Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

The American Revolution

At the End of the Eighteenth Century Europe Heard Strange Reports of Something Which Had Happened in the Wilderness of the North American Continent. The Descendants of the Men Who Had Punished King Charles for His Insistence upon His "Divine Rights" Added a New Chapter to the Old Story of the Struggle for Self-Government

F OR the sake of convenience, we ought to go back a few centuries and repeat the early history of the great struggle for colonial possessions.


The Fight for Liberty

As soon as a number of European nations had been created upon the new basis of national or dynastic interests, that is to say, during and immediately after the Thirty Years War, their rulers, backed up by the capital of their merchants and the ships of their trading companies, continued the fight for more territory in Asia, Africa and America.

The Spaniards and the Portuguese had been exploring the Indian Sea and the Pacific Ocean for more than a century ere Holland and England appeared upon the stage. This proved an advantage to the latter. The first rough work had already been done. What is more, the earliest navigators had so often made themselves unpopular with the Asiatic and American and African natives that both the English and the Dutch were welcomed as friends and deliverers. We cannot claim any superior virtues for either of these two races. But they were merchants before everything else. They never allowed religious considerations to interfere with their practical common sense. During their first relations with weaker races, all European nations have behaved with shocking brutality. The English and the Dutch, however, knew better where to draw the line. Provided they got their spices and their gold and silver and their taxes, they were willing to let the native live as it best pleased him.


The Pilgrims

It was not very difficult for them therefore to establish themselves in the richest parts of the world. But as soon as this had been accomplished, they began to fight each other for still further possessions. Strangely enough, the colonial wars were never settled in the colonies themselves. They were decided three thousand miles away by the navies of the contending countries. It is one of the most interesting principles of ancient and modern warfare (one of the few reliable laws of history) that "the nation which commands the sea is also the nation which commands the land." So far this law has never failed to work, but the modern airplane may have changed it. In the eighteenth century, however, there were no flying machines and it was the British navy which gained for England her vast American and Indian and African colonies.


How the White Man Settled in North America

The series of naval wars between England and Holland in the seventeenth century does not interest us here. It ended as all such encounters between hopelessly ill-matched powers will end. But the warfare between England and France (her other rival) is of greater importance to us, for while the superior British fleet in the end defeated the French navy, a great deal of the preliminary fighting was done on our own American continent. In this vast country, both France and England claimed everything which had been discovered and a lot more which the eye of no white man had ever seen. In 1497 Cabot had landed in the northern part of America and twenty-seven years later, Giovanni Verrazano had visited these coasts. Cabot had flown the English flag. Verrazano had sailed under the French flag. Hence both England and France proclaimed themselves the owners of the entire continent.

During the seventeenth century, some ten small English colonies had been founded between Maine and the Carolinas. They were usually a haven of refuge for some particular sect of English dissenters, such as the Puritans, who in the year 1620 went to New England, or the Quakers, who settled in Pennsylvania in 1681. They were small frontier communities, nestling close to the shores of the ocean, where people had gathered to make a new home and begin life among happier surroundings, far away from royal supervision and interference.

The French colonies, on the other hand, always remained a possession of the crown. No Huguenots or Protestants were allowed in these colonies for fear that they might contaminate the Indians with their dangerous Protestant doctrines and would perhaps interfere with the missionary work of the Jesuit fathers. The English colonies, therefore, had been founded upon a much healthier basis than their French neighbours and rivals. They were an expression of the commercial energy of the English middle classes, while the French settlements were inhabited by people who had crossed the ocean as servants of the king and who expected to return to Paris at the first possible chance.


In the Cabin of the Mayflower

Politically, however, the position of the English colonies was far from satisfactory. The French had discovered the mouth of the Saint Lawrence in the sixteenth century. From the region of the Great Lakes they had worked their way southward, had descended the Mississippi and had built several fortifications along the Gulf of Mexico. After a century of exploration, a line of sixty French forts cut off the English settlements along the Atlantic seaboard from the interior.

The English land grants, made to the different colonial companies had given them "all land from sea to sea." This sounded well on paper, but in practice, British territory ended where the line of French fortifications began. To break through this barrier was possible but it took both men and money and caused a series of horrible border wars in which both sides murdered their white neighbours, with the help of the Indian tribes.


The French Explore the West

As long as the Stuarts had ruled England there had been no danger of war with France. The Stuarts needed the Bourbons in their attempt to establish an autocratic form of government and to break the power of Parliament. But in 1689 the last of the Stuarts had disappeared from British soil and Dutch William, the great enemy of Louis XIV succeeded him. From that time on, until the Treaty of Paris of 1763, France and England fought for the possession of India and North America.

During these wars, as I have said before, the English navies invariably beat the French. Cut off from her colonies, France lost most of her possessions, and when peace was declared, the entire North American continent had fallen into British hands and the great work of exploration of Cartier, Champlain, La Salle, Marquette and a score of others was lost to France.

Only a very small part of this vast domain was inhabited. From Massachusetts in the north, where the Pilgrims (a sect of Puritans who were very intolerant and who therefore had found no happiness either in Anglican England or Calvinist Holland) had landed in the year 1620, to the Carolinas and Virginia (the tobacco-raising provinces which had been founded entirely for the sake of profit), stretched a thin line of sparsely populated territory. But the men who lived in this new land of fresh air and high skies were very different from their brethren of the mother country. In the wilderness they had learned independence and self-reliance. They were the sons of hardy and energetic ancestors. Lazy and timourous people did not cross the ocean in those days. The American colonists hated the restraint and the lack of breathing space which had made their lives in the old country so very unhappy. They meant to be their own masters. This the ruling classes of England did not seem to understand. The government annoyed the colonists and the colonists, who hated to be bothered in this way, began to annoy the British government.


The Blockhouse in the Wilderness

Bad feeling caused more bad feeling. It is not necessary to repeat here in detail what actually happened and what might have been avoided if the British king had been more intelligent than George III or less given to drowsiness and indifference than his minister, Lord North. The British colonists, when they understood that peaceful arguments would not settle the difficulties, took to arms. From being loyal subjects, they turned rebels, who exposed themselves to the punishment of death when they were captured by the German soldiers, whom George hired to do his fighting after the pleasant custom of that day, when Teutonic princes sold whole regiments to the highest bidder.


The First Winter in New England

The war between England and her American colonies lasted seven years. During most of that time, the final success of the rebels seemed very doubtful. A great number of the people, especially in the cities, had remained loyal to their king. They were in favour of a compromise, and would have been willing to sue for peace. But the great figure of Washington stood guard over the cause of the colonists.

Ably assisted by a handful of brave men, he used his steadfast but badly equipped armies to weaken the forces of the king. Time and again when defeat seemed unavoidable, his strategy turned the tide of battle. Often his men were ill-fed. During the winter they lacked shoes and coats and were forced to live in unhealthy dug-outs. But their trust in their great leader was absolute and they stuck it out until the final hour of victory.

But more interesting than the campaigns of Washington or the diplomatic triumphs of Benjamin Franklin who was in Europe getting money from the French government and the Amsterdam bankers, was an event which occurred early in the revolution. The representatives of the different colonies had gathered in Philadelphia to discuss matters of common importance. It was the first year of the Revolution. Most of the big towns of the sea coast were still in the hands of the British. Reinforcements from England were arriving by the ship load. Only men who were deeply convinced of the righteousness of their cause would have found the courage to take the momentous decision of the months of June and July of the year 1776.


George Washington

In June, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a motion to the Continental Congress that "these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The motion was seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts. It was carried on July the second and on July fourth, it was followed by an official Declaration of Independence, which was the work of Thomas Jefferson, a serious and exceedingly capable student of both politics and government and destined to be one of the most famous of our American presidents.

When news of this event reached Europe, and was followed by the final victory of the colonists and the adoption of the famous Constitution of the year 1787 (the first of all written constitutions) it caused great interest. The dynastic system of the highly centralised states which had been developed after the great religious wars of the seventeenth century had reached the height of its power. Everywhere the palace of the king had grown to enormous proportions, while the cities of the royal realm were being surrounded by rapidly growing acres of slums. The inhabitants of those slums were showing signs of restlessness. They were quite helpless. But the higher classes, the nobles and the professional men, they too were beginning to have certain doubts about the economic and political conditions under which they lived. The success of the American colonists showed them that many things were possible which had been held impossible only a short time before.

According to the poet, the shot which opened the battle of Lexington was "heard around the world." That was a bit of an exaggeration. The Chinese and the Japanese and the Russians (not to speak of the Australians, who had just been re-discovered by Captain Cook, whom they killed for his trouble) never heard of it at all. But it carried across the Atlantic Ocean. It landed in the powder house of European discontent and in France it caused an explosion which rocked the entire continent from Petrograd to Madrid and buried the representatives of the old statecraft and the old diplomacy under several tons of democratic bricks.


The Great American Revolution

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