Grappling with Imperium in Imperio: Indivisible Sovereignty in Joseph Galloway’s British Empire

Critical Thinking

May 20, 2019
by Tristan J. New Also by this Author


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Although by 1775 hostilities between Great Britain and the American colonies had commenced, there were still those within the colonies who believed that the relationship between the two parties could be restored. Joseph Galloway’s 1775 pamphlet A Candid Examination of the Mutual Claims of Great Britain, and the Colonies: With a Plan of Accommodation on Constitutional Principles presented a thorough rationale for renewing the bonds of empire within British North America. Written following the Continental Congress’s rejection of Galloway’s plan of union the previous year, the pamphlet essayed the constitutional controversy separating the British metropole and American colonies. Although Galloway sympathized with American Whigs, he rejected their claim that Parliament did not possess the authority to internally legislate on behalf of the colonies. Invoking both the maxim of imperium in imperio (sovereignty within a polity cannot be divided) and English constitutional history, Galloway contended that Parliament was the rightful sovereign in the imperial constitution. He nonetheless accorded with colonists’ desire for representation within the empire. Galloway thus proposed a plan of union designed to give the colonies an increased voice in British affairs without challenging the supremacy of Parliament. He contended that this proposed system, which would create a general legislature representing the colonies within Parliament, would preserve Parliamentary sovereignty while affording the American Patriots a venue for redressing their grievances against imperial policies. Galloway’s rejection of the arguments brought forth by those who denied Parliament’s supremacy over the colonies and his efforts to pursue reconciliation through the creation of an alternative system of representation were fundamentally shaped by his understanding of sovereignty’s indivisibility.

A Candid Examination cannot be understood without first accounting for Galloway’s bitterness toward the members of the first Continental Congress. Galloway became highly critical of the Congress after it rejected his proposals for a plan of union with Great Britain. While Galloway’s plan had received extensive consideration in some places, especially in New York, the Continental Congress resoundingly rejected Galloway’s proposals. Galloway had called for the creation of a joint legislature consisting of Parliament and a general council elected by the colonies and presided over by a President General. Its members rejected Galloway’s effort to concede the legislative powers of the colonial assemblies to a central legislative body, argued that the colonies did not possess the power to approve the fundamental changes to the political order he proposed, and opposed the creation of a legislature possessing authority over all British American colonists.[1] Instead of adopting his plan, they endorsed the Suffolk Resolves, assumed a policy of non-importation of British goods, and expunged Galloway’s proposal from the minutes of the congressional journal.[2]

In A Candid Examination, Galloway addressed these reasons for rejecting his plan of union. He presented a thorough defense of the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy. Central to this defense was the precept of imperium in imperio—that sovereignty within a polity (in this case, the British empire) must be reposed within a single source of authority. This was a doctrine perhaps expressed best by the English jurist William Blackstone, who described law as “a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in a state, commanding what is right and prohibiting what is wrong.” The supreme power was a “sovereign,” “a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty reside.”[3] Galloway argued that the American Patriots were unreasonably rejecting this fundamental doctrine of government.

Galloway’s understanding of the British empire was fundamentally shaped by his conception of indivisible sovereignty. He was far from alone in being influenced by the doctrine. However, his discussion of the concept is nonetheless helpful because of the extent to which it illustrates the idea’s importance to Loyalist defenders of Parliamentary sovereignty. Galloway discussed the idea when he presented his plan of union before the First Continental Congress in 1774. He invoked the notion that “there must be one supreme legislative head in every civil society,” and that such an entity must decide “every matter susceptible of human direction.”[4] The sovereign must hold “supreme will” over “every member of society.”[5] Galloway was unambiguously drawing on the doctrine of undivided sovereignty in asserting the preeminence of Parliament over colonial affairs and administration.

Galloway believed that historical circumstances had created an environment under which the colonies were subordinate to the sovereign jurisdiction of Parliament. According to Galloway, the colonies had been settled under British authority, and Parliamentary jurisdiction had never been contested at length prior to the Stamp Act crisis. Galloway thought that the protection offered the colonists by Parliament was a privilege which could only exist if they were subject to its authority. Therefore, he contended, the concurrent Patriot desire for continued protection by the British government and denial of Parliamentary authority was an inconsistent position. Further, because the Patriots denied the sovereignty of Parliament, they were setting themselves up for a situation in which the colonies, as distinct but inferior political societies, would be thrown into a “perfect state of nature, destitute of any supreme direction or decision whatever.”[6] Those who denied Parliament’s supremacy and thus confounded the doctrine of indivisible sovereignty were setting the stage for a scenario in which the colonies would be deprived of any superintending authority.[7]

Galloway expanded upon the rationale behind his plan for union in A Candid Examination. He dismissed the colonists’ appeals to natural rights and to their colonial charters as evidence of their immunity from direct Parliamentary governance, arguing that Parliament clearly reigned supreme. He viewed the debates between Britain and her colonies as “a dispute between the supreme authority of the state, and a number of its members, respecting its supremacy, and their constitutional rights.”[8] Thus, he submitted, the claims issued by both parties could only be settled through analysis of the constitutional structure of the empire.[9]

Galloway thought that recognition of Parliament’s sovereignty was the only tenable answer to the problem of imperium of imperio. This made it the only remedy for the whirlwind of disagreement separating metropole and colonies. He cited the fact that “There is no position more firmly established, in the conduct of mankind, than that there must be in every state a supreme legislative authority, universal in its extent over every member.”[10] Galloway argued that the necessity of a clear sovereign was a universal fact in every kind of government; “monarchical, aristocratical, democratical, or mixed”—all possessed a “sovereign legislature established, to which it is the duty of every member uniformly to yield obedience.”[11] No matter the institutional framework for any given government, a supreme source of undivided authority could be found.

Galloway thought that the opponents of Parliament’s sovereignty were engaged in a futile attempt to divide sovereignty by contending that Parliament’s authority over them was limited and conditional in nature:

the legislative authority . . . must necessarily be equally supreme over all its members . . . To divide this supremacy, by allowing it exist in some cases, but not in all, over a part of the members, and not the whole, is to weaken and confound the operations of the system, and subvert the very end and purpose for which it is formed[12]

Galloway believed that the “vigour and strength” of the political system depended on the “consistency of its parts, and their obedience to the supreme acting power.[13] Because this was the case, the colonies could either be “complete members of the community, or so many distinct communities in a state of nature.”[14] The inflexibility of imperium in imperio demanded that colonists either accept their place within the British empire—which required acceptance of Parliament’s authority—or be thrown into a state of nature and thus deprived of the customary privileges, liberties, and protections afforded by the English constitutional tradition and the strength of the British empire.

Galloway accepted the Lockean assertion brought forth by American Whigs that the colonists’ settlement of North America entitled them to distinct rights and privileges.[15] However, he differed by submitting that the colonists remained wholly under British jurisdiction even after settling North America. The colonists brought with them “their political rights and duties,” but these entailed “perfect obedience to the laws,” which could not “be lost or changed by an alteration of their local circumstances.”[16] The colonists had settled under the auspices of the British empire, and were therefore not exempted from the obligations attendant to their status as subjects. Settlement on behalf of the British empire had conferred both rights and duties, which he saw as inseparable and mutually reinforcing.

Galloway turned social compact theory against the Whigs. He argued that subjects’ failure to “perform those duties, and yield that obedience which they are bound to perform and yield by the constitution, or original compact of society,” warranted their complete abandonment by the state.[17] Obedience was integral to the preservation of the imperial framework, whether one chose to interpret it through the lens of the English constitutional tradition or through Lockean theory (“In a natural state all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his ‘‘life, health, liberty, or possessions’”). Galloway used both paradigms interchangeably to prove his case.[18]

In addition to the theoretical underpinnings of his argument, Galloway pointed to custom in asserting to the indefensibility of the Whig position on Parliamentary authority. There was no precedent, he contended, for denying Parliament’s authority, because American colonists had accepted it without objection for the majority of the colonies’ histories. As he argued in his address to the Continental Congress, “There is no statute which has been passed to tax or bind the American colonies since 1763, which was not founded on precedents and statutes of a similar nature before that period.”[19]

Ever mindful of the preeminence of Parliament over the colonial legislatures, Galloway refuted the colonists’ conception of their legislatures’ internal police powers. Perhaps still operating under a Stuart-era understanding of the powers of the monarch, American Whigs claimed that the colonial legislatures possessed broad authority over their powers of internal police and accepted the king’s power to repeal their legislation. Upholding the legacy of the Glorious Revolution, Galloway regarded this position as a slight against the supremacy of Parliament.[20]

Although Galloway was at odds with the Patriots on the question of sovereignty, he was in agreement with them that the colonists were entitled to legislative representation in Britain. He argued that there should be no fundamental distinctions in the political status of Britons and Americans; colonists, he argued, should enjoy “the same fundamental rights and privileges” as their countrymen in Britain.[21] He believed that status distinctions between Britons and colonists were bound to produce “uneasiness and jealousies” and “frequently terminate in insurrections.”[22] Therefore, to secure colonial obedience, Britain needed to “restore to her American subjects, the enjoyment of the right of assenting to, and dissenting from, such bills as shall be proposed to regulate their conduct.”[23] Such a restoration would induce the colonists to “petition, not rebel.”[24] Galloway argued that the colonists’ objections to their lack of representation within Parliament occupied such a central place in their hostility toward the British imperial regime that their drift toward independence could be halted through the implementation of a plan of actual representation.

Having established at length the fact that America “has grievances to complain of,” but that he differed from Patriots “in the mode of obtaining redress,” Galloway proceeded to offer his plan of union.[25] It provided for the establishment of an American “Grand Council” to be presided over by a president-general appointed by the king and the grand council. Galloway’s plan empowered the president-general, with the advice and consent of the grand council, to “hold and exercise all the legislative rights, powers, and authorities, necessary for regulating and administering all the general police and affairs of the colonies.”[26] The president-general and grand council were to be an “inferior and distinct branch of the British legislature,” although their approval, along with that of Parliament, was to be necessary for the passage of measures concerning the affairs of the colonies.[27]

Galloway presented this plan as an asset to the welfare and security of the colonists. He pointed to its creation of a representative legislative body for the colonists as a benefit to them, providing them with a venue for expressing their opinions on measures affecting them: “For under it, no law can be binding on the Americans to which the people, by their representatives, have not previously given their consent: This is the essence of liberty, and what more would her people desire?”[28] 

Galloway argued that the plan would be beneficial to the colonists because it would enable them to retain control over their internal affairs, while providing a framework for addressing issues relating to the “general interest and safety of the colonies.”[29] He thought that general matters involving multiple colonies could be resolved through an overarching intercolonial legislature tied to Parliament. The colonies currently possessed power only over their “internal police,” but did not possess powers relating to “general regulations,” which were necessary to ensure that every colony contributed to the “defense of the whole, in proportion to the property and wealth which each colony possesses.”[30]

Galloway’s plan of union can best be understood as an effort to reconcile Parliament’s undivided sovereignty, which he viewed as an incontrovertible reality, with the grievances issued by American Whigs against the legislature’s policies. Galloway assumed a middle ground with regard to the constitutional crisis dividing Loyalists and Patriots. He believed that Parliament possessed the authority to regulate the internal affairs of the colonies and impose internal taxation. However, he also agreed with the American Patriots that the colonists were entitled to representation within Parliament, and that legislation issued without colonial representation was in some sense unjust and inconsistent the spirit of the English constitution. Galloway’s moderate stance enabled him to assume the role of an intermediary between the two sides and work towards a satisfactory compromise. Although these efforts towards reconciliation ultimately failed, Galloway succeeded in proposing a system of government consistent with the seemingly inescapable conception of indivisible sovereignty.

Interestingly, Galloway’s conception of the distribution of powers between the British government and the separate colonial governments does not appear incompatible with that of the First Continental Congress. Their precursors had denied the supremacy of Parliament over their internal affairs in the Declaratory Act, but on the basis that they were not, and could not be properly represented in Congress. Their congressional assemblies therefore, in their estimation, were the only governing entities possessing legitimate power of legislation over them. Galloway differed with them in his conviction that adequate legislative representation within the empire could be achieved.[31] It was this conviction which explains his devotion to the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy and his unique systematic approach to explaining the doctrine’s proof that Parliament was the only legitimate legislative body for the colonists.

Ultimately, the greatest lessons that can be gleaned from Galloway’s A Candid Examination are the centrality of Parliamentary sovereignty in debates over imperial administration and the widespread nature of concerns about the colonists’ lack of actual representation in Parliament. Although Galloway thought his enemies within the First Continental Congress had been dead wrong about the issue of Parliamentary sovereignty, he agreed with them that the colonies deserved direct representation regarding policies affecting them.[32] This conviction is evident in the nature of his plan of union. It both preserved the sovereignty of Parliament and created a system of colonial representation within the British empire. It thus offered an opportunity to avoid revolution, preserve stability, and renew the bonds of union between Britain and the colonies—a relationship he regarded as essential to the prosperity of both.


[1]Ruma Chopra, Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 30-32.

[2]Robert M. Calhoon, “‘I Have Deduced Your Rights’: Joseph Galloway’s Concept of His Role, 1774-1775,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 35, No. 4 (October, 1968), 356.

[3]William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, 12th ed. (London, 1793), 1: 44.

[4]Joseph Galloway, Plan of Union, Journals of the Continental Congress, September 28, 1774 in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875, 44.




[8]Joseph Galloway, A Candid Examination of the Mutual Claims of Great Britain, and the Colonies: With a Plan of Accommodation on Constitutional Principles (New York, 1775), 2.

[9]Ibid., 3

[10]Ibid., 4.

[11]Ibid., 6




[15]This topic is discussed at length in Craig Yirush, Settlers, Liberty, and Empire: The Roots of Early American Political Theory, 1675-1775 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[16]Galloway A Candid Examination, 12

[17]Ibid., 23

[18]John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1690). The historiographical debate between scholars who perceive English constitutionalism as the driving force behind the American Revolution and those who attribute the Revolution’s coming to the influence of Lockean liberalism is enormous in scope and beyond the scope of this article. Nonetheless, it deserves at least a token acknowledgment.

[19]Galloway, Plan of Union

[20]For discussion of the influence of the Glorious Revolution on the competing conceptions of sovereignty (monarchical versus parliamentary) adhered to within Britain and the American colonies, see Jack P. Greene, “The Glorious Revolution in the American Colonies,” in Negotiated Authorities: Essays in Political and Constitutional History (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1994). On the persistence of Stuart-era understandings of monarchical prerogative within the American colonies, see Eric Nelson, The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).

[21]Galloway, A Candid Examination, 42.




[25]Ibid., 48.

[26]Ibid., 54.

[27]Ibid., 55.



[30]Ibid., 55-57.

[31]John E. Ferling, The Loyalist Mind: Joseph Galloway and the American Revolution (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), 83.

[32]Aaron N. Coleman, The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765-1800 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2016), 31.

One thought on “Grappling with Imperium in Imperio: Indivisible Sovereignty in Joseph Galloway’s British Empire

  • He was on far better legal footing than Franklin and his peers during the Stamp Act crisis. The Patriots appealed to the old colonial charters but willfully ignored others like Pennsylvania’s or Georgia’s. Failing that, Franklin tossed them all aside and claimed everything under the Magna Carta. His annoyance was palpable. They constantly tried to use the appeal that they fell under Crown only rather than Parliament and even the most American-friendly members thought the American claims were absurd.

    If you like this topic check out: Reid, John Phillip. “In Our Contracted Sphere: The Constitutional Contract, the Stamp Act Crisis, and the Coming of the American Revolution.” Columbia Law Review 76 (1976): 21.

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