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Happy Fourth of July – What Did the British Think about the Declaration of Independence?

This post is coauthored by Nathan Dorn, rare book curator, and Robert Brammer, chief of the Office of External Relations

The Fourth of July is a perfect time to read the Declaration of Independence that not only heralded the American Revolution, but also provided the most powerful and enduring formulation of the American aspirations for freedom and equality. Take a moment to visit the Library’s Declaration of Independence web guide, and explore Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration at the Library of Congress.

But, you might ask yourself, what did the British think of the Declaration at the time? Not a whole lot. In the British press, the publications that discussed the Declaration generally reacted with contempt toward the ideology expressed by its preamble, and anger at the ingratitude showed by the colonists toward their king. Some voices expressed sympathy. There are two responses in particular that are worth highlighting.

The first is King George III’s brief response written by Lord North. The reply scolds Americans for their Declaration of Independence, and is more or less a call for Americans to go to back to their rooms and think about what they’ve done, lest they suffer the consequences.

The most entertaining response comes from the famous Utilitarian philospher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham ghostwrote a section by section rejoinder to the Declaration in John Lind’s Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress.

Even if you haven’t read the Declaration in a while, no doubt you’ll recall from memory the preamble where Jefferson writes that,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

So what did Bentham think of these stirring words?

Of the preamble I have taken little or no notice. The truth is, little or none does it deserve. The opinions of the modern Americans on Government, like those of their good ancestors on witchcraft, would be too ridiculous to deserve any notice, if like them too, contemptible and extravagant as they be, they had not led to the most serious evils.

You can read the entirety of Bentham’s response here. It concludes,

How this Declaration may strike others, I know not. To me, I own, it appears that it cannot fail — to use the words of a great Orator— “of doing us Knight’s service.” The mouth of faction, we may reasonably presume, will be closed; the eyes of those who saw not, or would not see, that the Americans were long since aspiring at independence, will be opened; the nation will unite as one man, and teach this rebellious people, that it is one thing for them to say, the connection, which bound them to us, is dissolved, another to dissolve it; that to accomplish their independence is not quite so easy as to declare it: that there is no peace with them, but the peace of the King: no war with them, but that war, which offended justice wages against criminals. — We too, I hope, shall acquiesce in the necessity of submitting to whatever burdens, of making whatever efforts may be necessary, to bring this ungrateful and rebellious people back to that allegiance they have long had it in contemplation to renounce, and have now at last so daringly renounced.

Bentham’s views on the United States independence later softened, though he continued to reject the claim of natural rights that underpin the Declaration. Oddly enough, you can visit Jeremy Bentham. After Bentham died, he requested that his body be turned into an auto-icon: his skeleton was dressed in his clothes, a wax head was added, and then this figure was put on display at the University College London. This has led to a myth that he is wheeled out Weekend at Bernie’s style to attend meetings of College Council. While Bentham’s auto-icon is permanently on display in London, he actually went on tour in 2018, visiting the rebellious colonies he once chastised, when Bentham was placed on display at the Met Breuer museum in New York City.

The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham at University College London. Photo by Robert Brammer.

The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham at University College London. Photo by Robert Brammer.

 

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