The conviction that the English colonial policies of the 1760s and 1770s constituted a conspiracy to enslave America played a major role in the outbreak of the American Revolution.
American Conspiracy Theories
Beginning around 1763, a series of political conflicts between England and its American colonies prompted American critics to protest in conspiracy-minded rhetoric. The call in 1763 of some Anglican leaders to install a bishop in America was met in Massachusetts with angry protests that this amounted to an ecclesiastical conspiracy to destroy religious freedom. Two years later, the Stamp Act of 1765 shocked and baffled many colonists. The measure called for a stamp tax on all paper used for purposes ranging from wills to playing cards, without consultation of or ratification by the colonial assemblies. While many colonists were still willing to concede Parliament the right to raise money from the colonies, the heavy-handed measure trampled American traditions of self-government and cherished concepts of representation and liberty. Already several critics charged that this could only be an early step in a larger plan designed by schemers within the English government in order to destroy the rights of Englishmen in America. Some even felt that the Stamp Act’s real goal was to foment a rebellion in America, which would subsequently be crushed militarily and allow a despotic government to be installed.
Even though the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 as a result of colonial protests, the crisis was soon continued by the passage of the Townshend duties in 1767, which continued other forms of taxation. Colonial critics became more and more convinced that the successive crises were not the result of a misunderstanding or a normal political conflict over negotiable interests, but were deliberately designed by a powerful group in the English government in order to bring America to its knees. Their suspicions were furthered through the controversy surrounding John Wilkes, a radical English opposition leader, whose election to Parliament was widely applauded in the American colonies. However, Wilkes was imprisoned and repeatedly denied his seat in the House of Commons, while a riot of some of his followers was met with gunfire that killed several. When troops stationed in Boston shot several protesters in the so-called Boston Massacre in 1770, colonial critics drew a parallel and concluded that opposition voices both in England and in the colonies were being permanently silenced.
Things came to a head when, in reaction to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in order to discipline Massachusetts. These measures were widely called the Intolerable Acts and interpreted as a deliberate effort to choke the colonies economically, abolish the rule of law and trial by jury, and prepare the American colonies for direct despotic rule. By 1774 many prominent and moderate colonial leaders including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason, and John Dickinson, were convinced that English policies were deliberately designed to end political freedom in America. The Continental Congress itself endorsed such an interpretation in its 1774 Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which vehemently protested against “such acts and measures as have been adopted since the last war, which demonstrate a system formed to enslave America.” Shortly thereafter, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, and in 1776 the American states declared their independence, arguing that a “long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them to absolute despotism.”
Who were the alleged conspirators? John Adams and Josiah Quincy identified Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts as a focal point of the conspiracy. Quincy even accused Hutchinson of being the originator of all the measures against America, but most conspiracy-minded critics felt that colonial officials could at best be the pawns of much more powerful figures in England. The person most often identified as the source of the troubles for both the colonies and England was John Stuart, Earl of Bute, prime minister from 1762 to 1763, the former tutor of young George III, and the alleged lover of the dowager Princess Augusta. The conspiracy theory argued that Bute, even though he had to leave office in 1763 under public pressure, had used his influence on the king to form a secret party that in reality controlled appointments to office as well as the general policy of Great Britain; he had also used his power to get even with his old enemy John Wilkes. Subjecting the American colonies to despotic rule was only the first step in doing the same thing in England.
English Conspiracy Theories
Such views were not limited to America. In England, too, a number of prominent intellectuals and politicians asked themselves why the country was in such turmoil despite the fact that it had just won the Seven Years’ War and faced no devastating problems. Whether sympathetic to or contemptuous of the American colonies, these thinkers identified similar causes for the troubles. Horace Wal-pole subscribed to the Earl of Bute theory. Edmund Burke, in his 1770 essay “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” also argued that a hidden faction, a “double cabinet,” pulled the strings in Great Britain. William Pitt, the veteran politician and steadfast ally of the American colonies, looked toward the intrigues of rich merchants involved in the Asia trade for the source of government corruption.
Of course, not all conspiracy theories in England ran parallel to those in America. One very popular explanation of the crisis vis-a-vis the American colonies was that from at least 1760 onward, a group of American conspirators had, for their own profit and aggrandizement, purposefully orchestrated events with the treasonous goal of independence in mind. Proponents of this conspiracy theory included Francis Bernard, the governor of Massachusetts from 1760 to 1769, as well as his successor Thomas Hutchinson. In fact, this interpretation won the highest endorsement possible from George III himself, who in 1775 informed Parliament: “The authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy have in the conduct of it derived great advantage from the difference of our intentions and theirs. They meant only to amuse, by vague expressions of attachment to the parent state and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they were preparing for a general revolt” (Bailyn, 153).
In late 1775, the king’s statement was probably right: the colonies were headed almost inexorably toward independence. But in the 1760s and the early 1770s, attachment to the crown was still strong in America. There was no premeditated plan to bring about independence through a series of escalating crises, as George III and others charged. Likewise, there was no coherent plot to abolish liberty in the American colonies. To be sure, prime ministers from George Grenville onward certainly wanted to set a precedent of taxation in the colonies. Most leading politicians were either ignorant or contemptuous of traditions of self-government in the colonies. The king and most parliamentary leaders wanted to reorganize the empire into a more coherent system, and thus had no intention of returning to the era of salutary neglect. Nevertheless, the taxation and reform measures of the 1760s and 1770s had limited and specific purposes; they did not constitute a deliberate design to destroy the rights of Englishmen. Rather, the American Revolution can best be understood as a series of conflicts and misunderstandings, during which the political differences between England and its colonies became ever clearer, and the stakes ever higher, to the point where a full-scale revolution was the result.
Nevertheless, the ubiquity of conspiracy-minded explanations for the American Revolution is startling, but explainable. Theories of political conspiracy were a staple of eighteenth-century British political discourse, and preceded the American Revolution. English radicals often charged that a secret faction had formed a ministerial conspiracy that worked toward the consolidation of power and the subversion of traditional English liberties. Much of the political theory of the Real Whig tradition in England was geared toward a general attitude of suspicion, lest liberty be destroyed by designing men. In fact, most contemporary observers expected conspiracy and corruption to seep into any political system, even the revered English constitution; only through constant vigilance could such decay be prevented or at least delayed. At the same time, eighteenth-century philosophy was built on the premise that all effects had specific and identifiable causes. In the case of political effects, these causes were expected to lie with individual intentions, not abstract social forces or uncontrollable political dynamics. So if the colonists perceived negative effects from English policies, while at the same time Parliament asserted that they had the empire’s best interest at heart, the colonists interpreted this discrepancy as the deliberate deception of a malevolent conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists on both sides simply interpreted events in the political and intellectual framework of their time.