The year after the capture of Quebec a young king ascended the throne of England, whose action was to affect profoundly the fortunes of the American colonies. Of narrow mental range and plebeian tastes, but moral, sincere, and stout-hearted, George III assumed the crown with one dominant purpose--to rule personally; and the first decade of his reign was a constant struggle to free himself from the dictation of cabinet ministers.
In 1770, during the premiership of North, who was little more than his page, the king gained the day; and for the next dozen years he had his own way perfectly. All points of policy, foreign and domestic, even the management of debates in Parliament, he was crafty enough to get into his hands. To this meddling of his with state affairs, his impracticable and fickle plans, and the stupidity of the admirers whom his policy forced upon him, may be traced in very large measure the breach between England and the colonies.
The Revolution, however, cannot be wholly accounted for by any series of events which can be set down and labelled. The ultimate causes lie deeper. Three thousand miles of ocean rolled between England and the colonies. A considerable measure of colonial self-government was inevitable from the first, and this, by fostering the spirit of independence, created a demand for more and more freedom. The social ties which had bound the early Pilgrims to their native land grew steadily weaker with each new generation of people who knew no home but America. The colonists had begun to feel the stirrings of an independent national life. The boundless possibilities of the future on this new continent, with its immense territory and untold natural wealth, were beginning to dawn upon them. Their infancy was over. The leading-strings which bound them to the mother-country must be either lengthened or cast off altogether.
[Illustration: Portrait.] King George III.
But England did not see this. Most Englishmen at the beginning of George III.'s reign regarded the colonies as trading corporations rather than as political bodies. It was taken for granted that a colony was inferior to the mother-country, and was to be managed in the interests of the commercial classes at home. Conflict was therefore inevitable sooner or later. We have to trace briefly the chief events by which it was precipitated.
[Illustration: Portrait.] James Otis, Jr.
In 1760-61 England tried to enforce the navigation laws more strictly. Writs of assistance issued, empowering officers to enter any house at any time, to search for smuggled goods. This measure aroused a storm of indignation. The popular feeling was voiced, and at the same time intensified, by the action of James Otis, Jr., a young Boston lawyer, who threw up his position as advocate-general rather than defend the hated writs, which he denounced as "instruments of slavery." "Then and there," said John Adams, "the trumpet of the Revolution was sounded."
In May, 1764, a report reached Boston that a stamp act for the colonies had been proposed in Parliament, to raise revenue by forcing the use in America of stamped forms for all sorts of public papers, such as deeds, warrants, and the like. A feeling of mingled rage and alarm seized the colonists. It seemed that a deliberate blow was about to be struck at their liberties. From the day of their founding the colonies had never been taxed directly except by their own legislatures. Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia at once sent humble but earnest protests to Parliament against the proposed innovation.
The act was nevertheless passed in March of the next year, with almost no opposition. By its provisions, business documents were illegal and void unless written on the stamped paper. The cheapest stamp cost a shilling, the price ranging upward from that according to the importance of the document. The prepared paper had to be paid for in specie, a hardship indeed in a community where lawsuits were very common, and whose entire solid coin would not have sufficed to pay the revenue for a single year. Even bitterest Tories' declared this requirement indefensible. Another flagrant feature of the act was the provision that violators of it should be tried without a jury, before a judge whose only pay came from his own condemnations.
[Illustration: Crowd of well-dressed men standing around a fire.] Burning the Stamps in New York.
The effect upon the colonies was like that of a bomb in a powder-magazine. The people rose up en masse. In every province the stamp-distributor was compelled to resign. In Portsmouth, N. H., the newspaper came out in mourning, and an effigy of the Goddess of Liberty was carried to the grave. The Connecticut legislature ordered a day of fasting and prayer kept, and an inventory of powder and ball taken. In New York a bonfire was made of the stamps in the public square. The bells in Charleston, S. C., were tolled, and the flags on the ships in the harbor hung at half-mast. The colonists entered into agreements to buy no goods from England until the act was repealed. Even mourning clothes, since they must be imported, were not to be worn, and lamb's flesh was abjured that more wool might be raised for home manufacture. England's colonial trade fell off so alarmingly in consequence that Manchester manufacturers petitioned Parliament to repeal the act, asserting that nine-tenths of their workmen were idle. Besides these popular demonstrations, delegates from nine colonies met in New York, in October, 1765, often called the Stamp Act Congress, and adopted a declaration of rights, asserting that England had no right to tax them without their consent. During the days of the Stamp Act excitement, the term "colonist" gave way to "American," and "English" to "British," a term of the deeper opprobrium because Bute, the king's chief adviser, was a Briton.
Startled by this unexpected resistance, Parliament, in January of the next year, began to debate repeal. We must in fairness to England look at both sides of the problem of colonial taxation. As general administrator of colonial affairs, the English Government naturally desired a fixed and certain revenue in America, both for frontier defence against Indians and French and for the payment of colonial governors. While each stood ready to defend its own territory, the colonies were no doubt meanly slow about contributing to any common fund. They were frequently at loggerheads, too, with their governors over the question of salaries. On the other hand, the colonists made the strong plea that self-taxation was their only safeguard against tyranny of king, Parliament, or governor.
In the great debate which now ensued in Parliament over England's right to tax America, Mansfield, the greatest constitutional lawyer of his day, maintained--first, that America was represented in Parliament as much as Manchester and several other large cities in England which elected no members to the House of Commons, and yet were taxed; and, second, that an internal tax, such as that on stamps, was identical in principle with customs duties, which the colonies had never resisted. In reply, Pitt, the great champion of the colonies, asserted--first, that the case of the colonies was not at all like that of Manchester; the latter happened not to be represented at that time because the election laws needed reforming, while the colonies, being three thousand miles away, could in the nature of the case never be adequately represented in an English Parliament; and, second, that as a matter of fact a sharp distinction had always, since the Great Charter, been made between internal taxation and customs duties.
Had the colonies rested their case upon constitutional argument alone it would have been relatively weak. While it was then a question, and will be forever, whether the American settlements were king's colonies, Parliament's colonies, or neither, but peculiar communities which had resulted from growth, the English lawyers had a good deal of logic on their side. Unconstitutional measures had indeed been resorted to--the writs of assistance, taking Americans beyond sea for trial, internal taxation; yet the real grievance lay far less in these things than in the fact that the English constitution itself was working in a manner contrary to colonial interests. Social considerations, too, accounted for more bitterness than has usually been thought. Our fathers hated the presence here of a privileged class.
George III.'s policy was therefore wiser legally than politically. This was, in fact, his ministry's capital mistake--like Lord Salisbury's in respect to Ireland in 1888--that it had too great regard for the mere legal aspect of the question, ignoring the practical. The colonists were too numerous, powerful, and far away, longer to be governed from home, at least by the old plan. To attempt perpetuation of the old regime might be lawful, but was certainly impracticable and stupid. Hence Americans like Jefferson showed themselves consummate politicians in going beyond Pitt's contention from the constitution and from precedent, and appealing to the "natural rights" of the colonists. "Our rights," said Otis, in substance, "do not rest on a charter, but are inherent in us as men." "The people" said John Adams in 1765, "have rights antecedent to all earthly government."
The Stamp Act was repealed in February. Its principle, however, was immediately re-asserted by the "Declaratory Act," in which Parliament claimed power over the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." The repeal caused great rejoicing in America; but neither king nor Parliament had changed policy respecting colonial affairs. There soon followed, in rapid succession, that series of blundering acts of oppression which completed the work begun by the Stamp Act, and drove the colonists into rebellion.
In 1767 duties were laid upon glass, paper, painters' colors, and tea. Massachusetts, again taking the lead, sent a circular-letter to all the colonies, proposing a united supplication to the throne. For refusal to rescind this letter the Massachusetts assembly was dissolved at the command of the angry king. This refusal was the first denial of the king's prerogative; only the authority of Parliament had been resisted before. The soul of the colonial cause in Massachusetts at this time was Samuel Adams, of Boston, "the last of the Puritans," a man of powerful and logical mind, intrepid heart, and incorruptible patriotism. America's debt to him for his work in these early years cannot be estimated. At this juncture he organized committees of safety and correspondence throughout Massachusetts, which led to the formation of such committees in the other colonies. They did an invaluable work in binding the scattered sections together, and providing for emergencies.
The Billeting Act, which required the colonists to lodge and feed the British troops quartered among them, added fuel to the flames. In 1768 the New York legislature refused to comply, and Parliament suspended its legislative functions.
In the fall of the same year, seizing as a pretext two ship-riots which had occurred in the summer, the king stationed four regiments in Boston. Public sentiment was shocked and indignant at this establishment of a military guard over a peaceable community. The presence of the soldiers was a constant source of irritation. Frequent altercations occurred between the soldiers and the lower class of citizens. The trouble culminated in the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. A squad of soldiers, set upon by a mob of men and boys, fired into the crowd, killing three persons and wounding eight others. That the soldiers had considerable justification is proved by the fact that a jury acquitted all but two, who were convicted of manslaughter, and branded. But exaggerated reports of the occurrence spread like wildfire throughout the colonies, and wrought powerfully for hatred against England.
During the next two or three years there was comparative quiet. Massachusetts, it is true, under the tutelage of Samuel Adams, grew more radical in its demands. In 1772 the committee of Boston issued a statement of grievances, adding, as new complaints, the sending of persons to England for trial, restraints upon colonial manufacturers, and a rumored plan to establish bishops over America. This statement was approved by all the colonies, and was sent to Franklin in London. The country as a whole, however, was weary of the strife, and would gladly have returned to the old cordial relations with the mother-land.
[Illustration: Scene in the square of Boston. On the left a crowd of citizens, several of which are wounded. On the right a squad of soldiers, surrounded by gunsmoke, firing at the crowd.] The Boston Massacre. From an Engraving by Paul Revere.
But George III. could not rest without asserting his supremacy over America. He made an arrangement with the East India Company by which tea could be bought in America, spite of the hated tax, cheaper than in England. Then, at the king's instigation, large shipments of tea were made to America. The colonists saw through the cunning attempt, and the tide of resistance rose higher than ever. At New York and Philadelphia the tea-ships were forced to put to sea again without unlading. At Charleston the tea was stored in damp cellars and soon spoiled. At Boston there was a deadlock; the people would not let the tea be landed; the governor would not let the ships sail without unlading. On the evening of December 16, 1773, the tax falling due on the next day, a party of fifty citizens, disguised as Indians, boarded the ships, and threw three hundred and forty-two chests of tea into the harbor.
The Boston tea-party aroused all the blind obstinacy of George III. "Blows must decide," he exclaimed; "the guilty rebels are to be forced to submission," The king's anger led to the Boston Port Bill, which was passed the next year, and closed Boston harbor to all commerce. Changes were also made in the government of Massachusetts, rendering it almost entirely independent of the people. Town meetings were forbidden except for elections. Poor Massachusetts, her liberties curtailed, her commerce ruined, appealed to her sister colonies for support, and they responded right heartily. In three weeks from the news of the Port Bill all the colonies had made the cause of Massachusetts their own. Expressions of sympathy and liberal gifts of money and provisions poured into Boston from all over the country. The first Continental Congress assembled at Philadelphia in September. All the colonies but Georgia were represented. An earnest statement of grievances was drawn up, with a prayer to the king for redress. The action of Massachusetts was approved, and an agreement entered into to suspend all commerce with England.
Things now hastened rapidly toward open war. British troops were stationed in Boston, and began fortification. Military preparations were making everywhere among the colonists. The train was laid. Only a spark was needed to bring the dreaded explosion.