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 This was the scheme which was to be substituted for the repealed stamp tax; the colonies had objected to that as internal; this was external, and, though Townshend had refused to admit any difference between the two, he now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.
THE SHOT HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
Franklin was sixty-seven years of age at this time; no man was then alive more worthy than he of honor and veneration. For twenty years he had guarded the interests of America in England; and while he had been unswerving in his wise solicitude for the colonies, he had ever been heedful to avoid all needless offense to England. The best men there were the men who held Franklin in highest esteem as a politician, a philosopher, and a man; and in France he was regarded as a superior being. No other man could have filled his place as agent of the colonies: no other had his sagacity, his experience, his wisdom, his address. He was not of that class of diplomatists who surround every subject they handle with a tissue of illusion or falsehood; Franklin was always honest and undisguised in his transactions; so that what was long afterward said of a lesser man was true of him: "Whatever record spring to light, he never will be shamed." No service rendered by him to his country was more useful than the exposure of Hutchinson; none was more incumbent on him, as protector of colonial affairs. But in the rage which possessed the English ministry upon learning how Massachusetts had parried the attack made upon her liberties, some immediate victim was indispensable; and as Franklin was there present, they fell upon him. A fluent and foul-mouthed young barrister, Alexander Wedderburn by name, had by corrupt influence secured the post of solicitor-general; and he made use of the occasion of Franklin's submitting the petition for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver, to make a personal attack upon him, which was half falsehood and half ribaldry. He pretended that the Hutchinson letters had been dishonorably acquired, and that their publication was an outrage on private ownership. Incidentally, he painted Hutchinson as a true patriot and savior of his country; and called Franklin an incendiary, a traitor, a hypocrite, who should find a fitting termination of his career on the gallows. This billingsgate was heaped upon him before an unusually full meeting of the lords of the privy council, the highest court of appeal; and they laughed and cheered, while the venerable envoy of the colonies stood "conspicuously erect," facing them with a steady countenance. Such, and of such temper, were the aristocratic rulers of England and of America (if she would be ruled) at this epoch.
America's friends in England were still stanch; but the ministry found no difficulty in giving events a color which irritated the English people at large against the colonies, and against Boston in particular; and they had little trouble in securing the passage of the Boston Port Bill, the effect of which was to close the largest and busiest port in the colonies against all commerce whatsoever. Fuller said that it could not be put in execution but by a military force; to which Lord North answered, "I shall not hesitate to enforce a due obedience to the laws of this country." Another added, "You will never meet with proper obedience until you have destroyed that nest of locusts." Lord George Germain, speaking of revoking the Massachusetts charter, said, "Whoever wishes to preserve such charters, I wish him no worse than to govern such subjects." The act passed both houses without a division, and Gage was appointed military governor, in place of Hutchinson, who was recalled; and four regiments were quartered in Boston. The wharfs were empty and deserted; the streets were dull, the shops were closed; but the British Coffee House in King Street was gay once more; and King George in London, felt that he was having his revenge, though he was paying a round price for it. But Boston, having shown that she could do without tea, and without commerce, was now about to show that she could also do without George.
Nobody but Americans could govern America. The people were too intelligent, too active, too various-minded, too full of native quality and genius to be ruled from abroad. If they were to fall under foreign subjection, they would become a dead weight in the world, instead of a source of life; as Adams said, every increase in population would be but an increase of slaves. And that they preferred death to slavery was every day becoming increasingly manifest. They felt that the future was in them, and that they must have space and freedom to bring it forth; and it is one of the paradoxes of history that England, to whom they stood in blood-relationship, from whom they derived the instinct for liberty, should have attempted to reduce them to the most absolute bondage anywhere known, except in the colonies of Spain. She was actuated partly by the pride of authority, centered in George III., and from him percolating into his creatures in the ministry and Parliament; and partly by the horde of office-seekers and holders whose aim was sheer pecuniary gain at any cost of honor and principle. The mercantile class had borne their share in oppression at first; but when it became evident that tyranny applied to America would kill her productiveness, the merchants were no longer on the side of the tyrants. It was then too late to change the policy of the country, however; George would have his way to the bitter end; the blind lust to thrash the colonies into abject submission had the upper hand in England; reason could not get a hearing; and such criticisms as the opposition could offer served only to make still more rigid and medieval the determination of the king.
It was the policy of the English government to regard Boston as the head-center of revolt, and to concentrate all severities against her. It was thought that in this way she could be isolated from the other colonies, who would say to themselves that her troubles were none of their affair, and that so long as they were treated with decency they would not antagonize all-powerful England. Arguing from the average selfishness of human nature, this policy did not seem unwise; but the fact was that in this case human nature manifested an exceptional generosity and enlightenment. Although the colonies, being on the coast, must depend largely for their prosperity on commerce, and commerce is notoriously self-seeking, nevertheless all the American settlements without exception made the cause of Boston their own, sent her supplies to tide over her evil days, and passed resolutions looking to union and common action against oppression. South Carolina had every selfish ground for siding with England; her internal affairs were in a prosperous condition, and her traffic with England was profitable, and not likely to be interfered with; yet none of the colonies was more outspoken and thoroughgoing than she in denouncing England's action and befriending Boston. The great commonwealth of Virginia was not less altruistic in her conduct, and did more than any of her sister provinces to enforce the doctrine of union and independence. New York, a colony in which aristocracy held a dominant place, owing to the tenure of large estates by the patroons, and which necessarily was a commercial center, yet spoke with no uncertain voice, in spite of the fact that there were there two parties, representing the lower and the upper social class, whose differences were marked, and later led to the formation of two political parties throughout the colonies. In Pennsylvania, the combination of non-fighting Quakers and careful traders deadened energy in the cause, and the preachings of Dickinson, the venerable "Farmer," were interpreted as favoring a policy of conciliation; but this hesitation was only temporary. The new-made city of Baltimore was conspicuous in patriotism; and the lesser colonies, and many out-of-the-way hamlets and villages, were magnificent in their devotion and liberality. The demand for a congress was general, and Boston was made to feel that her sacrifices were understood and appreciated. She had but to pay for the tea which had been thrown overboard, and her port would have been reopened and her business restored; but she staked her existence upon a principle and did not weaken. There were, in all parts of the colonies, a strong minority of loyalists, as they called themselves, traitors, as they were termed by extremists on the other side, or tories, as they came to be known later on, who did and said what they could to induce submission to England, with all which that implied. But the practical assistance they were able to give to England was never considerable, and, on the other hand, they sharpened the senses of the patriots and kept them from slackening their efforts or modifying their views.
Gage, a weak and irresolute man, as well as a stupid one, was making a great bluster in Boston. His powers were despotic. Soldiers and frigates were his in abundance; he talked about arresting the patriots for treason, to be tried in England; and Parliament had passed an act relieving him and his men from all responsibility for killings or other outrages done upon the colonists. He transferred the legislature from Boston to Salem; and urged in season and out of season the doctrine that resistance to England was hopeless. Upon the whole, his threats were more terrible than his deeds, though these were bad enough. Meanwhile Hutchinson in England had been encouraging and at the same time misleading the king, by assurances that the colonies would not unite, and that Boston must succumb. At the same time, Washington was declaring that nothing was to be expected from petitioning, and that he was ready to raise a thousand men and subsist them at his own expense, and march at their head for the relief of Boston; Thomson Mason was saying that he did not wish to survive the liberties of his country a single moment; Prescott of New Hampshire was affirming that "a glorious death in defense of our liberties is better than a short and infamous life"; Israel Putnam of Connecticut announced himself ready to treat the army and navy of England as enemies; and thousands of citizens in Massachusetts were compelling royal councilors to resign their places, and answering those who threatened them with the charge of treason and death with—"No consequences are so dreadful to a free people as that of being made slaves." Jay's suggestion to form a union under the auspices of the king was disapproved: "We must stand undisguised on one side or the other." Gage's orders were ignored; judges appointed by royal decree were forced to retire; and "if British troops should march to Worcester, they would be opposed by at least twenty thousand men from Hampshire County and Connecticut." Gage, finding himself confronted by a population, could think of no remedy but more troops. He wrote to England that "the people are numerous, waked up to a fury, and not a Boston rabble, but the freeholders of the county. A check would be fatal, and the first stroke will decide a great deal. We should therefore be strong before anything decisive is urged." He had, on the 1st of September, 1774, captured two hundred and fifty half-barrels of provincial powder, stored at Quarry Hill, near Medford. Forty thousand militia, from various parts of the country, took up arms and prepared to march on Boston; and though word was sent to them that the time had not yet come, their rising was an object lesson to those who had been asserting that the colonies would submit. Gage had ten regiments at his disposal, but was trying to raise a force of Canadians and Indians in addition, and was asking for still more re-enforcements from England. The employment of Indians was a new thing in English policy, and was a needless barbarism which can never be excused or palliated. Gage fortified Boston Neck, thus putting all within the lines at the mercy of his army; yet the starving carpenters of the town refused to erect barracks for the British troops. Outside of Boston, the towns threw off the English yoke. Hawley said he would resist the whole power of England with the forces of the four New England colonies alone; and every man between sixteen and seventy years of age was enrolled under the name of "minute-men," ready to march and fight at a minute's warning.
On the 5th of September, the first American Congress met in Philadelphia. Almost all the eminent men of the country were present—Gadsden of South Carolina, Washington, Dickinson, Patrick Henry, Lee, the Adamses, and many more. They agreed to vote by colonies. Their business was to consider a constitution, to protest against the regulating act in force at Boston, which left no liberty to the citizens; to frame a declaration of rights, and to make a statement to the king of their attitude and demands. The session was long, for the delegates had to make one another's acquaintance, and to discover a middle course between what was desired by separate colonies and what was agreeable to all. Great differences of opinion and policy were developed, and there were not wanting men like Galloway, the Speaker, who aimed at paralyzing all resistance to England. But the longer they debated and voted, the more clearly and unanimously did they oppose the tyrannous acts of Parliament and the extension of the royal prerogative, and the more firmly did they demand liberty and equality. Separation they did not demand, but a free union with the mother country, to the mutual enrichment and advantage of both. By a concession, they admitted the right of Parliament to lay external duties and to regulate trade; but they strongly indorsed the resistance of Massachusetts, and declared that if her oppression were persisted in, it would be the duty of all America to come to her aid. With the hope of influencing the merchants of England to reflect upon the injustice of the present trade restrictions, they voted to cease all imports into England, and to refuse all exports therefrom, though the loss and inconvenience to themselves from this resolve must be immeasurably greater than to the older country, which had other sources of supply and markets for goods. In all that they did, they were ruled by the consideration that they possessed no power of enforcing their decrees upon their own fellow-countrymen, and must therefore so frame them that the natural instinct for right and justice should induce to obedience to them. Their moderation, their desire for conciliation, was marked throughout; and when a message was received from Boston, reciting the iniquitous proceedings of Gage, and proposing, if the Congress agreed, that the citizens of the wealthiest community in the new world should abandon their homes and possessions and retire to a life of log huts and cornfields in the wilderness—when this heroic suggestion was made, the Congress resisted the fiery counsel of Gadsden to march forthwith on Boston and drive Gage and his army into the sea; and bade the people of Boston to be patient yet a while, and await the issue of the message to England. But although they were conscientious in adopting every measure that could honorably be employed to induce England to reconsider her behavior, they had little hope of a favorable issue. "After all, we must fight," said Hawley; and Washington, when he heard it, raised his hand, and called God to witness as he cried out, "I am of that man's mind!"
Their final utterance to England was noble and full of dignity. "To your justice we appeal. You have been told that we are impatient of government and desirous of independence. These are calumnies. Permit us to be as free as yourselves, and we shall ever esteem a union with you to be our greatest glory and our greatest happiness. But if you are determined that your ministers shall wantonly sport with the rights of mankind: if neither the voice of justice, the dictates of law, the principles of the constitution, or the suggestions of humanity, can restrain your hands from shedding human blood in such an impious cause, we must then tell you that we will never submit to be hewers of wood and drawers of water for any ministry or nation in the world."
In order to cripple America, the new province of Quebec was enlarged, so as to cut off the western extension of several of the older colonies. At the same time discrimination against the Catholics was relaxed, and the Canadians were given to understand that they would be treated with favor. The Americans, however, were not blind to the value of Canadian friendship, and sent emissaries among them to secure their good will. "If you throw in your lot with us," they were told, "you will have been conquered into liberty." In Virginia, Lord Dunmore had been appointed governor, and in order to gratify his passion for wealth, he broke the injunction of the king, and allowed the extension of the province westward; but this was the result of his personal greed, and did not prevent his hostility to all plans for colonial liberty. Nevertheless, his conduct gained him temporary popularity in Virginia; and still more did his management of the war against the Shawnees, brought on by their attacks upon the frontiersmen who had pushed their little settlements as far as the Mississippi. These backwoodsmen were always on the borders of peril, and aided in hastening the spread of population westward.
The proceedings of the American Congress produced a sensation in England; they were more moderate in tone and able in quality than had been anticipated. They could not divert the king from his purpose, but they aroused sympathy in England among the People, and from Lord Chatham the remark that the annals of Greece and Rome yielded nothing so lofty and just in sentiment as their remonstrance. The non-representative character of Parliament at this juncture is illustrated by the fact that three-fourths of the English population were estimated to be opposed to the war with America. It was also pointed out that it would be difficult to find men to fill the regiments, inasmuch as all the ablebodied men in England were needed to carry on the industries of the country; there were no general officers of reputation, and many of those holding commissions were mere boys, or incompetent for service. There were three million people in America, and they would be fighting for their own homes, and amid them, with the whole vastness of the continent to retire into. On the other hand, it was asserted that the Americans were all cowards, and incapable of discipline; that five thousand English soldiers were more than a match for fifty thousand provincials. They had no navy, no army, no forts, no organization. They would collapse at the first real threat of force. The English ministry and their followers vied with one another in heaping contempt and abuse upon the colonists. It was in reply to them that Burke made one of his greatest speeches. Burke was an artist in sentiments, and cannot be regarded as a statesman of settled and profound convictions; his voice regarding America had not been consistent or wise; but ever and anon he threw forth some worthy and noble thought. "I do not know the method," he said in his speech, "of drawing up an indictment against a whole people." Franklin, in March, after listening to one of Lord Sandwich's shallow and frothy vilifications of America, "turned on his heel" and left England. With him vanished the last hope of reconciliation. "Had I been in power," exclaimed Hutchinson, "I would not have suffered him to embark."
The colonists everywhere were collecting arms and ammunition, storing powder, and diligently drilling. Whatever the leaders might say, or refrain from saying, the mass of the people believed in the immediate probability of war with England. In every village you could see the farmers shouldering arms and marching to and fro on the green, while an old man played the fife and a boy beat the drum. They did not concern themselves about "regimentals" or any of the pomp and glory of battle; but they knew how to cast bullets, and how to shoot them into the bull's-eye. In their homespun small-clothes, home-knit stockings, home-made shirts and cowhide shoes, they could march to the cannon's mouth as well as in the finest scarlet broadcloth and gold epaulets. Their intelligence, their good cause, their sore extremity, made them learn to be soldiers more quickly than seemed possible to English officers who knew the sturdy stupidity of the English peasant of whom the British regiments were composed. And while the Yankees (as they began to be called) were learning how to march and countermarch, and do whatever else the system of the British regulars called for, they also knew, by inheritance, if not by actual experience, the tactics of the Indians; they could make a fortress of a rock or a tree or a rail fence, and could shoot and vanish, or fall, as it seemed, from the empty air into the midst of the unsuspecting foe. They were effective not only in bodies, but individually; and in the heart of each, as he faced the foe, would be not only the resolve to conquer, but the holy thought of wife and children, and of liberty. They were as fit to be led by Washington as was he to lead them. Professing to despise them, Gage nevertheless protested against taking the field with less than twenty thousand men; upon which David Hume scornfully observed, "If fifty thousand men and twenty millions of money were intrusted to such a lukewarm coward, they never could produce any effect." It was resolved to supersede him.
The men of Portsmouth had seized a quantity of powder and arms, which belonged to them, but had been sequestered in the fort. The British, as a set-off, marched to Salem to capture some stores there; they did not find them, and proceeded toward Danvers. A river, spanned by a drawbridge, intervened, and when they arrived, the draw was up. There stood Colonel Timothy Pickering, with forty provincials, asking what Captain Leslie with his two hundred red-coated regulars wanted. The captain blustered and threatened; but the draw remained up, and the provincials all had guns in their hands, and looked able and willing to use them, if occasion demanded. But the captain did not think it best to give the signal for combat, and meanwhile time was passing, and no soothsayer was needed to reveal that the stores were being removed to a place of safety. After an hour or so, Colonel Pickering relented so far as to permit the captain and his regulars to cross the bridge and advance thirty yards beyond it; after which he must face about and return to Boston. This he did; and thus ended the first collision between the colonies and England. Nobody was hurt; but in less than two months blood was to be shed on both sides. "The two characteristics of this people, religion and humanity, are strongly marked in all their proceedings," John Adams had said. "Resistance by arms against usurpation and lawless violence is not rebellion by the law of God or the land. If there is no possible medium between absolute independence and subjection to the authority of Parliament, all North America are convinced of their independence, and determined to defend it at all hazards." The British answer to utterances like these was to seize a farmer from the country, who had come to town to buy a firelock, tar and feather him, stick a placard on his back, "American liberty, or a specimen of democracy," and conduct him through the streets amid a mob of soldiers and officers, to the strains of "Yankee Doodle."
As the last moments before the irrevocable outbreak passed away, there was both a strong yearning for peace, and a stern perception that peace must be impossible. "If Americans would be free, they must fight," said Patrick Henry in Virginia. One after another, with singular unanimity, the colonies fell in with this view. New York was regarded by the British as most likely to be loyal; New England, and especially Massachusetts, were expected to be the scene of the first hostilities. Sir William Howe, brother of the Howe who died bravely in the Old French War, was appointed commander-in-chief in place of Gage. The latter was directed to adopt the most rigorous and summary measures toward the Boston people, whose congress was pronounced by Thurlow and Wedderburn to be a treasonable body, deserving of condign punishment. Orders were given to raise regiments of French Papists in Canada; and the signal that should let loose the red men for their work of tomahawking women and children was in suspense. It was now the middle of April.
The winter season had been exceptionally mild. In the country neighboring Boston the leaves were budding a month earlier than usual, and the grass was deep and green as in English meadows. The delicate and fragrant blossoms of the mayflower made the wooded hillsides sweet, and birds were singing and building their nests in the mild breezes, under the cloud-flecked sky. The farmers were sowing their fields and caring for their cattle; their wives were feeding their poultry and milking their cows; New England seemed to have put off her sternness, and to be wearing her most inviting and peaceful aspect. Innocence and love breathed in the air and murmured in the woods, and warbled in the liquid flowing of the brooks. In such a time and place, Adam and Eve might have begun the life of humanity on earth, and found in the loveliness and beauty of the world a fitting image of the tranquillity and tenderness that overflowed their guileless hearts.
But Eden was far away from New England in the spring of 1775. Committees of Safety had been formed in all the towns, whose duty it was to provide for defense against what might happen; and two eminent leaders, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, had been to Lexington and Concord to oversee the dispositions, and to consult with the fathers of the colony who had met in the latter town. A small quantity of powder and some guns and muskets had been stored in both these places; for if trouble should occur with the British, it was most likely to begin in Boston, and the minute-men of the province would rendezvous most conveniently at these outlying settlements, which lay along the high road at distances of fourteen and twenty miles from the city. No offensive operations, of course, were contemplated, nor was it known what form British aggression would assume. Defense of their homes and liberties was all that the New England farmers and mechanics intended. They had no plan of campaign, and no military leaders who knew anything of the art of war. They could be killed by invaders, and perhaps kill some of them; they were sure of the holiness of their cause; but they were too simple and homely-minded to realize that God had intrusted to them the first irrevocable step in a movement which should change the destinies of the world.
In Boston, during the 18th of April, there had been bustle and mysterious conferences among the British officers, and movements among the troops; which might mean anything or nothing. But there were patriots on the watch, and it was surmised that some hostile act might be meditated; and plans were made to give warning inland, should this prove to be the case. At the British Coffee House, that afternoon, the group of officers was gayer than usual, and there was much laughter and many toasts. "Here's to the Yankee minute-men!" said one: "the men who'll run the minute they see the enemy!" General Gage stalked about, solemn, important and monosyllabic. Lieutenant-colonel Smith was very busy, and held himself unusually erect; and Major Pitcairn, of the marines, was often seen in his company, as if the two had some secret in common. The plain citizens who walked the streets fancied that they were shouldered aside even more arrogantly than usual by the haughty redcoats; and that the insolent stare with which they afflicted the handsome wives and pretty maidens of Boston was grosser and more significant than common. But the evening fell with matters much as ordinary, to all appearance; and as the town was under martial law, most of the population was off the streets by nine o'clock.
But soon after ten that night, a man was riding at a hand-gallop past Medford, heading west. He had been rowed across Charles River just at the beginning of flood tide, and had landed on the Charlestown shore a few minutes before the order to let none pass had reached the sentry. Turning, with one foot in the stirrup, he had seen two lights from the North Church tower, and a moment afterward had been on his way. Half a mile beyond Charlestown Neck he had almost galloped into the arms of two British officers, but had avoided them by turning suddenly to the right. Now the old Boston road was smooth before him, and he threw off his three-cornered hat, bent forward in his saddle and spoke in his horse's ear. His was a good horse, and carried an important message. A house near the roadside showed up dark and silent against the starlit sky; the horseman rode to the door and struck the panels with his whip. A window was thrown open above: "Who's there?"—"Paul Revere: the British march to-night to Lexington and Concord: Warren, of the Committee of Safety, bids you hold your men in readiness."—"Right!"—The horseman turns, and is off along the road again before the captain of the Medford minute-men has shut the window.
It is but a short fourteen miles to Lexington; but there are a dozen or twenty farmhouses along the way, and at each of them the horseman must pause and deliver his message; so that it is just midnight as he comes in sight of the outskirts of the humble village. There is a dim light burning in the window of yonder hip-roofed cottage beside the green; Adams and Hancock must be anticipating news; Adams, indeed, has the name of being a man who sleeps little and thinks much. The night-rider's summons is responded to at once; and then, at the open door, there is a brief conference, terse and to the point; the pale face of a woman looks from the window; a message has brought Dawes and Sam Prescott, ready mounted, to accompany Revere on his further journey. Young Jonas Parker, the best wrestler in Lexington, has drawn a bucket of water at the well-sweep and is holding it under the nose of Revere's horse. "Well, my lad," says Paul, "are you ready to fight to-morrow?"—"I won't run—I promise you that," replies the youth, with a smile. He was dead five hours later, with a bullet through his vigorous young body, and a British bayonet wound in his breast, having kept his word.
Meanwhile the three horsemen are off, bearing now toward the left, for Lincoln; but there, as luck would have it, they encountered half a dozen English officers, who arrested Dawes and Revere and took them back to Lexington. Prescott, however, was too quick for them; in the flurry and darkness he had leaped his horse over the low stone wall, and was off across the meadows which he had known from a boy, to Concord. It was then between one and two o'clock; and the latter hour had hardly struck when the ride was over, and the bells of the meeting-house were pealing from the steeple. Two-o'clock-in-the-morning courage is the test of a man, as Napoleon said some years later; be that as it may, here are the Concord minute-men, Hosmer, Buttrick, Parson Emerson, Brown, Blanchard, and the rest; they are running toward the green, musket in hand, bullet-pouch on thigh, ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred and more; and there comes Barrett, their captain, with his sword; the men range out in a double rank, in the cool night air, and answer to their names; if the time has indeed come for action, they are ready to make good the bold words spoken at many a town meeting and private chat for weeks past. They have been comrades all their lives, and know each other; and yet now, perhaps, they gaze at one another curiously, conscious of an indefinable change that has come over them, now that death may be marching a few miles to the eastward.
And in truth, while they were discussing what might happen, death was already at work at Lexington. Eight hundred grenadiers and light infantry, the best soldiers in America, had marched into the village shortly before dawn. For an hour or more, as they marched, they had heard the sound of bells and of muskets, now near, now far, telling that their movement had been discovered; and they hastened their steps; not as apprehending resistance from the Yankee cowards, but lest the stores they were after should be hidden before they could get at them. And now, here they were, advancing with the regular tramp of disciplined troops, muskets on their shoulders, bayonets fixed, and a slight dust rising from their serried footsteps. They looked as if they might march through a stone wall. But could it really be true that these men meant to kill American farmers in sight of their own homes? Were English soldiers really enemies of their own flesh and blood? As they approached the common—an irregular triangle of ground, with a meeting-house at the further end—the alarm-drum was beating, and muskets firing; and yonder are the minute-men sure enough, running together in the morning dusk, and marshaling themselves in scanty ranks under the orders of Captain Parker. Young men and old are there, in their well-worn shirts and breeches, cut and stitched by the faithful hands of their wives and daughters, and each with his loaded flint-lock in his hands. There are but fifty or sixty in all, against sixteen times as many of the flower of the British army. The vanguard of the latter has halted, and has received the order from Pitcairn to load; and you may hear the ring of the ramrods in unison, and then the click of the locks. And yonder comes the rest of the host, at double-quick, the hoarse commands of their officers sounding out of the gloom. What can less than threescore minute-men do against them? At all events, they can die; and history will never forget them, standing there in front of the little church where they had so often prayed; and their country will always honor their names and love them. They stood there, silent and motionless, protesting with their lives against the march of tyranny. How few they were—and what countless millions they represented!
Out rides Pitcairn in front of the grenadiers. You can see the red of his tunic now in the gathering light, the sparkle of his accouterments, and the gleam of his sword as he swings it with a commanding gesture. "Disperse, ye villains!" he calls out in a harsh, peremptory voice: "Ye rebels—why don't you lay down your arms and disperse?"
Would they obey?—No: for they were neither villains nor rebels; they had come there as a sacrifice, and they would not go thence until the crime had been committed, and their country had definitely learned, from them, whether oppression would proceed to the last extremity, or not. It was only a few harmless, heroic lives to lose; but so much must needs be done. It was not an easy thing to do; there was no one to teach them how to do it scenically and splendidly. They must simply stand there, in their own awkward way, shoulder to shoulder, motionless, gazing at the gallant major and the heavy masses of uniformed men beyond, waiting for what might come. The Lord of Hosts was on their side; but, as with our Saviour in the Garden of Gethsemane, He seemed remotest when most near. Their wives and children are there, looking on, straining their eyes through the obscurity, with what throbbings of agony in their hearts, with what prayers choking in their throats!
The major snatches a pistol from his holster, levels and discharges it; and "Fire!" he shouts at the same moment, at the top of his lungs. He had omitted the "Ready—present!" and the soldiers did not all fire at once; first there were a few dropping shots; but then came the volley. The regulars shot to kill. Down came Jonas Parker to his knee, to be stabbed to death before he could reload; there fell old Munroe, the veteran of Louisburg; and Harrington, killed at his doorstep, and Muzzey, Hadley, and Brown. In all, before the stars had faded in the light of dawn, sixteen New Englanders lay dead or wounded on the village green. And the British troops had reformed, and huzzaed thrice, and marched on with drum and fife, before the sun of the 19th of April had looked upon their work. The Revolution had begun.
It was seven o'clock when, with the sun on their backs, the British invaders came along the base of the low hill, crowned with pine and birch, that lies like a sleeping serpent to the east on the way to Concord. They were a trifle jaded now from their all-night march, and their gaiters and uniforms were a little dusty; but the barrels of their guns shone as bright as ever, and their spirits were good, after their glorious exploit six miles back. Glorious, of course: yet a trifle dull, all the same; there would be more fun shooting these bumpkins, if only they could summon heart to put up a bit of a fight in return. "Maybe we'll get a better chance at 'em out here, colonel—eh?" the major of marines might have said, with his Scotch brogue, turning his horse to ride beside his superior officer for a mile or so. "I don't think it, sir," that great soldier would reply, puffing out his cheeks, and wiping his brow with his embroidered handkerchief. "The sight of his majesty's uniform, Major Pitcairn, is alone enough to put to flight every scurvy rebel in Massachusetts. If you want to get within range of 'em, sir, you must wear mufti."
During the early morning hours, the minute-men standing under the liberty pole in front of Concord meeting-house had been gradually re-enforced by parties hastening in from Lincoln, Acton, and other outlying hamlets, until they numbered about two hundred men. But as the British drew near, eight hundred strong, the Americans withdrew down a meadow road northward, until they reached a hospitable edifice with a broad roof, pierced by gables, standing at the upper end of an avenue, and with its back toward the sluggish Muskataquid, or Concord River. A few rods to the left of the site of this manse was a wooden bridge, spanning the stream, known as the North Bridge. The manse was occupied by the Reverend William Emerson, the minister of the town, and from its western windows was an excellent view of the bridge. One of these windows was open, and the pastor himself, with his arms resting on the sill, was looking from this coign of vantage when the minute-men came up, crossed the bridge, and stationed themselves on the rising ground just beyond. He remained there, a deeply interested spectator, during the events which followed.
The British, finding Concord deserted, divided into three parts, one going to a bridge to the south of the town, one remaining in the town itself, and the third marching north, where it again divided, one party of a hundred guarding the approach to the north bridge, on the further side of which the Americans were embattled, the other proceeding along the road to the house of Captain Barrett in search of arms. A couple of hours passed by, and nothing seemed likely to happen; but it was noticed that there was the smoke of a fire in Concord, a mile to the south and east. Smith and Pitcairn were there, with the main body of the troops, and they had been making bonfires of the liberty pole and some gun carriages: the court house was also in a blaze. But to the Concord men, waiting at the bridge, it looked as if the British were setting their homes afire. The women and children had been sent into the woods out of harm's way, before the regiments arrived; but some of them might have ventured back again. Vague rumors of the bloodshed at Lexington had been passed from mouth to mouth, losing nothing, probably, on the way. The men began to ask one another whether it was not incumbent on them to march to the rescue of their town?
By accessions from Carlisle, Bedford, Woburn, Westford, Littleton and Chelmsford they had now grown to a strength of four hundred; the force immediately opposing them was less than half as numerous. They evidently did not expect an attack; they had not even removed the planks from the bridge. They despised the Yankees too much to take that easy precaution.
But though the British at this point were few, they were regulars; they stood for the English army in America: and for more than that—they stood for all England, for Parliament, for the king, for loyalty; for that enormous moral force, so much more potent even than the physical, which tends to prevail because it always has prevailed. These farmers did not fear to risk their lives; their fathers, and some of themselves, had fought Indians and Frenchmen, and thought little of it. But to fight men whose limbs were made in England—in the old home which the colonists still regarded as theirs, and had not ceased to love and honor, for all this quarrel about duties and laws of trade—that was another matter: it was almost like turning their weapons against themselves. And yet, if there were any value in human liberty, if the words which they had listened to from the lips of Adams and Warren and Hancock meant anything —now was the time to testify to their belief in them. They were men: this was their land: yonder were burning their dwellings: they had a right to defend them, and their families. What said Captain Barrett—and Isaac Davis of Acton, and Buttrick? And here was Colonel Robinson of Westford too, a volunteer to-day: but what was his opinion?
The officers drew together, conferred a moment, and then Barrett, who was in command, and the only man on horseback, gave the word: "Advance across the bridge: don't fire unless they fire at you." The companies marched past him, led by Buttrick, Davis and Robinson, with their swords drawn. The men were in double file.
Seeing them actually advancing on the bridge, the British condescended to bestir themselves, and some of them began to raise the planks. Upon this, the Americans, who meant to cross, broke into a trot. Mr. Emerson, leaning out of his window, with the light of battle in his eyes, saw three or four puffs of smoke come from the British, and two Americans fell. Immediately after there was a volley from the regulars, and now Isaac Davis was down, and moved no more; and Abner Hosmer fell dead near him. The Americans were advancing, but they had not fired. "Father in Heaven!" ejaculated the good parson, between his set teeth, "aren't they going to shoot?"
Even as he spoke, he saw Buttrick leap upward, and heard his shout: "Fire, fellow soldiers!—for God's sake, fire!"
The men repeated the word to one another; up came their guns to their shoulders, and the sharp detonations followed.
They reached the ears of the minister, and he gave a sigh of relief. They echoed across the river, and rolled away toward the village, and into the distance. Nor did they stop there—those echoes: the Atlantic is wide, but they crossed it; they made Lord North, Thurlow, and Wedderburn start in their chairs, and mutter a curse: they penetrated to the king in his cabinet, and he flushed and bit his lip. More than a hundred years have passed; and yet the vibrations of that shot across Concord Bridge have not died away. Whenever tyranny and oppression raise their evil hands, that sound comes reverberating out of the past, and they hesitate and turn pale. Whenever a monarch meditates injustice against his subjects, the noise of the muskets of the Concord yeomen, fired that men might be free, falls upon his ear, and he pauses and counts the cost. Yes, and there have been those among ourselves, citizens of the land for which those yeomen fought and died, who also might take warning from those ominous echoes: for the battle waged by selfishness and corruption against human rights has not ceased to be waged on these shores, though the British left them a century ago. It seems, at times, as if victory inclined toward the evil rather than the good. But let us not be misled. The blood of the farmers who drove England out of America flows in our veins still; we are patient and tolerant to a fault, but not forever. The onlooker, gazing from afar, fears that we will never shoot; but presently he shall be reassured; and once our advance is begun, there will be no relenting till the last invader be driven into the sea.
There is a deeper lesson yet to be learned from Concord fight. It is that the noblest deeds may be done by the humblest instruments; and that as Christ chose His apostles from among the fishermen of Galilee, so was the immortal honor of beginning the battle for the liberation of mankind intrusted to a handful of lowly husbandmen and artisans, who knew little more than that right was right, and wrong, wrong. There were no philosophers or statesmen among them; they comprehended nothing of diplomacy; they only felt that a duty had been laid upon them, and inspired by that conviction, they went forward and did it. The judgment of the world has ratified their act, and has admitted that perhaps more subtle reasoners than they, balancing one consideration against another, taking counsel of far-reaching prudence, flinching from responsibility, might have put off action until the golden moment had forever passed. But what the hands of these men found to do, they did with their might; and therefore established the truth that the spirit of God finds its fitting home in the bosoms of the poor and simple; and that the destinies of mankind are safe in their protection.