Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 27


Tidings of peace gladdened the colonies in the spring of 1763. The definitive treaty between England and France had been signed at Fontainbleau. Now, it was trusted, there would be an end to those horrid ravages that had desolated the interior of the country. "The desert and the silent place would rejoice, and the wilderness would blossom like the rose."

The month of May proved the fallacy of such hopes. In that month the famous insurrection of the Indian tribes broke out, which, from the name of the chief who was its prime mover and master spirit, is commonly called Pontiac's war. The Delawares and Shawnees, and other of those emigrant tribes of the Ohio, among whom Washington had mingled, were foremost in this conspiracy. Some of the chiefs who had been his allies, had now taken up the hatchet against the English. The plot was deep laid, and conducted with. Indian craft and secrecy. At a concerted time an attack was made upon all the posts from Detroit to Fort Pitt (late Fort Duquesne). Several of the small stockaded forts, the places of refuge of woodland neighborhoods, were surprised and sacked with remorseless butchery. The frontiers of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, were laid waste; traders in the wilderness were plundered and slain; hamlets and farmhouses were wrapped in flames, and their inhabitants massacred. Shingis, with his Delaware warriors, blockaded Fort Pitt, which, for some time, was in imminent danger. Detroit, also, came near falling into the hands of the savages. It needed all the influence of Sir William Johnson, that potentate in savage life, to keep the Six Nations from joining this formidable conspiracy; had they done so, the triumph of the tomahawk and scalping knife would have been complete; as it was, a considerable time elapsed before the frontier was restored to tolerable tranquillity.

Fortunately, Washington's retirement from the army prevented his being entangled in this savage war, which raged throughout the regions he had repeatedly visited, or rather his active spirit had been diverted into a more peaceful channel, for he was at this time occupied in the enterprise just noticed, for draining the great Dismal Swamp.

Public events were now taking a tendency which, without any political aspiration or forethought of his own, was destined gradually to bear him away from his quiet home and individual pursuits, and launch him upon a grander and wider sphere of action than any in which he had hitherto been engaged.

The prediction of the Count de Vergennes was in the process of fulfilment. The recent war of Great Britain for dominion in America, though crowned with success, had engendered a progeny of discontents in her colonies. Washington was among the first to perceive its bitter fruits. British merchants had complained loudly of losses sustained by the depreciation of the colonial paper, issued during the late war, in times of emergency, and had addressed a memorial on the subject to the Board of Trade. Scarce was peace concluded, when an order from the board declared that no paper, issued by colonial Assemblies, should thenceforward be a legal tender in the payment of debts. Washington deprecated this "stir of the merchants" as peculiarly ill-timed; and expressed an apprehension that the orders in question "would get the whole country in flames."

We do not profess, in this personal memoir, to enter into a wide scope of general history, but shall content ourselves with a glance at the circumstances and events which gradually kindled the conflagration thus apprehended by the anxious mind of Washington.

Whatever might be the natural affection of the colonies for the mother country,--and there are abundant evidences to prove that it was deep-rooted and strong,--it had never been properly reciprocated. They yearned to be considered as children; they were treated by her as changelings. Burke testifies that her policy toward them from the beginning had been purely commercial, and her commercial policy wholly restrictive. "It was the system of a monopoly."

Her navigation laws had shut their ports against foreign vessels; obliged them to export their productions only to countries belonging to the British crown; to import European goods solely from England, and in English ships; and had subjected the trade between the colonies to duties. All manufactures, too, in the colonies that might interfere with those of the mother country had been either totally prohibited, or subjected to intolerable restraints.

The acts of Parliament, imposing these prohibitions and restrictions, had at various times produced sore discontent and opposition on the part of the colonies, especially among those of New England. The interests of these last were chiefly commercial, and among them the republican spirit predominated. They had sprung into existence during that part of the reign of James I. when disputes ran high about kingly prerogative and popular privilege.

The Pilgrims, as they styled themselves, who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, had been incensed while in England by what they stigmatized as the oppressions of the monarchy, and the established church. They had sought the wilds of America for the indulgence of freedom of opinion, and had brought with them the spirit of independence and self-government. Those who followed them in the reign of Charles I. were imbued with the same spirit, and gave a lasting character to the people of New England.

Other colonies, having been formed under other circumstances, might be inclined toward a monarchical government, and disposed to acquiesce in its exactions; but the republican spirit was ever alive in New England, watching over "natural and chartered rights," and prompt to defend them against any infringement. Its example and instigation had gradually an effect on the other colonies; a general impatience was evinced from time to time of parliamentary interference in colonial affairs, and a disposition in the various provincial Legislatures to think and act for themselves in matters of civil and religious, as well as commercial polity.

There was nothing, however, to which the jealous sensibilities of the colonies were more alive than to any attempt of the mother country to draw a revenue from them by taxation. From the earliest period of their existence, they had maintained the principle that they could only be taxed by a Legislature in which they were represented. Sir Robert Walpole, when at the head of the British government, was aware of their jealous sensibility on this point, and cautious of provoking it. When American taxation was suggested, "it must be a bolder man than himself," he replied, "and one less friendly to commerce, who should venture on such an expedient. For his part, he would encourage the trade of the colonies to the utmost; one half of the profits would be sure to come into the royal exchequer through the increased demand for British manufactures. This" said he, sagaciously, "is taxing them more agreeably to their own constitution and laws."

Subsequent ministers adopted a widely different policy. During the progress of the French war, various projects were discussed in England with regard to the colonies, which were to be carried into effect on the return of peace. The open avowal of some of these plans, and vague rumors of others, more than ever irritated the jealous feelings of the colonists, and put the dragon spirit of New England on the alert.

In 1760, there was an attempt in Boston to collect duties on foreign sugar and molasses imported into the colonies. Writs of assistance were applied for by the custom-house officers, authorizing them to break open ships, stores, and private dwellings, in quest of articles that had paid no duty; and to call the assistance of others in the discharge of their odious task. The merchants opposed the execution of the writ on constitutional grounds. The question was argued in court, where James Otis spoke so eloquently in vindication of American rights, that all his hearers went away ready to take arms against writs of assistance. "Then and there," says John Adams, who was present, "was the first scene of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there American Independence was born."

Another ministerial measure was to instruct the provincial governors to commission judges. Not as theretofore "during good behavior," but "during the king's pleasure." New York was the first to resent this blow at the independence of the judiciary. The lawyers appealed to the public through the press against an act which subjected the halls of justice to the prerogative. Their appeals were felt beyond the bounds of the province, and awakened a general spirit of resistance.

Thus matters stood at the conclusion of the war. One of the first measures of ministers, on the return of peace, was to enjoin on all naval officers stationed on the coasts of the American colonies the performance, under oath, of the duties of custom-house officers, for the suppression of smuggling. This fell ruinously upon a clandestine trade which had long been connived at between the English and Spanish colonies, profitable to both, but especially to the former, and beneficial to the mother country, opening a market to her manufactures.

"Men-of-war," says Burke, "were for the first time armed with the regular commissions of custom-house officers, invested the coasts, and gave the collection of revenue the air of hostile contribution. ... They fell so indiscriminately on all sorts of contraband, or supposed contraband, that some of the most valuable branches of trade were driven violently from our ports, which caused an universal consternation throughout the colonies."

[Footnote: Burke on the state of the nation.]

As a measure of retaliation, the colonists resolved not to purchase British fabrics, but to clothe themselves as much as possible in home manufactures. The demand for British goods in Boston alone was diminished upwards of 10,000 sterling in the course of a year.

In 1764, George Grenville, now at the head of government, ventured upon the policy from which Walpole had so wisely abstained. Early in March the eventful question was debated, "whether they had a right to tax America." It was decided in the affirmative. Next followed a resolution, declaring it proper to charge certain stamp duties in the colonies and plantations, but no immediate step was taken to carry it into effect. Mr. Grenville, however, gave notice to the American agents in London, that he should introduce such a measure on the ensuing session of Parliament. In the mean time Parliament perpetuated certain duties on sugar and molasses--heretofore subjects of complaint and opposition--now reduced and modified so as to discourage smuggling, and thereby to render them more productive. Duties, also, were imposed on other articles of foreign produce or manufacture imported into the colonies. To reconcile the latter to these impositions, it was stated that the revenue thus raised was to be appropriated to their protection and security; in other words, to the support of a standing army, intended to be quartered upon them.

We have here briefly stated but a part of what Burke terms an "infinite variety of paper chains," extending through no less than twenty-nine acts of Parliament, from 1660 to 1764, by which the colonies had been held in thraldom.

The New Englanders were the first to take the field against the project of taxation. They denounced it as a violation of their rights as freemen; of their chartered rights, by which they were to tax themselves for their support and defence; of their rights as British subjects, who ought not to be taxed but by themselves or their representatives. They sent petitions and remonstrances on the subject to the king, the lords and the commons, in which they were seconded by New York and Virginia. Franklin appeared in London at the head of agents from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and South Carolina, to deprecate, in person, measures so fraught with mischief. The most eloquent arguments were used by British orators and statesmen to dissuade Grenville from enforcing them. He was warned of the sturdy independence of the colonists, and the spirit of resistance he might provoke. All was in vain. Grenville, "great in daring and little in views," says Horace Walpole, "was charmed to have an untrodden field before him of calculation and experiment." In March, 1765, the act was passed, according to which all instruments in writing were to be executed on stamped paper, to be purchased from the agents of the British government. What was more: all offences against the act could be tried in any royal, marine or admiralty court throughout the colonies, however distant from the place where the offence had been committed; thus interfering with that most inestimable right, a trial by jury.

It was an ominous sign that the first burst of opposition to this act should take place in Virginia. That colony had hitherto been slow to accord with the republican spirit of New England. Founded at an earlier period of the reign of James I., before kingly prerogative and ecclesiastical supremacy had been made matters of doubt and fierce dispute, it had grown up in loyal attachment to king, church, and constitution; was aristocratical in its tastes and habits, and had been remarked above all the other colonies for its sympathies with the mother country. Moreover, it had not so many pecuniary interests involved in these questions as had the people of New England, being an agricultural rather than a commercial province; but the Virginians are of a quick and generous spirit, readily aroused on all points of honorable pride, and they resented the stamp act as an outrage on their rights.

Washington occupied his seat in the House of Burgesses, when, on the 29th of May, the stamp act became a subject of discussion. We have seen no previous opinions of his on the subject. His correspondence hitherto had not turned on political or speculative themes; being engrossed by either military or agricultural matters, and evincing little anticipation of the vortex of public duties into which he was about to be drawn. All his previous conduct and writings show a loyal devotion to the crown, with a patriotic attachment to his country. It is probable that on the present occasion that latent patriotism received its first electric shock.

Among the Burgesses sat Patrick Henry, a young lawyer who had recently distinguished himself by pleading against the exercise of the royal prerogative in church matters, and who was now for the first time a member of the House. Rising in his place, he introduced his celebrated resolutions, declaring that the General Assembly of Virginia had the exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants, and that whoever maintained the contrary should be deemed an enemy to the colony.

The speaker, Mr. Robinson, objected to the resolutions, as inflammatory. Henry vindicated them, as justified by the nature of the case; went into an able and constitutional discussion of colonial rights, and an eloquent exposition of the manner in which they had been assailed; wound up by one of those daring flights of declamation for which he was remarkable, and startled the House by a warning flash from history: "Caesar had his Brutus; Charles his Cromwell, and George the Third--('Treason! treason!' resounded from the neighborhood of the Chair)--may profit by their examples," added Henry. "Sir, if this be treason (bowing to the speaker), make the most of it!"

The resolutions were modified, to accommodate them to the scruples of the speaker and some of the members, but their spirit was retained. The Lieutenant-governor (Fauquier), startled by this patriotic outbreak, dissolved the Assembly, and issued writs for a new election; but the clarion had sounded. "The resolves of the Assembly of Virginia," says a correspondent of the ministry, "gave the signal for a general outcry over the continent. The movers and supporters of them were applauded as the protectors and assertors of American liberty."

[Footnote: Letter to Secretary Conway, New York, Sept. 23.--Parliamentary Register.]

Washington Irving