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C. J. B. Gaskoin

The Fight for Empire: The American Rebellion


Benjamin Franklin.

1. The Growth of the Quarrel

Grenville's "Stamp Act" (1765) required all legal documents in America to bear stamps bought from Government, and the payments made for the stamps were to go towards the cost of ruling the colonies. Grenville allowed the colonists a year to suggest any better way of raising the money. They suggested nothing. Only, when the Act came into force, they resisted it with violence. The great Irish orator, Edmund Burke, knew American feeling far better than most Englishmen. He admitted that the Act was legal, but insisted that it was foolish, since it would certainly be resisted, and the Government was not prepared to crush resistance by force.

So the next ministry repealed the Act. But, by the "Declaratory Act," it also asserted the right of Parliament to levy such taxes if it chose. This pleased nobody and settled nothing. For England failed to get the money in the way she had asked for it, and the colonists made no attempt to give it her in any other way. Yet she still maintained her legal right to tax them, and—just because they would not tax themselves—she naturally still wished to do so. Hence very soon the trouble began.

In 1767 the leading minister, Pitt (now Earl of Chatham), unfortunately fell ill. Thereupon Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, did what Chatham himself would never have done. He imposed a number of new "customs" on goods imported into America. Now, in the earlier quarrel, many Americans and their English friends had expressly recognized the right of Parliament to levy customs at American ports, and objected only to taxes of other kinds, such as the Stamp Duty. Indeed, as the colonists had always paid such customs as they did not escape by smuggling, they could hardly say now that customs were illegal.

Nevertheless, it was plain that Townshend's customs had precisely the same object as Grenville's Stamp Duty. They were intended to make Americans contribute as Parliament thought fit to the cost of their own government. And accordingly they were at once resisted. The colonists now refused to pay new taxes of any kind unless voted by a Parliament in which they were represented.

The Assembly of Massachusetts led the resistance; it was dissolved by the Governor; nevertheless, it continued to sit. Rioters attacked the customs officers in Boston. Troops were ordered into the city, whereupon the Assembly called on the citizens to arm themselves. Trouble between the citizens and the soldiers was constant, and at last, in a riot in 1770, three men were killed and five wounded. Some of the soldiers were at once tried for murder. They were tried fairly and were acquitted, but the so-called "Boston Massacre" was used unfairly to rouse resistance to the "tyranny "of England.


Edmund Burke.

Meanwhile the English Government earned both the hatred and the contempt of the colonists. It would not use force; it actually repealed nearly all Townshend's duties, which, indeed, even his colleagues generally disliked; and North, who became chief minister in 1770, was willing to abandon the struggle altogether. But North was controlled by George III, and George III would never yield to rebels. So the tea duty was kept on just to show that England still could tax the colonies, and would tax them when she chose. The colonies, therefore, naturally considered the English Government an enemy, which did not crush them only because it dared not.

For three years the trouble continued. A personal matter increased it. Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, wrote private letters to the English ministers, urging the severest measures. Benjamin Franklin, a famous American printer and writer, then in England, opened them, read them, and passed them on to other men, who made them public. Forthwith both worlds were in a flame. Americans, furious with Hutchinson for writing the letters, demanded his dismissal. Englishmen, furious with Franklin for reading and using them, insulted him until he became their fiercest and most formidable foe. The plain brown suit which he wore when George III's Council examined him on the question was put away with care that night. He never wore it again till, nine years later, he signed at Paris the Treaty by which George III recognized the independence of the United States.

Finally, a trifling incident brought the long quarrel to a head. In 1773—intending not to anger the colonists, but simply to help the East India Company—Lord North allowed it to ship tea straight from India to America instead of taking it first to England, as had hitherto been required. And on tea thus shipped he so reduced the customs that Americans would actually get their tea more cheaply than Englishmen at home. Only the reduced tax—a mere 3d. per lb.—would of course be levied in American ports by the authority of Parliament. And it was on this point that the American leaders fixed their whole attention. They said that by reducing the tax North was trying to bribe them into accepting the claim of Parliament. They were probably wrong, but they were none the less positive.

They resolved to prevent payment. Indeed, they went farther. The customs were not due till the tea was actually sold; but they would not allow it even to be landed. They bade all the merchants to whom it was sent decline to receive it. At Boston this demand was refused, a riot followed, and a merchant's house was destroyed. The Governor called on the Town Council to help him in keeping the peace. It was in vain. A popular meeting took to itself the powers of a Government and forbade the landing of the cargoes. Unfortunately, the law required that, having entered the harbour, they should be landed. Hutchinson would not override the law in order to prevent disaster. So on December 16, 1774, a mob of young men, disguised as Red Indians in war-paint and feathers, boarded the ships and threw the tea-chests into the harbour.

This "Boston Tea-party "was no mere sudden popular riot: it was a deliberate, violent defiance of the Government. No one now doubts that England had been foolish. She had shut her eyes and ears to the real grievances of the colonists. She had insisted on claims which she knew would be resisted and which she was not ready to make good by force. Yet no one now doubts that it was natural or even necessary for her to punish severely this last flagrant defiance of authority. Obedience to the law must be enforced, even if the law which caused the trouble was itself wisely repealed.

Yet it is commonly agreed that the methods of punishment chosen were disastrously mistaken. The offenders, after all, were only a part—the actual offenders only a very small part—of the inhabitants of a single colony, Massachusetts, and its capital, Boston. But England, in her wrath, struck far and wide. She closed the port of Boston and removed the government of Massachusetts to Salem, and thereby injured all the citizens alike, innocent as well as guilty. She withdrew the "charter" which gave political rights to Massachusetts, and thereby not only injured the whole colony, but roused in other colonies a fear of similar treatment. And she made it lawful to carry Americans oversea for trial in England, lest their fellow-countrymen should not try them honestly, and thereby threatened and insulted every inhabitant of every colony alike.

These measures did not pass through Parliament unchallenged. Men like Chatham and Burke and Fox defended the colonists for rejecting the tea tax, even if they could not approve of all their methods. Chatham urged Parliament to create an American Assembly and leave it to raise the necessary taxes. But the king and North did not see the greatness of the danger. They thought they were dealing with just a riotous outbreak in a single city: they never realized that behind it was the feeling of half America.

Events, however, soon opened their eyes. North offered not to tax any colony which of its own accord made a suitable grant of money. Not one replied. Twelve of the thirteen colonies—all except Georgia—sent representatives to a Congress, showing that in resisting the Government at least they could act together. "Loyalists," or American supporters of the English Government, in Massachusetts were tarred and feathered and otherwise brutally ill-treated. Troops were raised, arms collected, gunpowder stored. Slowly England and her colonies drifted towards civil war.

2. The Rebellion

War began in April, 1775. Some English troops sent to destroy a collection of military stores at Lexington were attacked by a colonial force as they returned, and suffered heavily. Presently General Howe brought more troops from England. A second American Congress—now including Georgia—raised an army to fight them. In June, to defend Boston, the English fought and won the battle of Bunker Hill, but again suffered far more than the enemy. And, though the colonists failed when they invaded Canada, where English policy had been wise and generous, in March, 1776, the English abandoned Boston.

Meanwhile, the Congress had sent the king a "Petition," attacking his policy, which George, considering the Congress an illegal body, refused even to receive. His Government threatened vigorous measures against the rebels, and sent to Germany for troops to fight them. And at last, in 1776, on July 4th, a day ever afterwards celebrated as "Independence Day," the thirteen colonies cast off the rule of George III by the "Declaration of Independence," and became the United States of America.


Washington's headquarters during the American War of Independence.

In the struggle which followed the Americans had great advantages. They fought in a land which they knew and for a cause which many of them had really at heart. They used methods suitable to the country. And—though their troops were hard to keep together, and often short both of provisions and of arms—yet all America was open to their commanders to secure fresh recruits and more supplies. Above all, though some generals were bad and others treacherous, the commander-in-chief was Washington. And Washington was the one man under whom the colonists might win. He had experience in war; he had wisdom and patience; he had the respect of every man who knew him; and he was devoted heart and soul to the cause for which he fought.

The English, on the other hand, were three thousand miles from home. They had to draw all supplies and reinforcements from a distance. They depended absolutely on retaining the command of the sea. They used methods of war learned in Europe, and quite unfitted for America. The English troops were brave, but unsuited to American warfare. The German troops were unsatisfactory, and as foreigners angered the colonists against English ministers who had hired foreign swords to kill men of their own blood. The Red Indian allies caused even greater anger, though in employing them England only imitated the Americans themselves. The English generals were often commonplace and slack. The English War Minister was the very man who had disgraced himself and spoiled the English victory at Minden. And the forces sent out at first were but small, because the English Government thought too lightly of its task: yet the country to be conquered was so huge that only an enormous army could succeed.


The scene of General Borgoyne's Surrender.

Nevertheless, so great were the difficulties of Washington, plagued as he was by the jealousy, suspicion, and half-heartedness of some Americans, that he more than once despaired of success. And so superior to her colonies, in strength and resources, was England that, had she acted with speed and decision, she must have, beaten them, whether or not they could have been long held by force, or would have been worth keeping on such terms.

Unfortunately, however, her ministers and generals, all the time that they waged war, were thinking how they might best arrange a peace. General Howe "went out with a sword in one hand and an olive-branch in the other," and naturally, therefore, neither fought nor negotiated to the best effect. He won victories, but never pressed the enemy hard: he urged peace, but his persuasions took the form of threats. For this wavering policy the great differences of opinion at home as to the justice of the war were partly answerable. Many held that it should never have been begun. North himself carried out the king's policy with great reluctance. Chatham and Burke ceaselessly attacked it. Fox and a few others actually rejoiced at every British defeat. So in Parliament, clearly, opinion was hopelessly divided, even if for some time most of the nation followed the king.


Headquarters of General Gates at Saratoga Springs.

But it was her old enemy France that dealt England the fatal blow. By the autumn of 1777 Howe, in spite of failures, had occupied New York and Philadelphia, and defeated Washington on the Brandywine River. Burgoyne, marching victoriously from Canada, was ordered to meet him, and join forces for a united effort. The plan was good, but when Burgoyne arrived he found no Howe awaiting him. Lord George Germaine, leaving his office early one day for his private pleasure, had omitted to write the proper instructions, and Howe had little idea what he was expected to do. So Burgoyne, surrounded by the enemy, cut off from Canada, unable even to feed his troops, surrendered to the American general, Gates, at Saratoga Springs, with nearly five thousand men.

3. The General War


George Washington.

Saratoga was the turning-point of the war. This was not indeed chiefly because it ruined an English campaign which might have brought the struggle to an end, or even because it encouraged the colonists when Washington himself was almost in despair. The English won victories later which almost wiped out the shame of their disaster. The Americans spoilt their triumph by breaking the terms of surrender, and Washington's worst time—the winter at Valley Forge, 1777-78—was yet to come.

But the essential thing was that Saratoga decided France to aid the colonies. She had long thirsted for revenge on England. French sympathy, French money, French volunteers—even (secretly) cannon and arms from the French Government—had already gone out to the Americans. But only now did France become their open ally, binding them to accept from England nothing short of independence.

Then all the mischief done by the Seven Years' War became apparent. England was already fighting her colonists partly in consequence of the debt caused by that war. France, seeking revenge for her defeat in it, now aided them. Soon Spain joined the alliance. Next, the unfriendly conduct of Holland led England to declare war on her. Then Russia and other northern countries banded themselves together in the "Armed Neutrality" to resist by force England's claim to search their ships on the high seas. And still Frederic of Prussia—sulking at Berlin—would neither help England nor distract the attention of her enemies.


Some relics of the American War.

These events entirely changed the character of the war. England's undisputed mastery of the sea was gone. Her fleets, hitherto unopposed, had now to face three great navies. Moreover, they had now not only to support the British army in America, but also to defend British possessions throughout the world. Certainly, for various reasons, the French and Spanish fleets did far less than was expected. Possibly, if England had massed her ships at a few points for attacks on the enemy, instead of scattering them all over the globe, in a vain attempt to defend everything at once, she might still have won. Even as it was the action of France roused the patriotism of many Englishmen who had abhorred the war with the colonists, and Chatham died calling on his countrymen to resist the ancient enemy by land and sea. And by land and sea alike England still sometimes won a victory.

Nevertheless, the French navy carried thousands of French soldiers to America. When Lord Cornwallis was besieged in Yorktown it was French ships that brought American soldiers to the siege and beat off the English squadron which tried to aid him. And, when he could hold out no longer, it was again the arrival of a French and not an English fleet that caused the last and decisive disaster of the war. Cornwallis surrendered his army to the Americans; but his ships and sailors he surrendered to the French. The struggle in America was now practically over, and by the Peace of Paris in 1783 England recognized the independence of the United States.


The sortie made by the garrison of Gibraltar on the Morning of the 27th November, 1781.

Yet France and Spain had gained but little for themselves. Minorca, indeed, had fallen, but the garrison of Gibraltar, though suffering untold hardships in a three years' siege, would never yield. Twice an English fleet brought it relief, and then a third time the enemy closed in by land and sea. The English were outnumbered by more than four to one. On the land side three hundred guns were massed against them. In the harbour lay sixty men of war and eighty gunboats, while ten huge floating batteries, mounting a hundred and fifty cannon, belched forth their red-hot shot by day and night. But the heroic commandant, George Elliot, was nothing daunted. In one day he set fire to every floating battery, each in its turn blowing up with appalling loss. At last a third relieving fleet arrived, and the garrison was saved.


Admiral Rodney.

A few months later Admiral Rodney won a brilliant victory over the French fleet in the West Indies (April, 1782), which prevented the allies from attacking Jamaica, and brought the naval war virtually to an end. It has been named the Battle of the Saints, because it was fought among islands named after various saints.

So at the Peace of Versailles, though England lost her thirteen colonies, she yielded little to her two ancient enemies. And, as far as profit was concerned, even the loss of the colonies soon seemed only a blessing in disguise, for her trade with them grew apace directly they were unhampered by her Navigation Acts.


Washington's Farewell to his Generals.