Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders by John Lord
Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea
Benjamin Franklin : Diplomacy
George Washington : The American Revolution
Alexander Hamilton : American Constitution
John Adams : Constructive Statesmanship
Thomas Jefferson : Popular Sovereignty
John Marshall : The United States Supreme Court
John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XI : American Founders
Basis of American institutions
The Declaration of Independence
Duties rather than rights enjoined in Hebrew Scriptures
Roman laws in reference to rights
Rousseau and the “Contrat Social”
Calvinism and liberty
Holland and the Puritans
The English Constitution
The Anglo-Saxon Laws
The Guild system
Teutonic passion for personal independence
Puritan settlers in New England
Puritans and Dutch settlers compared
Traits of the Pilgrim Fathers
New England town-meetings
Love of learning among the Puritan colonists
Confederation of towns
Self-government; use of fire-arms
Growth of the colonies
The conquest of Canada
Desire for political independence
Oppressive English legislation
Denial of the right of taxation
James Otis and Samuel Adams
The Stamp Act
Boston Port Bill
British troops in Boston
The Battle of Lexington
Liberty under law
Preliminary Chapter : The American Idea
In a survey of American Institutions there seem to be three fundamental principles on which they are based: first, that all men are naturally equal in rights; second, that a people cannot be taxed without their own consent; and third, that they may delegate their power of self-government to representatives chosen by themselves.
The remote origin of these principles it is difficult to trace. Some suppose that they are innate, appealing to consciousness,–concerning which there can be no dispute or argument. Others suppose that they exist only so far as men can assert and use them, whether granted by rulers or seized by society. Some find that they arose among our Teutonic ancestors in their German forests, while still others go back to Jewish, Grecian, and Roman history for their origin. Wherever they originated, their practical enforcement has been a slow and unequal growth among various peoples, and it is always the evident result of an evolution, or development of civilization.
In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson asserts that “all men are created equal,” and that among their indisputable rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Nobody disputes this; and yet, looking critically into the matter, it seems strange that, despite Jefferson’s own strong anti-slavery sentiments, his associates should have excluded the colored race from the common benefits of humanity, unless the negroes in their plantations were not men at all, only things or chattels. The American people went through a great war and spent thousands of millions of dollars to maintain the indissoluble union of their States; but the events of that war and the civil reconstruction forced the demonstration that African slaves have the same inalienable rights for recognition before the law as the free descendants of the English and the Dutch. The statement of the Declaration has been formally made good; and yet, whence came it?
If we go back to the New Testament, the great Charter of Christendom, in search of rights, we are much puzzled to find them definitely declared anywhere; but we find, instead, duties enjoined with great clearness and made universally binding. It is only by a series of deductions, especially from Saint Paul’s epistles, that we infer the right of Christian liberty, with no other check than conscience,–the being made free by the gospel of Christ, emancipated from superstition and tyrannies of opinion; yet Paul says not a word about the manumission of slaves, as a right to which they are justly entitled, any more than he urges rebellion against a constituted civil government because it is a despotism. The burden of his political injunctions is submission to authority, exhortations to patience under the load of evils and tribulations which so many have to bear without hope of relief.
In the earlier Jewish jurisprudence we find laws in relation to property which recognize natural justice as clearly as does the jurisprudence of Rome; but revolt and rebellion against bad rulers or kings, although apt to take place, were nowhere enjoined, unless royal command should militate against the sovereignty of God,–the only ultimate authority. By the Hebrew writers, bad rulers are viewed as a misfortune to the people ruled, which they must learn to bear, hoping for better times, trusting in Providence for relief, rather than trying to remove by violence. It is He who raises up deliverers in His good time, to reign in justice and equity. If anything can be learned from the Hebrew Scriptures in reference to rights, it is the injunction to obey God rather than man, in matters where conscience is concerned; and this again merges into duty, but is susceptible of vast applications to conduct as controlled by individual opinion.
Under Roman rule native rights fare no better. Paul could appeal from Jewish tyrants to Caesar in accordance with his rights as a Roman citizen; but his Roman citizenship had nothing to do with any inborn rights as a man. Paul could appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen. For what? For protection, for the enjoyment of certain legal privileges which the Empire had conferred upon Roman citizenship, not for any rights which he could claim as a human being. If the Roman laws recognized any rights, it was those which the State had given, not those which are innate and inalienable, and which the State could not justly take away. I apprehend that even in the Greek and Roman republics no civil rights could be claimed except those conferred upon men as citizens rather than as human beings. Slaves certainly had no rights, and they composed half the population of the old Roman world. Rights were derived from decrees or laws, not from human consciousness.
Where then did Jefferson get his ideas as to the equal rights to which men were born? Doubtless from the French philosophers of the eighteenth century, especially from Rousseau, who, despite his shortcomings as a man, was one of the most original thinkers that his century produced, and one of the most influential in shaping the opinions of civilized Europe. In his “Contrat Social” Rousseau appealed to consciousness, rather than to authorities or the laws of nations. He took his stand on the principles of eternal justice in all he wrote as to civil liberties, and hence he kindled an immense enthusiasm for liberty as an inalienable right.
But Rousseau came from Switzerland, where the passion for personal independence was greater than in any other part of Europe,–a passion perhaps inherited from the old Teutonic nations in their forests, on which Tacitus dilates, next to their veneration for woman the most interesting trait among the Germanic barbarians. No Eastern nation, except the ancient Persians, had these traits. The law of liberty is an Occidental rather than an Oriental peculiarity, and arose among the Aryans in their European settlements. Moreover, Rousseau lived in a city where John Calvin had taught the principles of religious liberty which afterwards took root in Holland, England, Scotland, and France, and created the Puritans and Huguenots. The central idea of Calvinism is the right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience, enlightened by the Bible. Rousseau was no Calvinist, but the principles of religious and civil liberty are so closely connected that he may have caught their spirit at Geneva, in spite of his hideous immorality and his cynical unbelief. Yet even Calvin’s magnificent career in defence of the right of conscience to rebel against authority, which laid the solid foundation of theology and church discipline on which Protestantism was built up, arrived at such a pitch of arbitrary autocracy as to show that, if liberty be “human” and “native,” authority is no less so.
Whether, then, liberty is a privilege granted to a few, or a right to which all people are justly entitled, it is bootless to discuss; but its development among civilized nations is a worthy object of historical inquiry.
A late writer, Douglas Campbell, with some plausibility and considerable learning, traces to the Dutch republic most that is valuable in American institutions, such as town-meetings, representative government, restriction of taxation by the people, free schools, toleration of religious worship, and equal laws. No doubt the influence of Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in stimulating free inquiry, religious toleration, and self-government, as well as learning, commerce, manufactures, and the arts, was considerable, not only on the Puritan settlers of New England, but perhaps on England itself. No doubt the English Puritans who fled to Holland during the persecutions of Archbishop Laud learned much from a people whose religious oracle was Calvin, and whose great hero was William the Silent. Mr. Motley, in the most brilliant and perhaps the most learned history ever written by an American, has made a revelation of a nation heretofore supposed to be dull, money-loving, and uninteresting. Too high praise cannot be given to those brave and industrious people who redeemed their morasses from the sea, who grew rich and powerful without the natural advantages of soil and climate, who fought for eighty years against the whole power of Spain, who nobly secured their independence against overwhelming forces, who increased steadily in population and wealth when obliged to open their dikes upon their cultivated fields, who established universities and institutions of learning when almost driven to despair, and who became the richest people in Europe, whitening the ocean with their ships, establishing banks and colonies, creating a new style of painting, and teaching immortal lessons in government when they occupied a country but little larger than Wales. Civilization is as proud of such a country as Holland as of Greece itself.
With all this, I still believe that it is to England we must go for the origin of what we are most proud of in our institutions, much as the Dutch have taught us for which we ought to be grateful, and much as we may owe to French sceptics and Swiss religionists. This belief is confirmed by a book I have just read by Hannis Taylor on the “Origin and Growth of the English Constitution.” It is not an artistic history, by any means, but one in which the author has brought out the recent investigations of Edward Freeman, John Richard Green, Bishop Stubbs, Professor Gneist of Berlin, and others, who with consummate learning have gone to the roots of things,–some of whom, indeed, are dry writers, regardless of style, disdainful of any thing but facts, which they have treated with true scholastic minuteness. It appears from these historians, as quoted by Taylor, and from other authorities to which the earlier writers on English history had no access, that the germs of our free institutions existed among the Anglo-Saxons, and were developed to a considerable extent among their Norman conquerors in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when barons extorted charters from kings in their necessities, and when the common people of Saxon origin secured valuable rights and liberties, which they afterwards lost under the Tudor and Stuart princes. I need not go into a detail of these. It is certain that in the reign of Edward I. (1274-1307), himself a most accomplished and liberal civil ruler, the English House of Commons had become very powerful, and had secured in Parliament the right of originating money bills, and the control of every form of taxation,–on the principle that the people could not be taxed without their own consent. To this principle kings gave their assent, reluctantly indeed, and made use of all their statecraft to avoid compliance with it, in spite of their charters and their royal oaths. But it was a political idea which held possession of the minds of the people from the reign of Edward I. to that of Henry IV. During this period all citizens had the right of suffrage in their boroughs and towns, in the election of certain magistrates. They were indeed mostly controlled by the lord of the manor and by the parish priest, but liberty was not utterly extinguished in England, even by Norman kings and nobles; it existed to a greater degree than in any continental State out of Italy. It cannot be doubted that there was a constitutional government in England as early as in the time of Edward I., and that the power of kings was even then checked by parliamentary laws.
In Freeman’s “Norman Conquest,” it appears that the old English town, or borough, is purely of Teutonic origin. In this, local self-government is distinctly recognized, although it subsequently was controlled by the parish priest and the lord of the manor under the influence of the papacy and feudalism; in other words, the ancient jurisdiction of the tun-mõt–or town-meeting–survived in the parish vestry and the manorial court. The guild system, according to Kendall, had its origin in England at a very early date, and a great influence was exercised on popular liberty by the meetings of the various guilds, composed, as they were, of small freemen. The guild law became the law of the town, with the right to elect its magistrates. “The old reeve or bailiff was supplanted by mayor and aldermen, and the practice of sending the reeve and four men as the representatives of the township to the shire-moot widened into the practice of sending four discreet men as representatives of the county to confer with the king in his great council touching the affairs of the kingdom.” “In 1376,” says Taylor, “the Commons, intent upon correcting the evil practices of the sheriff, petitioned that the knights of the shire might be chosen by common election of the better folk of the shires, and not nominated by the sheriff; and Edward III. assented to the request.”
I will not dwell further on the origin and maintenance of free institutions in England while Continental States were oppressed by all the miseries of royalty and feudalism. But beyond all the charters and laws which modern criticism had raked out from buried or forgotten records, there is something in the character of the English yeoman which even better explains what is most noticeable in the settlement of the American Colonies, especially in New England. The restless passion for personal independence, the patience, the energy, the enterprise, even the narrowness and bigotry which marked the English middle classes in all the crises of their history, stand out in bold relief in the character of the New England settlers. All their traits are not interesting, but they are English, and represent the peculiarities of the Anglo-Saxons, rather than of the Normans. In England, they produced a Latimer rather than a Cranmer,–a Cromwell rather than a Stanley. The Saxon yeomanry at the time of Chaucer were not aristocratic, but democratic. They had an intense hatred of Norman arrogance and aggression. Their home life was dull, but virtuous. They cared but little for the sports of the chase, compared with the love which the Norman aristocracy always had for such pleasures. It was among them that two hundred years later the reformed doctrines of Calvin took the deepest hold, since these were indissolubly blended with civil liberty. There was something in the blood of the English Puritans which fitted them to be the settlers of a new country, independent of cravings for religious liberty. In their new homes in the cheerless climate of New England we see traits which did not characterize the Dutch settlers of New York; we find no patroons, no ambition to be great landed proprietors, no desire to live like country squires, as in Virginia. They were more restless and enterprising than their Dutch neighbors, and with greater public spirit in dangers. They loved the discussion of abstract questions which it was difficult to settle. They produced a greater number of orators and speculative divines in proportion to their wealth and number than the Dutch, who were phlegmatic and fond of ease and comfort, and did not like to be disturbed by the discussion of novelties. They had more of the spirit of progress than the colonists of New York. There was a quiet growth among them of those ideas which favored political independence, while also there was more intolerance, both social and religious. They hanged witches and persecuted the Quakers. They kept Sunday with more rigor than the Dutch, and were less fond of social festivities. They were not so genial and frank in their social gatherings, although fonder of excitement.
Among all the new settlers, however, both English and Dutch, we see one element in common,–devotion to the cause of liberty and hatred of oppression and wrong, learned from the weavers of Ghent as well as from the burghers of Exeter and Bristol.
In another respect the Dutch and English resembled each other: they were equally fond of the sea, and of commercial adventures, and hence were noted fishermen as well as thrifty merchants. And they equally respected learning, and gave to all their children the rudiments of education. At the time the great Puritan movement began, the English were chiefly agriculturists and the Dutch were merchants and manufacturers. Wool was exported from England to purchase the cloth into which it was woven. There were sixty thousand weavers in Ghent alone, and the towns and cities of Flanders and Holland were richer and more beautiful than those of England.
It will be remembered that New York (Nieuw Amsterdam) was settled by the Dutch in 1613, and Jamestown, Virginia, by the Elizabethan colonies in 1607. So that both of these colonies antedated the coming of the Pilgrims to Massachusetts in 1620. It is true that most of the histories of the United States have been written by men of New England origin, and that therefore by natural predilection they have made more of the New England influence than of the other elements among the Colonies. Yet this is not altogether the result of prejudice; for, despite the splendid roll of soldiers and statesmen from the Middle and Southern sections of the country who bore so large a share in the critical events of the transition era of the Revolution, it remains that the brunt of resistance to tyranny fell first and heaviest on New England, and that the principal influences that prepared the general sentiment of revolt, union, war, and independence proceeded from those colonies.
The Puritan exodus from England, chiefly from the eastern counties, first to Holland, and then to New England, was at its height during the persecutions of Archbishop Laud in the reign of Charles I. The Pilgrims–as the small company of Separatists were called who followed their Puritanism to the extent of breaking entirely away from the Church, and who left Holland for America–came to barren shores, after having learned many things from the Dutch. Their pilgrimage was taken, not with the view of improving their fortunes, like the more aristocratic settlers of Virginia, but to develop their peculiar ideas. It must be borne in mind that the civilization they brought with them was a growth from Teutonic ancestry,–an evolution from Saxon times, although it is difficult to trace the successive developments during the Norman rule. The Pilgrims brought with them to America an intense love of liberty, and consequently an equally intense hatred of arbitrary taxation. Their enjoyment of religious rights was surpassed only by their aversion to Episcopacy. They were a plain and simple people, who abhorred the vices of the patrician class at home; but they loved learning, and sought to extend knowledge, as the bulwark of free institutions. The Puritans who followed them within ten years and settled Massachusetts Bay and Salem, were direct from England. They were not Separatists, like the Pilgrims, but Presbyterians; they hated Episcopacy, but would have had Church and State united under Presbyterianism. They were intolerant, as against Roger Williams and the “witches,” and at first perpetrated cruelties like those from which they themselves had fled. But something in the free air of the big continent developed the spirit of liberty among them until they, too, like the Pilgrims, became Independents and Separatists,–and so, Congregationalists rather than Presbyterians.
The first thing we note among these New Englanders was their town-meetings, derived from the ancient folk-mote, in which they elected their magistrates, and imposed upon themselves the necessary taxes for schools, highways, and officers of the law. They formed self-governed communities, who selected for rulers their ablest and fittest men, marked for their integrity and intelligence,–grave, austere, unselfish, and incorruptible. Money was of little account in comparison with character. The earliest settlers were the picked and chosen men of the yeomanry of England, and generally thrifty and prosperous. Their leaders had had high social positions in their English homes, and their ministers were chiefly graduates of the universities, some of whom were fine scholars in both Hebrew and Greek, had been settled in important parishes, and would have attained high ecclesiastical rank had they not been nonconformists,–opposed to the ritual, rather than the theological tenets of the English Church as established by Elizabeth. Of course they were Calvinists, more rigid even than their brethren in Geneva. The Bible was to them the ultimate standard of authority–civil and religious. The only restriction on suffrage was its being conditioned on church-membership. They aspired, probably from Calvinistic influence, but aspired in vain, to establish a theocracy, borrowed somewhat from that of the Jews. I do not agree with Mr. John Fiske, in his able and interesting history of the “Beginnings of New England,” that “the Puritan appealed to reason;” I think that the Bible was their ultimate authority in all matters pertaining to religion. As to civil government, the reason may have had a great place in their institutions; but these grew up from their surroundings rather than from study or the experience of the past. There was more originality in them than it is customary to suppose. They were the development of Old England life in New England, but grew in many respects away from the parent stock.
The next thing of mark among the Colonists was their love of learning; all children were taught to read and write. They had been settled at Plymouth, Salem, and Boston less than twenty years when they established Harvard College, chiefly for the education of ministers, who took the highest social rank in the Colonies, and were the most influential people. Lawyers and physicians were not so well educated. As for lawyers, there was but little need of them, since disputes were mostly settled either by the ministers or the selectmen of the towns, who were the most able and respectable men of the community. What the theocratic Puritans desired the most was educated ministers and schoolmasters. In 1641 a school was established in Hartford, Connecticut, which was free to the poor. By 1642 every township in Massachusetts had a schoolmaster, and in 1665 every one embracing fifty families a common school. If the town had over one hundred families it had a grammar school, in which Latin was taught. It is probable, however, that the idea of popular education originated with the Dutch. Elizabeth and her ministers did not believe in the education of the masses, of which we read but little until the 19th century. As early as 1582 the Estates of Friesland decreed that the inhabitants of towns and villages should provide good and able Reformed schoolmasters, so that when the English nonconformists dwelt in Leyden in 1609 the school, according to Motley, had become the common property of the people.
The next thing we note among the Colonists of New England is the confederation of towns and their representation in the Legislature, or the General Court. This was formed to settle questions of common interest, to facilitate commerce, to establish a judicial system, to devise means for protection against hostile Indians, to raise taxes to support the common government. The Legislature, composed of delegates chosen by the towns, exercised most of the rights of sovereignty, especially in the direction of military affairs and the collection of revenue.
The governors were chosen by the people in secret ballot, until the liberal charter granted by Charles I. was revoked, and a royal governor was placed over the four confederated Colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven. This confederation was not a federal union, but simply a league for mutual defence against the Indians. Each Colony managed its own internal affairs, without interference from England, until 1684.
Down to this time the Colonies had been too insignificant to attract much notice in England, and hence were left to develop their institutions in their own way, according to the circumstances which controlled them, and the dangers with which they were surrounded. One thing is clear: the infant Colonies governed themselves, and elected their own magistrates, from the governor to the selectmen; and this was true as well of the Middle and Southern as of the Eastern Colonies. Even in Virginia quite as large a proportion of the people took part in elections as in Massachusetts. It is difficult to find any similar instance of uncontrolled self-government, either in Holland or England at any period of their history. Either the king, or the Parliament, or the lord of the manor, or the parish priest controlled appointments or interfered with them, and even when the people directly selected their magistrates, suffrage was not universal, as it gradually came to be in the Colonies, with slight restrictions,–one of the features of the development of American institutions.
Another thing we notice among the Colonies, which had no inconsiderable influence on their growth, was the use of fire-arms among all the people, to defend themselves from hostile Indians. Every man had his musket and powder-flask; and there were several periods when it was not safe even to go to church unarmed. Thus were the new settlers inured to danger and self-defence, and bloody contests with their savage foes. They grew up practically soldiers, and formed a firm material for an effective militia, able to face regular troops and even engage in effective operations, as seen afterwards in the conquest of Louisburg by Sir William Pepperell, a Kittery merchant. But for the universal use of fire-arms, either for war or game, it is doubtful if the Colonies could have won their independence. And it is interesting to notice that, while the free carrying of weapons, in these later days at least, is apt to result in rough lawlessness, as in our frontier regions, among the serious and law-abiding Colonists of those early times it was not so. This was probably due both to their strict religious obligations and to the presence of their wives and children.
The unrestricted selection of parish ministers by the people was no slight cause of New England growth, and was also a peculiar custom or institution not seen in the mother country, where appointment to parishes was chiefly in the hands of the aristocracy or the crown. Either the king, or the lord chancellor, or the universities, or the nobility, or the county squires had the gift of the “livings,” often bestowed on ignorant or worldly or inefficient men, the younger sons of men of rank, who made no mark, and were incapable of instruction or indifferent to their duties. In New England the minister of the parish was elected by the church members or congregation, and if he could not edify his hearers by his sermons, or if his character did not command respect, his occupation was gone, or his salary was not paid. In consequence the ministers were generally gifted men, well educated, and in sympathy with the people. Who can estimate the influence of such religious teachers on everything that pertained to New England life and growth,–on morals, on education, on religious and civil institutions!
Although we have traced the early characteristics of the New England Colonists, especially because it was in New England first and chiefly that the spirit of resistance to English oppression grew to a sentiment for independence, it is not to be overlooked that the essential elements of self-controlling manhood were common throughout all the Colonies. And everywhere it seems to have grown out of the germ of a devotion to religious freedom, developed on a secluded continent, where men were shut in by the sea on the one hand, and perils from the fierce aborigines on the other. The Puritans of New England, the Hollanders of New York, Penn’s Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, the Huguenots of South Carolina, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, were all of Calvinistic training and came from European persecutions. All were rigidly Puritanical in their social and Sabbatarian observances. Even the Episcopalians of Virginia, where a larger Norman-English stock was settled, with infusions of French-Huguenot blood, and where slavery bred more men of wealth and broader social distinctions, were sternly religious in their laws, although far more lax and pleasure-loving in their customs. Everywhere, this new life of Englishmen in a new land developed their self-reliance, their power of work, their skill in arms, their habit of common association for common purposes, and their keen, intelligent knowledge of political conditions, with a tenacious grip on their rights as Englishmen.
In the enjoyment, then, of unknown civil and religious liberties, of equal laws, and a mild government, the Colonies rapidly grew, in spite of Indian wars. In New England they had also to combat a hard soil and a cold climate. Their equals in rugged strength, in domestic virtues, in religious veneration were not to be seen on the face of the whole earth. They may have been intolerant, narrow-minded, brusque and rough in manners, and with little love or appreciation of art; they may have been opinionated and self-sufficient: but they were loyal to duties and to their “Invisible King.” Above all things, they were tenacious of their rights, and scrupled no sacrifices to secure them, and to perpetuate them among their children.
It is not my object to describe the history of the Puritans, after they had made a firm settlement in the primeval forests, down to the Revolutionary War, but only to glance at the institutions they created or adopted, which have extended more or less over all parts of North America, and laid the foundation for a magnificent empire.
At the close of the Seven Years’ War, in 1763, which ended in the conquest of Canada from the French by the combined forces of England and her American subjects, the population of the Colonies–in New England and the Middle and Southern sections–was not far from two millions. Success in war and some development in wealth naturally engendered self-confidence. I apprehend that the secret and unavowed consciousness of power, creating the desire to be a nation rather than a mere colony dependent on Great Britain,–or, if colonies, yet free and untrammelled by the home government,–had as much to do with the struggle for independence as the discussion of rights, at least among the leaders of the people, both clerical and lay. The feeling that they were not represented in Parliament was not of much account, for more than three quarters of the English at home had no representation at all. To be represented in Parliament was utterly impracticable, and everybody knew it. But when arbitrary measures were adopted by the English government, in defiance of charters, the popular orators made a good point in magnifying the injustice of “taxation without representation.”
The Colonies had been marvellously prospered, and if not rich they were powerful, and were spreading toward the indefinite and unexplored West. The Seven Years’ War had developed their military capacity. It was New England troops which had taken Louisburg. The charm of British invincibility had been broken by Braddock’s defeat. The Americans had learned self-reliance in their wars with the Indians, and had nearly exterminated them along the coast without British aid. The Colonists three thousand miles away from England had begun to feel their importance, and to realize the difficulty of their conquest by any forces that England could command. The self-exaggeration common to all new countries was universal. Few as the people were, compared with the population of the mother country, their imagination was boundless. They felt, if they did not clearly foresee, their inevitable future. The North American continent was theirs by actual settlement and long habits of self-government, and they were determined to keep it. Why should they be dependent on a country that crippled their commerce, that stifled their manufactures, that regulated their fisheries, that appointed their governors, and regarded them with selfish ends,–as a people to be taxed in order that English merchants and manufacturers should be enriched? They did not feel weak or dependent; what new settlers in the Western wilds ever felt that they could not take care of their farms and their flocks and everything which they owned?
Doubtless such sentiments animated far-reaching men, to whom liberty was so sweet, and power so enchanting. They could not openly avow them without danger of arrest, until resistance was organized. They contented themselves with making the most of oppressive English legislation, to stimulate the people to discontent and rebellion. Ambition was hidden under the burden of taxation which was to make them slaves. Although among the leaders there was great veneration for English tradition and law, the love they professed for England was rather an ideal sentiment than an actual feeling, except among aristocrats and men of rank.
Nor was it natural that the Colonists, especially the Puritans, should cherish much real affection for a country that had persecuted them and driven them away. They felt that not so much Old England as New England was their home, in which new sentiments had been born, and new aspirations had been cultivated. It was very seldom that a colonist visited England at all, and except among the recent comers their English relatives were for the most part unknown. Loyalty to the king was gradually supplanted by devotion to the institutions which they had adopted, or themselves created. In a certain sense they admitted that they were still subject to Great Britain, but one hundred and fifty years of self-government had nearly destroyed this feeling of allegiance, especially when they were aroused to deny the right of the English government to tax them without their own consent.
With the denial of the right of taxation by England naturally came resistance.
The first line of opposition arose under a new attempt of England to enforce the Sugar Act, which was passed to prevent the American importation of sugar and molasses from the West Indies, in exchange for lumber and agricultural products. It had been suffered to fall into abeyance; but suddenly in 1761 the government issued Writs of Assistance or search-warrants, authorizing customs officers to enter private stores and dwellings to find imported goods, not necessarily known but when even suspected to be there. This was first brought to bear in Massachusetts, where the Colonists spiritedly refused to submit, and took the matter into the courts. James Otis, a young Boston lawyer, was advocate for the Admiralty, but, resigning his commission, he appeared on behalf of the people, and his fiery eloquence aroused the Colonists to a high pitch of revolutionary resolve. John Adams, who heard the speech, declared, “Then and there American independence was born.” Independency however, was not yet in most men’s minds, but the spirit of resistance to arbitrary acts of the sovereign was unmistakably aroused. In 1763 a no less memorable contest arose in Virginia, when the king refused to sanction a law of the colonial legislature imposing a tax which the clergy were unwilling to submit to. This too was tested in the courts, and a young lawyer named Patrick Henry defended so eloquently the right of Virginia to make her own laws in spite of the king, that his passionate oratory inflamed all that colony with the same “treasonable” spirit.
But the centre of resistance was in Boston, where in 1765 the people were incited to enthusiasm by the eloquence of James Otis and Samuel Adams, in reference to still another restrictive tax, the Stamp Act, which could not be enforced, except by overwhelming military forces, and was wisely repealed by Parliament. This was followed by the imposition of duties on wine, oil, fruits, glass, paper, lead, colors and especially tea, an indirect taxation, but equally obnoxious; increasing popular excitement, the sending of troops, collision between the soldiers and the people in 1770, and in 1773 the rebellious act of the famous “Tea Party,” when citizens in the guise of Indians emptied the chests of tea on board merchantmen into Boston harbor. Soon after, the Boston Port Bill was passed, which shut up American commerce and created immense irritation. Then were sent to the rebellious city regiments of British troops to enforce the acts of Parliament; and finally the troops were, at the people’s expense, quartered in the town, which was treated as a conquered city.
In view of these disturbances and hostile acts, the first Continental Congress of the different colonies met in Philadelphia, September, 1774, and issued a petition to the king, an address to the people of Great Britain, and an address to the Colonies, thus making a last effort for conciliation. The British Government, obstinately refusing to listen to its own wisest counsellors, replied with restraining acts, forbidding participation in the fisheries and other remunerative sea-work. Moreover, it declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion; in consequence of which the whole province prepared for war. At the same time the colonial legislatures promptly approved and agreed to sustain the acts of the Continental Congress. Nor did they neglect to appoint committees of safety for calling out minute men and committees of supplies for arming and provisioning them. General Gage, the British military commander in Massachusetts, attempted to destroy the collection of ammunition and stores at Concord, and in consequence, on April 19, 1775, the battle of Lexington was fought, followed in June by that of Bunker Hill.
Thus began the American Revolution, which ended in the independence of the thirteen Colonies and their federal union as States under a common constitution.
As the empire of the Union expanded, as power grew, as opportunities increased, so did obstructions arise and complications multiply. But what I have called “the American idea”–which I conceive to be Liberty under Law–has proved equal to all emergencies. The marvellous success with which American institutions have provided for the development of the Anglo-Saxon idea of individual independence, without endangering the common weal and rule, has been largely due to the arising of great and wise administrators of the public will.
It is to a consideration of some of the chief of these notable men who have guided the fortunes of the American people from the Revolutionary period to the close of the Civil War, that I invite the attention of the reader in the next two volumes. Those who have not materially modified the condition of public affairs I omit to discuss at large, eminent as have been their talents and services. Consequently I pass by the administrations of all the presidents since Jefferson, except those of Jackson and Lincoln, the former having made a new departure in national policy, and the latter having brought to a conclusion a great war. I consider that Franklin, Hamilton, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun did more than any of the presidents, except those I have mentioned, to affect the destinies of the country, and therefore I could not omit them.
There will necessarily be some repetitions of fact in discussing the relations of different men to the same group of events, but this has been so far as possible avoided. And since my aim is the portrayal of character and influence, rather than the narration of historical annals, I have omitted vast numbers of interesting details, selecting only those of salient and vital importance.