04 July 2011

Americans ahead of their time

In 1931 the Statute of Westminster elevated the so-called Dominions within the British Empire to a status of equality with the United Kingdom itself. These included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Union of South Africa and the Irish Free State. The Empire thus became the Commonwealth of Nations or, more popularly, the British Commonwealth. Each Dominion had its own Parliament and was functionally independent, sharing only a common monarch whose representative, the Governor General, was appointed by the King on the advice of his Dominion government.

Two centuries earlier, however, the American colonists believed that something like the Commonwealth of Nations already existed. This is what contributed to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Here is David Hackett Fischer:
These county oligarchies [in colonial Virginia] were not sovereign bodies. Above them sat the Assembly, Council and Royal Governor. The status of these institutions was in dispute until the American War of Independence. The Assembly was understood by Imperial officials as the colonial equivalent of a municipal council in England. They called it the House of Burgesses, a name which brought to mind the Burgesses of Bristol and other British towns. But Virginians had a different idea of their Assembly. In 1687, William Fitzhugh called it "our Parliament here," a representative body which knew no sovereign except the King himself (p. 407).

Tragically, this difference of opinion had to be settled on the battlefield, with Americans claiming full independence on this day 235 years ago.

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