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At the close of the French and Indian War, the British Empire comprised the United Kingdom of England, Wales, and Scotland; the dependencies of Ireland, Man, and the Channel Islands; the sea fortress of Gibraltar and other stations; the Asiatic possessions; and the colonies in America. Together England, Wales, and Scotland had a population of about 8,500,000. Since the union in 1707 Scotland had enjoyed full commercial and political equality with England, and already she was becoming somewhat reconciled to the loss of independent nationality.

Ireland, with perhaps 3,500,000 people, was a "satrapy" frightfully misgoverned. There the seeds of rebellion were already sown, and before the century was out they were to bear their own proper fruit. "Ireland," says a modern English historian, "was absolutely subject to Britain, but she formed no part of it, she shared neither in its liberty nor its wealth." The forms of national life to her were a mere sham, and her people were ruthlessly exploited for the benefit of an arrogant and greedy Protestant oligarchy. In "all social and political matters the native Catholics, in other words, the immense majority of the people of Ireland, were simply hewers of wood and drawers of water for Protestant masters." The Irish were excluded from the trade privileges enjoyed by Scotchmen and Englishmen: a heavy duty was laid on their woolen cloth; the trade in linen, one of their most important manufactures, was hampered; and they were forbidden to raise tobacco. Thus, in the interest of the colonies and her Scotch and English neighbors, Ireland was hindered from developing even her meager natural resources. Poverty, misery, and social anarchy prevailed.

On the other hand, the prosperity which England enjoyed had for nearly half a century been unbroken. During the long interval of peace under Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742), the industry had received a mighty impulse to which it still responded. The colonies flourished through the "salutary neglect" of the mother country. At home land rents had advanced fifty percent., and scientific methods of agriculture and stock breeding were being tried with good results. The navigation acts, originally designed to transfer the monopoly of the carrying trade from Dutch to English bottoms and to control the market for colonial products, seemed justified by the vast increase in the volume of commerce.

During the reign of George II exports had nearly doubled; and between 1760 and 1774, notwithstanding an unwise change in colonial policy, they grew from £14,693,270 to £17,128,029. Among the nations of the world commercial and maritime supremacy already belonged to Great Britain.

In population and wealth, the great towns were advancing with rapid strides. By 1763 London had not less than 650,000 inhabitants. Bristol, with about 100,000, had trebled its numbers since Charles II; while Norwich came next with some 60,000 souls. Furthermore, there were signs of the coming industrial era in the rise of new trading and manufacturing centers. Liverpool, with over 30,000 people, had "become indisputably the third port in the kingdom, and it was soon prominent beyond all others in the slave trade." Other towns had grown with even more extraordinary speed. Birmingham now had at least 30,000; Newcastle 40,000; Manchester, excluding the suburbs more than 45,000; while the whole population of Lancashire had risen from about 166,000 in 1700 to 297,000 in 1750. The future gave fair promise of great wealth. To be sure, the war had raised the national debt from near £72,000,000 to over £139,000, 000, but with prudent management, it would scarcely become a serious burden for the growing fiscal strength of the realm.

The government of the kingdom was vested in the crown and Parliament. It was, in fact, a government of two powers, for Montesquieu's famous theory of checks and balances — based mainly on his view of the English constitution — was not real. He distinguishes three functions of government — the executive, the legislative, and the judicial — each of which should be exercised by a separate authority. He may have been led to this conclusion by a consideration of the fact that the Act of Settlement (1701) had secured the independence of the judges, who could no longer be removed from office without the address of both houses of Parliament. But in fact, the courts did not exercise a distinct governmental function: their powers were mixed — partly legislative and partly executive. English "political ideas were not reconcilable with the existence of three powers of government. Parliament, it is true, made the law, but so did the courts in their power of deciding concrete cases. The laws also were enforced by authorities which at the same time administered justice."

Moreover, even the executive and legislative functions were not exercised exclusively by separate agencies. Since the reign of William III. the theory of government by responsible ministers with seats in Parliament had existed; and since George I. the members of the cabinet were selected in the king's name by the prime minister, who was called to office directly by the crown. Already the right of members of the Commons to ask questions of the ministry on matters of public policy showed that the theory of responsibility was becoming a reality. Under normal conditions, the time would soon come when through the king's ministers the House of Commons would virtually govern the state.

The normal course of development was checked for a season through the character of the new king. The accession of George III in 1760 marks the beginning of a retrogressive movement in the history of the English constitution. From the start, setting himself against the principle already established that the sovereign shall act only through responsible ministers, the king resolved to govern as well as reign. The experiment was in the highest degree perilous; for the maxim "the king can do no wrong" holds good only so long as he acts not at all of his own motion. George was wretchedly educated, most unfortunate in such training as he had received. Under the influence of his mother, the ambitious princess dowager of Wales, and his groom of the stole, Lord Bute, he had developed notions of royal prerogative which entirely unfitted him for his duties as a constitutional king. According to Lord Waldgrave, at one time his governor, he was "full of princely prejudices, contracted in the nursery, and improved by the society of bed-chamber women and pages of the back-stairs." In his youth his mother had repeatedly said to him, "George, be king." Following her counsel, as May says, he "came to the throne determined to exalt the kingly office; and throughout his long reign he never lost sight of that object."

Though the judgment is perhaps not too emphatic that the third George "had a smaller mind than any English king before him save James the Second," and that "his only feeling towards great men was one of jealousy and hate," yet he possessed a sturdy character which for good or ill was sure to leave a lasting mark on the history of his country. For several reasons, he was favorably contrasted with his ancestors. In speech, feeling, and habits the first two princes of the House of Hanover were Germans, while George III was an Englishman. "Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton," are the words which his own hand added to the draft of his first speech to Parliament. His private life was simple and decorous. He exhibited the domestic virtues to an eminent degree. He was a good son, a faithful husband, a conscientious father, and a devout and punctilious churchman. He loved to mingle with the people and to greet kindly the children whom he met on his walks. He was morally brave, and his remarkable physical courage stood more than one severe test during his reign. In addition, he had a firmness of will, a tenacity of purpose, which might degenerate into obstinacy — a very dangerous gift for a prince of small intellect, inheriting vast and varied sources of influence and power.

If George III was a good man, he was decidedly a bad ruler. "It may be said without exaggeration that he inflicted more profound and enduring injuries upon his country than any other modern English king. Ignorant, narrow-minded, and arbitrary, with an unbounded confidence in his own judgment, and an extravagant estimate of his prerogative, resolved at all hazards to compel his ministers to adopt his own views, or to undermine them if they refused, he spent a long life in obstinately resisting measures which are now almost universally admitted to have been good, and in supporting measures which are as universally admitted to have been bad." When he ascended the throne England was still in the hands of a Whig oligarchy that had controlled it for almost half a century. A few great families dominated Parliament and enjoyed a monopoly of pensions, honors, and preferments. While there was still danger from the Young Pretender, the Tories were silenced. Pitt alone had made a breach in the solid Whig ranks, for he boldly proclaimed that he owed his place as war minister to the voice of the people. But the king detested the Great Commoner, whom he called a "trumpet of sedition," and he determined to build up a party of his own through appeal to the Tories, who since Culloden had already begun to lift their heads. Pitt was disgraced, and in 1762 the Earl of Bute, leader of "the king's friends," became the first lord of the treasury.

The new prime minister was unpopular as a Scot, hated for his arrogance, and utterly devoid of statesmanlike qualities. His rise had been rapid. In thirteen months he passed from the stole through a series of honors to the head of the cabinet. "His sudden elevation resembled that of an Eastern vizier, rather than the toilsome ascent of a British statesman." But in calling his favorite to office the king was in reality taking the first step towards the establishment of his own personal rule. He was, in fact, imitating the dangerous policy of Edward II and the first two Stuarts. With steady persistence, he strove to create and then to master the Whig factions. In 1770 his victory was complete. For twelve years thereafter, in the name of Lord North, the king virtually governed the realm; and he did not drop the reins until his hand was forced by the loss of America, whose rebellion his fatuous course had done most to provoke.

To accomplish his purpose the king did not scruple to employ every questionable device known to the politics of that corrupt age. Although Sir Robert Walpole may not have been the author of the cynical maxim "Every man has his price," bribery flourished during his rule, but perhaps in no greater degree than under the ministries that followed. The low tone of public morality is strikingly revealed by the attitude of Pitt. Ostentatiously pure in his own methods, scorning to give or to take a bribe, he hesitated neither to share the government with Newcastle — past master of the arts of political corruption — nor to advance his own measures through his colleague's sinister skill. "I borrow the Duke of Newcastle's majority," he said, "to carry on the public business."

There is a sharp contrast between the private and the public ethics of George III. Pious churchman though he was, he resorted to bribery in nearly every form to buy support for his policy. Gold, pensions, and places were freely used to reward his friends or to purchase votes in Parliament, while those who voted contrary to his wishes were punished by having their honors, offices, or emoluments taken away. According to Horace Walpole, Lord Bute's unpopular preliminaries of peace were carried in 1762 by deliberate bribery. Through Henry Fox, who had been entrusted with the "management of the house of Commons," a "shop was publicly opened at the Pay Office, whither the members flocked, and received the wages of their venality in bank-bills, even to so low a sum as two hundred pounds for their votes on the treaty. Twenty-five thousand pounds, as Martin, Secretary of the Treasury, afterward owned, were issued in one morning; and in a single fortnight a vast majority was purchased to approve the peace." The same genial writer bears testimony to the naive and unblushing methods of corruption practiced by Henry Fox. Under Bute he wrote a letter to Walpole offering to appoint the latter's nephew, Lord Orford, to the rangership of St. James's and Hyde Parks, saying: 'If he does choose it, I doubt not of his and his friend Boone's hearty assistance, and believe I shall see you, too, much oftener in the House of Commons. This is offering you a bribe, but 'tis such a one as one honest, good-natured man may, without offense, offer to another." Walpole declined the bargain, and in consequence, for several months he was deprived of payments due him in the exchequer.

There is no doubt that the king himself sometimes suggested such disgraceful traffic. On October 16, 1779, he wrote to Lord North, "If the D. of Northumberland requires some gold pills for the election, it would be wrong not to give him some assistance." To the same minister on March 1, 1781, he wrote: " Mr. Robinson . . . sent me the list of speakers 'last night and the very good majority. I have this morning sent him 6,oooZ to be placed to the same purpose as the sum transmitted on the 21st of August" His corrupt use of secret pensions became a shameful abuse. "A bribe," declared Lord Halifax, "is given for a particular job; a pension is a constant, continual bribe. The jobbers are only a sort of day-labourers: but pensioners are domestic servants, hired to go through all the dirty business of the House." Thus, early in the reign, "Rose Fuller — who had been a staunch whig — was bought off by a secret pension of 500l. The cause of his apostasy was not discovered till after his death." Furthermore, there were various indirect means of corruption. Lotteries, contracts, and loans were thus freely employed in the purchase of influence or votes. In 1763 Bute contracted a loan for £3,500,000, at an extravagant rate of interest, and distributed the shares among his friends. The scrip at once rose to a premium of eleven percent. In this instance the wholesale bribery of members of Parliament cost the country £385,000; while in 1781, through Lord North's iniquitous loan of £12,000,000, the people lost in excessive interest £900,000, one-half of which found its way into the pockets of members of the House of Commons.

During the American Revolution and for many years afterward, the people of England were very imperfectly represented in the House of Commons. That body consisted of 558 members: 45 from Scotland and 513 from England and Wales. Of this last number, 417 were borough members, 92 were county members, and 4 were members chosen by the universities. The existing system of "virtual" representation left out of account the great mass of the population There had never been any attempt systematically to apportion representation according to population or wealth. In theory, each member of the Commons represented all parts of the kingdom, even of the empire. The franchise was restricted in various ways. In the counties, only forty-shilling freeholders could vote, and many of these were controlled absolutely by the influence of the great landholders. The state of the borough representation was much worse. This is "the rotten part of our Constitution," said Lord Chatham in 1766. By the common law, the franchise was vested in the resident householders, but in practice for ages monstrous irregularities had been sanctioned. In a few places, the franchise still belonged to the rate-payers, those paying "scot and lot"; in some towns, it was vested only in those holding lands by burgage tenure; in several, it was enjoyed only by those upon whom corporate powers had been conferred by royal charter; while in many "these different rights were combined, or qualified by exceptional conditions."

As a result, in many towns, a few persons monopolized the franchise. "At Buckingham, and at Bewdley, the right of election was confined to the bailiff and twelve burgesses; at Bath, to the mayor, ten aldermen, and twenty-four common-councillors; at Salisbury, to the mayor and corporation, consisting of fifty-six persons." Where "more popular rights of election were acknowledged, there were often very few inhabitants to exercise them. Gatton enjoyed a liberal franchise. All freeholders and inhabitants paying scot and lot were entitled to vote, but they only amounted to seven. At Tavistock, all freeholders rejoiced in the franchise, but there were only ten. At St. Michael, all inhabitants paying scot and lot were electors, but there were only seven."

The right of selecting places for the privilege of being parliamentary boroughs formerly belonged to the crown. As a rule, the honor was conferred upon the more important towns — those best able to grant aids for the king's service. In early days, according to Glanville, places were capriciously selected, even by the sheriff; and sometimes, notably under the Tudors, political reasons determined the choice. Moreover, no new parliamentary borough had been created since the Restoration. The result was remarkable. While flourishing cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, or Manchester had no representation at all, small towns like Ludgershall or Old Sarum, with scarcely any inhabitants, continued to return one or two members to Parliament. Such places were known as "nomination," "pocket," or "rotten" boroughs, and their representation was often bought and sold in the market. Some of these places had regular "brokers" who offered them to the highest bidder. Sudbury publicly advertised itself for sale. In this way a great lord might actually send a number of members to the House of Commons. Thus the "Duke of Norfolk was represented by eleven members; Lord Lonsdale by nine; Lord Darlington by seven; the Duke of Rutland, the Marquess of Buckingham, and Lord Carrington, each by six. Seats were held, in both houses alike, by hereditary right." According to Oldfield, "no less than two hundred and eighteen members were returned for counties and boroughs, in England and Wales, by the nomination or influence of eighty -seven peers; one hundred and thirty-seven were returned by ninety commoners, and sixteen by the government; making a total number of three hundred and seventy-one nominee members," or more than half the entire representation of the House of Commons.

The condition of things in Scotland was even worse. In the entire kingdom, there were not three thousand voters; while even in 1831 the first two cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, had each a "constituency of thirty-three persons." Moreover, through the skilful use of patronage, the whole representation was controlled by the government.

Shocking as was the state of representation, it must be confessed that at the beginning of George III's reign, no class of excluded persons clearly demanded the franchise. There were, indeed, signs that the wealthier and more intelligent among the unrepresented, particularly in the manufacturing and commercial centers, were growing weary of the corruption and selfishness of the ruling oligarchy, and were beginning to desire a voice in the government which they were called upon to support; but the ignorant, sodden masses were indifferent and inert. Public opinion as an organized institution was just arising. The press, its organ, was feeble and its freedom was abridged. There was no adequate popular discussion of public questions. The age of great petitions and monster mass meetings was not yet.

Still, public opinion was already forming, and occasionally the voice of the people made itself heard. It exacted the unjust execution of Admiral Byng in 1757; it carried Pitt into the cabinet, and it sustained his war policy. It condemned the peace of Paris in 1763 and drove Bute from office.

The demands of the merchants were a powerful factor in securing the repeal of the Stamp Act and the Townshend revenue law. Public opinion supported John Wilkes in the long struggle (1763-1774), in which he maintained the liberty of persons against the abuse of general warrants, and defended the rights of constituents against the tyranny of the House of Commons. In at least seventeen counties public meetings were held in 1770 to support the electors of Middlesex, who thrice returned Wilkes to the Commons after his expulsion. Popular sentiment likewise encouraged that statesman-like demagogue in the contest (1771) in which he won the liberty of reporting the debates of Parliament. Before the Revolutionary War the press, thus in part set free, had gained a position of real power such as hitherto it had never enjoyed. Near its close the wider use of public meetings, already noted, began to spread. In 1779-1780 the "freeholders of Yorkshire and twenty-three other counties, and the inhabitants of many cities, were assembled by their sheriffs and chief magistrates to discuss economical and parliamentary reform."

In theory, the more important rights and liberties of persons were safeguarded by the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the other great statutes. These were generally regarded as "constitutional" or organic laws that Parliament could not repeal without violating the most profound sentiment of the nation. It was becoming more and more common to speak of the "British constitution" as an entity beyond the reach of parliamentary interference.

Yet the liberty of the subject was very far from being complete. Nonconformists and Roman Catholics still suffered under the harsh penal code of the seventeenth century, and could not even marry according to their own religious forms. By the intolerant Hardwicke act (1753) Catholics and dissenters alike — save only Jews and Quakers — against their consciences were forced to have their marriages solemnized before a minister of the established church and according to its rites. Until 1778 a Catholic priest was liable to perpetual imprisonment for conducting the worship of his church; a Catholic could not acquire land by purchase; and his child, if educated abroad, forfeited his inheritance to the next Protestant heir. The infamous Corporation and Test acts were in force until 1828; and until 1829 Catholics were excluded from both houses of Parliament.

Furthermore, while the weak, dependent, and helpless classes were treated by society with indifference or cruel oppression, they were exposed to the vagaries of an absurdly inconsistent and savage criminal code. Life was held cheaper than property. There were more than one hundred and sixty capital offenses, sixty-three being added to the code during the first fifty years of George III. Until 1808 picking a pocket for any sum greater than twelvepence was punishable by death. "On the other hand, it was not a capital offense for a man to attempt the life of his father; to commit premeditated perjury, even when the result was the execution of an innocent man"; or "to burn a house in which the incendiary had a lease, even though it was so situated as to endanger the lives of hundreds." Until 1836, the rule that deprived a person accused of any capital crime except treason of the aid of counsel in his defense had been but slightly relaxed. By permission of the court, "in trials for a felony a counsel now usually stood beside the prisoner, instructed him what questions to ask, and even himself cross-examined the witnesses, though he might not address the judge or jury unless a legal question had arisen." The condition of the prisons, as disclosed by Howard's research, was horrible beyond belief. The highwayman was almost an English institution. An immense number of criminals were executed, always in public, and usually, the executions were exhibitions of sanguinary cruelty. Sometimes men and women were done to death in "batches." The records of the Old Bailey for the twenty-three years between 1749 and 1772 show that one thousand one hundred and twenty-one persons were condemned to death; and the number of victims would have been much larger had the law been rigidly enforced. The brutalizing spectacle of the Tyburn processions was kept up until 1783; convicts were hanged in chains until 1834. So bloody and inconsistent was the criminal code that jurors refused to convict for the offense charged, preferring to perjure themselves in the face of the clearest evidence of guilt; while humane persons, for like motives, hesitated to bring offenders to account. In fact, the administration of the criminal law in England had become almost as much demoralized as in France under Louis XV.

Practically, slavery did not exist in the British isles, although before the decision of Lord Mansfield in the Somerset case (1772) slaves might be landed and retained by their owners on English soil. On the other hand, slavery was allowed to flourish in the colonies. On moral or humane grounds there was no public sentiment hostile to the institution. A few enlightened persons like Granville Sharpe, Thomas Clarkson or William Wilberforce might raise their voices against the evil, but the public conscience was not yet stirred.

On the contrary, the slave trade was zealously fostered as a legitimate and lucrative industry. Since the seventeenth century, its encouragement had become a cardinal principle of imperial policy; and the restrictive legislation of the colonies was frowned upon as an interference with the rights of British commerce. Until 1698 the traffic was carried on by chartered companies. In that year by act of Parliament, it was thrown open to private traders. It became "highly beneficial and advantageous to this kingdom, and to the plantations and colonies thereunto belonging." A new impulse was given to the business by the treaty of 1713, which secured to England a monopoly of the trade with the Spanish colonies and gave the kings of England and Spain each one-fourth of the profits. Even so progressive a statesman as the elder Pitt made the encouragement of the slave trade a "main object of his policy."

In England Bristol, London, and especially Liverpool were foremost in the traffic; while their most active rivals were the great New England towns. The business was exceedingly profitable, and it was conducted on an enormous scale. Between 1733 and 1766 — besides the large number imported by the colonists — about twenty thousand negroes annually were brought into the continental provinces of North America by English traders. In the West Indies, relatively, the number was even greater. For instance, during the three years preceding 1762, the little island of Guadeloupe imported nearly 40,000 blacks; and between 1752 and 1762 not less than 71,115 were brought into Jamaica. Moreover, the traffic — though attended by the most atrocious cruelty — was not prohibited in the colonies until 1807; and only in 1833 was slavery finally abolished throughout the British realm.

The picture of imperial growth seemed very bright. The withdrawal of France left Great Britain virtually mistress of the North American continent; at Plassey, in 1757, Clive laid the solid foundation of her East Indian sway; while in the Pacific and Indian oceans, Captain Cook was about to claim a vast island empire in her name. In 1768 he raised the British flag on the shores of New Zealand and New South Wales, and in two later voyages, he gained other new lands for his country in the southern seas. A period of expansion through conquest was thus followed (1768-1815)by an era of expansion through exploration and discovery scarcely second in importance to that of Elizabeth's reign.

The theory of the empire finds its clearest expression in the old colonial system, which presently will be examined. A broad distinction was made between the mother country and the outside territories. The imperial government rested on the assumption that the colonies and dependencies existed primarily for the good of the parent state. They were to be made a source of England's political and military power, even at a considerable cost to themselves. In return, they should have the protection of the British flag, and be exempt from contributing directly to the imperial revenues. It "seemed fair to subordinate the economic interests of the colonies to the interests of the mother country, so that they might help to increase the fund of wealth from which the expenses of the common defense were defrayed."

Accordingly, the imperial government was exercised solely from England, and the administrative authority was vested mainly in the crown. The crown was the source of all land titles and of all charters, commercial or governmental. To the king belonged the prerogative of revising the acts of the colonial assemblies; and all the higher appointments in the civil or military service were made in his name. On the other hand, general legislative authority in the empire belonged to Parliament. So far as applicable, all English statutes in force at the time of the first colonization were commonly held to be valid in the colonies, and all new statutes were binding if the colonies were specially mentioned therein. Moreover, the colonists enjoyed the full advantages of the common law wherever courts competent for its administration were created. Yet Parliament had relatively a small share in the direct government of the empire; and this was in part due to the jealousy of the crown, which sometimes, as in the case of ecclesiastical matters, resented its interference.

During the century preceding the accession of George III, the colonists had generally accepted the imperial theory without serious protest and exhibited a steadfast loyalty to Great Britain. They had yielded to the king's prerogative, accepted his protection when granted, and freely admitted the right of Parliament to regulate their trade and manufactures. They had prospered amazingly. Under the stimulus of local self-government, they had become the freest people in the world, and therefore the most sensitive to the encroachments of the central power. Of a truth, in the quality of their civilization they had in some vital respects far outstripped the mother country. In political ideals, the contrast between Great Britain and her colonies was very great. Unquestionably in the finer sense the political education of the American people was far superior to that of their brethren in the old home. The standard of political morality was much higher. In place of the moral torpor which prevailed in England and Scotland, there had been developed in the colonies an extreme sensitiveness in regard to personal and constitutional rights. Through active participation in the town meeting, the county court, and the assembly, a fierce spirit of liberty had been fostered which could not be subdued through appeal to worn-out precedents born of lower ideals.

The contrast in the ideals of private ethics was no less striking. The moral tone of "high" society in England was unspeakably coarse and vulgar. Some of the foremost statesmen of the age were steeped to the core in vice. Gambling, drinking, and raking were patrician recreations. Henry Fox deliberately encouraged his son Charles in a career of vice. Debauchery and prodigality were venial sins. "The Duke of Grafton, in 1768, was in the very depths of a scandal of which Junius took care that all the world should be cognizant; and in the course of that very year his Grace was unanimously chosen Chancellor for the University of Cambridge." Lord Sandwich, a violent enemy of the Americans, had shared with Wilkes in the foul revels of Medmenham Abbey; yet "he had already run a dead heat for the High Stewardship of the same educational body. The University was saved from the ineffaceable disgrace which would have attended his success by the votes of the country clergy," who favored Lord Hardwicke in his stead.

On the other hand, observing foreigners were struck with the simplicity, virtue, and hospitality of American life. Compared with the orgies of the fine gentlemen of London, the excesses even of the Virginian cavaliers were but innocent gayety. There was little in common between the lives of such men and the stern morality of John or Samuel Adams; while the moral ideals of George III., prescribing gold pills for the Duke of Northumberland, compared with the stainless honor and lofty dignity of George Washington — risking all for his country without pecuniary reward — present a contrast of profound meaning for him who would grasp one of the determining conditions of the American Revolution.