Thomas Jefferson on the rights of British America (1774)


In 1774, Thomas Jefferson – a rising legislator in the Virginian assembly – published A Summary View of the Rights of British America, in which he asserted colonial rights and encouraged the King to treat the colonies fairly and equitably:


“In order to enforce the arbitrary measures before complained of, His Majesty has from time to time sent among us large bodies of armed forces, not made up of the people here, nor raised by the authority of our laws. Did his majesty possess such a right as this that it might swallow up all our other rights whenever he should think proper?

His Majesty has no right to land a single armed man on our shores, and those whom he sends here are liable to our laws, made for the suppression and punishment of riots, routs, and unlawful assemblies; or are hostile bodies, invading us in defiance of law.

When the course of the late war it became expedient that a body of Hanoverian troops should be brought over for the defence of Great Britain, his majesty’s grandfather, our late sovereign [George I] did not pretend to introduce them under any authority he possessed. Such a measure would have given just alarm to his subjects in Great Britain… He therefore applied to parliament, who passed an act for that purpose, limiting the number to be brought in and the time they were to continue.

In like manner is His Majesty restrained in every part of the empire. He possesses, indeed, the executive power of the laws in every state; but they are the laws of the particular state which he is to administer…

These are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate…

Open your breast, sire, to liberal and expanded thought. Let not the name of George III be a blot in the page of history. You are surrounded by British counsellors, but remember that they are parties. You have no ministers for American affairs, because you have none taken from among us, nor amenable to the laws on which they are to give you advice. It behoves you, therefore, to think and to act for yourself and your people.

The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader. To pursue them requires not the aid of many counsellors; the whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail… This, sire, is the advice of your great American council…”

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