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Chapter 33

LORD NORTH'S BILL FAVORING THE EXPORTATION OF TEAS--SHIPS FREIGHTED WITH TEA TO THE COLONIES--SENT BACK FROM SOME OF THE PORTS--TEA DESTROYED AT BOSTON--PASSAGE OF THE BOSTON PORT BILL--SESSION OF THE HOUSE OF BURGESSES--SPLENDID OPENING--BURST OF INDIGNATION AT THE PORT BILL--HOUSE DISSOLVED--RESOLUTIONS AT THE RALEIGH TAVERN--PROJECT OF A GENERAL CONGRESS--WASHINGTON AND LORD DUNMORE--THE PORT BILL GOES INTO EFFECT--GENERAL GAGE AT BOSTON--LEAGUE AND COVENANT.


The general covenant throughout the colonies against the use of taxed tea, had operated disastrously against the interests of the East India Company, and produced an immense accumulation of the proscribed article in their warehouses. To remedy this, Lord North brought in a bill (1773), by which the company were allowed to export their teas from England to any part whatever, without paying export duty. This, by enabling them to offer their teas at a low price in the colonies would, he supposed, tempt the Americans to purchase large quantities, thus relieving the company, and at the same time benefiting the revenue by the impost duty. Confiding in the wisdom of this policy, the company disgorged their warehouses, freighted several ships with tea, and sent them to various parts of the colonies. This brought matters to a crisis. One sentiment, one determination, pervaded the whole continent. Taxation was to receive its definitive blow. Whoever submitted to it was an enemy to his country. From New York and Philadelphia the ships were sent back, unladen, to London. In Charleston the tea was unloaded, and stored away in cellars and other places, where it perished. At Boston the action was still more decisive. The ships anchored in the harbor. Some small parcels of tea were brought on shore, but the sale of them was prohibited. The captains of the ships, seeing the desperate state of the case, would have made sail back for England, but they could not obtain the consent of the consignees, a clearance at the custom-house, or a passport from the governor to clear the fort. It was evident, the tea was to be forced upon the people of Boston, and the principle of taxation established.

To settle the matter completely, and prove that, on a point of principle, they were not to be trifled with, a number of the inhabitants, disguised as Indians, boarded the ships in the night (18th December), broke open all the chests of tea, and emptied the contents into the sea. This was no rash and intemperate proceeding of a mob, but the well-considered, though resolute act of sober, respectable citizens, men of reflection, but determination. The whole was done calmly, and in perfect order; after which the actors in the scene dispersed without tumult, and returned quietly to their homes.

The general opposition of the colonies to the principle of taxation had given great annoyance to government, but this individual act concentrated all its wrath upon Boston. A bill was forthwith passed in Parliament (commonly called the Boston port bill), by which all lading and unlading of goods, wares, and merchandise, were to cease in that town and harbor, on and after the 4th of June, and the officers of the customs to be transferred to Salem.

Another law, passed soon after, altered the charter of the province, decreeing that all counsellors, judges, and magistrates, should be appointed by the crown, and hold office during the royal pleasure.

This was followed by a third, intended for the suppression of riots; and providing that any person indicted for murder, or other capital offence, committed in aiding the magistracy, might be sent by the governor to some other colony, or to Great Britain, for trial.

Such was the bolt of Parliamentary wrath fulminated against the devoted town of Boston. Before it fell there was a session in May, of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The social position of Lord Dunmore had been strengthened in the province by the arrival of his lady, and a numerous family of sons and daughters. The old Virginia aristocracy had vied with each other in hospitable attentions to the family. A court circle had sprung up. Regulations had been drawn up by a herald, and published officially, determining the rank and precedence of civil and military officers, and their wives. The aristocracy of the Ancient Dominion was furbishing up its former splendor. Carriages and four rolled into the streets of Williamsburg, with horses handsomely caparisoned, bringing the wealthy planters and their families to the seat of government.

Washington arrived in Williamsburg on the 16th, and dined with the governor on the day of his arrival, having a distinguished position in the court circle, and being still on terms of intimacy with his lordship. The House of Burgesses was opened in form, and one of its first measures was an address of congratulation to the governor, on the arrival of his lady. It was followed up by an agreement among the members to give her ladyship a splendid ball, on the 27th of the month.

All things were going on smoothly and smilingly, when a letter, received through the corresponding committee, brought intelligence of the vindictive measure of Parliament, by which the port of Boston was to be closed on the approaching 1st of June.

The letter was read in the House of Burgesses, and produced a general burst of indignation. All other business was thrown aside, and this became the sole subject of discussion. A protest against this and other recent acts of Parliament was entered upon the journal of the House, and a resolution was adopted, on the 24th of May, setting apart the 1st of June as a day of fasting, prayer, and humiliation; in which the divine interposition was to be implored, to avert the heavy calamity threatening destruction to their rights, and all the evils of civil war; and to give the people one heart and one mind in firmly opposing every injury to American liberties.

On the following morning, while the Burgesses were engaged in animated debate, they were summoned to attend Lord Dunmore in the council chamber, where he made them the following laconic speech: "Mr. Speaker, and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses: I have in my hand a paper, published by order of your House, conceived in such terms, as reflect highly upon his majesty, and the Parliament of Great Britain, which makes it necessary for me to dissolve you, and you are dissolved accordingly."

As on a former occasion, the Assembly, though dissolved, was not dispersed. The members adjourned to the long room of the old Raleigh tavern, and passed resolutions, denouncing the Boston port bill as a most dangerous attempt to destroy the constitutional liberty and rights of all North America; recommending their countrymen to desist from the use, not merely of tea, but of all kinds of East Indian commodities: pronouncing an attack on one of the colonies, to enforce arbitrary taxes, an attack on all; and ordering the committee of correspondence to communicate with the other corresponding committees, on the expediency of appointing deputies from the several colonies of British America, to meet annually in GENERAL CONGRESS, at such place as might be deemed expedient, to deliberate on such measures as the united interests of the colonies might require.

This was the first recommendation of a General Congress by any public assembly, though it had been previously proposed in town meetings at New York and Boston. A resolution to the same effect was passed in the Assembly of Massachusetts before it was aware of the proceedings of the Virginia Legislature. The measure recommended met with prompt and general concurrence throughout the colonies, and the fifth day of September next ensuing was fixed upon for the meeting of the first Congress, which was to be held at Philadelphia.

Notwithstanding Lord Dunmore's abrupt dissolution of the House of Burgesses, the members still continued on courteous terms with him, and the ball which they had decreed early in the session in honor of Lady Dunmore, was celebrated on the 27th with unwavering gallantry.

As to Washington, widely as he differed from Lord Dunmore on important points of policy, his intimacy with him remained uninterrupted. By memorandums in his diary it appears that he dined and passed the evening at his lordship's on the 25th, the very day of the meeting at the Raleigh tavern. That he rode out with him to his farm, and breakfasted there with him on the 26th, and on the evening of the 27th attended the ball given to her ladyship. Such was the well-bred decorum that seemed to quiet the turbulence of popular excitement, without checking the full and firm expression of popular opinion.

On the 29th, two days after the ball, letters arrived from Boston giving the proceedings of a town meeting, recommending that a general league should be formed throughout the colonies suspending all trade with Great Britain. But twenty-five members of the late House of Burgesses, including Washington, were at that time remaining in Williamsburg. They held a meeting on the following day, at which Peyton Randolph presided as moderator. After some discussion it was determined to issue a printed circular, bearing their signatures, and calling a meeting of all the members of the late House of Burgesses, on the 1st of August, to take into consideration this measure of a general league. The circular recommended them, also, to collect, in the mean time, the sense of their respective counties.

Washington was still at Williamsburg on the 1st of June, the day when the port bill was to be enforced at Boston. It was ushered in by the tolling of bells, and observed by all true patriots as a day of fasting and humiliation. Washington notes in his diary that he fasted rigidly, and attended the services appointed in the church. Still his friendly intercourse with the Dunmore family was continued during the remainder of his sojourn in Williamsburg, where he was detained by business until the 20th, when he set out on his return to Mount Vernon.

In the mean time the Boston port bill had been carried into effect. On the 1st of June the harbor of Boston was closed at noon, and all business ceased. The two other parliamentary acts altering the charter of Massachusetts were to be enforced. No public meetings, excepting the annual town meetings in March and May, were to be held without permission of the governor.

General Thomas Gage had recently been appointed to the military command of Massachusetts, and the carrying out of these offensive acts. He was the same officer who, as lieutenant-colonel, had led the advance guard on the field of Braddock's defeat. Fortune had since gone well with him. Rising in the service, he had been governor of Montreal, and had succeeded Amherst in the command of the British forces on this continent. He was linked to the country also by domestic ties, having married into one of the most respectable families of New Jersey. In the various situations in which he had hitherto been placed he had won esteem, and rendered himself popular. Not much was expected from him in his present post by those who knew him well. William Smith, the historian, speaking of him to Adams, "Gage," said he, "was a good-natured, peaceable, sociable man while here (in New York), but altogether unfit for a governor of Massachusetts. He will lose all the character he has acquired as a man, a gentleman, and a general, and dwindle down into a mere scribbling governor--a mere Bernard or Hutchinson."

With all Gage's experience in America, he had formed a most erroneous opinion of the character of the people. "The Americans," said he to the king, "will be lions only as long as the English are lambs;" and he engaged, with five regiments, to keep Boston quiet!

The manner in which his attempts to enforce the recent acts of Parliament were resented, showed how egregiously he was in error. At the suggestion of the Assembly, a paper was circulated through the province by the committee of correspondence, entitled "a solemn league and covenant," the subscribers to which bound themselves to break off all intercourse with Great Britain from the 1st of August, until the colony should be restored to the enjoyment of its chartered rights; and to renounce all dealings with those who should refuse to enter into this compact.

The very title of league and covenant had an ominous sound, and startled General Gage. He issued a proclamation, denouncing it as illegal and traitorous. Furthermore, he encamped a force of infantry and artillery on Boston Common, as if prepared to enact the lion. An alarm spread through the adjacent country. "Boston is to be blockaded! Boston is to be reduced to obedience by force or famine!" The spirit of the yeomanry was aroused. They sent in word to the inhabitants promising to come to their aid if necessary; and urging them to stand fast to the faith. Affairs were coming to a crisis. It was predicted that the new acts of Parliament would bring on "a most important and decisive trial."


Washington Irving