W HILE these things were happening in the north the British had been forced to march away from Boston.
At first Washington could do little but keep his army before the town, for he had no siege guns with which to bombard it. Nor had he any desire to destroy the town." Burn it," said some, "if that is the only way of driving out the British." Even John Hancock to whom a great part of Boston belonged advised this. "Burn Boston," he said, "and make John Hancock a beggar, if the public good requires it." But Washington did not attempt to burn it.
After the taking of Ticonderoga and Crown Point however he got guns. For many of the cannon taken at these forts were put on sledges and dragged over the snow to Boston. It was Colonel Henry Knox who carried out this feat. He was a stout young man with a lovely smile and jolly fat laugh, who greatly enjoyed a joke. He had been a bookseller before the war turned him into a soldier. And now as he felled trees, and made sledges, and encouraged his men over the long rough way he hugely enjoyed the joke of bringing British guns to bombard the British out of Boston.
When Washington got these guns he quietly one night took possession of Dorchester Heights, which commanded both Boston town and harbour. So quick had been his action that it seemed to General Howe, the British commander, as if the fortifications on Dorchester Heights had been the work of magic. But magic or no magic they were, he saw, a real and formidable danger. With siege guns frowning above both town and harbour it was no longer possible to hold Boston. So hastily embarking his troops General Howe sailed away to Halifax in Nova Scotia, and Boston was left in peace for the rest of the war.
By this time there had been fighting in the south as well as in New England. For King George had taken it into his stubborn head that it would be a good plan to attack the southern colonies in spite of the fact that the war in the north was already more that he could manage. Sir Peter Parker, therefore, was sent out from England with a fleet of about fifty ships, and Lord Cornwallis with two thousand men, to attack Charleston in South Carolina. Howe was also ordered to send some soldiers southward, and although he could ill spare them from Boston he sent General Sir Henry Clinton with a small detachment.
According to arrangement the troops from Boston and England were to attack together with the loyalists of the south and the friendly Indians. But everything was bungled. The fleet, the land force, the loyalists and the Indians all seemed to be pulling different ways, and attacked at different times. The assault on Charleston was a miserable failure, and to the delight of the colonists the whole British force sailed away to join Howe in the north, and for more than two years there was no fighting in the southern colonies.
The commander of the colonists in Charleston was General Charles Lee. He was not really an American at all, but an Englishman, a soldier of fortune and adventure. He had wandered about the world, fighting in many lands, and had been in Braddock's army when it was defeated. He never became an American at heart like some other Englishmen who fought on their side. He cared little for them, he cared as little for the cause in which they were fighting, merely seeing in it a chance of making himself famous, and he had a very poor opinion of their fighting qualities. He was a tall, spare man with a hollow-cheeked, ugly face, and a disagreeable manner. He had a great opinion of himself, and boasted to such purpose that the Americans believed him to be a military genius. And in this first tussle with the British in the south he did so well that their belief in him seemed justified. He seemed to the people a hero and a genius rolled in one. In all the war after he did nothing to uphold the fame he gained at Charleston.
South as well as north had now had a taste of war. South as well as north had seen the British sail away, foiled. Every royal governor had by this time been driven from his post, and for six months and more the colonies had practically ruled themselves. What then, said many, was the use of talking any more about allegiance to the mother country? It was time, they said, to announce to all the world that the colonies of America were a free and independent nation.
There was much grave discussion in Congress and throughout the country. Some patriots, even those who longed most ardently to see America a free country, thought that it was too soon to make the claim. Among those was Patrick Henry who had already ranged himself so passionately on the side of freedom. "The struggle is only beginning," he said, "and we are not yet united. Wait till we are united. Wait until we have won our freedom, then let us proclaim it."
But by degrees all those who hesitated were won over, and on the 4th of July, 1776, the colonies declared themselves to be free.
Many meetings were held in what has since been called Independence Hall at Philadelphia. Much discussion there was, but at length the solemn declaration was drawn up. "We, the Representatives of the United States of America," so it ran, "in General Congress assembled, appealing to the supreme judge of the world for the rectitude of our intention, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States." These are but a few words of the long, gravely worded declaration which was drawn up by Thomas Jefferson, and which is familiar to every American to this day.
John Hancock was President of Congress at this time, and he was the first to sign the declaration. Large, and clear, and all across the page the signature runs, showing, as it were, the calm mind and firm judgment which guided the hand that wrote. It was not until a few days later that it was signed by the other members.
It was on the 4th of July that Congress agreed to the declaration, and so that day has ever since been kept as a national holiday. It was the birthday of the United States as a Nation. But it was not until a few days later that the Declaration was read to the people of Philadelphia from Independence Hall. It was greeted with cheers and shouts of delight. The old bell upon the tower pealed joyfully, and swift riders mounted and rode to bear the news in all directions. The next day it was read at the head of each brigade of the army, and was greeted with loud cheers.
This Declaration of Independence was a bold deed, it might almost seem a rash one. For the British army was still in the land, and the Americans by no means always victorious. But the very fact of the boldness of the deed made them feel that they must be brave and steadfast, and that having claimed freedom they must win it. The Declaration drew the colonies together as nothing else had done, and even those who had thought the deed too rash came to see that it had been wise.