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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter III


Well-meaning people in England found it difficult to understand the intensity of feeling in America. Britain had piled up a huge debt in driving France from America. Landowners were paying in taxes no less than twenty per cent of their incomes from land. The people who had chiefly benefited by the humiliation of France were the colonists, now freed from hostile menace and secure for extension over a whole continent. Why should not they pay some share of the cost of their own security? Certain facts tended to make Englishmen indignant with the Americans. Every effort had failed to get them to pay willingly for their defense. Before the Stamp Act had become law in 1765 the colonies were given a whole year to devise the raising of money in any way which they liked better. The burden of what was asked would be light. Why should not they agree to bear it? Why this talk, repeated by the Whigs in the British Parliament, of brutal tyranny, oppression, hired minions imposing slavery, and so on. Where were the oppressed? Could any one point to a single person who before war broke out had known British tyranny? What suffering could any one point to as the result of the tax on tea? The people of England paid a tax on tea four times heavier than that paid in America. Was not the British Parliament supreme over the whole Empire? Did not the colonies themselves admit that it had the right to control their trade overseas? And if men shirk their duty should they not come under some law of compulsion?

George Washington, 1772, engraved by J.W. Paradise from a picture by J.G. Chapman after Charles Wilson Peale
George Washington, 1772, engraved by J.W. Paradise from a picture by J.G. Chapman after Charles Wilson Peale

It was thus that many a plain man reasoned in England. The plain man in America had his own opposing point of view. Debts and taxes in England were not his concern. He remembered the recent war as vividly as did the Englishman, and, if the English paid its cost in gold, he had paid his share in blood and tears. Who made up the armies led by the British generals in America? More than half the total number who served in America came from the colonies, the colonies which had barely a third of the population of Great Britain. True, Britain paid the bill in money but why not? She was rich with a vast accumulated capital. The war, partly in America, had given her the key to the wealth of India. Look at the magnificence, the pomp of servants, plate and pictures, the parks and gardens, of hundreds of English country houses, and compare this opulence with the simple mode of life, simplicity imposed by necessity, of a country gentleman like George Washington of Virginia, reputed to be the richest man in America. Thousands of tenants in England, owning no acre of land, were making a larger income than was possible in America to any owner of broad acres. It was true that America had gained from the late war. The foreign enemy had been struck down. But had he not been struck down too for England? Had there not been far more dread in England of invasion by France and had not the colonies by helping to ruin France freed England as much as England had freed them? If now the colonies were asked to pay a share of the bill for the British army that was a matter for discussion. They had never before done it and they must not be told that they had to meet the demand within a year or be compelled to pay. Was it not to impose tyranny and slavery to tell a people that their property would be taken by force if they did not choose to give it? What free man would not rather die than yield on such a point?

The familiar workings of modern democracy have taught us that a great political issue must be discussed in broad terms of high praise or severe blame. The contestants will exaggerate both the virtue of the side they espouse and the malignity of the opposing side; nice discrimination is not possible. It was inevitable that the dispute with the colonies should arouse angry vehemence on both sides. The passionate speech of Patrick Henry in Virginia, in 1763, which made him famous, and was the forerunner of his later appeal, “Give me Liberty or give me Death, ” related to so prosaic a question as the right of disallowance by England of an act passed by a colonial legislature, a right exercised long and often before that time and to this day a part of the constitutional machinery of the British Empire. Few men have lived more serenely poised than Washington, yet, as we have seen, he hated the British with an implacable hatred. He was a humane man. In earlier years, Indian raids on the farmers of Virginia had stirred him to “deadly sorrow,” and later, during his retreat from New York, he was moved by the cries of the weak and infirm. Yet the same man felt no touch of pity for the Loyalists of the Revolution. To him they were detestable parricides, vile traitors, with no right to live. When we find this note in Washington, in America, we hardly wonder that the high Tory, Samuel Johnson, in England, should write that the proposed taxation was no tyranny, that it had not been imposed earlier because “we do not put a calf into the plough; we wait till he is an ox,” and that the Americans were “a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything which we allow them short of hanging.” Tyranny and treason are both ugly things. Washington believed that he was fighting the one, Johnson that he was fighting the other, and neither side would admit the charge against itself.

Such are the passions aroused by civil strife. We need not now, when they are, or ought to be, dead, spend any time in deploring them. It suffices to explain them and the events to which they led. There was one and really only one final issue. Were the American colonies free to govern themselves as they liked or might their government in the last analysis be regulated by Great Britain? The truth is that the colonies had reached a condition in which they regarded themselves as British states with their own parliaments, exercising complete jurisdiction in their own affairs. They intended to use their own judgment and they were as restless under attempted control from England as England would have been under control from America. We can indeed always understand the point of view of Washington if we reverse the position and imagine what an Englishman would have thought of a claim by America to tax him.

An ancient and proud society is reluctant to change. After a long and successful war England was prosperous. To her now came riches from India and the ends of the earth. In society there was such lavish expenditure that Horace Walpole declared an income of twenty thousand pounds a year was barely enough. England had an aristocracy the proudest in the world, for it had not only rank but wealth. The English people were certain of the invincible superiority of their nation. Every Englishman was taught, as Disraeli said of a later period, to believe that he occupied a position better than any one else of his own degree in any other country in the world. The merchant in England was believed to surpass all others in wealth and integrity, the manufacturer to have no rivals in skill, the British sailor to stand in a class by himself, the British officer to express the last word in chivalry. It followed, of course, that the motherland was superior to her children overseas. The colonies had no aristocracy, no great landowners living in stately palaces. They had almost no manufactures. They had no imposing state system with places and pensions from which the fortunate might reap a harvest of ten or even twenty thousand pounds a year. They had no ancient universities thronged by gilded youth who, if noble, might secure degrees without the trying ceremony of an examination. They had no Established Church with the ancient glories of its cathedrals. In all America there was not even a bishop. In spite of these contrasts the English Whigs insisted upon the political equality with themselves of the American colonists. The Tory squire, however, shared Samuel Johnson’s view that colonists were either traders or farmers and that colonial shopkeeping society was vulgar and contemptible.

George III was ill-fitted by nature to deal with the crisis. The King was not wholly without natural parts, for his own firm will had achieved what earlier kings had tried and failed to do; he had mastered Parliament, made it his obedient tool and himself for a time a despot. He had some admirable virtues. He was a family man, the father of fifteen children. He liked quiet amusements and had wholesome tastes. If industry and belief in his own aims could of themselves make a man great we might reverence George. He wrote once to Lord North: “I have no object but to be of use: if that is ensured I am completely happy.” The King was always busy. Ceaseless industry does not, however, include every virtue, or the author of all evil would rank high in goodness. Wisdom must be the pilot of good intentions. George was not wise. He was ill-educated. He had never traveled. He had no power to see the point of view of others.

As if nature had not sufficiently handicapped George for a high part, fate placed him on the throne at the immature age of twenty-two. Henceforth the boy was master, not pupil. Great nobles and obsequious prelates did him reverence. Ignorant and obstinate, the young King was determined not only to reign but to rule, in spite of the new doctrine that Parliament, not the King, carried on the affairs of government through the leader of the majority in the House of Commons, already known as the Prime Minister. George could not really change what was the last expression of political forces in England. The rule of Parliament had come to stay. Through it and it alone could the realm be governed. This power, however, though it could not be destroyed, might be controlled. Parliament, while retaining all its privileges, might yet carry out the wishes of the sovereign. The King might be his own Prime Minister. The thing could be done if the King’s friends held a majority of the seats and would do what their master directed. It was a dark day for England when a king found that he could play off one faction against another, buy a majority in Parliament, and retain it either by paying with guineas or with posts and dignities which the bought Parliament left in his gift. This corruption it was which ruined the first British Empire.

We need not doubt that George thought it his right and also his duty to coerce America, or rather, as he said, the clamorous minority which was trying to force rebellion. He showed no lack of sincerity. On October 26, 1775, while Washington was besieging Boston, he opened Parliament with a speech which at any rate made the issue clear enough. Britain would not give up colonies which she had founded with severe toil and nursed with great kindness. Her army and her navy, both now increased in size, would make her power respected. She would not, however, deal harshly with her erring children. Royal mercy would be shown to those who admitted their error and they need not come to England to secure it. Persons in America would be authorized to grant pardons and furnish the guarantees which would proceed from the royal clemency.

Such was the magnanimity of George III. Washington’s rage at the tone of the speech is almost amusing in its vehemence. He, with a mind conscious of rectitude and sacrifice in a great cause, to ask pardon for his course! He to bend the knee to this tyrant overseas! Washington himself was not highly gifted with imagination. He never realized the strength of the forces in England arrayed on his own side and attributed to the English, as a whole, sinister and malignant designs always condemned by the great mass of the English people. They, no less than the Americans, were the victims of a turn in politics which, for a brief period, and for only a brief period, left power in the hands of a corrupt Parliament and a corrupting king.

Ministers were not all corrupt or place-hunters. One of them, the Earl of Dartmouth, was a saint in spirit. Lord North, the king’s chief minister, was not corrupt. He disliked his office and wished to leave it. In truth no sweeping simplicity of condemnation will include all the ministers of George III except on this one point that they allowed to dictate their policy a narrow-minded and ignorant king. It was their right to furnish a policy and to exercise the powers of government, appoint to office, spend the public revenues. Instead they let the King say that the opinions of his ministers had no avail with him. If we ask why, the answer is that there was a mixture of motives. North stayed in office because the King appealed to his loyalty, a plea hard to resist under an ancient monarchy. Others stayed from love of power or for what they could get. In that golden age of patronage it was possible for a man to hold a plurality of offices which would bring to himself many thousands of pounds a year, and also to secure the reversion of offices and pensions to his children. Horace Walpole spent a long life in luxurious ease because of offices with high pay and few duties secured in the distant days of his father’s political power. Contracts to supply the army and the navy went to friends of the government, sometimes with disastrous results, since the contractor often knew nothing of the business he undertook. When, in 1777, the Admiralty boasted that thirty-five ships of war were ready to put to sea it was found that there were in fact only six. The system nearly ruined the navy. It actually happened that planks of a man-of-war fell out through rot and that she sank. Often ropes and spars could not be had when most needed. When a public loan was floated the King’s friends and they alone were given the shares at a price which enabled them to make large profits on the stock market.

The system could endure only as long as the King’s friends had a majority in the House of Commons. Elections must be looked after. The King must have those on whom he could always depend. He controlled offices and pensions. With these things he bought members and he had to keep them bought by repeating the benefits. If the holder of a public office was thought to be dying the King was already naming to his Prime Minister the person to whom the office must go when death should occur. He insisted that many posts previously granted for life should now be given during his pleasure so that he might dismiss the holders at will. He watched the words and the votes in Parliament of public men and woe to those in his power if they displeased him. When he knew that Fox, his great antagonist, would be absent from Parliament he pressed through measures which Fox would have opposed. It was not until George III was King that the buying and selling of boroughs became common. The King bought votes in the boroughs by paying high prices for trifles. He even went over the lists of voters and had names of servants of the government inserted if this seemed needed to make a majority secure. One of the most unedifying scenes in English history is that of George making a purchase in a shop at Windsor and because of this patronage asking for the shopkeeper’s support in a local election. The King was saving and penurious in his habits that he might have the more money to buy votes. When he had no money left he would go to Parliament and ask for a special grant for his needs and the bought members could not refuse the money for their buying.

The people of England knew that Parliament was corrupt. But how to end the system? The press was not free. Some of it the government bought and the rest it tried to intimidate though often happily in vain. Only fragments of the debates in Parliament were published. Not until 1779 did the House of Commons admit the public to its galleries. No great political meetings were allowed until just before the American war and in any case the masses had no votes. The great landowners had in their control a majority of the constituencies. There were scores of pocket boroughs in which their nominees were as certain of election as peers were of their seats in the House of Lords. The disease of England was deep-seated. A wise king could do much, but while George III survived–and his reign lasted sixty years–there was no hope of a wise king. A strong minister could impose his will on the King. But only time and circumstance could evolve a strong minister. Time and circumstance at length produced the younger Pitt. But it needed the tragedy of two long wars–those against the colonies and revolutionary France–before the nation finally threw off the system which permitted the personal rule of George III and caused the disruption of the Empire. It may thus be said with some truth that George Washington was instrumental in the salvation of England.

The ministers of George III loved the sports, the rivalries, the ease, the remoteness of their rural magnificence. Perverse fashion kept them in London even in April and May for “the season,” just when in the country nature was most alluring. Otherwise they were off to their estates whenever they could get away from town. The American Revolution was not remotely affected by this habit. With ministers long absent in the country important questions were postponed or forgotten. The crisis which in the end brought France into the war was partly due to the carelessness of a minister hurrying away to the country. Lord George Germain, who directed military operations in America, dictated a letter which would have caused General Howe to move northward from New York to meet General Burgoyne advancing from Canada. Germain went off to the country without waiting to sign the letter; it was mislaid among other papers; Howe was without needed instructions; and the disaster followed of Burgoyne’s surrender. Fox pointed out, that, at a time when there was a danger that a foreign army might land in England, not one of the King’s ministers was less than fifty miles from London. They were in their parks and gardens, or hunting or fishing. Nor did they stay away for a few days only. The absence was for weeks or even months.

It is to the credit of Whig leaders in England, landowners and aristocrats as they were, that they supported with passion the American cause. In America, where the forces of the Revolution were in control, the Loyalist who dared to be bold for his opinions was likely to be tarred and feathered and to lose his property. There was an embittered intolerance. In England, however, it was an open question in society whether to be for or against the American cause. The Duke of Richmond, a great grandson of Charles II, said in the House of Lords that under no code should the fighting Americans be considered traitors. What they did was “perfectly justifiable in every possible political and moral sense.” All the world knows that Chatham and Burke and Fox urged the conciliation of America and hundreds took the same stand. Burke said of General Conway, a man of position, that when he secured a majority in the House of Commons against the Stamp Act his face shone as the face of an angel. Since the bishops almost to a man voted with the King, Conway attacked them as in this untrue to their high office. Sir George Savile, whose benevolence, supported by great wealth, made him widely respected and loved, said that the Americans were right in appealing to arms. Coke of Norfolk was a landed magnate who lived in regal style. His seat of Holkham was one of those great new palaces which the age reared at such elaborate cost. It was full of beautiful things–the art of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Van Dyke, rare manuscripts, books, and tapestries. So magnificent was Coke that a legend long ran that his horses were shod with gold and that the wheels of his chariots were of solid silver. In the country he drove six horses. In town only the King did this. Coke despised George III, chiefly on account of his American policy, and to avoid the reproach of rivaling the King’s estate, he took joy in driving past the palace in London with a donkey as his sixth animal and in flicking his whip at the King. When he was offered a peerage by the King he denounced with fiery wrath the minister through whom it was offered as attempting to bribe him. Coke declared that if one of the King’s ministers held up a hat in the House of Commons and said that it was a green bag the majority of the members would solemnly vote that it was a green bag. The bribery which brought this blind obedience of Toryism filled Coke with fury. In youth he had been taught never to trust a Tory and he could say “I never have and, by God, I never will.” One of his children asked their mother whether Tories were born wicked or after birth became wicked. The uncompromising answer was: “They are born wicked and they grow up worse.”

There is, of course, in much of this something of the malignance of party. In an age when one reverend theologian, Toplady, called another theologian, John Wesley, “a low and puny tadpole in Divinity” we must expect harsh epithets. But behind this bitterness lay a deep conviction of the righteousness of the American cause. At a great banquet at Holkham, Coke omitted the toast of the King; but every night during the American war he drank the health of Washington as the greatest man on earth. The war, he said, was the King’s war, ministers were his tools, the press was bought. He denounced later the King’s reception of the traitor Arnold. When the King’s degenerate son, who became George IV, after some special misconduct, wrote to propose his annual visit to Holkham, Coke replied, “Holkham is open to strangers on Tuesdays.” It was an independent and irate England which spoke in Coke. Those who paid taxes, he said, should control those who governed. America was not getting fair play. Both Coke and Fox, and no doubt many others, wore waistcoats of blue and buff because these were the colors of the uniforms of Washington’s army.

Washington and Coke exchanged messages and they would have been congenial companions; for Coke, like Washington, was above all a farmer and tried to improve agriculture. Never for a moment, he said, had time hung heavy on his hands in the country. He began on his estate the culture of the potato, and for some time the best he could hear of it from his stolid tenantry was that it would not poison the pigs. Coke would have fought the levy of a penny of unjust taxation and he understood Washington. The American gentleman and the English gentleman had a common outlook.

Now had come, however, the hour for political separation. By reluctant but inevitable steps America made up its mind to declare for independence. At first continued loyalty to the King was urged on the plea that he was in the hands of evil-minded ministers, inspired by diabolical rage, or in those of an “infernal villain” such as the soldier, General Gage, a second Pharaoh; though it must be admitted that even then the King was “the tyrant of Great Britain.” After Bunker Hill spasmodic declarations of independence were made here and there by local bodies. When Congress organized an army, invaded Canada, and besieged Boston, it was hard to protest loyalty to a King whose forces were those of an enemy. Moreover independence would, in the eyes at least of foreign governments, give the colonies the rights of belligerents and enable them to claim for their fighting forces the treatment due to a regular army and the exchange of prisoners with the British. They could, too, make alliances with other nations. Some clamored for independence for a reason more sinister–that they might punish those who held to the King and seize their property. There were thirteen colonies in arms and each of them had to form some kind of government which would work without a king as part of its mechanism. One by one such governments were formed. King George, as we have seen, helped the colonies to make up their minds. They were in no mood to be called erring children who must implore undeserved mercy and not force a loving parent to take unwilling vengeance. “Our plantations” and “our subjects in the colonies” would simply not learn obedience. If George III would not reply to their petitions until they laid down their arms, they could manage to get on without a king. If England, as Horace Walpole admitted, would not take them seriously and speakers in Parliament called them obscure ruffians and cowards, so much the worse for England.

It was an Englishman, Thomas Paine, who fanned the fire into unquenchable flames. He had recently been dismissed from a post in the excise in England and was at this time earning in Philadelphia a precarious living by his pen. Paine said it was the interest of America to break the tie with Europe. Was a whole continent in America to be governed by an island a thousand leagues away? Of what advantage was it to remain connected with Great Britain? It was said that a united British Empire could defy the world, but why should America defy the world? “Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation.” Interested men, weak men, prejudiced men, moderate men who do not really know Europe, may urge reconciliation, but nature is against it. Paine broke loose in that denunciation of kings with which ever since the world has been familiar. The wretched Briton, said Paine, is under a king and where there was a king there was no security for liberty. Kings were crowned ruffians and George III in particular was a sceptered savage, a royal brute, and other evil things. He had inflicted on America injuries not to be forgiven. The blood of the slain, not less than the true interests of posterity, demanded separation. Paine called his pamphlet “Common Sense”. It was published on January 9, 1776. More than a hundred thousand copies were quickly sold and it brought decision to many wavering minds.

In the first days of 1776 independence had become a burning question. New England had made up its mind. Virginia was keen for separation, keener even than New England. New York and Pennsylvania long hesitated and Maryland and North Carolina were very lukewarm. Early in 1776 Washington was advocating independence and Greene and other army leaders were of the same mind. Conservative forces delayed the settlement, and at last Virginia, in this as in so many other things taking the lead, instructed its delegates to urge a declaration by Congress of independence. Richard Henry Lee, a member of that honored family which later produced the ablest soldier of the Civil War, moved in Congress on June 7, 1776, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” The preparation of a formal declaration was referred to a committee of which John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were members. It is interesting to note that each of them became President of the United States and that both died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Adams related long after that he and Jefferson formed the sub-committee to draft the Declaration and that he urged Jefferson to undertake the task since “you can write ten times better than I can.” Jefferson accordingly wrote the paper. Adams was delighted “with its high tone and the flights of Oratory” but he did not approve of the flaming attack on the King, as a tyrant. “I never believed,” he said, “George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature.” There was, he thought, too much passion for a grave and solemn document. He was, however, the principal speaker in its support.

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

There is passion in the Declaration from beginning to end, and not the restrained and chastened passion which we find in the great utterances of an American statesman of a later day, Abraham Lincoln. Compared with Lincoln, Jefferson is indeed a mere amateur in the use of words. Lincoln would not have scattered in his utterances overwrought phrases about “death, desolation and tyranny” or talked about pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.” He indulged in no “Flights of Oratory.” The passion in the Declaration is concentrated against the King. We do not know what were the emotions of George when he read it. We know that many Englishmen thought that it spoke truth. Exaggerations there are which make the Declaration less than a completely candid document. The King is accused of abolishing English laws in Canada with the intention of “introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies.” What had been done in Canada was to let the conquered French retain their own laws–which was not tyranny but magnanimity. Another clause of the Declaration, as Jefferson first wrote it, made George responsible for the slave trade in America with all its horrors and crimes. We may doubt whether that not too enlightened monarch had even more than vaguely heard of the slave trade. This phase of the attack upon him was too much for the slave owners of the South and the slave traders of New England, and the clause was struck out.

Nearly fourscore and ten years later, Abraham Lincoln, at a supreme crisis in the nation’s life, told in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, what the Declaration of Independence meant to him. “I have never,” he said, “had a feeling politically which did not spring from the sentiments in the Declaration of Independence”; and then he spoke of the sacrifices which the founders of the Republic had made for these principles. He asked, too, what was the idea which had held together the nation thus founded. It was not the breaking away from Great Britain. It was the assertion of human right. We should speak in terms of reverence of a document which became a classic utterance of political right and which inspired Lincoln in his fight to end slavery and to make “Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” realities for all men. In England the colonists were often taunted with being “rebels.” The answer was not wanting that ancestors of those who now cried “rebel” had themselves been rebels a hundred years earlier when their own liberty was at stake.

There were in Congress men who ventured to say that the Declaration was a libel on the government of England; men like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and John Jay of New York, who feared that the radical elements were moving too fast. Radicalism, however, was in the saddle, and on the 2d of July the “resolution respecting independency ” was adopted. On July 4, 1776, Congress debated and finally adopted the formal Declaration of Independence. The members did not vote individually. The delegates from each colony cast the vote of the colony. Twelve colonies voted for the Declaration. New York alone was silent because its delegates had not been instructed as to their vote, but New York, too, soon fell into line. It was a momentous occasion and was understood to be such. The vote seems to have been reached in the late afternoon. Anxious citizens were waiting in the streets. There was a bell in the State House, and an old ringer waited there for the signal. When there was long delay he is said to have muttered: “They will never do it! they will never do it!” Then came the word, “Ring! Ring!” It is an odd fact that the inscription on the bell, placed there long before the days of the trouble, was from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bells of Philadelphia rang and cannon boomed. As the news spread there were bonfires and illuminations in all the colonies. On the day after the Declaration the Virginia Convention struck out “O Lord, save the King” from the church service. On the 10th of July Washington, who by this time had moved to New York, paraded the army and had the Declaration read at the head of each brigade. That evening the statue of King George in New York was laid in the dust. It is a comment on the changes in human fortune that within little more than a year the British had taken Philadelphia, that the clamorous bell had been hid away for safety, and that colonial wiseacres were urging the rescinding of the ill-timed Declaration and the reunion of the British Empire.