The Justification of American Colonial Resistance: A Critical Response to the Tory View of Peter Oliver



Loyalist Peter Oliver / Wikimedia Commons


By Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Peter Oliver began his manuscript, Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, with historical inaccuracy by stating that the Americans may have been singularly unique in revolting against the parent power absent severe oppression from it.  Numerous examples could be brought forth going back to ancient history of rebellion based not in oppression but in economic interests or merely the desire of one or a few to have power for themselves.  Indeed, he immediately absolved Britain of any wrongdoing and referenced the Americans nearly as favored children – and spoiled at that![1]  But throughout his account he makes not even the slightest attempt to mask the disdain that the “mother country” felt for the “outlanders.”  He wanted the degradation he felt evidenced by the likes of Samuel Adams to be seen so deeply rooted and endemic that he harkened back to the same neglect of ties to the Church of England by the original settlers![2]  Referencing their homeland as their “dear Mother,” Oliver firmly planted the parent-child view the Tories had adopted.  Moving into what he believed to be the causes for the rebellion, he maintained that metaphor, effectively placing revolt leaders in the roles of elder children leading others astray via propaganda to hide their own self-interested purpose while never addressing what would be a natural inclination to wonder if his own purpose in the manuscript was actually to use the rebellion as propaganda to cover for his true animosity, that being the consequence to his own self-interests as well.

Oliver laid the seeds for the revolution not in some grandiose ideal of a desire for independence but instead squarely at the feet of James Otis, Sr., and his son of the same name.  Thomas Hutchinson had been appointed Chief Justice of Province of Massachusetts Bay to replace the late Stephen Sewall.  This began for the Otises, according to Oliver, a desire to avenge what they felt to be rightfully due them.  Though temptation might lead one to believe this had some traction, the tone used to describe them as opposed to Hutchinson revealed an underlying sense of repudiation for their lack of noble birth.  Was it surprising that at some point this clear class discrimination would draw a negative response from the colonists?  Oliver was probably accurate that this was the beginning of at least the outward manifestation of anger and resentment that would ultimately envelop others and lead to revolution, but by omission he gives no credibility to the idea that this instinctual negative view of colonists was at the core of it.  A parent can make a child feel stupid and unnecessary for only so long until consequences will be realized and the child rebels.  The manner in which Oliver described Thomas Hutchinson and James Otis, Jr., was not far removed from how one would compare a Mercedes with a Pinto.  In this case, though, the Pinto was sentient and recognized the comparison.  Even worse was his description of Samuel Adams as nothing less than evil incarnate.[3]  Whether their concerns were rooted in validity or not, this view of colonists as rabid dogs in need of control was common among the English.

Oliver wrote of what he saw as the true foundation upon which colonial dissenters built collective resistance – money.  He pointed to the people of Massachusetts being well-known for smuggling activity,[4] an activity he saw as particularly egregious to the interests of the British who would need duly collected monies to support defense of colonists and provide for their needs.  Not only did he see the Stamp Act, intended to impinge on smuggling activity, as a right of the home government, but one which they should have insisted upon instead of yielding to American resistance to it.  Again, by omission Oliver did not deal with the reason for such smuggling.  When people are not only treated as second-class citizens but economically forced into a position in which being anything other than lower class is not possible, they will do what they see as necessary and right to provide their own solution.  They were being taxed while having only “virtual representation” in the halls of Parliament as well, again given a pat on the head by father and told that daddy knows best.  Oliver made this critical error throughout the entirety of his manuscript.  He did not deal with opposing sentiment in either a pre-emptive or post-factual fashion.

Oliver was never able to conceive of the idea, that even if his initial supposition were true that Otis and Adams were personally vested in such a rebellion, there would develop more valid resentments and contentions.  In his discussion of the Townshend Duties, he again referenced their propaganda as the driving force for continued resistance among people that he clearly felt were sheep led to the slaughter.[5]  He did not entertain the notion that the ire being built up among colonists had any source of validity.  During boycotts, colonists drank a substitute for tea, and Oliver’s description of this revealed the true lack of worth placed in these people.  The substitute they used was taken from a plant that they finally realized caused medical problems, and Oliver went so far as to write that if they had continued to consume it at least Britain would have had fewer problems and it would have been better even for them to perish in that manner than, “…from the accumulated Guilt of Murder, Treason & Rebellion.”[6]  Such contempt could not be hidden, and Oliver was completely overt about it in his writing.  Why would any people want to remain under the thumb of a mother country who views them with such disregard to the point of taking what little resources they do have while giving them no say in government at all?  Oliver, true to form, did not provide an answer.


Dr. Benjamin Franklin / Wikimedia Commons

            So deep did this resentment run that when Oliver described Benjamin Franklin, widely admired in the colonies and abroad, he still tempered it with the negativity seemingly due all colonists.  He ceded Franklin’s noble birth and brilliance of mind, but because of his sympathy to “the cause” and friendliness toward the rebels, he assigned Franklin the same blackness of heart as the rest,[7] going on to call him a traitor to friend and country alike.[8]  He made no attempt to separate Franklin from some of the actions against various government officials, such as tarring and feathering or the destruction of their homes.[9]  For Oliver, anyone in alliance with any portion of the rebellion was then in alliance with every portion of it.  The colonists were viewed in toto as irreverent, disrespectful, and violent.  To set any apart from the rabble, such as Dr. Franklin, would have been to give some credence to the claims being made.  Oliver wasn’t about to do that.  In fact, as events escalated to the Boston Tea Party, Oliver claimed that the colonists are so enamored and easily led astray by wandering preachers of revolution who could claim anything as true and believed that Boston had become a shrine for them – a “new Jerusalem.”[10]

The abasement with which Oliver viewed the colonists had no limit, even in their organization to determine courses of action and appropriate responses.  It was seemingly beyond him to accept the possibility that these “rabid dogs” had actually developed the courage with which to use their teeth and continued to see them as silly colonialists bent on their own destruction.  This mentality – this perception of them – had never escaped them and would not do so then.  He referenced the official gatherings as an organized volcano exploding, one that would result in their own destruction.[11]  Of course, he would be proven wrong.  Lexington and Concord were on the horizon, and this petty rebellion that had proven to be a rather large nuisance would escalate into a declaration of war.  Colonists had been oppressed for so long and viewed with such low regard that his volcanic metaphor was correct.  However, his belief in which direction it would blow was sorely miscalculated.  Yet again he returned to the point with which he began – with Samuel Adams.  He said this man had stoked the flames of rebellion to such a high temperature that only a few could be persuaded with reason and that an eruption had finally resulted in unavoidable conflict – the “…Rupture could not be closed.”[12]

            Oliver could not accept any favor for the colonial position and could not shake the image that he had formed about them.  They were by implication of a “lesser stock” and needed to be led by the “better sort.”  More than the taxation without representation, more than troops in peace time, more than attempts to crack down on smuggling, these images of the colonialists lay at the heart of the rebellion.  Even Roman patricians had to acquiesce, and it was eventually considered a thing of honor to be vouched for by Plebeians.  The British homeland could not make the leap that the Roman Empire had made nearly two-thousand years before.  Oliver and his ilk had lost in the colonies what the colonists themselves had been kept from attaining, and therein perhaps lay his true resentment to the revolution.  The claims of personal interest for the rebellion could just as easily be reversed as the reason for his opposition to it.  From the victors came a new nation following a Declaration of Independence that Oliver never would have seen them achieving, and from him – a “manuscript of little note”.

[1] Peter Oliver, Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View, Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, eds. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 3.

[2] Oliver, 19.  “…leaving their dear Mother to fight her own Battles in their native Country.”

[3] Oliver, 39.  “…if he wished to draw the Picture of the Devil, that he would get Sam Adams to sit for him.”

[4] Oliver, 46.

[5] Oliver, 63-64.  “They preached about it & preached about it; until the Women & Children, both within Doors & without, set their Spinning Wheels a whirling in Defiance of Great Britain.”

[6] Oliver, 75.

[7] Oliver, 79.  “…he was a man of Genius, but of so unprincipled an Heart…”

[8] Oliver, 81.

[9] Oliver, 93-94.

[10] Oliver, 106.

[11] Oliver, 116.

[12] Oliver, 121.