The Colonies in North America
O NE hundred and fifty years ago North America was claimed by three kingdoms of Europe. Spain claimed Florida, Mexico, and the country west of the Rocky Mountains; France claimed Canada and the vast region between the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghenies; and England claimed a wide strip of land extending from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Florida, and running straight through the territories of France and Spain, as far west as the Pacific Ocean.
Now Spain did not fear England's pretensions in the least. The Pacific slope was an unknown region beyond the Rocky Mountains, and no one dreamed that an Englishman would ever cross the trackless wilderness and climb those dizzy heights. But France knew very well that whenever the thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast became densely settled, the English would try to seize the fertile valley of the Ohio. And so, while English colonists were cultivating farms and building towns east of the Allegheny Mountains, French soldiers were setting up a strong line of forts west of them.
At last, some English traders ventured across the mountains. They built rude huts, and were laying the foundations of a fort, where the city of Pittsburgh now stands, when a company of French soldiers attacked them and drove them away.
"Such impudence must be punished immediately," said the English; and General Braddock, with an army of British regulars, was sent to recover the fort. He met with sore defeat at the hands of the French and Indians, and but for George Washington, a young lieutenant of Virginia, the army would have been wholly destroyed.
Thus a long war began between England and France. The English conquered Canada, and because Spain had helped France in some European wars, they also seized the Spanish island of Cuba.
In 1763, envoys from France, England, and Spain met at Paris to sign a treaty of peace. They were very polite to one another, and took a great deal of snuff, after the fashion of the time; but, for all that, each envoy was determined to get the best terms for his king that he could.
In the end, the map of the New World was greatly altered. England had exchanged Cuba for Florida, while France had ceded Canada and the country between the Mississippi River and the Allegheny Mountains to England, and all west of the Mississippi to Spain.
This treaty of Paris gave to England and Spain the exclusive ownership of North America. There was not a foot of the land which the French could call their own.
The king of France grieved over the loss of his possessions. He said he hoped the thirteen colonies would prove so unruly that the English king would wish the French back in Canada to help keep them in subjection.
Now, if George III of England had proved to be a good and worthy king, perhaps this hope would never have been realized. At the beginning of his reign, his colonies were prosperous and contented. They celebrated his birthdays, set up his statues in public parks, and offered prayers for the members of the royal family. But, after a time, he began to oppress them by levying unjust taxes, and when they refused to pay the taxes he sent an army to punish them.
The Americans then resolved to fight for their rights. In 1775, delegates from the thirteen colonies met at Philadelphia in a Continental Congress. They called for troops and elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the army.
Of course, all the monarchs in Europe were anxious to see how this quarrel between George III and his colonies would end. The French king was more interested than any other. Some people said he would equip a fleet to aid the Americans; yet he was in no haste to adopt such a bold policy as that.
"It would not be wise," he said, "to try to assist those who are too weak to assist themselves;" and he waited to see what George Washington, at the head of the Continental troops, would do.
But one of his courtiers, the Marquis de Lafayette, was not willing to stand idly waiting while the Americans were fighting for their liberties. He said to his friends: "Let us join these patriots in their struggle against the tyranny of an unjust king. We may be defeated; but we shall have the satisfaction of knowing that we have fought on the side of justice and the right."
In the following pages you may read of some of the events in the life of this young French nobleman, who helped to secure the independence of the American Colonies, and afterwards laid the first cornerstone of the present republic of France.