Declaring independence

The purpose of declaring independence is to transform what otherwise might be a rebellion into an international war. In one case you can be shot for treason and in the second you can be shot as a combatant. You choose.

Quebec is getting all huffy about the federal government’s decision to join the legal case on Bill 99, which is Quebec’s declaration that a vote of 50% plus one of its population is sufficient to achieve independence, without further discussion with the federal government to which Quebecers still owe allegiance.

It is instructive to consider the significance of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, as a  guide to what can happen when states dissolve. I am indebted to Kevin Phillips’ 1775, A Good Year for Revolution, for this analysis.

In short, the Declaration of Independence was a practical document at the time of its publication, whose purpose was to transform what was then a rebellion into a war. In the period of May-July 1776, there was a brief window available to the Patriots, as Phillips styles them, before Britain’s immense naval and soldierly might began to bear down on the revolution. The Patriots had to act fast to secure the agreement of a sufficient number of provinces – as they then were – to formally dissociate themselves entirely from Great Britain, not just from the Parliament, but from the King himself.

Unless they established themselves as a separate state, and quickly, they would lack authority to call upon the help of foreign states to assist them in their cause and, more importantly, foreign states would not be allowed by international law of the time to assist a rebellion against  a sovereign power.

Phillips, citing David Armitage, writes:

In order to turn a civil war within the British Empire into a war between states outside the empire, it was necessary to create legitimate bodies of combatants – that is, states – out of individual rebels and traitors. (p443)

It is vital to to recall that the Battle of Bunker Hill and the shoot-out at Lexington had already occurred a year earlier  in 1775. One quarter of all British officers ever killed in that revolution, from 1775 to 1783, had been killed that June 17th, 1775 at Bunker Hill. The Patriots had been seeking arms and gunpowder from foreign sources for 18 months, and the Lexington affair was a failed attempt by the British to seize powder magazines. Yankees (that is, New Englanders) were fighting mad, and had organized highly effective armed forces to defend themselves from British soldiery.

I cite these facts to remind us that the American Revolution was a serious affair. The mutual provocations and escalations of rhetoric and violence by the Patriot party and British government, regardless of their legitimacy, demonstrate as nothing else could that the move to separate Quebec from Canada is, so far,  by comparison, a trivial affair.  It is in fact a disagreement about how low the barrier is to be before separation, with the federal government saying “you can negotiate your way out and must do so before juridical independence can be legally won”, and the Quebec government saying they do not even have to negotiate with the governments of their former compatriots in order to redraw what would become international rather interprovincial boundaries.

Until Quebec Patriotes face death by firing squad or death in combat, this dispute is chicken shit. And if the dispute is really about banning Islamic burqas on female public officials, I do not think I would take up arms to prevent the Quebecois from doing so. Would you?