, in the Declaration of Independence, accused there of being a “design to reduce [the colonies] under absolute despotism.” 

Thomas Hutchinson’s Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia was his penultimate work in which he outlined that  “if no taxes or duties had been laid upon the colonies, other pretenses would have been found for exception to the authority of Parliament.” 

Accusations of conspiratorial designs did not cease with the pamphlet series started by the Declaration, nor even as the Americans succeeded in battle. They simply shifted form, and, as Bailyn notes, “began a process of adaptation that has allowed them to survive into our own time.”

The colonists weren’t alone. A diverse array of the English political public feared a ministerial conspiracy, too. Under George III, George Rude noted, it was “widely believed that the influence of the Crown was being used to staff the administration with new Favourites and ‘King’s Friends’, who formed a secret Closet party, beyond the control of Parliament and guided behind the scenes by the sinister combination of the Earl of Bute (who had resigned office in 1763) and the Princess Dowager of Wales.” Earl of Bute was a British nobleman, who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1762 to 1763 under George III.

Bailyn calls the wartime and postwar accusations of conspiracy “both an end and a beginning.” He argues they were “an end of the main phase of the ideological Revolution and the beginning of its transmutation into historiography.” Bailyn cites a list of historians with conspiratorial interpretations into the historiography. In these “heroic histories” of an “age of ideology,” as Bailyn writes, “the conspiratorial arguments propounded during the Revolution are the essential stuff of explanation.” 

The great irony might have been that, in England, fears of a conspiracy by the colonists had also taken hold. The conspiratorial thinking of the Revolution was not merely spread amongst the Revolutionaries. “The opponents of the Revolution—the administration itself —were as convinced as were the leaders of the Revolutionary movement that they were themselves the victims of conspiratorial designs.”  A stalemate of sorts colored the times. 

“The Americans,” Burke wrote in 1769, “have made a discovery, or think they have made one, that we mean to oppress them: we have made a discovery, or think we have made one, that they intend to rise in rebellion against us . . . we know not how to advance; they know no retreat . . . Some party must give way.”