This was the opening of our African slave-trade. Then, for the first time, did our fathers feel the dark temptation, and thus hesitatingly did they at first yield to its power. The traffic in gold dust and ivory continued. Every Englishman who visited the African coast had occasion to know how actively and how profitably Spain, and Portugal too, traded in slaves. He knew that on all that rich coast there was no merchandise so lucrative as the unfortunate people themselves. It was not an age when such seductions could be long withstood. The English traders of that day were not the men to be held back from a gainful traffic by mere considerations of humanity.
1562 A.D. Sir John Hawkins made the first English venture in slave-trading. He sailed with three vessels to Sierra Leone. There, by purchase or by violence, he possessed himself of three hundred negroes. With this freight he crossed the Atlantic, and at St. Domingo he sold the whole to a great profit. The fame of his gains caused sensation in England, and he was encouraged to undertake a second expedition. Queen Elizabeth and many of her courtiers took shares in the venture. After many difficulties, Hawkins collected five hundred negroes. His voyage was a troublous one. He was beset with calms; water ran short, and it was feared that a portion of the cargo must have been flung overboard. “Almighty God, however,” says this devout man-stealer, “who never suffers his elect to perish,” brought him to the West Indies without loss of a man. But there had arrived before him a rigorous interdict from the King of Spain against the admission of foreign vessels to any of his West Indian ports. Hawkins was too stout-hearted to suffer such frustration of his enterprise. After some useless negotiation, he landed a hundred men with two pieces of cannon; landed and sold his negroes; paid the tax which he himself had fixed; and soon in quiet England divided his gains with his royal and noble patrons. Thus was the slave-trade established in England. Three centuries after, we look with horror and remorse upon the results which have followed.
In most of the colonies there was unquestionably a desire for the introduction of the negro. But ere many years the colonists became aware that they were rapidly involving themselves in grave difficulties. The increase of the coloured population alarmed them. Heavy debts, incurred for the purchase of slaves, disordered their finances. The production of tobacco, indigo, and other articles of Southern growth, exceeded the demand, and prices fell ruinously low. There were occasionally proposals made – although not very favourably entertained – with a view to emancipation. But the opposition of the colonists to the African slave-trade was very decided. Very frequent attempts to limit the traffic were made even in the Southern colonies, where slave labour was most valuable. 1787 A.D. Soon after the Revolution, several Slave-owning States prohibited the importation of slaves.
And why had this not been done earlier? If the colonists were sincere in their desire to suppress this base traffic, why did they not suppress it? The reason is not difficult to find. England would not permit them. England forced the slave-trade upon the reluctant colonists. The English Parliament watched with paternal care over the interests of this hideous traffic. During the first half of the eighteenth century Parliament was continually legislating to this effect. Every restraint upon the largest development of the trade was removed with scrupulous care. Everything that diplomacy could do to open new markets was done. When the colonists sought by imposing a tax to check the importation of slaves, that tax was repealed. Land was given free, in the West Indies, on condition that the settler should keep four negroes for every hundred acres. Forts were built on the African coast for the protection of the trade. So recently as the year 1749 an Act was passed bestowing additional encouragements upon slave-traders, and emphatically asserting “the slave-trade is very advantageous to Great Britain.” There are no passages in all our history so humiliating as these.
It is marvellous that such things were done – deliberately, and with all the solemnities of legal sanction – by men not unacquainted with the Christian religion, and humane in all the ordinary relations of life. The Popish Inquisition inflicted no suffering more barbarously cruel than was endured by the victim of the slave-trader. Hundreds of men and women, with chains upon their limbs, were packed closely together into the holds of small vessels. There, during weeks of suffering, they remained, enduring fierce tropical heat, often deprived of water and of food. They were all young and strong, for the fastidious slave-trader rejected men over thirty as uselessly old. But the strength of the strongest sunk under the horrors of this voyage. Often it happened that the greater portion of the cargo had to be flung overboard. Under the most favourable circumstances, it was expected that one slave in every five would perish. In every cargo of five hundred, one hundred would suffer a miserable death. And the public sentiment of England fully sanctioned a traffic of which these horrors were a necessary part.
At one time the idea was prevalent in the colonies that it was contrary to Scripture to hold a baptized person in slavery. The colonists did not on that account liberate their slaves. They escaped the difficulty in the opposite direction. They withheld baptism and religious instruction. England took some pains to put them right on this question. The bishops of the Church and the law-officers of the Crown issued authoritative declarations, asserting the entire lawfulness of owning Christians. The colonial legislatures followed with enactments to the same effect. The colonists, thus reassured, gave consent that the souls of their unhappy dependants should be cared for.
Up to the Revolution it was estimated that three hundred thousand negroes had been brought into the country direct from Africa. The entire coloured population was supposed to amount to nearly half a million.
There was at the outset considerable diversity of pattern among the governments of the colonies. As time wore on, the diversity lessened, and one great type becomes visible in all. There is a Governor appointed by the King. There is a Parliament chosen by the people. Parliament holds the purse-strings. The Governor applies for what moneys the public service seems to him to require. Parliament, as a rule, grants his demands; but not without consideration, and a distinct assertion of its right to refuse should cause appear. As the Revolution drew near, the function of the Governor became gradually circumscribed by the pressure of the Assemblies. When the Governor, as representing the King, fell into variance with the popular will, the representatives of the people assumed the whole business of government. The most loyal of the colonies resolutely defied the encroachments of the King or his Governor. They had a pleasure and a pride in their connection with England; but they were at the same time essentially a self-governing people. From the government which existed before the Revolution it was easy for them to step into a federal union. The colonists had all their interests and all their grievances in common. It was natural for them, when trouble arose, to appoint representatives who should deliberate regarding their affairs. These representatives required an executive to give practical effect to their resolutions. The officer who was appointed for that purpose was called, not King, but President; and was chosen, not for life, but for four years. By this simple and natural process arose the American Government.
At first Virginia was governed by two Councils, one of which was English and the other Colonial. Both were entirely under the King’s control. In a very few years the representative system was introduced, and a popular assembly, over whose proceedings the Governor retained the right of veto, regulated the affairs of the colony. Virginia was the least democratic of the colonies. Her leanings were always towards monarchy. She maintained her loyalty to the Stuarts. Charles II. ruled her in his exile, and was crowned in a robe of Virginian silk, presented by the devoted colonists. The baffled Cavaliers sought refuge in Virginia from the hateful triumph of Republicanism. Virginia refused to acknowledge the Commonwealth, and had to be subjected by force. When the exiled House was restored, her joy knew no bounds.
The New England States were of different temper and different government. While yet on board the Mayflower, the Pilgrims, as we have seen, formed themselves into a body politic, elected their Governor, and bound themselves to submit to his authority, “confiding in his prudence that he would not adventure upon any matter of moment without consent of the rest.” Every church member was an elector. For sixty years this democratic form of government was continued, till the despotic James II. overturned it in the closing years of his unhappy reign. The Pilgrims carried with them from England a bitter feeling of the wrongs which Kings had inflicted on them, and they arrived in America a people fully disposed to govern themselves. They cordially supported Cromwell. Cromwell, on his part, so highly esteemed the people of New England, that he invited them to return to Europe, and offered them settlements in Ireland. They delayed for two years to proclaim Charles II. when he was restored to the English throne. They sheltered the regicides who fled from the King’s vengeance. They hailed the Revolution, by which the Stuarts were expelled and constitutional monarchy set up in England. Of all the American colonies, those of New England were the most democratic, and the most intolerant of royal interference with their liberties.
New York was bestowed upon the Duke of York, who for a time appointed the Governor. Pennsylvania was a grant to Penn, who exercised the same authority. Ultimately, however, in all cases, the appointment of Governor rested with the King, while the representatives were chosen by the people.
In the year 1740 there fell out a great European war. There was some doubt who should fill the Austrian throne. The emperor had just died, leaving no son or brother to inherit his dignities. His daughter, Maria Theresa, stepped into her father’s place, and soon made it apparent that she was strong enough to maintain what she had done. Two or three Kings thought they had a better right than she to the throne. The other Kings ranged themselves on this side or on that. The idea of looking on while foolish neighbours destroyed themselves by senseless war, had not yet been suggested. Every King took part in a great war, and sent his people forth to slay and be slain, quite as a matter of course. So they raised great armies, fought great battles, burned cities, wasted countries, inflicted and endured unutterable miseries, all to settle the question about this lady’s throne. But the lady was of a heroic spirit, well worthy to govern, and she held her own, and lived and died an empress.
During these busy years, a Virginian mother, widowed in early life, was training up her eldest son in the fear of God – all unaware, as she infused the love of goodness and duty into his mind, that she was giving a colour to the history of her country throughout all its coming ages. That boy’s name was George Washington. He was born in 1732. His father – a gentleman of good fortune, with a pedigree which can be traced beyond the Norman Conquest – died when his son was eleven years of age. Upon George’s mother devolved the care of his upbringing. She was a devout woman, of excellent sense and deep affections; but a strict disciplinarian, and of a temper which could brook no shadow of insubordination. Under her rule – gentle, and yet strong – George learned obedience and self-control. In boyhood he gave remarkable promise of those excellences which distinguished his mature years. His schoolmates recognized the calm judicial character of his mind, and he became in all their disputes the arbiter from whose decision there was no appeal. He inherited his mother’s love of command, happily tempered by a lofty disinterestedness and a love of justice, which seemed to render it impossible that he should do or permit aught that was unfair. His person was large and powerful. His face expressed the thoughtfulness and serene strength of his character. He excelled in all athletic exercises. His youthful delight in such pursuits developed his physical capabilities to the utmost, and gave him endurance to bear the hardships which lay before him.
Young gentlemen of Virginia were not educated then so liberally as they have been since. It was presumed that Washington would be a mere Virginian proprietor and farmer, as his father had been; and his education was no higher than that position then demanded. He never learned any language but his own. The teacher of his early years was also the sexton of the parish. And even when he was taken to an institution of a more advanced description, he attempted no higher study than the keeping of accounts and the copying of legal and mercantile papers. A few years later, it was thought he might enter the civil or military service of his country; and he was put to the study of mathematics and land-surveying.
George Washington did nothing by halves. In youth, as in manhood, he did thoroughly what he had to do. His school exercise books are models of neatness and accuracy. His plans and measurements made while he studied land-surveying were as scrupulously exact as if great pecuniary interests depended upon them. In his eighteenth year he was employed by Government as surveyor of public lands. Many of his surveys were recorded in the county offices, and remain to this day. Long experience has established their unvarying accuracy. In all disputes to which they have any relevancy, their evidence is accepted as decisive. During the years which preceded the Revolution he managed his estates, packed and shipped his own tobacco and flour, kept his own books, conducted his own correspondence. His books may still be seen. Perhaps no clearer or more accurate record of business transactions has been kept in America since the Father of American Independence rested from book-keeping. The flour which he shipped to foreign ports came to be known as his, and the Washington brand was habitually exempted from inspection. A most reliable man; his words and his deeds, his professions and his practice, are ever found in most perfect harmony. By some he has been regarded as a stolid, prosaic person, wanting in those features of character which captivate the minds of men. It was not so. In an earlier age George Washington would have been a true knight-errant with an insatiable thirst for adventure and a passionate love of battle. He had in high degree those qualities which make ancient knighthood picturesque. But higher qualities than these bore rule within him. He had wisdom beyond most, giving him deep insight into the wants of his time. He had clear perceptions of the duty which lay to his hand. What he saw to be right, the strongest impulses of his soul constrained him to do. A massive intellect and an iron strength of will were given to him, with a gentle, loving heart, with dauntless courage, with purity and loftiness of aim. He had a work of extraordinary difficulty to perform. History rejoices to recognize in him a revolutionary leader against whom no questionable transaction has ever been alleged.
The history of America presents, in one important feature, a very striking contrast to the history of nearly all older countries. In the old countries, history gathers round some one grand central figure – some judge, or priest, or king – whose biography tells all that has to be told concerning the time in which he lived. That one predominating person – David, Alexander, C?sar, Napoleon – is among his people what the sun is in the planetary system. All movement originates and terminates in him, and the history of the people is merely a record of what he has chosen to do or caused to be done. In America it has not been so. The American system leaves no room for predominating persons. It affords none of those exhibitions of solitary, all-absorbing grandeur which are so picturesque, and have been so pernicious. Her history is a history of her people, and of no conspicuous individuals. Once only in her career is it otherwise. During the lifetime of George Washington her history clings very closely to him; and the biography of her great chief becomes in a very unusual degree the history of the country.
While Washington’s boyhood was being passed on the banks of the Potomac, a young man, destined to help him in gaining the independence of the country, was toiling hard in the city of Philadelphia to earn an honest livelihood. His name was Benjamin Franklin; his avocations were manifold. He kept a small stationer’s shop; he edited a newspaper; he was a bookbinder; he made ink; he sold rags, soap, and coffee. He was also a printer, employing a journeyman and an apprentice to aid him in his labours. He was a thriving man; but he was not ashamed to convey along the streets, in a wheelbarrow, the paper which he bought for the purposes of his trade. As a boy he had been studious and thoughtful; as a man he was prudent, sagacious, trustworthy. His prudence was, however, somewhat low-toned and earthly. He loved and sought to marry a deserving young woman, who returned his affection. There was in those days a debt of one hundred pounds upon his printing-house. He demanded that the father of the young lady should pay off this debt. The father was unable to do so. Whereupon the worldly Benjamin decisively broke off the contemplated alliance.
When he had earned a moderate competency he ceased to labour at his business. Henceforth he laboured to serve his fellow-men. Philadelphia owes to Franklin her university, her hospital, her fire-brigade, her first and greatest library.
He earned renown as a man of science. It had long been his thought that lightning and electricity were the same; but he found no way to prove the truth of his theory. 1752 A.D. At length he made a kite fitted suitably for his experiment. He stole away from his house during a thunder-storm, having told no one but his son, who accompanied him. The kite was sent up among the stormy clouds, and the anxious philosopher waited. For a time no response to his eager questioning was granted, and Franklin’s countenance fell. But at length he felt the welcome shock, and his heart thrilled with the high consciousness that he had added to the sum of human knowledge.
1766 A.D. When the troubles arose in connection with the Stamp Act, Franklin was sent to England to defend the rights of the colonists. The vigour of his intellect, the matured wisdom of his opinions, gained for him a wonderful supremacy over the men with whom he was brought into contact. He was examined before Parliament. Edmund Burke said that the scene reminded him of a master examined by a parcel of schoolboys, so conspicuously was the witness superior to his interrogators.
1777 A.D. Franklin was an early advocate of independence, and aided in preparing the famous Declaration. In all the councils of that eventful time he bore a leading part. He was the first American Ambassador to France; and the good sense and vivacity of the old printer gained for him high favour in the fashionable world of Paris. He lived to aid in framing the Constitution under which America has enjoyed prosperity so great. 1799 A.D. Soon after he passed away. A few months before his death he wrote to Washington: – “I am now finishing my eighty-fourth year, and probably with it my career in this life; but in whatever state of existence I am placed hereafter, if I retain any memory of what has passed here, I shall with it retain the esteem, respect, and affection with which I have long regarded you.”