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Declaring Independence

Breaking Free from Great Britain

More than two hundred years after America declared its independence from England, Scotland voted by a margin of 55% to 45% to remain part of the United Kingdom. The vote means the continuation of a union that has existed since 1707.

Prior to the vote, United Kingdom leaders were united in their efforts to stave off Scottish independence by promising Scotland more control over its own affairs. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said after the vote “it was clearly not a vote against change and we must now deliver on time and in full the radical package of newly devolved powers to Scotland.”

Had the British government offered more concessions prior to 1776, would Americans also have chosen to remain part of the British empire? There were certainly British politicians who tried. Prominent among them was William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and twice prime minister. Early in 1767, as Parliament debated repealing the Stamp Tax that so incensed Americans, Pitt argued—as so many American revolutionaries did—that there could be no taxation without representation. Taxes, he asserted, were “no part of the governing or legislative power” but a “voluntary gift” of the people’s representatives. He called the idea that anyone in England could represent Americans “the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of man.”

Even without the concessions Pitt sought, there were plenty of American loyalists (the term they preferred, while Revolutionaries called them Tories). Had there been a vote, would Americans have chosen to remain part of England? It would have depended on when the vote was held, and historians have offered various estimates. In “The Glorious Cause,” a major history of the American Revolution, Robert Middlekauff estimated that about one-fifth of white Americans did not find the cause glorious. The largest numbers of loyalists were in the middle states and included many tenant farmers of New York, Dutch in New York and New Jersey, Germans and Quakers in Pennsylvania, Highland Scots in the Carolinas, Anglican clergy and their parishioners in Connecticut and New York, Iroquois Indians, and some Presbyterians in the southern colonies. Many enslaved blacks also sided with the British, hoping that they would find their freedom behind British lines. By the end of the war, as many as 80,000 loyalists had left America for England, Canada, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies.

The choice for or against independence sometimes divided families. In Williamsburg, for example, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses was Peyton Randolph, who was later elected president of the first Continental Congress. His brother John was unwilling to join Peyton (or their cousin, Thomas Jefferson) on the road to revolution. As Peyton Randolph prepared to go to Philadelphia, John Randolph was arranging to return to England along with his wife and two daughters. Edmund Randolph, John’s son, joined the Continental army without his father’s knowledge and served as aide-de-camp to George Washington. “For Gods sake,” John wrote Edmund, “return to your family & indeed to yourself.”

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