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

Ch. 13: The Passing of the Rubicon


Issue was now joined between America and England. They faced each other
--the great, historic figure, and the stripling of a century--and knew
that the limit had been reached. The next move might be irrevocable.

"You must submit to the tax."--"I will not submit."

Englishmen, with some few eminent exceptions, believed that England was
in the right. If the word of Parliament was not law, what was? If the law
it made could be disregarded, what could stand? A colony was a child:
children must be kept in subjection. Colonies were planted for the benefit
and extension of commerce; if they were permitted to conduct their
commerce without regard to the mother country, their reason for existence
was gone. The protection of a colony was expensive: why should not the
protected one bear a part at least of the expense? If the mother country
allowed the colony to fix the amount it should pay, what guarantee could
she have that it would pay anything? Could mighty England assume toward
little America the attitude of a tradesman, humbly standing at the door
with a bill, asking whether it would be convenient to pay something on
account? If there were to be condescension, it should not come from
America. She clamored for justice; England would be just: but she must
first be obeyed. England might forgive the debt, but must insist upon
acknowledgment that the debt was due, and upon the right to collect it at
pleasure. As for the plea that taxation should postulate representation,
it would not bear examination. It might be true that Parliament was a
theoretically representative body; but, in fact, it was a gathering of the
men in England best qualified to govern, who were rather selected than
elected. Many of the commons held their seats by favor of the nobility;
the suffrage, as practiced, was a recognition that the people might have a
voice in the government of the country; but that voice was not to be a
deciding one. It was exercised only by a part of the people, and even
then, largely under advice or influence. Many important towns and
districts had no representatives. Americans were as well off as these
Englishmen; on what ground could they demand to be better off? They must
trust to the will of England to secure their advantage in securing her
own; to her wisdom, equity, and benevolence. Why should they complain of
the Navigation Acts? What more did they want than a market?--and that,
England afforded. Why should they feel aggrieved at the restriction on
their manufactures? England could manufacture articles better than they
could, and it was necessary to the well-being of her manufacturing classes
that they should be free from American competition. Did they object to the
measures England took to prevent smuggling and illicit dealing?--They had
only themselves to blame: was it not notorious that evasions and open
violations of the law had for years existed? Did they object to royal
governors?--What better expedient was there to keep the two countries in
touch with each other--to maintain that "representation" in England which
they craved?--whereas, were they to choose governors from among
themselves, they would soon drift away from sympathy with and
understanding of England. And why all this uproar about the stamp tax?
What easier, more equitable way could be devised to get the financial
tribute required without pressing hard on any one? If Americans would
object to that, they would object to anything; and they must either be
abandoned entirely to their own devices--which of course was out of the
question--or they must be compelled, if they would not do it voluntarily,
to accede to it. Compulsion meant force; force meant a resident English
army; and that army must be supported and accommodated by those for whose
regulation it was established.

Such was the attitude of men like Lord Chief-justice Mansfield, who spoke
on the subject in the House of Lords. He refused to recognize any
essential distinction between external and internal taxes; though, as Pitt
pointed out, the former was designed for the regulation of trade, and
whatever profit arose from it was incidental; while the latter was imposed
to raise revenue for the home government, and was, in effect, arbitrarily
appropriating the property of subjects without their consent asked or
obtained. Pitt disposed of the argument of virtual representation by
denying it point-blank; Americans were not in the same position with those
Englishmen who were not directly represented in Parliament; because the
latter were inhabitants of the kingdom, and could be, and were indirectly
represented in a hundred ways. But while opposing the right of Parliament
to rob America, he asserted in the strongest terms its right to govern
her. "The will of Parliament, properly signified, must forever keep the
colonies dependent upon the sovereign kingdom of Great Britain. If any
idea of renouncing allegiance has existed, it was but a momentary frenzy.
In a good cause, the force of this country can crush America to atoms. But
on this ground of the stamp act, I am one who will lift up my hands
against it. I rejoice that America has resisted. In such a cause, your
success would be hazardous. America, if she fell, would embrace the pillar
of the state, and pull down the constitution along with her."

The Lords passed the bill against a minority of five. In the Commons,
where Burke ardently spoke in favor of the tax, the majority was even
greater. "It was decided that irresponsible taxation was not a tyranny but
a vested right; that Parliament held legislative power, not as a
representative body but in absolute trust: that it was not and had never
been responsible to the people." This was the new Toryism, which was to
create a new opposition. The debate aroused a discussion of popular rights
in England itself, and the press began to advocate genuine representation.
Meanwhile, it looked ill for the colonies. But a law which is only
engrossed on parchment, and is not also founded in natural truth and
justice, has no binding power, even though it be supported by the army and
navy of England. Humanity was on the side of America, and made her small
numbers and physical weakness as strong as all that is good and right in
the world. All appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is
nothing real but right. Had America fought only for herself, she would
have failed.

The instances of mob violence in the colonies at this period were not to
be classed with lawless outbreaks in countries which have a government of
their own. The colonies were subjected to a government which they did not
elect or approve; and the management of their affairs consequently
reverted inevitably and rightly to the body of the people themselves. They
had no officers and no organization, but they knew what they wanted; and
having in view the slowness of inter-communication, and the differences in
the ideas and customs of the several colonies, the unanimity of their
action in the present juncture is surprising. When their congress met in
New York on the 7th of October, 1765, their debate was less as to
principles than as to the manner of their declaration and enforcement. The
watchword, "Join or die," had been started in September, and was taken up
all over the country. Union was strength, and on union all were resolved.
The mob had put a stop to the execution of the law; it now rested with the
congress to settle in what way and on what grounds the repeal of the law
should be demanded. Against the people and the congress were arrayed the
royal governors and other officials, and the troops. The former deluged
the home government with exhortations to be firm; the latter waited the
word to act, not without misgivings; for here were two million
inhabitants, a third or fourth part of whom might bear arms.

Should the congress base its liberties on charter rights, or on natural
justice and universal reason?--On the latter, said Gadsden of South
Carolina; and the rest acceded. "I wish," Gadsden had said, "that the
charters may not ensnare us at last by drawing different colonies to act
differently in this great cause. There ought to be no New England man, no
New Yorker, known on the continent, but all Americans." It was a great
truth to be enunciated at that time. There were statesmen less wise in
this country a hundred years later. The Duke of Choiseul, premier of
France, and one of the acutest ministers that ever lived, foresaw the
independence of America, and even so early began to take measures having
in view the attitude of France in that contingency.--In the congress, Otis
advocated repeal, not of the stamp act alone, but of all acts laying a
duty on trade; and it was finally agreed to mention the latter as
grievances. Trial by jury was stipulated for instead of admiralty
jurisdiction; taxes should be imposed only by colonial legislatures,
representation in Parliament being impracticable. One or two of the
delegates feared to sign the document embodying these views and demands;
whereupon Dyer of Connecticut observed that since disunion in these
matters was fatal, the remaining delegates ought to sign them; and this
was done, only Ruggles and Ogden, of Massachusetts and of New Jersey
respectively, declining. By this act the colonies became "a bundle of
sticks which could neither be bent nor broken." At the same time, Samuel
Adams addressed a letter to Governor Bernard of Massachusetts. "To suppose
a right in Parliament to tax subjects without their consent includes the
idea of a despotic power," said he. "The stamp act cancels the very
conditions upon which our ancestors, with toil and blood and at their sole
expense, settled this country. It tends to destroy that mutual confidence
and affection, as well as that equality, which ought to subsist among all
his majesty's subjects: and what is worst of all evils, if his majesty's
subjects are not to be governed according to the known and stated rules of
the constitution, their minds may in time become disaffected."

On the 1st of November, the day when the act was to go into effect,
Colden, governor of New York, "resolved to have the stamps distributed."
The army and navy professed themselves ready to support him. But the
population rose up in a body against it, with Isaac Sears as leader. "If
you fire on us, we'll hang you," they told Colden. Torchlight processions,
with the governor's effigy burned in a bonfire composed of his own
carriages, right under the guns of the fort in which he had taken refuge,
followed. Colden capitulated, and even gave up the stamps into the custody
of the people. Similar scenes were enacted in the other colonies. The
principle of "union and liberty" became daily more deeply rooted. If
England refused to repeal the act, "we will repeal it ourselves," declared
the colonists. John Adams said that the colonies were already discharged
from allegiance, because they were "out of the king's protection"
--protection and allegiance being reciprocal. The Sons of Liberty became a
recognized organization. The press printed an admonition to George III.,
brief but pithy: GREAT SIR, RETREAT, OR YOU ARE RUINED. Otis maintained
that the king, by mismanaging colonial affairs, had practically abdicated,
so far as they were concerned. Israel Putnam, being of an active turn,
rode through Connecticut to count noses, and reported that he could raise
a force of ten thousand men. Meanwhile the routine business of the country
went on with but slight modification, though according to the stamp act
nothing that was done without a stamp was good in law. But it appeared,
upon experiment, that if the law was in the people it could be dispensed
with on paper. And wherever you went, you found a population smilingly
clad in homespun.

Would England repeal the act? The House of Lords voted in favor of
enforcing it, February, 1766. In the Commons, General Howard declared that
if it were passed, rather than imbrue his hands in the blood of his
countrymen, he would sheathe his sword in his own body. The House divided
two to one against the repeal. The king said he was willing to modify, but
not to repeal it. On the 13th Franklin was summoned to the bar. He showed
why the colonies could not and would not pay the tax, and that, unless it
were repealed, their affection for England, and the commerce depending
thereon, would be lost. Would America pay a modified stamp duty?--he was
asked; and bravely replied, "No: never: they will never submit to it." But
could not a military force carry the act into effect?--"They cannot force
a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them," was the answer. He
added that the colonists thought it hard that a body in which they were
not represented should make a merit of giving what was not its own but
theirs. He affirmed a difference between internal and external taxation,
because the former could not be evaded, whereas articles of consumption,
on which the duty formed part of the price, could be dispensed with at
will. "But what if necessaries of life should be taxed?" asked Grenville,
thinking he had Franklin on the hip. But the American sage crushingly
replied, "I do not know a single article imported into the colonies but
what they can either do without it, or make it for themselves."

In the final debates, Pitt, called on to say whether, should total repeal
be granted, in compliance with American menaces of resistance, the
consequence would not be the overthrow of British authority in America,
gave his voice for repeal as a right. Grenville, on the other hand,
thought that America should learn that "prayers are not to be brought to
Caesar through riot and sedition." The vote for repeal, and against
modified enforcement, was two hundred and seventy-five to one hundred and
sixty-seven. The dissenting members of the Lords signed a protest,
because, should they assent to the repeal merely because it had passed the
lower house, "we in effect vote ourselves useless." This suggests the "Je
ne vois pas la nécessité" of the French epigrammatist. The Lords took
themselves too seriously. Meanwhile, Bow bells were rung, Pitt was
cheered, and flags flew; the news was sent to America in fast packets, and
the rejoicing in the colonies was great. Prisoners for debt were set free,
there were illuminations and bonfires, and honor was paid to Pitt, Camden,
Barre, and to the king, who was eating his heart with vexation fit having
been compelled to assent to what he called "the fatal repeal."

The British government, while repealing the law, had yet affirmed its
sovereign authority over the colonies. The colonies, on the other hand,
were inclined to confirm their present advantage and take a step still
further in advance. They would not be taxed without representation; why
should they submit to any legislation whatever without representation?
What right had England to enforce the Navigation Acts? The more the
general situation was contemplated and discussed, the plainer to all did
it appear that union was indispensable. The governors of most of the
colonies were directing a treacherous attack against the charters; but
bold students of the drift of things were foreseeing a time when charters
might be superseded by independence. Patriots everywhere were keenly on
the watch for any symptoms of a design on Parliament's part to raise a
revenue from America. The presence and quartering of English soldiers in
the colonies was regarded as not only a burden, but an insinuation. It was
moreover a constant occasion of disturbance; for there was no love lost
between the people and the soldiers. But, that there was no disposition on
the people's part to pick quarrels or to borrow trouble, was evident from
their voluntarily passing resolutions for the reimbursement of persons,
like Hutchinson, who had suffered loss from the riots. If England would
treat them like reasonable creatures, they were more than willing to meet
her half way. It is probable that but for the royal governors, England and
America might have arrived at an amicable understanding; yet, in the
ultimate interests of both countries, it was better that the evil
counselors of the day should prevail.

Townshend, an able, eloquent, but entirely untrustworthy man, devoted to
affairs, and of insatiable though unprincipled ambition, proposed in
Parliament to formulate a plan to derive a permanent revenue from America.
This Parliament has been described by historians, and is convicted by its
record, as the most corrupt, profligate and unscrupulous in English
annals. William Pitt, who had accepted the title of Lord Chatham, and
entered the House of Lords, was nominally the leader, but his health and
failing faculties left him no real power. Shelburne, Secretary of State,
was moderate and liberal, but no match for Townshend's brilliancy. The
latter's proposal was to suspend the legislature of New York, as a
punishment for the insubordination of the colony and a warning to others;
to support a resident army, and to pay salaries to governors, judges and
other crown officers, out of the revenue from America; to establish
commissioners of the customs in the country; to legalize general writs of
assistance; to permit no native-born American to hold office under the
crown; and to make the revenue derivable from specified taxes on imports.
The tax on tea was among those particularly mentioned. This was the scheme
which was to be substituted for the repealed stamp tax; the colonies had
objected to that as internal; this was external, and, though Townshend had
refused to admit any difference between the two, he now employed it as a
means of bringing the colonies to terms. The measure was received with
acclaim by Parliament, though it was contrary to the real sentiment of the
English nation. The king was charmed with it. Townshend died soon after it
was passed, at the age of forty-one; and the king called on Lord North to
take his place; a man of infirm will, but able, well-informed and
clear-minded, with a settled predisposition against the cause of the
people. He was as good an enemy of America as Grenville himself, though a
less ill-natured one.

But, viewing this period broadly, it is manifest that the finest brains
and best hearts, both in England and America, were friends to the cause of
liberty. America, certainly, at this critical epoch in her career,
produced a remarkable band of statesmen and patriots, perfectly fitted to
the parts they had to play. The two Adamses, Gadsden, Franklin, Otis,
Patrick Henry, Livingstone of New York, John Hancock, the wealthy and
splendid Boston merchant, Hawley of Connecticut, and Washington,
meditating upon the liberties of his country in the retirement of Mount
Vernon, and unconsciously preparing himself to lead her armies through the
Revolution--there has never been a company of better men active at one
time in any country. Just at this juncture, too, there arose in Delaware a
prophet by the name of John Dickinson, who wrote under the title of The
Farmer, and who formulated an argument against the new revenue law which
caught the attention of all the colonies. England, he pointed out,
prohibits American manufactures; she now lays duties on importations, for
the purpose of revenue only. Americans were taking steps to establish a
league to abstain from purchasing any articles brought from England,
intending thus to defeat the operation of the act without breaking the
law. This might answer in the case of luxuries, or of things which could
be made at home. But what if England were to meet this move by laying a
duty on some necessary of life, and then forbid Americans to manufacture
it at home? Obviously, they would then be constrained to buy it, paying
the duty, and thus surrendering their freedom. From this point of view it
would not be enough to evade the tax; it must be repealed, or resisted;
and resistance meant war.

Unless, however, some action of an official character were taken, binding
the colonies to co-operation, it was evident that the law would gradually
go into effect. The Massachusetts assembly, early in 1768, sent to its
London agent a letter, composed by Samuel Adams, embodying their formal
protest to the articles of the revenue act and its corollaries. At the
same time, they sent copies of the statement to the other colonial
assemblies in the country, accompanied with the suggestion that all unite
in discontinuing the use of British imported manufactures and other
articles. The crown officers, for their part, renewed their appeal to
England for naval and military forces to compel obedience and secure order.

The king and the government inclined to think that force was the remedy
in this case. It was in vain that the more magnanimous called attention to
the fact that an army and navy could not compel a man to buy a black
broadcloth coat, if he liked a homespun one better. Inflammatory reports
from America represented it as being practically in a state of
insurrection. A Boston newspaper, which had published a severe arraignment
of Governor Bernard, was tried for libel, and the jury, though informed by
Hutchinson that if they did not convict of high treason they "might depend
on being damned," brought in a verdict of acquittal. The Adams letter was
laid before the English ministry and pronounced to be "of a most dangerous
and factious tendency," and an injunction was dispatched to the several
colonial governors to bid their assemblies to treat it with contempt, and
if they declined, to dissolve them. Gage was ordered to enforce
tranquillity. But the colonial resistance had thus far been passive only.
The assemblies now declared that they had exclusive right to tax the
people; Virginia not only agreed to the Adams letter, but indited one even
more uncompromising; Pennsylvania and New York fell into line. A Boston
committee presented an address to Bernard asking him to mediate between
the people and England; he promised to do so, but at the same time sent
out secret requests to have regiments sent to Boston. Divining his
duplicity, John Adams, at the next town meeting, formulated the people's
resolve to vindicate their rights "at the utmost hazard of their lives and
fortunes," declaring that whosoever should solicit the importation of
troops was "an enemy to this town and province." The determination not to
rescind the principles stated in the Samuel Adams letter of January was
unanimous. Lord Mansfield thereupon declared that the Americans must be
reduced to entire obedience before their alleged grievances could be
considered. Camden confessed that he did not know what to do; the law must
be executed: but how? "If any province is to be chastised, it should be
Boston." Finally, two regiments and a squadron were ordered to Boston from
Halifax. Samuel Adams felt that the time was now at hand either for
independence or annihilation, and he affirmed publicly that the colonists
would be justified in "destroying every British soldier whose foot should
touch the shore." In the country round Boston, thirty thousand men were
ready to fight. A meeting was called in Faneuil Hall, and it resolved that
"the inhabitants of the Town of Boston will at the utmost peril of their
lives and fortunes maintain and defend their rights, liberties, privileges
and immunities."--"And," said Otis, pointing to four hundred muskets which
had been collected, "there are your arms; when an attempt is made against
your liberties, they will be delivered." Bernard, who was pale with alarm,
had to announce that the regiments were coming, and would be quartered,
one in Castle William, the other on the town. The council replied that
there was room enough in the Castle for both, and that, according to the
law, any officer attempting to use private houses would be cashiered. In
the midst of the dispute, the regiments arrived. The convention had, from
the first, law on their side; and in order to preserve this advantage were
determined to offer only a passive resistance to the revenue law, and to
abstain from violence until it was offered to them. No charge of high
treason would stand against any one. The anchoring of the squadron off
Castle William, with guns trained on the State House, had no effect. On
the first of October, in compliance with an order from Gage, and in the
absence of Bernard, who had fled to the country in a panic, the regiments
were landed at Long Wharf. With military music playing, fixed bayonets and
loaded guns, they marched to the Common, which was whitened by their
tents. An artillery train was also brought ashore. An attempt to browbeat
the people into providing quarters failed, and the officers dared not
seize them. At length they were obliged to rent rooms, and some of the men
were lodged in the State House, as the weather became too cold for outdoor
encampment; not a few of them deserted, and escaped into the country. But
Boston was under military rule, though there was nothing for the soldiers
to do. Sentinels were posted about the town, and citizens were challenged
as they walked their streets. On the Sabbath Day, drums and bugles
disturbed the worshipers in the churches. Officers of the custom house and
army officers met at the British coffee house in King Street. On the south
side of the State House was a court of guard, defended by two brass
cannon, and a large number of soldiers were kept there; in front of the
custom house, further down the street, a sentinel paced his beat. Boston
was indignant, but restricted itself to ceasing all purchases of
importations, trusting thus to wear out their oppressors. Some of the
younger men, however, were becoming restive under the implied or overt
insults of the officers and soldiery, and there were occasional quarrels
which might develop into something more serious. It was at this time that
the French inhabitants of New Orleans rose and drove out the Spanish
governor, Ulloa; and Du Chatelet remarked that it was "a good example for
the English colonies." But Boston needed no example; she afforded one in
herself. All the other colonies had indorsed her attitude; but the
animosity of England was concentrated against her. The whole kingdom was
embattled against the one small town; two more regiments had been sent
there, but no rebellion could be found. Was it the purpose to provoke one?
Soldiers, from time to time, were arrested for misdemeanors, and brought
before the civil magistrates, but were pardoned, when convicted, by the
higher courts. Samuel Adams and others, on the other hand, continued to be
threatened with prosecution for treason, but did not recede from their
position. Bernard, Hutchinson, Oliver, and the attorney-general acted as
secret informers and purveyors of evidence against the patriots. All
petitions from the colonies addressed to the English government were
refused so much as a hearing. And yet there was a strong division of
opinion in Parliament as to the course England was taking; and there were
many who wished that the question of taxation had never been raised. In
1769, it was conceded that the duties on most specified articles should be
abolished; nevertheless, Hillsborough, Secretary for the Colonies, said
that he would "grant nothing to Americans except what they might ask with
a halter round their necks"; and the great Samuel Johnson did not scruple
to add that "they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for
anything we allow them short of hanging." Against such intemperate
vaporings are to be set the noble resolutions of the Virginia assembly, of
which Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Washington were members, extending its
sympathy and support to Massachusetts, warning King George against
carrying Americans beyond seas for trial, and advocating colonial union.
This was the more admirable, because England had treated Virginia with
especial tenderness and consideration. Similar resolutions in other
colonies followed, and a regular correspondence between the assemblies was
agreed to. The folly of English oppression had already created a united
America.

At length the English government, weakened by the opposition, and by the
badness of their cause, agreed to abolish all duties except that on tea,
which was now bought cheaper in Boston than in London; and to withdraw two
at least of the regiments. But Boston was contending for a principle, not
for a few hundred pounds, and refused to accept the tea as a compromise.
Much more conducive to good feeling was the recall of Governor Bernard,
just as he was making himself comfortable for a long tenure of office
under the protection of British soldiers. This man's character is as
contemptible as any in colonial history. It was not merely or chiefly that
he was an abject miser and a foe to liberty. He was a convicted liar, a
spy, and a double-dealer; and his cowardice made him despised even by the
British. He scrupled not to swindle the British government, by conniving
at smuggling, while assuring them of his zeal in putting it down. While
smiling in men's faces, he was covertly laying plots for their
destruction. His last thought, after receiving the crushing news of his
recall, was to try to beguile the assembly into voting him his salary for
the coming year. The attempt failed, and he retreated in disgrace, with
joy-bells ringing in his ears. His only consolation was that he left
Hutchinson in his place, as ill-disposed toward liberty and honor as
himself, and his superior in intelligence. His recall had been due to the
desire of London merchants, who believed that his presence was destructive
of their commercial interests. The ministers for whom he had incurred so
much ignominy would do nothing for him; for the dishonorable are always
ready to sacrifice their instruments.

Hutchinson immediately began the system of secret conspiracy against the
lives and liberties of the chief citizens of Boston which marked his
administration; flattering them in their presence, while writing letters
of false accusations to the English ministry, which he begged them never
to disclose. But his cowardice was equal to Bernard's; so that when the
people detected an informer, and tarred and feathered him, he dared not
order the English regiments to interfere, and no one else was qualified to
give the word. But the hatred between the soldiers and the citizens was
inflamed. A British officer told his men, if they were "touched" by a
citizen, to "run him through the body." Many young men went armed with
oaken cudgels.

Two sons of Hutchinson, worthy of their sire, were guilty of felony in
breaking a lock to get at a consignment of tea, which had been locked up
by the committee of merchants. The merchants called Hutchinson to account;
he promised to deposit the price of what tea had been sold and to return
the rest. Dalrymple, the commander, issued twelve rounds of ammunition,
with which the soldiers ostentatiously paraded the streets. But inasmuch
as no one but the governor was authorized to bid them fire, and the
citizens knew Hutchinson's timidity too well to imagine that he would do
such a thing, this only led to taunts and revilings; and such epithets as
"lobster-backs" and "damned rebels" were freely bandied between the
military and the young men. The officers made common cause with their men,
and the custom house people fomented the bitterness. A vague plan seems to
have been formed to provoke the citizens into attacking the military, who
were then to fire, and plead self-defense.

On Friday, March 2, 1770, some soldiers came to blows with men employed
on a rope-walk. The affair was talked over in the barracks, and nothing
was done to restrain the desire of the soldiers for revenge, or to keep
them off the streets at night. On the 5th, squads of them were forging
about, armed with bludgeons, bayonets and cutlasses, boasting of their
"valor," challenging the people they met, and even striking them. Their
officers openly encouraged them. Their regiments were the Fourteenth and
the Twenty-ninth, notorious for their dissoluteness and disorderliness.
The night was cold, and a few inches of snow fell. Other groups of
soldiers came out, with their flintlocks in their hands: a boy was struck
on the head; several times the guns were leveled, and the threat was made
to fire. One youth was knocked down with a cutlass. Knots of angry young
men began to range hither and thither with staves:--"Where are they?
--Cowards!--Fire if you dare!--Lobster-scoundrels!" The soldiers, on the
other hand, were giving way to fury, striking persons in the doors of
their houses, calling out that they would kill everybody, and shouting
"Fire--fire!" as if it were a watchword. But as yet no irrevocable act had
been done.

Soon after nine o'clock, however, the alarm bell at the top of King
Street was rung hurriedly. Many persons thought it was for fire; and as
Boston had been nearly destroyed by a great fire ten years before, a large
crowd rapidly poured out into the streets. But the frosty air carried no
scent of smoke, and as the bell soon stopped its clangor, a number
returned to their homes; but the younger and more hot-headed smelled
mischief, if not smoke, and drew from various directions toward the
barracks. A party of them came down King Street toward the custom house.
They were halted by the gruff "Who goes there?" of the sentry, and his
bayonet at their breasts.

There were words of defiance: a sudden scuffle: and out of the barrack
gate came pouring the guard, with guns in their hands. Almost in the same
moment a great multitude of citizens came surging in from all sides, and
thronged in front of the custom house, where the fight seemed to be going
on. Those behind pushed against those in front, and all became wedged in a
mass, trying to see what was going forward, swaying this way and that,
uttering broken shouts, threatening, warning, asking, replying; and hot at
heart with that fierce craving to measure strength against strength which
is the characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon when his blood is up. The
soldiers were wholly in the wrong: they had no right to be where they
were; they had no right to wantonly annoy and provoke citizens in their
own town; their presence in the colony, for the purpose of constraining a
peaceful population, was a crime; but consciousness of this fact did not
lessen their animosity. As for the Boston people, they felt, as they faced
the emissaries of their oppressors on that wintry night, the accumulated
exasperation of generations of injustice, and perhaps a stern thrill of
joy that now, at last, the final, unforgivable outrage was to be
perpetrated.

The great majority of citizens had not even sticks in their hands; none
of them carried guns or cutlasses. Some snowballs were thrown at the
soldiers, who faced the crowd with savage faces, and leveled bayonets.
Then there was a fresh crowding and uproar, for Captain Preston and a
squad of eight men had issued from the guard house and were forcing their
way to their comrades with the point of the cold steel. Their red coats
and black shakos and the glint of the moonlight on their weapons made them
conspicuous in the struggling mass, and the sinister intent which was
manifest in their look and bearing sent a strange thrill through the
multitude.

A tall man in a black cloak, who five years later was a general of
artillery in the American army, laid his hand on Preston's shoulder
forcibly. "For God's sake, sir, get back to your barracks; if you fire,
you must die for it!" exclaimed he, in a deep voice. Preston stared at
him, hardly seeming to see him, and quivering with agitation. "Stand aside
--I know what I'm about," he replied huskily. As the soldiers reached the
sentinel's post and faced about in a semicircle, the crowd fell back, and
there were voices calling "Home--home!" The soldiers began to load,
pouring the powder and ball into the muzzles of their guns, and ramming
the charge home sharply with their ramrods. At this, a dozen men, with
cudgels, advanced upon the soldiers, cheering, and passed in front of
them, striking the barrels of their muskets with their sticks. "Cowardly
rascals!--drop your guns, and we're ready for you," said some between
their gritted teeth. "Fire, lobsters!--you daren't fire!" cried others.
"Down with 'em! drive the cowards to their barracks!" shouted some. "Are
your men loaded?" demanded a citizen, stepping up to Preston; and when the
latter nodded--"Will they fire upon the inhabitants?"--"Not without my
orders," the captain seemed to say. "Come on, you rascals--fire if you
dare--you daren't fire!" yelled the fiercer spirits, now beside themselves
with passion; and one struck a soldier's piece. He leveled it and fired,
at the same moment that Preston waved his sword and gave the word. A man
fell at the shot: the people gave back; the other soldiers fired
deliberately and viciously, not in a volley, but one after another, taking
aim. Some of them started forward to use the bayonet. It is said that a
figure was seen to come out on the balcony of the custom house, his face
concealed by a veil hanging down over it, and fire into the retreating
throng. The open space in front of the soldiers was overhung with smoke,
which slowly dissolved away, and revealed eleven New Englanders stretched
along the trodden snow of their native town. Some tried to rise; others
lay still. Blood flowed from their wounds, smoking in the icy air, and
tinging the white snow red. The deed had been done.

A sullen muttering of horror, swelling by degrees into a roar of rage,
burst from hundreds of throats as that spectacle was seen; and in a
moment, as it seemed, the town drums had beat to arms, the bells were
clanging, and all Boston was pressing tumultuously into King Street. The
Twenty-ninth regiment was hurriedly marshaled under arms; it appeared at
first as if the populace, thousands strong, and not without weapons, would
rush upon them and tear them in pieces. But by this time the saner and
stronger men had reached the scene, and set themselves resolutely to
withhold the people. "You shall have justice," they told them, "but let it
be by due course of law." And there was Hutchinson, promising everything
in his dismay, hurrying between the soldiers and the crowd, his feet
making blood-stained marks in the snow as he went. To no man more than to
him was due the guilt of that night's work.

Prompt and clean measures were taken: a town-meeting was held, and the
immediate withdrawal of all troops from Boston was required. The wretched
Hutchinson tried to temporize: he denied that he had power to move the
soldiers; then he consented to send one regiment away, letting the other
remain; the people would accept no compromise; Dalrymple said that he
would do as the governor directed. Samuel Adams and Hutchinson finally
faced each other in Faneuil Hall. "If you have power to remove one
regiment, you have power to remove both," said Adams, in a low but
distinct voice, pointing his finger at the other. "Here are three thousand
people: they are becoming very impatient: the country is in general
motion: night is approaching: an immediate answer is expected: it is at
your peril if you refuse." And describing the scene afterward, Adams said,
"at the appearance of the determined citizens, peremptorily demanding
redress of grievances, I saw his knees tremble and his face grow pale: and
I enjoyed the sight!" Truly, it was a subject for a great artist to
immortalize. The troops must go: and they went, choking with humiliation.

The news of this affair in England shocked the more reasonable people,
and led to criticism of the ministers; but Lord North, supported by the
king, would not consent to remove the tax on tea. He made it "a test of
authority," and a punishment for "American insolence." It was an expensive
punishment for England; the cost of keeping an army in the colonies, and
other incidental expenses, footed up about half a million dollars, against
a revenue from duties of four hundred dollars only. Americans got their
tea from the Dutch by smuggling and by corrupt connivance of the English
customs officers; and the loss of the English East India Company was
estimated at two and a half million dollars at least. There was great
uneasiness at this absurd showing; and Burke declared that "the idea of a
military establishment in America is all wrong." Lord Chatham, reading the
letters from Boston patriots, and resolutions of assemblies, remarked,
"These worthy New Englanders ever feel as Old Englanders ought to feel."
The colonists, however, zealous as they were for their liberties, were
ready to meet half way any effort toward conciliation on England's part.
The agreement to accept no British imports was but slackly kept, in spite
of protests from South Carolina and elsewhere. The people were wearied of
strife and would have welcomed any honorable means of peace. In this
juncture, two things only kept alive the spirit of independence; neither
would have sufficed apart from the other. The first was the pig-headedness
of the English government, with the king at the head of it, and men like
Thurlow, an irreconcilable foe to America, assisting; together with the
conspiracy against the colonies of the royal governors and officials, who
sent home false and exaggerated reports, all aiming to show that martial
law was the only thing that could insure order--or, in other words, secure
them their salaries and perquisites. These persons, by continually
irritating the raw place, prevented the colonists from forgetting their
injuries. In South Carolina, Governor Tryon, a bloody-minded Irishman,
went further; he took the field against the "Regulators"--a body of
citizens who had organized to counteract the lawlessness of the internal
conduct of the colony--and after a skirmish took a number of them
prisoners and hanged them out of hand; most of the rest, to save their
lives, took to the woods and, journeying westward, came upon the lovely
vales of Tennessee, which was thus settled. Daniel Boone had already made
himself at home in Kentucky. In Virginia, where the people were disposed
to loyalty, the agitation to do away with slavery, both on practical and
moral grounds, was harshly opposed by England, and the other colonies,
sympathizing with her action, were snubbed along with her. In short, the
pompous and hide-bound Hillsborough followed everywhere the policy of
alienation, under the impression that he was maintaining English dignity.

But all this would not have sufficed to keep the colonies on their course
toward independence, had it not been for the ceaseless vigilance and
foresight of Samuel Adams in Boston, Benjamin Franklin in London, and the
small but eminent band of patriots whom they worked with. Adams,
profoundly meditating on the signs of the times and the qualities of human
nature, perceived that England would continue to oppress, and that the
longer the colonies abstained from open resistance, the more difficult
would the inevitable revolt become. He did not hesitate, therefore, to
speak in ever plainer and bolder terms as the peril augmented. Reason was
on his side, and his command of logic and of terse and telling language
enabled him to set his cause in the most effective light. By drawing a
distinction between the king and his ministers, he opened the way to
arraign the latter for their "wickedness" in sending an "impudent mandate"
to one assembly to rescind the lawful resolution of another. The too eager
Hutchinson fell into the trap, and pointed out that it was the king,
rather than the ministry, who must be charged with impudence. But this was
not to disprove the impudence; it was simply to make the king instead of
the ministry obnoxious to the charge, and to enlighten the people as to
who their real enemy was. "The king," said Adams, "has placed us in a
position where we must either pay no tax at all, or pay it in accordance
with his good pleasure"--against the charter and the constitution. "The
liberties of our country," he went on, "are worth defending at all
hazards. Every step has been taken but one: and the last appeal requires
prudence, fortitude and unanimity. America must herself, under God, work
out her own salvation." He set resolutely to work to put into execution
his plan of a committee of correspondence, to elicit and stimulate the
patriotic views of the various colonies. "The people must instruct their
representatives to send a remonstrance to the king, and assure him, unless
their liberties are immediately restored whole and entire, they will form
an independent commonwealth, and offer a free trade to all nations."--"It
is more than time," Adams wrote to Warren, "to be rid of both tyrants and
tyranny." He prepared a statement of rights, among which was the right to
change allegiance in case oppression became intolerable, and to rescue and
preserve their liberties sword in hand. A detailed statement of grievances
was also drawn up, to be submitted to the king; its specifications were no
doubt familiar to Jefferson, when he wrote the "Declaration" four years
later. This document was circulated throughout the colony, and was
indorsed with unexpected enthusiasm by scores of towns; many of them, with
rustic bluntness, telling their thoughts in language even stronger than
that of their model. The fishermen of Marblehead (of whom history says not
much, but whatever is said, is memorable) affirmed that they were
"incensed at the unconstitutional, unrighteous proceedings of the
ministers, detested the name of Hillsborough, and were ready to unite for
the recovery of their violated rights." In Plymouth, "ninety to one were
for fighting Great Britain." The village of Pembroke, inhabited by
descendants of the Pilgrims, said that the oppressions which existed must
and would issue in the total dissolution of the union between the mother
country and the colonies. "Death is more eligible than slavery," said
Marlborough; and Lenox refused to "crouch, Issachar-like between the two
burdens of poverty and slavery." There was no doubt about the sentiment of
the country; and the hands of Adams and his colleagues were immensely
strengthened by the revelation.

In the spring of 1773 the next step was taken by Virginia. Young Dabney
Carr rose in the assembly and moved a system of correspondence between all
the colonies similar to that which had been established in Massachusetts.
In other words, the intercommunication of councils in all the colonies was
organized, and when these councils should meet, the Continental Congress
would exist. The response was earnest and cordial from Georgia to Maine.
Things were rapidly shaping themselves for the end. If anything more were
needed to consolidate England's offspring against her, it was not wanting.
Hutchinson, the veteran plotter and self-seeker, who never did a generous
or magnanimous act, who stabbed men in the back, and who valued money more
than country or honor, was exposed to the contempt of all men both in
America and England, and was forced to resign his governorship in disgrace
and to fly to England, where he died a few years later. Franklin was the
immediate means of his downfall. A member of Parliament had remarked to
him in conversation that the alleged grievances of which the colonists
complained had not been inflicted by any English initiative, but were the
result of solicitation from the most respectable of the colonists
themselves, who had affirmed these measures to be essential to the welfare
of the country. Franklin lifted his eyebrows; upon which his interlocutor
produced a number of Hutchinson's secret letters to Hillsborough. They
proved a conspiracy, on the part of Hutchinson, Oliver and others, to
crush American liberty and introduce military rule: they were treasonable
in the worst sense. Franklin remarked, after reading them, that his
resentment against England's arbitrary conduct was much abated; since it
was now evident that the oppression had been suggested and urged by
Americans whom England must have supposed represented the better class of
the colonists. He sent the letters to Boston; and "as to the writers," he
wrote, "when I find them bartering away the liberties of their native
country for posts, negotiating for salaries and pensions extorted from the
people, and, conscious of the odium these might be attended with, calling
for troops to protect and secure them in the enjoyment of them;--when I
see them exciting jealousies in the crown, and provoking it to wrath
against so great a part of its most faithful subjects; creating enmities
between the different countries of which the empire consists; occasioning
a great expense to the old country for suppressing or preventing imaginary
rebellions in the new, and to the new country for the payment of needless
gratifications to useless officers and enemies--I cannot but doubt their
sincerity even in the political principles they profess, and deem them
mere time-servers, seeking their own private emoluments through any
quantity of public mischief; betrayers of the interest not of their native
country only, but of the government they pretend to serve, and of the
whole English empire."

The letters were read in the assembly in secret session. But in the
meanwhile Hutchinson had been led into another mistake. He had denied, in
his speech to the legislature, that any line could be drawn between the
supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the
colonies. Either yield, then (he said), or convince me of error. The
terrible Adams asked nothing better. Accepting Hutchinson's alternative,
he answered, "If there be no such line between Parliament's supreme
authority and our total independence, then are we either vassals of
Parliament or independent. But since the parties to the compact cannot
have intended that one of them should be vassals, it follows that our
independence was intended. If, as you contend, two independent
legislatures cannot coexist in one and the same state, then have our
charters made us distinct states from England."--Thus had the governor
unwittingly pointed his opponent's spear, and, instead of driving him to
attack Parliament, been placed in the position of implicitly questioning
its authority himself.

But this was nothing compared with the revelation of his treacherous
letters. His first instinct, of course, was falsehood. "I never wrote any
letter tending to subvert the constitution," he asseverated. Being
confronted with his own sign-manual, "Their design," he cried, "is not to
subvert but to protect." But he knew he was ruined, and sent word to his
correspondents in England to burn the letters they held. The letters were
published, and distributed all over the colonies. Not a man or woman in
the country but knew Hutchinson for the dastardly traitor he was. A
petition to remove him and Oliver was sent to the king, but he hastened to
submit his resignation, with a whining entreaty that he be not "left
destitute, to be insulted and triumphed over." And bringing false charges
against Franklin, he begged to receive the latter's office of deputy
postmaster-general.

Before this matter could be settled, affairs in Boston had come to a
crisis. The East India Company had large consignments of tea ready for
shipment to the principal towns along the American coast. The latter
warned them of loss, but Lord North said "The king means to try this
question with America." It was seen that the connection between England
and her colonies could be continued only on a basis of equal liberties,
and "Resist all shipments of tea!" was the word. New York and Philadelphia
settled the matter by commanding all consignees to resign, which they did;
but this was not to be the solution in Boston. When, on November 28th, the
"Dartmouth," Captain Rotch, arrived with one hundred and fourteen cases of
tea, the representatives of the people ordered him not to enter till
Tuesday, the 30th. Four weeks before a meeting at Liberty Tree had been
summoned, and the consignees directed to attend and resign. The meeting
was held, but Clarke and the other consignees had refused to recognize its
authority. They now temporized, and were granted a day to consider;
meanwhile a guard was kept on the ship. The next day the consignees
proposed to suspend action until they could write to the exporters for
advice; but this was seen to be a subterfuge and was indignantly refused.
Rotch agreed to take the tea back; but the custom house refused him a
clearance. For if the ship remained in port, with her cargo undischarged,
twenty days, the authorities could seize and land it by law. If then the
people were to prevail, they must do so within that time. It seemed as if
they must be defeated; for if the consignees would not resign, and the
ship could not get a clearance, nothing but a direct violation of the law
could prevent the tea from being landed. To make assurance surer, two
frigates kept guard at the mouth of the harbor, and the guns of the Castle
were loaded. The governor and the officers were already chuckling over
their anticipated victory.

Adams and the committee of correspondence met, in secret session, and
what they determined never has transpired and can be surmised by inference
only. On Thursday, December 16th, a great meeting was called in the Old
South Church. Thousands of people from surrounding towns were in
attendance; the willingness and eagerness of them all to resist at the
cost of their lives and fortunes had been abundantly expressed. Had there
been an armed force with which they could have fought, the way would have
been easy; but there was nothing palpable here: only that intangible Law,
which they had never yet broken, and their uniform loyalty to which, in
their disputes with England, had given them strength and advantage. Must
they defy it now, in the cause of liberty, and engage in a scuffle with
the king's officers, in which the latter would be technically at least in
the right? No doubt they might prevail: but would not the moral defeat
counterbalance the gain?

"Throw it overboard!" Young had exclaimed, at a meeting two weeks before.
The suggestion had seemed to pass unheeded; but this was a crisis when
every proposition must be considered. Josiah Quincy and other speakers set
clearly before the multitude the dilemma in which they stood. Rotch had
been dispatched to Milton, where the governor had taken refuge, to ask for
a pass out of the harbor, this being the last resort after the refusal of
clearance papers. The short winter day drew to a close; darkness fell, and
the church, filled with that great throng of resolute New Englanders, was
lighted only by a few wax candles, whose dim flare flickered on the stern
and anxious countenances that packed the pews and crowded the aisles, and
upon Adams, Young, Quincy, Hancock, and the other leaders, grouped round
the pulpit. They were in the house of God: would He provide help for His
people? A few hours more, and the cargo in yonder ship would lapse into
the hands of the British admiral. The meeting had given its final,
unanimous vote that the cargo never should be landed; but what measures
were to be taken to prevent it, was known to but few.

It was near six when a commotion at the door resolved itself into the
ushering-in of Rotch, panting from his ten-mile ride in the frosty air; he
made his way up the aisle, and delivered his report: the governor had
refused the pass. No other reply had been looked for; but at the news a
silence fell upon the grim assembly, which felt that it was now face to
face with the sinister power of the king. Then of a sudden, loud shouts
came from the lower part of the church, near the open door; and even as
Adams rose to his feet and throwing up his arm, called out, "This meeting
can do nothing more to save the country"--there was heard from without the
shrill, reduplicating yell of the Indian war whoop; and dusky figures were
seen to pass, their faces grisly with streaks of black and red, feathers
tossing in their hair, and blankets gathered round their shoulders; each,
as he passed through the dim light-ray, swung his hatchet, uttered his
war-cry, and was swallowed up in darkness again. Out poured the multitude
from the church, startled, excited, mystified, obscurely feeling that some
decisive act was about to be done: and here are Adams and Hancock among
them, cheering on that strange procession which passed down toward the
wharfs swiftly, two by two, and seeming to increase in numbers as they
passed. After them streamed the people, murmuring and questioning, through
the winter gloom of the narrow street, until the high-shouldered houses
fell away, and there were the wide reaches of the harbor, with the ships
lying at Griffin's Wharf amid the cakes of ice that swung up and down with
the movement of the tide. As they came there, a strange silence fell upon
all, amid which the Indians--were they Indians?--swung themselves lightly
aboard the vessels, and went swiftly and silently to work. Up from the
hold came case after case of tea, which were seized and broken open by the
hatchets, the sound of their breaking being clearly audible in the tense
stillness; and the black contents were showered into the waters. Minute
after minute, hour after hour went by, and still the wild figures worked,
and still the multitude looked on, forgetful of the cold, their hearts
beating higher and fuller with exultation as they saw the hated cargo
disappear. It was all but ten of the clock before the last hatchet-stroke
that smote the king's fetters from Massachusetts had been delivered; and
then the feathered and painted figures leaped ashore, drawing their
blankets round their faces, and melted silently into the crowd, and were
lost, never again to reappear. Who were they?--Never was secret better
kept; after six score years we know as little as did King George's
officers on that night. They seemed to have sprung into existence solely
to do that one bold deed, and then to vanish like a dream. But the deed
was no dream; nor its sequel. No blood was shed on the night of the 16th
of December, 1773: but Massachusetts, and through her the other colonies,
then and there gave notice to King George that he had passed the limits
which they had appointed for his tyranny; and the next argument must be
held at the musket's mouth.


Julian Hawthorne