Front Page Titles (by Subject) Relations with Great Britain - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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Relations with Great Britain - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Relations with Great Britain
In retrospect, it would seem that the American colonies were destined to gain independence at some point in time; and in many ways they were already independent before the Revolution. From the day the first settlers landed, the colonies governed themselves in most matters. They had their own charters of government, which served as written constitutions of a sort, and their own provincial assemblies, which exercised a considerable degree of autonomy.
The colonies were part of Britain’s vastly expanding empire, but the British empire was commercial in nature, not imperial. The King’s ministers were not interested in political control of the colonies for its own sake, for military purposes, or as a tax base. They viewed the colonies instead as a great commercial reservoir that contributed to the economic prosperity of the mother country by supplying England with raw materials and by providing markets for the sale of English-made goods. Consequently, neither Parliament nor the King’s ministers troubled themselves much with American affairs. They were content if the Thirteen Colonies continued to ship to Britain their tobacco, furs, dried fish, grain, and lumber, and the colonies were content to be ruled from Westminster so long as British regiments and British fleets defended America when wars arose with the French or the Spaniards, and so long as the colonies held the real political power in provincial assemblies. Thus the colonies enjoyed what Edmund Burke called the “salutary neglect” of London officialdom. The more the colonies were neglected politically by England, the more the colonists prospered.
Because England had no real political interest in the colonies, especially in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, colonial administration of the colonies was unplanned and haphazard. No single agency was ever given primary responsibility for the colonies until the very eve of the Revolution. By the early 1700s, there were six agencies of the British government, all located in London and out of touch with America, sharing responsibility for administering the colonies: the Board of Trade, The Privy Council, the Treasury and Customs Office, the Admiralty, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, and, of course, Parliament. But the colonies were never overrun with meddlesome bureaucrats. Even though the Americans were subjects of George III in 1776, few of them saw many outward signs of British sovereignty. Only nine of the colonies had royal governors, and these grand figures stayed close to the colonial capitals, or else spent much of their time in England. Judges, though appointed by the Crown, were usually American-born. Uniformed British troops were at the frontiers, but not regularly in the settlements. The only fairly numerous body of officials of the British government were the revenue officers who collected port duties under the Navigation Acts, and they too were mostly American-born.
In the eyes of the English, the colonies were technically mere corporations—subordinate to Parliament and without any inherent sovereignty. Colonial legislatures possessed only such privileges as the King chose to grant to them. British officials also insisted that the rights and powers won by Parliament in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 did not automatically extend to the colonial assemblies, and that the royal prerogative (inherent powers reserved by the Crown that were not surrendered to Parliament) was therefore more extensive over the American legislatures than over Parliament.
Acting upon these assumptions, British officials repeatedly rejected requests from the colonies to create new legislative districts or to pass “triennial acts” providing for automatic meetings of the legislatures at regular intervals. They also refused to accept speakers chosen by the assemblies on an automatic basis. These were rights that Parliament had long enjoyed. The principal check on the colonial assemblies was the Board of Trade, which instructed the royal governors, controlled colonial patronage, assisted the Privy Council in appeals from the colonial courts, advised Parliament and the Crown on matters of colonial policy, and, most significantly, had the power to recommend approval or disallowance of colonial legislation, much like a court exercising judicial review. Between 1696 and 1774, some 400 acts of colonial legislatures were recommended for disallowance by the Board. Although this led to disputes from time to time, the colonists cheerfully acknowledged the right of the Board, as an agency of the King-in-Parliament, to carry out its advisory functions, and its legitimacy was never seriously questioned. Nor, for that matter, was the authority of the other agencies. The conflict between England and the colonies, as we shall see, centered mainly on Parliament and the scope of its powers.
It was in the sphere of finance that the assemblies won their most important and decisive victory, and this proved to be the undoing of the British. Despite all of the theory repudiating the legal sovereignty of the colonial assemblies, these bodies in reality controlled the purse strings and in effect exercised a considerable amount of political sovereignty. The power to tax and spend rested in the hands of the colonial legislatures. Acting upon instructions from London, Royal governors repeatedly, but without success, demanded that the assemblies pass permanent revenue acts instead of annual appropriations. In New York, for example, the colonial assembly, patterning itself after the House of Commons, limited its appropriations to one year, stipulated in great detail how the money was to be spent, and refused to accept amendments to revenue bills. When Governor George Clinton tried to claim some authority over fiscal matters by the veto power, the assembly simply blocked all legislation and brought the Governor to his knees. Through the clever technique of appropriating the salaries of public officials by name and not by office, the colonial assemblies also effectively limited the governor’s power of appointment and removal. Even the local militia were under the control of the assemblies. Similar incidents occurred in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and the Carolinas.
Between 1699 and 1766, the Virginia offices of treasurer and speaker of the House of Burgesses were always held by the same person, thereby giving the legislature not only control over fiscal policy but custody of the funds as well. In nearly all of the provinces money granted for special purposes, such as the payment of troops, was often lodged in the hands of commissioners named in an appropriation act. “He who pays the piper,” according to an old English proverb, “can call the tune.” The importance of local control of revenue and expenditures can hardly be overestimated. Governors were virtually helpless in many instances to support the royal prerogative or the wishes of the King’s ministers in the face of colonial assemblies that could specify the expenditures of every cent and withhold funds from any governmental function they pleased. This situation contributed substantially to the growth of colonial independence and the gradual decline of British power in America.
In 1763, Patrick Henry defended the dominion of Virginia in an action at law called the Parson’s Cause. The case arose when clergymen of the Church of England—which was Virginia’s established church—brought suit against the commonwealth because Virginia’s Assembly in 1758 had passed a statute that temporarily reduced the salaries paid to clergymen. In England, the Privy Council had declared the law to be unconstitutional; a parson therefore had to file suit to obtain the funds he had been denied. Although the jury in the Parson’s Cause trial gave a verdict for the plaintiff, it awarded him only one penny in damages. The verdict was actually a victory, then, for the Assembly that had reduced the parsons’ salaries. Patrick Henry, whose eloquence had won over the jury, argued in the case that the British Crown, as represented by the Privy Council in England, had no power to set aside an act of the Virginia Assembly. This argument was clearly close to declaring that Virginia was politically independent of Britain. Twelve years later, of course, Henry ended his famous speech to the Virginia Assembly with the cry, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” It was by such audacious men that colonial assemblies were persuaded by 1775 to cast off the authority of Crown and Parliament.