American Revolution and Constitutional Misperceptions

Junior (College 3rd year) ・Government ・APA ・1 Sources

The term "ambiguous accommodations" or "constitutional misperceptions" refers to the various ways in which the English common law and the British constitution have been applied to the American territories. According to Jack P. Greene, a legal issue had an unexpected result in the form of the change that occurred in North America during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These misconceptions included, but weren't restricted to, the issues of royal prerogatives and British citizens' freedoms. (Greene 24). The degree to which administrative laws would apply to the colonies was never a topic of discussion between parliament and the colonies. In the eighteenth century, law throughout the British world was less coercive and more dependent on community consensus.

There was a relaxed approach towards the colonies, with administrators giving the colonies limited autonomy and flexibility in applying English law. As a consequence, the colonies began their own legal traditions when settlements morphed into colonies; they fashioned their own charters and legislative assemblies (Greene 67). The nature in which the Stamp Act and the Tea and Townshend Act were formulated and implemented resulted to a pernicious effect on trade and commerce in the colonies. This drove the American patriots to organize resistance-the American Revolution.

“Taxation without representation” is famously known to be the cause of the American Revolution. Taxes were undoubtedly part of the conflict, but the underlying origin of the revolution was the disagreements over the application of the British constitution in America. Britain, in the American sense, does not have a constitution, implying a single legal document outlining the structure and the basic law of the government, but rather an uncodified British constitution exists (Greene 73). The British constitution is understood to be a series of laws, traditions and legal pronouncements dating back to the Magna Carta. The English tradition of political liberalism traces its origins to the great charter of liberties (the Magna Carta), in which King John I signed a charter limiting his power and granting rights to his barons. This charter was the first example of limited government in western constitutional history, and it laid a foundation of British and American traditional constitution.

The American Revolution, to a large extent, was a result of the British Authority and colonialists disagreeing to the nature of the application of British constitutional law in the United States. British taxation policy in the colonies was illegal according to Britain’s own constitutional tradition. The rights of that the British gained from the Glorious Revolution were inherited by the American colonies and the colonial administration denied them these rights. The subsequent revolution was a result of the disputes between the American colonies and the British authorities over the constitutional legality of various taxes and legal pronouncements (Greene 95). Over time it became increasingly difficult to reconcile the two viewpoints, and war became inevitable.

The Magna Carta was an extremely important document because it marked the first time in western history that a king’s power was constrained and could be legally limited through the acts of his barons. This act of power limitation of a head of state is a politically liberal idea that America inherited from the Magna was the first example of constitutionalism in the western world and is regarded as the origin of not only the American constitution but in other countries throughout the British Commonwealth as well (Greene 52). The Magna Carta was signed by King John I on 15th June 1215 when his barons forced him to place limitations on his power in exchange for military support and tax. The document outlines the limits of power of the king towards his subjects, such as protecting people’s property and land from arbitrary and capricious seizure by the king.

The Magna Carta in Article 39 stated that, “No free man shall be seized or be imprisoned, or stripped of his standing rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals of by the law of the land.” The Magna Carta limited the royal prerogative by declaring the existence of the English common law. If King John I violated these laws and customs, he would be tyrannical (Greene 85).

The next significant development in the British constitution and the British democracies were the Glorious Revolution of 1689 and the resulting formation of the English Bill of Rights. The Glorious Revolution was the result of policies of King James II towards Catholics granting legal rights and tolerance. This greatly worried the protestant leaders, who felt that King James II would establish the Catholic Church as the state church of England (Greene 34). The Bill of Rights outlined examples how King James II violated the rights of Englishmen. The most egregious example was suspending and dispensing laws without the consent of the parliament. Other examples included levying taxes without parliament’s approval, raising a standing army in a time of peace without the consent of the parliament, imposing excessive bail and fines and inflicting cruel and unusual punishment and finally, disarming Protestants while arming and employing Catholics.

When the English colonialists began to settle in America, they brought their legal traditions and constitutional heritage with them. They assumed that5 they were still afforded the same rights of Englishmen and felt that parliament should not legislate on behalf of the colonies without t6heir consent. Before the French and Indian war, the British authorities had a policy of salutary neglect, which meant that the British government would not enforce import-export duties and restrictions on colonial commerce. After the war, the British began to impose taxation and other impositions on the colonies to help generate revenue to pay their war debts. The Sugar Act of 1764 increased taxes on items that required the use of sugar to produce, such as many items that were already taxed under the jurisdiction of the Molasses Act (Greene 123). Writs of Assistance, passed in 1760, allowed the British authorities to search warehouses of smuggled goods. The law was resented by the Americans as they felt it was a violation of their rights abs British citizens.

English law equated liberty with the property so that the liberty could not exist without the property. They were extremely proud of their liberty tradition, and it was central to the British political life. It was the security of the property, not the property itself, which ensured liberty through common constitutional law. Since the property was tied to freedom, any unjust taxation was perceived as a threat to freedom. This is why the American patriots were incensed at the tax policy of the British government: it was not simply taxes that upset the Americans, but that they would be taxed without any consultation. The Sugar Tax offended the colonialists, but the Stamp Act and the Declaratory Act enraged them.

A large number of loyalists in America crafted several arguments to challenge Britain not giving parliamentary seats to the Americans. The argument of “virtual representation" presented by the British authorities was not convincing to these group of Americans. The principle implied that members of parliament had the right to speak on behalf of all English people instead of specific constituencies or districts. This concept was used to defend the Declaration Act of 1766 (Greene 150). The Act affirmed the authority of the parliament to enact laws that were binding on the all the colonies in America. This was considered illegitimate by the Americans as the parliament would not be able to represent the interests of the colonies adequately without actual representatives from the colonies.

The American Revolution was fought mainly over constitutional disputes between the Crown and the colonies over the application of the British constitution and the traditional English liberties in the colonies. The American colonies gradually developed their own constitutional tradition and felt that the English liberties applied to them. The Crown’s taxation policy enraged the Americans as they believed it violated their inherited constitutional freedom and was a violation of the principle of no taxation without their consent. The conflicting interpretation of how the British constitution should function in the colonies and how the traditional English Rights should apply in North America gradually led to revolution. Therefore, the American Revolution was a struggle over the constitutional interpretation.


Greene, Jack P. The constitutional origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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