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To suggest that many British officials and political philosophers were not particularly enamored of the Declaration of Independence would be an understatement of considerable proportions. The context in which the Continental Congress met and in which Thomas Jefferson famously drafted this seminal document would not seem to lend itself to something as radical as a revolution. From the perspective of the British Parliament, and of many loyalists among the colonists, the necessity of financing the costly war against the French while providing the colonies the imprimatur of British citizenship far outweighed the severity of any complaint originating from those who supported independence. Among the more articulate and thoughtful opponents of American independence was the English barrister John Lind, who drafted (presumably with considerable assistance from Jeremy Bentham) An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress, in which the author meticulously dissected each of the individual grievances spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, including the logical disconnect between the “inalienable rights” set forth by Jefferson and the requirements to have some form of government, the mere establishment of which would preclude some level of freedom. As Lind/Bentham wrote in that treatise:
"The rights of 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' — by which, if they mean any thing, they must mean the right to enjoy life, to enjoy liberty, and to pursue happiness — they 'hold to be unalienable.' This they 'hold to be among truths self-evident.' At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expence of one or other of those rights. — That, consequently, in as many instances as Government is ever exercised, some one or other of these rights, pretended to be unalienable, is actually alienated."
While Lind was among the more vocal of the more intellectual British critics of the Declaration, he was not alone in finding the document a bit overwrought, and more than a little hypocritical. Observing the paradoxical relationship between the principles established in the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery, Peter Van Schaack, a New Yorker who viewed skeptically the merits of arguments for independence, wrote the following:
"[M]y difficulty arises from this, that taking the whole of the acts [of the British government] complained of together, they do not, I think, manifest a system of slavery, but may fairly be imputed to human frailty, and the difficulty of the subject."
And, in an article in The Scots Magazine, an author similarly noted this dichotomy:
"The next assigned cause and ground of their rebellion is, that every man hath an unalienable right to liberty; and here the words, as it happens, are not nonsense; but then they are not true; slaves there are in America; and where there are slaves, their liberty is alienated." [Both of the above quotes are from George H. Smith, “That Audacious Document”: Notes on the Declaration of Independence, linked below]
The British political establishment found it difficult to believe that the grievances listed in the Declaration could possibly lead to a movement for independence. The British Crown was struggling to maintain its hold on its North American territories, and the notion that the colonies should agitate for independence was viewed as treasonous. From the perspective of the colonies, however, the constant pressure from the British Crown for sources of revenue, and the Crown’s ill-considered decision to impose martial law in Massachusetts, justified the most extreme of measures, and the movement for independence continued to grow.
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