For many years England had governed her American colonies harshly, and in a spirit of undisguised selfishness. America was ruled, not for her own good, but for the good of English commerce. She was not allowed to export her products except to England. No foreign ship might enter her ports. Woollen goods were not allowed to be sent from one colony to another. At one time the manufacture of hats was forbidden. In a liberal mood Parliament removed that prohibition, but decreed that no maker of hats should employ any negro workman, or any larger number of apprentices than two. Iron-works were forbidden. Up to the latest hour of English rule the Bible was not allowed to be printed in America.
The Americans had long borne the cost of their own government and defence. But in that age of small revenue and profuse expenditure on unmeaning continental wars, it had been often suggested that America should be taxed for the purposes of the home Government. Some one proposed that to Sir Robert Walpole in a time of need. The wise Sir Robert shook his head. It must be a bolder man than he was who would attempt that. A man bolder, because less wise, was found in due time.
1764 A.D. The Seven Years’ War had ended, and England had added a hundred million to her national debt. The country was suffering, as countries always do after great wars, and it was no easy matter to fit the new burdens on to the national shoulder. The hungry eye of Lord Grenville searched where a new tax might be laid. The Americans had begun visibly to prosper. Already their growing wealth was the theme of envious discourse among English merchants. The English officers who had fought in America spoke in glowing terms of the magnificent hospitality which had been extended to them. No more need be said. The House of Commons passed a resolution asserting their right to tax the Americans. No solitary voice was raised against this fatal resolution. Immediately after, an Act was passed imposing certain taxes upon silks, coffee, sugar, and other articles. The Americans remonstrated. They were willing, they said, to vote what moneys the King required of them, but they vehemently denied the right of any Assembly in which they were not represented to take from them any portion of their property. They were the subjects of the King, but they owed no obedience to the English Parliament. Lord Grenville went on his course. He had been told the Americans would complain but submit, and he believed it. Next session an Act was passed imposing Stamp Duties on America. The measure awakened no interest. Edmund Burke said he had never been present at a more languid debate. In the House of Lords there was no debate at all. With so little trouble was a continent rent away from the British Empire.
1765 A.D. Benjamin Franklin told the House of Commons that America would never submit to the Stamp Act, and that no power on earth could enforce it. The Americans made it impossible for Government to mistake their sentiments.
England heard with amazement that America refused to obey the law. There were some who demanded that the Stamp Act should be enforced by the sword. But it greatly moved the English merchants that America should cease to import their goods. William Pitt – not yet Earl of Chatham – denounced the Act, and said he was glad America had resisted. 1766 A.D. Pitt and the merchants triumphed, and the Act was repealed. There was illumination in the city that night. The city bells rang for joy; the ships in the Thames displayed all their colours. The saddest heart in all London was that of poor King George, who never ceased to lament “the fatal repeal of the Stamp Act.” All America thrilled with joy and pride when news arrived of the great triumph. They voted Pitt a statue; they set apart a day for public rejoicing; all prisoners for debt were set free. A great deliverance had been granted, and the delight of the gladdened people knew no bounds. The danger is over for the present; but whosoever governs America now has need to walk warily.
It was during the agitation arising out of the Stamp Act that the idea of a General Congress of the States was suggested. A loud cry for union had arisen. “Join or die” was the prevailing sentiment. The Congress met in New York. It did little more than discuss and petition. It is interesting merely as one of the first exhibitions of a tendency towards federal union in a country whose destiny, in all coming time, this tendency was to fix.
The repeal of the Stamp Act delayed only for a little the fast-coming crisis. A new Ministry was formed, with the Earl of Chatham at its head. But soon the great Earl lay sick and helpless, and the burden of government rested on incapable shoulders. Charles Townshend, a clever, captivating, but most indiscreet man, became the virtual Prime Minister. The feeling in the public mind had now become more unfavourable to America. Townshend proposed to levy a variety of taxes from the Americans. The most famous of his taxes was one of threepence per pound on tea. All his proposals became law.
This time the more thoughtful Americans began to despair of justice. The boldest scarcely ventured yet to suggest revolt against England, so powerful and so loved. But the grand final refuge of independence was silently brooded over by many. The mob fell back on their customary solution. Great riots occurred. To quell these disorders English troops encamped on Boston Common. The town swarmed with red-coated men, every one of whom was a humiliation. Their drums beat on Sabbath, and troubled the orderly men of Boston, even in church. At intervals fresh transports dropped in, bearing additional soldiers, till a great force occupied the town. The galled citizens could ill brook to be thus bridled. The ministers prayed to Heaven for deliverance from the presence of the soldiers. The General Court of Massachusetts called vehemently on the Governor to remove them. The Governor had no powers in that matter. He called upon the court to make suitable provision for the King’s troops, – a request which it gave the court infinite pleasure to refuse.
1770 A.D. The universal irritation broke forth in frequent brawls between soldiers and people. One wintry moonlight night in March, when snow and ice lay about the streets of Boston, a more than usually determined attack was made upon a party of soldiers. The mob thought the soldiers dared not fire without the order of a magistrate, and were very bold in the strength of that belief. It proved a mistake. The soldiers did fire, and the blood of eleven slain or wounded persons stained the frozen streets. This was “the Boston Massacre,” which greatly inflamed the patriot antipathy to the mother country.
Two or three unquiet years passed, and no progress towards a settlement of differences had been made. From all the colonies there came, loud and unceasing, the voice of complaint and remonstrance. It fell upon unheeding ears, for England was committed. To her honour be it said, it was not in the end for money that she alienated her children. The tax on tea must be maintained to vindicate the authority of England. But when the tea was shipped, such a drawback was allowed that the price would actually have been lower in America than it was at home.
The Americans had, upon the whole, kept loyally to their purpose of importing no English goods, specially no goods on which duty could be levied. Occasionally, a patriot of the more worldly-minded sort yielded to temptation, and secretly despatched an order to England. He was forgiven, if penitent. If obdurate, his name was published, and a resolution of the citizens to trade no more with a person so unworthy soon brought him to reason. But, in the main, the colonists were true to their bond, and when they could no longer smuggle they ceased to import. The East India Company accumulated vast quantities of unsaleable tea, for which a market must be found. 1773 A.D. Several ships were freighted with tea, and sent out to America.
Cheaper tea was never seen in America; but it bore upon it the abhorred tax which asserted British control over the property of Americans. Will the Americans, long bereaved of the accustomed beverage, yield to the temptation, and barter their honour for cheap tea? The East India Company never doubted it; but the Company knew nothing of the temper of the American people. The ships arrived at New York and Philadelphia. These cities stood firm. The ships were promptly sent home – their hatches unopened – and duly bore their rejected cargoes back to the Thames.
When the ships destined for Boston showed their tall masts in the bay, the citizens ran together to hold council. It was Sabbath, and the men of Boston were strict. But here was an exigency, in presence of which all ordinary rules are suspended. The crisis has come at length. If that tea is landed it will be sold, it will be used, and American liberty will become a byword upon the earth.
Samuel Adams was the true King in Boston at that time. He was a man in middle life, of cultivated mind and stainless reputation – a powerful speaker and writer – a man in whose sagacity and moderation all men trusted. He resembled the old Puritans in his stern love of liberty – his reverence for the Sabbath – his sincere, if somewhat formal, observance of all religious ordinances. He was among the first to see that there was no resting-place in this struggle short of independence. “We are free,” he said, “and want no King.” The men of Boston felt the power of his resolute spirit, and manfully followed where Samuel Adams led.
It was hoped that the agents of the East India Company would have consented to send the ships home; but the agents refused. Several days of excitement and ineffectual negotiation ensued. People flocked in from the neighbouring towns. The time was spent mainly in public meeting; the city resounded with impassioned discourse. But meanwhile the ships lay peacefully at their moorings, and the tide of patriot talk seemed to flow in vain. Other measures were visibly necessary. One day a meeting was held, and the excited people continued in hot debate till the shades of evening fell. No progress was made. At length Samuel Adams stood up in the dimly-lighted church, and announced, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” With a stern shout the meeting broke up. Fifty men disguised as Indians hurried down to the wharf, each man with a hatchet in his hand. The crowd followed. The ships were boarded; the chests of tea were brought on deck, broken up, and flung into the bay. The approving citizens looked on in silence. It was felt by all that the step was grave and eventful in the highest degree. So still was the crowd that no sound was heard but the stroke of the hatchet and the splash of the shattered chests as they fell into the sea. All questions about the disposal of those cargoes of tea at all events are now solved.
This is what America has done; it is for England to make the next move. Lord North was now at the head of the British Government. It was his lordship’s belief that the troubles in America sprang from a small number of ambitious persons, and could easily, by proper firmness, be suppressed. “The Americans will be lions while we are lambs,” said General Gage. The King believed this, and Lord North believed it. In this deep ignorance he proceeded to deal with the great emergency. He closed Boston as a port for the landing and shipping of goods. He imposed a fine to indemnify the East India Company for their lost teas. He withdrew the Charter of Massachusetts. He authorized the Governor to send political offenders to England for trial. Great voices were raised against these severities. Lord Chatham, old in constitution now, if not in years, and near the close of his career, pled for measures of conciliation. Edmund Burke justified the resistance of the Americans. Their opposition was fruitless. All Lord North’s measures of repression became law; and General Gage, with an additional force of soldiers, was sent to Boston to carry them into effect. Gage was an authority on American affairs. He had fought under Braddock. Among blind men the one-eyed man is king; among the profoundly ignorant, the man with a little knowledge is irresistibly persuasive. “Four regiments sent to Boston,” said the hopeful Gage, “will prevent any disturbance.” He was believed; but, unhappily for his own comfort, he was sent to Boston to secure the fulfilment of his own prophecy. He threw up some fortifications and lay as in a hostile city. The Americans appointed a day of fasting and humiliation. They did more. They formed themselves into military companies; they occupied themselves with drill; they laid up stores of ammunition. Most of them had muskets, and could use them. He who had no musket now got one. They hoped that civil war would be averted, but there was no harm in being ready.
Sept. 5, 1774 A.D. While General Gage was throwing up his fortifications at Boston, there met in Philadelphia a Congress of delegates, sent by the States, to confer in regard to the troubles which were thickening round them. Twelve States were represented. Georgia as yet paused timidly on the brink of the perilous enterprise. They were notable men who met there, and their work is held in enduring honour. “For genuine sagacity, for singular moderation, for solid wisdom,” said the great Earl of Chatham, “the Congress of Philadelphia shines unrivalled.” The low-roofed quaint old room in which their meetings were held, became one of the shrines which Americans delight to visit. George Washington was there, and his massive sense and copious knowledge were a supreme guiding power. Patrick Henry, then a young man, brought to the council a wisdom beyond his years, and a fiery eloquence, which, to some of his hearers, seemed almost more than human. He had already proved his unfitness for farming and for shop-keeping. He was now to prove that he could utter words which swept over a continent, thrilling men’s hearts like the voice of the trumpet, and rousing them to heroic deeds. John Routledge from South Carolina aided him with an eloquence little inferior to his own. Richard Henry Lee, with his Roman aspect, his bewitching voice, his ripe scholarship, his rich stores of historical and political knowledge, would have graced the highest assemblies of the Old World. John Dickenson, the wise farmer from the banks of the Delaware, whose Letters had done so much to form the public sentiment – his enthusiastic love of England overborne by his sense of wrong – took regretful but resolute part in withstanding the tyranny of the English Government.
We have the assurance of Washington that the members of this Congress did not aim at independence. As yet it was their wish to have wrongs redressed and to continue British subjects. Their proceedings give ample evidence of this desire. They drew up a narrative of their wrongs. As a means of obtaining redress, they adopted a resolution that all commercial intercourse with Britain should cease. They addressed the King, imploring his majesty to remove those grievances which endangered their relations with him. They addressed the people of Great Britain, with whom, they said, they deemed a union as their greatest glory and happiness; adding, however, that they would not be hewers of wood and drawers of water to any nation in the world. They appealed to their brother colonists of Canada for support in their peaceful resistance to oppression. But Canada, newly conquered from France, was peopled almost wholly by Frenchmen. A Frenchman of that time was contented to enjoy such an amount of liberty and property as his King was pleased to permit. And so from Canada there came no response of sympathy or help.
Here Congress paused. Some members believed, with Washington, that their remonstrances would be effectual. Others, less sanguine, looked for no settlement but that which the sword might bring. They adjourned, to meet again next May. This is enough for the present. What further steps the new events of that coming summer may call for, we shall be prepared, with God’s help, to take.
England showed no relenting in her treatment of the Americans. The King gave no reply to the address of Congress. The Houses of Lords and of Commons refused even to allow that address to be read in their hearing. The King announced his firm purpose to reduce the refractory colonists to obedience. Parliament gave loyal assurances of support to the blinded monarch. All trade with the colonies was forbidden. All American ships and cargoes might be seized by those who were strong enough to do so. The alternative presented to the American choice was without disguise – the Americans had to fight for their liberty, or forego it. The people of England had, in those days, no control over the government of their country. All this was managed for them by a few great families. Their allotted part was to toil hard, pay their taxes, and be silent. If they had been permitted to speak, their voice would have vindicated the men who asserted the right of self-government – a right which Englishmen themselves were not to enjoy for many a long year.
1775 A.D. General Gage had learned that considerable stores of ammunition were collected at the village of Concord, eighteen miles from Boston. He would seize them in the King’s name. Late one April night eight hundred soldiers set out on this errand. They hoped their coming would be unexpected, as care had been taken to prevent the tidings from being carried out of Boston. But as they marched, the clang of bells and the firing of guns gave warning far and near of their approach. In the early morning they reached Lexington. Some hours before, a body of militia awaited them there. But the morning was chill and the hour untimely, and the patriots were allowed to seek the genial shelter of the tavern, under pledge to appear at beat of drum. Seventy of them did so, mostly, we are told, “in a confused state.” Major Pitcairn commanded them to disperse. The patriots did not at once obey the summons. It was impossible that seventy volunteers could mean to fight eight hundred British soldiers; it is more likely they did not clearly understand what was required of them. Firing ensued. The Americans say that the first shot came from the British. Major Pitcairn always asserted that he himself saw a countryman give the first fire from behind a wall. It can never be certainly known, but there was now firing enough. The British stood and shot, in their steady unconcerned way, at the poor mistaken seventy. The patriots fled fast. Eighteen of their number did not join the flight. These lay in their blood on the village green, dead or wounded men. Thus was the war begun between England and her colonies.
The British pushed on to Concord, and destroyed all the military stores they could find. It was not much, for there had been time to carry off nearly everything. By noon the work was done, and the wearied troops turned their faces towards Boston.
They were not suffered to march alone. All that morning grim-faced yeomen – of the Ironside type, each man with a musket in his hand – had been hurrying into Concord. The British march was mainly on a road cut through dense woods. As they advanced, the vengeful yeomanry hung upon their flanks and rear. On every side there streamed forth an incessant and murderous fire, under which the men fell fast. No effort could dislodge those deadly but almost unseen foes. During all the terrible hours of that return march the fire of the Americans never flagged, and could seldom be returned. It was sunset ere the soldiers, half dead with fatigue, got home to Boston. In killed, wounded, and prisoners, this fatal expedition had cost nearly three hundred men. The blood shed at Lexington had been swiftly and deeply avenged.