Modern history



PITT’S RISE TO POWER AND HIS VICTORIOUS CONDUCT OF A WORLDWIDE war were to have a profound effect on the history of North America. We must now survey the scene presented by the American colonies, which had been quietly and steadily growing for the past hundred and fifty years. Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century Englishmen had poured into the American continent. Legally the colonies in which they settled were chartered bodies subordinate to the Crown, but there was little interference from home, and they soon learned to govern themselves. While distracted by the Civil War the Mother Country left them alone, and although Cromwell’s Commonwealth asserted that Parliament was supreme over the whole of the English world its decree was never put into practice, and was swept away by the Restoration. But after 1660 the home Government had new and definite ideas. For the next fifty years successive English administrations tried to enforce the supremacy of the Crown in the American colonies and to strengthen royal power and patronage in the overseas possessions. Thus they hoped to gain credit and advantage. Committees were formed to deal with America. New colonies were founded in Carolina and Pennsylvania, and New Netherland was conquered from the Dutch. Precautions were taken to assure the Crown’s authority in these acquisitions. There were efforts to rescind or modify the charters of the older colonies. All this led to unceasing conflict with the colonial assemblies, who resented the threat to royalise and unify colonial administration. Most of these assemblies were representative bodies of freeholders who claimed and exercised the same rights, procedure, and privileges as the Parliament at Westminster. The men who sat in them were many of them bred in a tradition hostile to the Crown. Their fathers had preferred exile to tyranny, and they regarded themselves as fighting for the same issues as had divided the English Parliament from Strafford and Charles I. They resisted the royal encroachments of the Board of Trade and Plantations. These were reckoned overseas to be a direct attack on rights and privileges guaranteed by the original colonial charters, and a tyrannical menace to vested rights.

For a long time the English Parliament played no part in the conflict. The struggle lay between the colonies and the King’s Ministers in the Privy Council. These officials were determined to call a halt to self-government in America. In 1682 they were asked to grant a charter for settling vacant lands on the borders of the Spanish possession of Florida. The Council refused, saying it was the policy of the Crown “not to constitute any new propriety in America nor to grant any further powers that might render the plantations less dependent on the Crown.” Under James II these royalist tendencies were sharpened. New York became a royal province in 1685. The New England colonies were united into a “dominion of New England” on the French model in Canada. The main argument was the need for union against French expansion, but the move was fiercely resisted and the English Revolution of 1688 was a signal for the overthrow and collapse of the “dominion of New England.”

England’s motives were not entirely selfish. Slowly the menace of French imperialism loomed upon the frontiers of her possessions. The reforms of Colbert, the chief Minister of Louis XIV, had greatly strengthened the power and wealth of France, and English statesmen and merchants confronted a deadly competition upon the seas and in the markets of the world. They saw the steady building up of French colonial and commercial enterprise, backed by the centralised power of absolute government. How could the British Empire fight off the threat with a factious Parliament, fretful colonial assemblies, and a swarm of committees?


The answer devised was an eminently practical one. British colonial trade must be planned and co-ordinated in London. One of its main objects must be to foster the British Merchant Navy, and to provide a reserve of ships and seamen in the event of war. The foundation of the whole system was the series of enactments known as the Navigation Laws. Colonial trade must travel only in British bottoms, with British crews and to British ports. The colonies were forbidden any outside trade of their own that might hinder the growth of British shipping. Moreover, the economic theories of the age supported these checks on colonial independence. The prevailing view of trade was based on the desire for self-sufficiency and on economic nationalism—or mercantilism as it was called. The wealth of a country depended upon its trade balance. An excess of imports over exports meant loss of bullion and economic weakness. National prosperity required the control of plentiful natural resources. Colonies were vital. They must produce essential raw materials, such as timber for the Navy, and afford a market for the growing manufactures of the home country. The Empire must be a closed economic unit. Colonial manufactures must be limited to prevent competition inside it, and trade between the colonies themselves must be strictly regulated. Such, in brief, was the economic conception enshrined in the legislation of the seventeenth century. There was no room in this scheme for the independent development of the colonies. They must remain the providers of raw materials, and the recipients of English manufactures.

The system was more irksome on paper than in practice. No seventeenth-century Government could enforce such a code over thousands of miles. American assemblies grumbled but went their own way, ingeniously evading the Westminster restrictions.

The English Revolution of 1688 changed the whole position. Hitherto the colonies had regarded the Parliament in England as their ally against the Crown. But the time was to come when Parliament, victorious over the Crown in the constitutional struggles at home, would attempt to enforce its own sovereignty over America. The clash was delayed by the War of the Spanish Succession. The long European struggle with France compelled the avoidance of fundamental issues elsewhere; and in the hope of marshalling the resources of the English-speaking peoples for the supreme conflict all efforts to impose the authority of the English Government in the New World were dropped. The Board of Trade and Plantations was allowed to subside and the colonies were largely left to themselves.

The spirit of amity which it was thus hoped to secure fell far short of expectation. There were ample reasons for this. Both in outlook and tradition the colonies had been steadily growing apart from the Mother Country. A colonial-born generation now inhabited the American plantations, trained in the harsh struggle with nature, expanding rapidly in the limitless lands stretching westwards from the seaboard, and determined to protect their individuality and their privileges. The doctrines of the English Revolution and the ideas of the seventeenth-century Whigs struck an even deeper echo in the New World than at home. The youthful energies of the Americans found paper obstacles at every turn to the development of their resources. All these causes indisposed them to any great effort on behalf of England. On the other hand, though quick to realise their potential strength and wealth, the colonists were slow to organise; and being still instinctively loyal to their race and conscious of the French menace beyond their own frontiers they were as anxious as Britain to avoid a serious quarrel. They even took an active but ill-organised part in the attempts to conquer French Canada which culminated in the futile expedition of 1711. But, jealous as they were not only of the home Government but of each other, they soon lapsed into quarrelsome isolation.


These conditions persisted throughout the administration of Walpole, who perceived the necessity for avoiding friction at all costs. But in the course of time the colonists grew more and more resolved to press their advantage, and the middle years of the eighteenth century witnessed a vehement assault by the colonial Assemblies upon the authority of the Imperial Government. They were bent on making themselves into sovereign Parliaments, supreme in the internal government of the several colonies, and free of all restrictions or interference from London. Innumerable struggles took place between the Governors and the legislatures of the colonies. There were many complaints on both sides. The Crown looked upon posts overseas as valuable patronage for its servants, the Government for their supporters. Thus the whole colonial administration was tainted with the prevailing corruption of English public life. Governors, counsellors, judges, and many other officials were all appointed by the Crown, and they were seldom chosen with due regard to the interests of the colonists. “America,” said one of her historians, “is the hospital of Great Britain for its decayed M.P.s and abandoned courtiers.” By no means all the British officials were of such a type. Particularly in the North, the Governors often came from the leading colonial families, and the ablest men in colonial administration were of this class. But there were inevitable contests within the colonies themselves. The Governors were particularly vulnerable in matters of finance. Their salaries were fixed by the assemblies, and frequently the assemblies withheld their votes. Irritation between the officials and the assemblies grew and mounted as the years passed by.

Behind the squabbling of day-to-day administration lay vital developments. The Royal Prerogative, so drastically modified in England after the Revolution of 1688, still flourished in the New World. Though the colonial Assemblies persistently tried to copy the English pattern, they were hampered at every turn. Not only were they bound by written charters or constitutions, but special customs, organisations, and Admiralty courts exercised their jurisdiction upon colonial soil, and although the English Government tried to avoid any open meddling, matters went from bad to worse. America was still regarded as existing for the economic benefit of England. The mainland colonies supplied naval stores and tobacco, and the West Indies sent cargoes of sugar to English ports. But the energy and population of America were growing. There were signs that the colonies would produce their own manufactured goods and close their markets to the United Kingdom. As early as 1699 Parliament had legislated against the setting up of industries in the New World. The economic position, particularly in New England, was becoming more and more strained. The Americans could only pay for the increasing volume of English imports by selling their produce to their immediate neighbours and to the English and foreign possessions in the West Indies. This violated the provisions of the Navigation Acts. The economic pressure from England grew stronger with the years. The balance of trade turned steadily against the colonies, and by the middle of the century their annual deficit was over three million pounds. The colonial merchants could only scrape together enough cash by illegal methods. This drift of money from America was to help keep England solvent in the coming first world war. The City knew it; Pitt knew it, and on his monument in Guildhall we may still read how under his administration commerce had been unified and made to flourish by war. But the effect upon the New World was serious. The Americans had no mints, no regularised currency. Their unco-ordinated issues of paper money, which rapidly depreciated, made matters worse, and English merchants loudly complained of the instability of colonial credit.


The early eighteenth century saw the foundation of the last of the Thirteen Colonies. The philanthropist James Oglethorpe had been painfully moved by the horrible condition of the small debtors in English prisons. After much thought he conceived the idea of allowing these people to emigrate to a new colony. The Government was approached, and in 1732 a board of trustees was created to administer a large tract of territory lying below South Carolina. The following year the first settlement was founded at Savannah. Small estates were created, and religious toleration was proclaimed for all except Catholics. The first settlers were English debtors, but the foundation promised a new life for the oppressed in many parts of Europe. Bands of Jews quickly arrived, followed by Protestants from Salzburg, Moravians from Germany, and Highlanders from Skye. The polyglot community, named Georgia, soon attracted ardent missionaries, and it was here that John Wesley began his ministering work.

The high moral atmosphere of these beginnings was soon polluted by mundane quarrels. The settlers, like their brethren in the other colonies, coveted both rum and slaves. The trustees of the community wearied of their task of government; and their prolonged bickering with the rising merchants of Savannah ended in the cancellation of the charter. In 1752 Georgia came under royal control. This colony was the last foundation of the Mother Country in the territories that were later to become the United States. Emigration from England had now dwindled to a trickle, but new settlers arrived from other parts. Towards the end of the seventeenth century there had been an influx of Scottish-Irish refugees, whose industrial and commercial endeavours at home had been stifled by the legislation of the English Parliament. They formed a strong English-hating element in their new homes. Pennsylvania received a steady flow of immigrants from Germany, soon to number over two hundred thousand souls. Hard-working and prosperous Huguenots arrived from France in flight from religious persecution. People were also moving from colony to colony. The oases of provincial life were linked up. The population was rapidly doubling itself. Limitless land to the West offered homes for the sons of the first generation. The abundance of territory to be occupied encouraged large families. Contact with primeval conditions created a new and daring outlook. A sturdy independent society was producing its own life and culture, influenced and coloured by surrounding conditions. The Westward march had begun, headed by the Germans and the Ulster Irish in Pennsylvania. The slow trail over the mountains in search of new lands was opening. There was a teeming diversity of human types. On the Western farms which bordered the Indian country were rugged pioneers and sturdy yeomen farmers, and in the New England colonies assertive merchants, lawyers, and squires, and the sons of traders. This varied society was supported in the North by the forced labour of indentured servants and men smuggled away from the press-gangs in English towns, in the South by a mass of slaves multiplied by yearly shiploads from Africa. Events in Europe, of which most Americans were probably scarcely conscious, now came to bear upon the destiny of the Thirteen Colonies.

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