At sea a strange gleam of good fortune cheered the Americans. It was there England felt herself omnipotent. She, with her thousand ships, might pardonably despise the enemy who came against her with twenty. But it was there disaster overtook her.
1812 A.D. During the autumn months a series of encounters took place between single British and American ships. In every instance victory remained with the Americans. Five English vessels were taken or destroyed. The Americans were in most of these engagements more heavily manned and armed than their enemies. But the startling fact remained. Five British ships of war had been taken in battle by the Americans; five defeats had been sustained by England. Her sovereignty of the sea had received a rude shock.
The loss of a great battle would not have moved England more profoundly than the capture of these five unimportant ships. It seemed to many to foretell the downfall of her maritime supremacy. She had ruled the seas because, heretofore, no other country produced sailors equal to hers. But a new power had now arisen, whose home, equally with that of Britannia herself, was upon the deep. If America could achieve these startling successes while she had only twenty ships, what might she not accomplish with that ampler force which she would hereafter possess? England had many enemies, all of whom rejoiced to see in these defeats the approaching decay of her envied greatness.
Among English sailors there was a burning eagerness to wipe out the unlooked-for disgrace which had fallen upon the flag. A strict blockade of American ports was maintained. On board the English ships which cruised on the American coasts impatient search was made for opportunities of retrieving the honour of the service.
Two English ships lay off Boston in the summer of 1813, under the command of Captain Broke. Within the bay the American frigate Chesapeake had lain for many months. Captain Broke had bestowed especial pains upon the training of his men, and he believed he had made them a match for any equal force. He and they vehemently desired to test their prowess in battle. He sent away one of his ships, retaining only the Shannon, which was slightly inferior to the Chesapeake in guns and in men. And then he stood close in to the shore, and sent to Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake an invitation to come forth that they might “try the fortune of their respective flags.”
From his mast-head Captain Broke watched anxiously the movements of the hostile ship. Soon he saw her canvas shaken out to the breeze. His challenge was accepted. The stately Chesapeake moved slowly down the bay, attended by many barges and pleasure-boats. To the over-sanguine men of Boston it seemed that Captain Lawrence sailed out to assured victory. They crowded to house-top and hill to witness his success. They prepared a banquet to celebrate his triumphant return.
June 1, 1813 A.D. Slowly and in grim silence the hostile ships drew near.
The fight lasted but a quarter of an hour. So few minutes ago the two ships, peopled by seven hundred men in the pride of youth and strength, sailed proudly over seas which smiled in the peaceful sunlight of that summer evening. Now their rigging lies in ruins upon the cumbered decks; their sides are riven by shot; seventy-one dead bodies wait to be thrown overboard; one hundred and fifty-seven men lie wounded and in anguish – some of them to die, some to recover and live out cheerless lives, till the grave opens for their mutilated and disfigured forms. Did these men hate each other with a hatred so intense that they could do no less than inflict these evils upon each other? They had no hatred at all. Their Governments differed, and this was their method of ascertaining who was in the right! Surely men will one day be wise enough to adopt some process for the adjustment of differences less wild in its inaccuracy, less brutish in its cruelty than this.
This victory, so quickly won and so decisive, restored the confidence of England in her naval superiority. The war went on with varying fortune. The Americans, awakening to the greatness of the necessity, put forth vigorous efforts to increase both army and navy. Frequent encounters between single ships occurred. Sometimes the American ship captured or destroyed the British; more frequently now the British ship captured or destroyed the American. The superb fighting capabilities of the race were splendidly illustrated, but no results of a more solid character can be enumerated.
1814 A.D. Meanwhile momentous changes had occurred in Europe. Napoleon had been overthrown, and England was enjoying the brief repose which his residence in Elba afforded. She could bestow some attention now upon her American quarrel. Several regiments of Wellington’s soldiers were sent to America, under the command of General Ross, and an attack upon Washington was determined. The force at General Ross’s disposal was only three thousand five hundred men. With means so inconsiderable, it seemed rash to attack the capital of a great nation. But the result proved that General Ross had not under-estimated the difficulties of the enterprise.
The Americans utterly failed in the defence of their capital. They were forewarned of the attack, and had good time to prepare. The militia of Pennsylvania and Virginia had promised their services, but were not found when they were needed. Only seven thousand men could be drawn together to resist the advance of the English. These took post at Bladensburg, where there was a bridge over the Potomac. The English were greatly less numerous, but they were veterans who had fought under Wellington in many battles. To them it was play to rout the undisciplined American levies. They dashed upon the enemy, who, scarcely waiting to fire a shot, broke and fled towards Washington in hopeless confusion.
That same evening the British marched quietly into Washington. General Ross had orders to destroy or hold to ransom all public buildings. He offered to spare the national property, if a certain sum of money were paid to him; but the authorities declined his proposal. Next day a great and most unjustifiable ruin was wrought. The Capitol, the President’s residence, the Government offices, even the bridge over the Potomac – all were destroyed. The Navy-yard and Arsenal, with some ships in course of building, were set on fire by the Americans themselves. The President’s house was pillaged by the soldiers before it was burned. These devastations were effected in obedience to peremptory orders from the British Government, on whom rests the shame of proceedings so reprehensible and so unusual in the annals of civilized war. On the same day the British withdrew from the ruins of the burning capital, and retired towards the coast.
The Americans were becoming weary of this unmeaning war. Hope of success there was none, now that Britain had no other enemy to engage her attention. America had no longer a ship of war to protect her coasts from insult. Her trade was extinct. Her exports, which were fourteen million sterling before the war, had sunk to one-tenth of that amount. Two-thirds of the trading classes were insolvent. Most of the trading ships were taken. The revenue hitherto derived from customs had utterly ceased. The credit of the country was not good, and loans could not be obtained. Taxation became very oppressive, and thus enhanced extremely the unpopularity of the war. Some of the New England States refused to furnish men or money, and indicated a disposition to make peace for themselves, if they could not obtain it otherwise.
Feb. 11, 1815 A.D. Peace was urgently needed, and happily was near at hand. Late one Saturday night a British sloop-of-war arrived at New York bearing a treaty of peace, already ratified by the British Government. The cry of “Peace! peace!” rang through the gladdened streets. The city burst into spontaneous illumination. The news reached Boston on Monday morning, and Boston was almost beside herself with joy. A multitude of idle ships had long lain at her wharves. Before night carpenters were at work making them ready to go to sea. Sailors were engaged; cargoes were being passed on board. Boston returned without an hour’s delay to her natural condition of commercial activity.
British and American Commissioners had met at Ghent, and had agreed upon terms of peace. The fruitlessness of war is a familiar discovery when men have calmness to review its losses and its gains. Both countries had endured much during these three years of hostilities; and now the peace left as they had been before the questions whose settlement was the object of the war.
1814 A.D. The treaty was concluded on the 24th December. Could the news have been flashed by telegraph across the Atlantic, much brave life would have been saved. But seven weeks elapsed before it was known in the southern parts of America that the two countries were at peace. And meanwhile one of the bloodiest fights of the war had been fought.
New Orleans – a town of nearly twenty thousand inhabitants – was then, as it is now, one of the great centres of the cotton trade, and commanded the navigation of the Mississippi. The capture of a city so important could not fail to prove a heavy blow to America. An expedition for this purpose was organized. Just when the Commissioners at Ghent were felicitating themselves upon the peace they had made, the British army, in storm and intolerable cold, was being rowed on shore within a few miles of New Orleans.
Sir Edward Pakenham, one of the heroes of the Peninsula, commanded the English. The defence of New Orleans was intrusted to General Jackson. Jackson had been a soldier from his thirteenth year, and had spent a youth of extraordinary hardship. He was now a strong-willed, experienced, and skilful leader, in whom his soldiers had boundless confidence. Pakenham, fresh from the triumphs of the Peninsula, looked with mistaken contempt upon his formidable enemy.
Jackson’s line of defence was something over half a mile in length. The Mississippi covered his right flank, an impassable swamp and jungle secured his left. Along his front ran a deep broad ditch, topped by a massive wall of earth. In this strong position the Americans waited the coming of the enemy.
1815 A.D. At daybreak on the 8th January the British, six thousand strong, made their attack. The dim morning light revealed to the Americans the swift advance of the red-coated host. A murderous fire of grape and round shot was opened from the guns mounted on the bastion. Brave men fell fast, but the assailants passed on through the storm and reached the American works. It was their design to scale the ramparts, and, once within, to trust to their bayonets, which had never deceived them yet. But at the foot of the ramparts it was found that the fascines and scaling-ladders, which had been prepared for the assault, were now amissing! The men mounted on each other’s shoulders, and thus some of them forced their way into the works, only to be shot down by the American riflemen. All was vain. A deadly fire streamed incessant from that fatal parapet upon the defenceless men below. Sir Edward Pakenham fell mortally wounded. The carnage was frightful, and the enterprise visibly hopeless. The troops were withdrawn in great confusion, having sustained a loss of two thousand men. The Americans had seven men killed and the same number wounded.
Thus closed the war. Both countries look with just pride upon the heroic courage so profusely displayed in battle, and upon the patient endurance with which great sacrifices were submitted to. It is pity these high qualities did not find a more worthy field for their exercise. The war was a gigantic folly and wickedness, such as no future generation, we may venture to hope, will ever repeat.
On the Fourth of July 1826 all America kept holiday. On that day, fifty years before, the Declaration of Independence was signed, and America began her great career as a free country. Better occasion for jubilee the world has seldom known. The Americans must needs do honour to the Fathers of their Independence, most of whom have already passed away; two of whom – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – died on this very day. They must pause and look back upon this amazing half century. The world had never seen growth so rapid. There were three million of Americans who threw off the British yoke; now there were twelve million. The thirteen States had increased to twenty-four. The territory of the Union had been prodigiously enlarged. 1803 A.D. Louisiana had been sold by France; 1820 A.D. Florida had been ceded by Spain. Time after time tribes of vagrant Indians yielded up their lands and enrolled themselves subjects of the Great Republic. The Gulf of Mexico now bounded the Union on the south, and the lakes which divide her from Canada on the north. From the Atlantic on the east, she already looked out upon the Pacific on the west. Canals had been cut leading from the great lakes to the Hudson, and the grain which grew on the corn-lands of the west, thousands of miles away, was brought easily to New York. Innumerable roads had been made. The debt incurred in the War of Independence had been all paid; and the still heavier debt incurred in the second war with England was being rapidly extinguished. A steady tide of emigration flowed westward. Millions of acres of the fertile wilderness which lay towards the setting sun had been at length made profitable to mankind. Extensive manufactories had been established, in which cotton and woollen fabrics were produced. The foreign trade of the country amounted to forty million sterling.
The Marquis Lafayette, now an old man, came to see once more before he died the country he had helped to save, and took part with wonder in the national rejoicing. The poor colonists, for whose liberties he had fought, had already become a powerful and wealthy nation. Everywhere there had been expansion. Everywhere there were comfort and abundance. Everywhere there were boundless faith in the future, and a vehement, unresting energy, which would surely compel the fulfilment of any expectations, however vast.
When Europeans first visited the southern parts of America, they found in abundant growth there a plant destined to such eminence in the future history of the world as no other member of the vegetable family ever attained. It was an unimportant-looking plant, two or three feet in height, studded with pods somewhat larger than a walnut. In the appropriate season these pods opened, revealing a wealth of soft white fibre, embedded in which lay the seeds of the plant. This was Cotton. It was not unknown to the Old World, for the Romans used cotton fabrics before the Christian era. India did so from a still remoter period. But the extent to which its use had been carried was trivial. Men clothed themselves as they best might in linen or woollen cloth, or simply in the skins of the beasts which they slew. The time was now at hand when an ampler provision for their wants was to be disclosed to them. Socially and politically, cotton has deeply influenced the course of human affairs. The mightiest conquerors sink into insignificance in presence of King Cotton.
The English began to cultivate a little cotton very soon after their settlement in America. But it was a difficult crop for them to handle. The plants grew luxuriantly, and when autumn came the opening pods revealed a most satisfying opulence. The quantity of cotton produced excited the wonder of the planters. But the seeds of the plant adhered tenaciously to the fibre. Before the fibre could be used the seeds had to be removed, and this was a slow and therefore a costly process. It was as much as a man could do in a day to separate one pound of cotton from the seeds. Cotton could never be abundant or cheap while this was the case.
But in course of time things came to pass in England which made it indispensable that cotton should be both abundant and cheap. In 1768 Richard Arkwright invented a machine for spinning cotton vastly superior to anything hitherto in use. Next year a greater than he – James Watt – announced a greater invention – his Steam Engine. England was ready now to begin her great work of weaving cotton for the world. But where was the cotton to be found?
Three or four years before Watt patented his Engine, and Arkwright his Spinning-frame, there was born in a New England farm-house a boy whose work was needed to complete theirs. His name was Eli Whitney. Eli was a born mechanic; it was a necessity of his nature to invent and construct. As a mere boy he made nails, pins, and walking-canes by novel processes, and thus earned money to support himself at college. In 1792 he went to Georgia to visit Mrs. Greene, the widow of that General Greene who so troubled Lord Cornwallis in the closing years of the War of Independence. In that primitive society, where few of the comforts of civilized life were yet enjoyed, no visits were so like those of the angels as the visits of a skilful mechanic. Eli constructed marvellous amusements for Mrs. Greene’s children. He overcame all household difficulties by some ingenious contrivance. Mrs. Greene learned to wonder at him, and to believe nothing was impossible for him. One day Mrs. Greene entertained a party of her neighbours. The conversation turned upon the sorrows of the Planter. That unhappy tenacity with which the seeds of cotton adhered to the fibre was elaborately bemoaned. With an urgent demand from England for cotton, with boundless lands which grew nothing so well as cotton, it was hard to be so utterly baffled.
Mrs. Greene had unlimited faith in her friend Eli. She begged him to invent a machine which should separate the seeds of cotton from the fibre. Eli was of Northern upbringing, and had never even seen cotton in seed. He walked to Savannah, and there, with some trouble, obtained a quantity of uncleaned cotton. He shut himself up in his room and brooded over the difficulty which he had undertaken to conquer.
All that winter Eli laboured – devising, hammering, building up, rejecting, beginning afresh. He had no help; he could not even get tools to buy, but had to make them with his own hands. At length his machine was completed – rude-looking, but visibly effective. Mrs. Greene invited the leading men of the State to her house. She conducted them in triumph to the building in which the machine stood. The owners of unprofitable cotton lands looked on with a wild flash of hope lighting up their desponding hearts. Possibilities of untold wealth to each of them lay in that clumsy structure. The machine was put in motion. It was evident to all that it could perform the work of hundreds of men. Eli had gained a great victory for mankind. In that rude log-hut of Georgia, Cotton was crowned King, and a new era opened for America and the world.
Ten years after Whitney’s Cotton-gin was invented, a huge addition was made to the cotton-growing districts of America. In 1803 Europe enjoyed a short respite from the mad Napoleon wars. France had recently acquired from Spain vast regions bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, and stretching far up the valley of the Mississippi, and westward to the Pacific. It was certain that peace in Europe would not last long. It was equally certain that when war was resumed France could not hold these possessions against the fleets of England. America wished to acquire, and was willing to pay for them. It was better to sell to the Americans, and equip soldiers with the price, than wait till England was ready to conquer. Napoleon sold, and America added Louisiana to her vast possessions.
Mark well these two events – the invention of a machine for cheaply separating the seeds of cotton from the fibre, and the purchase of Louisiana from the French. Out of these events flows the American history of the next half century. Not any other event since the War of Independence – not all other events put together, have done so much to shape and determine the career of the American people.