THE ACCESSION OF GEORGE III CAUSED A PROFOUND CHANGE IN English politics. In theory and in law the monarchy still retained a decisive influence and power in the making of policy, the choice of Ministers, the filling of offices, and the spending of money. In these and in many other fields the personal action of the King had for many centuries been far-reaching, and generally accepted, and only since the installation of the Hanoverian dynasty had the royal influence been largely exercised by the Whig Ministers in Parliament. Walpole and Newcastle had been much more than Ministers; they were almost Regents. There had been many reasons why they and their supporters had achieved and held such power for nearly half a century. Both George I and George II were aliens in language, outlook, upbringing, and sympathy; their Court was predominantly German; their interests and ambitions had centred on Hanover and on the Continent of Europe, and they owed their throne to the Whigs. Now all was changed. George III was, or thought he was, an Englishman born and bred. At any rate he tried to be. He had received a careful education in England from his mother and from the Earl of Bute, who was a Scotsman and in his opponents’ eyes a Tory. George’s earliest recorded literary achievement is a boyhood essay on Alfred the Great. “George, be King,” his mother had said, according to tradition, and George did his best to obey. That he failed in the central problems of his reign may, in the long run of events, have been fortunate for the ultimate liberty of England. Out of the disasters that ensued rose the Parliamentary system of government as we now know it, but the disasters were nevertheless both formidable and far-reaching. By the time that George died America had separated herself from the United Kingdom, the first British Empire had collapsed, and the King himself had gone mad.
But at first all promised well. The times were opportune for a revival of the royal influence. So long as the Hanoverian right to the Crown was challenged the Whigs could exclude the Tories from office by denouncing them as Jacobites, but by 1760 the cause of the Stuart Pretenders was dead, the succession was undisputed, and George III ascended the throne on the crest of a loyalist and patriotic reaction against the Whig monopoly of power. The large Tory-minded section of the “Country Party” was at last reconciled to the monarchy, and they rallied to him and to themselves all those elements in the nation which hated the narrow aristocratic domination of the Whig families. George III was thus supported by many “King’s Friends,” loyal, hungry for power, and eager to help him “turn out the old gang.” This he and Bute proceeded to do. In 1761 elections were held throughout England, in which Newcastle was not allowed to control all the royal patronage and many offices in the gift of the Crown were bestowed on supporters of the new monarch. In March Bute was appointed Secretary of State, and Newcastle was shuffled querulously out of office in the following spring. Within two years of his accession the “King’s Friends” predominated in the House of Commons. They were not a political party in the modern sense, but they were generally prepared to support almost any administration appointed by the King. The Crown was once more a factor in politics, and young George had beaten the Whigs at their own game. It was not however till 1770 that he was in firm control of the political machine, and for a long time he was unfortunate in his search for trustworthy Ministers.
The first decade of his reign passed in continual and confused manœuvring between the different Parliamentary groups, some of them accepting the new situation, some making passive resistance to the new tactics of the Crown. George was angry and puzzled at the wrangling of the political leaders. Pitt sat moodily in Parliament, “unconnected and unconsulted.” Many people shared Dr Johnson’s opinion of the Scots, and Bute, who was much disliked, fell from power early in 1763. His successor, George Grenville, was a mulish lawyer, backed by the enormous electoral power of the Duke of Bedford, of whom “Junius” wrote in his anonymous letters, “I daresay he has bought and sold more than half the representative integrity of the nation.” Grenville refused to play the part of “the Minister behind the curtain”; but for two years he clung to office, and must bear a heavy share of responsibility for the alienation of the American colonies.
There were other conflicts. On April 23, 1763, a newspaper called The North Briton attacked Ministers as “tools of despotism and corruption. . . . They have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will prophesy it will never be extinguished but by the extinction of their power.” Grenville’s Ministry was denounced as a mere reflection of the unpopular Lord Bute. The writer hinted that the peace treaty with France was not only dishonourably but also dishonestly negotiated, and that the King was a party to it. George was incensed. A week later his Secretary of State issued a warrant commanding that the authors, printers, and publishers of “The North Briton, No. 45,” none of whom was named, should be found and arrested. Searches were made, houses were entered, papers were seized, and nearly fifty suspects were put in prison. Among them was John Wilkes, a rake and a Member of Parliament. He was sent to the Tower. He refused to answer questions. He protested that the warrant was illegal and claimed Parliamentary privilege against the arrest. There was a storm in the country. The legality of “general” warrants which named no actual offender became a constitutional question of the first importance. Wilkes was charged with seditious libel and outlawed. But his case became a national issue when he returned to fight for his Parliamentary seat. The radical-minded Londoners welcomed this rebuff to the Government, and in March 1768 he was elected for Middlesex. The next February he was expelled from the House of Commons and there was a by-election. Wilkes stood again, and obtained 1,143 votes against his Government opponent, who polled 296. There were bonfires in London. The election was declared void by Parliament, and Wilkes, now once more in prison for printing an obscene parody of Pope’s “Essay on Man,” entitled “Essay on Woman,” became the idol of the City. Finally his opponent in Middlesex was declared duly elected. When Wilkes was released from gaol in April 1770 London was illuminated to greet him. After a long struggle he was elected Lord Mayor, and again a Member of Parliament.
The whole machinery of eighteenth-century corruption was thus exposed to the public eye. By refusing to accept Wilkes the Commons had denied the right of electors to choose their Members and held themselves out as a closed corporation of privileged beings. Wilkes’s cause now found the most powerful champion in England. Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, in blistering tones attacked the legality of general warrants and the corruption of politics, claiming that more seats in the counties would increase the electorate and diminish the opportunities for corruption, so easy in the small boroughs. His speeches were indeed the first demands for Parliamentary reform in the eighteenth century. It was not however for many years that anything was accomplished in this field.
Nevertheless the outcry against general warrants led directly to important pronouncements by the judges on the liberty of the individual, the powers of the Government, and freedom of speech. Wilkes and the other victims sued the officials who had executed the warrants. The judges ruled that the warrants were illegal. The officials pleaded that they were immune because they were acting under Government orders. This large and sinister defence was rejected by the Chief Justice in words which remain a classic statement on the rule of law. “With respect to the argument of State necessity,” declared Lord Camden, “or a distinction which has been aimed at between State offences and others, the Common Law does not understand that kind of reasoning, nor do our books take notice of any such distinction.” If a Minister of the Crown ordered something to be done which was unlawful, then both he and his servants must answer for it in the ordinary courts of law in exactly the same way as a private person. The Under-Secretary who entered Wilkes’s house and took away his papers and the King’s Messengers who arrested the printer were mere trespassers and were liable as such. They were guilty of false imprisonment, and the judges refused to interfere when juries awarded large sums by way of compensation. Wilkes obtained £4,000 damages from the Secretary of State himself. Another suitor, who had been detained only for a few hours and fed with steak and beer, recovered £300. “The small injury done to the plantiff,” said the Chief Justice, “or the inconsiderableness of his station and rank in life did not appear to the jury in that striking light in which the great point of law touching the liberty of the subject appeared to them at the trial.”
Here indeed was a potent weapon against overbearing ministers and zealous officials. Habeas corpus might, and did, protect the subject from unlawful arrest, or at any rate ensure his speedy release from gaol, but a civil action for false imprisonment hit the authorities where it hurt most, in their private pockets, and the unfettered right of juries to assess the damages at whatever figure they thought fit was a formidable deterrent to such as might be tempted to offend public opinion by relying on “reasons of State.” The lesson bit deep. Even in the dark times to come, when the struggle with Napoleon forced the Government to take all sorts of repressive measures against real or imagined traitors, the powers of the executive to infringe the liberty of the subject were narrowly circumscribed and vigilantly watched by Parliament. Not until the world wars of the twentieth century was the mere word of a Minister of the Crown enough to legalise the imprisonment of an Englishman.
Freedom of the Press and freedom of speech developed by much the same unspectacular, technical, but effective steps. Long before George I had mounted the throne Parliament declined to renew the Licensing Act. The last relics of the censorship once exercised by the Court of Star Chamber thereby disappeared, and ever since Englishmen have been generally free to say what they like in print without prior leave of the Government or of anyone else. Parliament’s decision was taken, not on any high ground of principle, but because the detailed working of the Act was causing vexation. The freedom of the Press was thus never deliberately established in Britain; it was allowed to begin for quite inconsiderable reasons. That a man can speak without prior permission however does not mean that he may say what he likes. If he is libellous or seditious or blasphemous or obscene, or commits any other legal wrong, he can afterwards be made liable for it; and this is the limitation on freedom of expression which still exists to-day. The boundaries of this freedom are fixed by the definitions of a large number of criminal and civil wrongs; and these definitions, expanded to meet the requirements of succeeding generations and confirmed in their expanded form by the doctrine of precedent, have come to hedge freedom rather closely in certain directions. The common remedy for this strictness of the law has been the good sense of prosecutors, who do not enforce it to the letter. But this is not enough if feelings run high, as they did in eighteenth-century politics, when critics of the Government were apt to be put in the dock for seditious libel, and a better safeguard was finally established in the powers of the jury. Through many years and in many trials it was hotly argued that the jury should decide not only whether or not the defendant had published the matter complained of, but also whether or not it was a libel, and Fox’s Libel Act eventually established this opinion as law. The letter of the law was thus subjected in each case to the discretion of a jury, and in the last year of the eighteenth century it could be said that “a man may publish anything which twelve of his countrymen think is not blameable.” History will not deny some share in the credit for this achievement to Alderman John Wilkes.
The contest with America had meanwhile begun to dominate the British political scene. Vast territories had fallen to the Crown on the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. From the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico the entire hinterland of the American colonies became British soil, and the parcelling out of these new lands led to further trouble with the colonists. Many of them, like George Washington, had formed companies to buy these frontier tracts from the Indians, but a royal proclamation restrained any purchasing and prohibited their settlement. Washington, among others, ignored the ban and wrote to his land agent ordering him “to secure some of the most valuable lands in the King’s part [on the Ohio], which I think may be accomplished after a while, notwithstanding the proclamation that restrains it at present, and prohibits the settling of them at all;for I can never look upon that proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.”1 This attempt by the British Government to regulate the new lands caused much discontent among the planters, particularly in the Middle and Southern colonies.
George III was also determined that the colonies should pay their share in the expenses of the Empire and in garrisoning the New World. For this there were strong arguments. England had supplied most of the men and the money in the struggle with France for their protection, and indeed their survival; but the methods used by the British Government were ineffective and imprudent. It was resolved to impose a tax on the colonies’ imports, and in 1764 Parliament strengthened the Molasses Act. This measure was originally passed in 1733 to protect the West Indian sugar-growers. It created a West Indian monopoly of the sugar trade within the Empire and imposed a heavy duty on foreign imports. It had long been evaded by the colonists, whose only means of acquiring hard cash to pay their English creditors was by selling their goods for molasses in the French and Spanish West Indies. The new regulations were a serious blow. As one merchant put it, “The restrictions which we are laid under by the Parliament put us at a stand how to employ our vessels to any advantage, as we have no prospect of markets at our own islands and cannot send elsewhere to have anything that will answer in return.”
The results were unsatisfactory on both sides of the Atlantic. The British Government found that the taxes brought in very little money, and the English merchants, already concerned at the plight of their American debtors, had no desire to make colonial finance any more unstable. Indirect taxation of trade being so unfruitful, Grenville and his lieutenant Charles Townshend consulted the Law Officers about levying a direct tax on the colonies. Their opinion was favourable and Grenville proposed that all colonial legal documents should be stamped, for a fee. The colonial agents in London were informed, and discussed the plan by post with the Assemblies in America. There were few protests, although the colonists had always objected to direct taxation, and in 1765 Parliament passed the Stamp Act.
With two exceptions it imposed no heavy burden. The stamps on legal documents would not in any case produce a large revenue. The English stamp duty brought in £300,000 a year. Its extension to America was only expected to raise another £50,000. But the Act included a tax on newspapers, many of whose journalists were vehement partisans of the extremist party in America, and the colonial merchants were dismayed because the duty had to be paid in bullion already needed for meeting the adverse trade balance with England. The dispute exposed and fortified the more violent elements in America, and gave them a chance to experiment in organised resistance. The future revolutionary leaders appeared from obscurity—Patrick Henry in Virginia, Samuel Adams in Massachusetts, and Christopher Gadsden in South Carolina—and attacked both the legality of the Government’s policy and the meekness of most American merchants. A small but well-organised Radical element began to emerge. But although there was an outcry and protesting delegates convened a Stamp Act Congress there was no unity of opinion in America. The stamp-distributors were attacked and their offices and houses wrecked, but all this was the work of a few merchants and young lawyers who were trying their hand at rousing the unenfranchised mobs. The most effective opposition came from English merchants, who realised that the Act imperilled the recovery of their commercial debts and denounced it as contrary to the true commercial interests of the Empire and a danger to colonial resources.
The personality of George III was now exercising a preponderant influence upon events. He was one of the most conscientious sovereigns who ever sat upon the English throne. Simple in his tastes and unpretentious in manner, he had the superficial appearance of a typical yeoman. But his mind was Hanoverian, with an infinite capacity for mastering detail, and limited success in dealing with large issues and main principles. He possessed great moral courage and an inveterate obstinacy, and his stubbornness lent weight to the stiffening attitude of his Government. His responsibility for the final breach is a high one. He could not understand those who feared the consequences of a policy of coercion. He expressed himself in blunt terms. “It is with the utmost astonishment that I find any of my subjects capable of encouraging the rebellious disposition which unhappily exists in some of my colonies in America. Having entire confidence in the wisdom of my Parliament, the Great Council of the Nation, I will steadily pursue those measures which they have recommended for the support of the constitutional rights of Great Britain and the protection of the commercial interests of my kingdom.”
But now, writhing under the domination of Grenville and his friends, alarmed at the growing disorder and disaffection of the country, aware at last of his folly in alienating the Whig families, the King sought a reconciliation. In July 1765 the Marquis of Rockingham, a shy, well-meaning Whig who was disturbed at George’s conduct, undertook to form a Government, and brought with him as private secretary a young Irishman named Edmund Burke, already known in literary circles as a clever writer and a brilliant talker. He was much more. He was a great political thinker. Viewing English politics and the English character with something of the detachment of an alien, he was able to diagnose the situation with an imaginative insight beyond the range of those immersed in the business of the day and bound by traditional habits of mind.
The political history of the years following 1714 had led to a degeneration and dissolution of parties. The personal activity of the sovereign after 1760 and the emergence of great issues of principle found the Whigs helpless and divided into rival clans. The King’s tactics had paralysed them. Burke’s aim was to create out of the Rockingham group, high-principled but small in numbers and with no original ideas of its own, an effective political party. He could supply the ideas, but first he had to convince the Whigs that a party could be formed and held together on a ground of common principles. He had to overcome the notion, widely prevalent, that party was in itself a rather disreputable thing, a notion which had been strengthened by Pitt’s haughty disdain for party business and organisation. It was an old tradition that politicians not in power need not bother to attend Parliament, but should retire to their country estates and there await the return to royal favour and a redistribution of the sweets of office. Individualists of different schools, such as Shelburne and Henry Fox, consistently opposed Burke’s efforts to organise them into a party. “You think,” Henry Fox had written to Rockingham, “you can but serve the country by continuing a fruitless Opposition. I think it impossible to serve it at all except by coming into office.”
A consistent programme, to be advocated in Opposition and realised in office, was Burke’s conception of party policy, and the new issues arising plainly required a programme. On Ireland, on America, on India, Burke’s attitude was definite. He stood, and he brought his party to stand, for conciliation of the colonies, relaxation of the restraints on Irish trade, and the government of India on the same moral basis as the government of England. At home he proposed to deliver Parliament from its subservience to the Crown by the abolition of numerous sinecures and the limitation of corruption. What he lacked was, in his own words, “the power and purchase” which a strong and well-organised party could supply. For years Burke was a voice crying in the wilderness, and too often rising to tones of frenzy. An orator to be named with the ancients, an incomparable political reasoner, he lacked both judgment and self-control. He was perhaps the greatest man that Ireland has produced. The same gifts, with a dash of English indolence and irony—he could have borrowed them from Charles James Fox, Henry Fox’s famous son, who had plenty of both to spare—might have made him Britain’s greatest statesman.
Rockingham’s Government, which lasted thirteen months, passed three measures that went far to soothe the animosities raised by Grenville on both sides of the Atlantic. They repealed the Stamp Act, and induced the House of Commons to declare general warrants and the seizure of private papers unlawful. At the same time they reaffirmed the powers of Parliament to tax the colonies in a so-called Declaratory Act. But the King was determined to be rid of them, and Pitt, whose mind was clouded by sickness, was seduced by royal flattery and by his own dislike of party into lending his name to a new administration formed on no political principle whatever. His arrogance remained; his powers were failing; his popularity as the “Great Commoner” had been dimmed by his sudden acceptance of the Earldom of Chatham. The conduct of affairs slipped into other hands: Charles Townshend, the Duke of Grafton, and Lord Shelburne. In 1767 Townshend, against the opposition of Shelburne, introduced a Bill imposing duties on American imports of paper, glass, lead, and tea. There was rage in America. The supply of coin in the colonies would be still more depleted, and any surplus from the new revenue was not, as originally stated, to be used for the upkeep of the British garrisons but to pay British colonial officials. This threatened to make them independent of the colonial assemblies, whose chief weapon against truculent governors had been to withhold their salaries. Even so, revolt was still far from their minds.
Intelligent men, like Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts, preferred not to impose taxes at all if they could not be enforced, and declared that another repeal would only “facilitate the designs of those persons who appear to be aiming at independency.” John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, in his Letters from a Farmer, voiced the opposition in the most widely read pamphlet of the time. It was studiously cautious in tone, and at this stage there were few people who desired secession. The authority of Parliament over the colonies was formally denied, but there was a general loyalty to King and Empire. Most of the opposition still came from respectable merchants, who believed that organised but limited resistance on the commercial plane would bring the British Government to reason.
The Massachusetts Assembly accordingly proposed a joint petition with the other colonial bodies against the new duties. Colonial resistance was now being organised on a continental scale and the barriers of provincialism and jealousy were being lowered. Non-importation agreements were concluded and there was a systematic and most successful boycott of English goods. But tempers began to rise. In May 1768 the sloop Liberty, belonging to John Hancock, the most prominent Boston merchant, was stopped and searched near the coast by Royal Customs officers. The colonists rescued it by force. By 1769 British exports to America had fallen by one-half. The Cabinet was not seriously apprehensive, but perturbed. It agreed to drop the duties, except on tea. By a majority of one this was carried. Parliament proclaimed its sovereignty over the colonies by retaining a tax on tea of threepence a pound.
Suddenly by some mysterious operation of Nature the clouds which had gathered round Chatham’s intellect cleared. Ill-health had forced him to resign in 1768, and he had been succeeded in office by Grafton. The scene on which he reopened his eyes was lurid enough to dismay any man. In England, as we have seen, a senseless craving for revenge had driven the King and his friends in Parliament to an attempt to expel John Wilkes from the House, which was in fact an attack on the rights of electors throughout the country. The unknown “Junius” was flaying every Minister who provoked his lash. In America blood had not yet flowed, but all the signs of a dissolution of the Empire were there for those who could read them. But George III, after twelve years’ intrigue, had at last got a docile, biddable Prime Minister. Lord North became First Lord of the Treasury in 1770. A charming man, of good abilities and faultless temper, he presided over the loss of the American colonies.
At first all seemed quiet. The American merchants were delighted at the repeal of the import duties, and by the middle of 1770 reconciliation seemed complete, except in Boston. Here Samuel Adams, fertile organiser of resistance and advocate of separation, saw that the struggle was now reaching a crucial stage. Hitherto the quarrel had been at bottom a commercial dispute, and neither the American merchants nor the English Ministers had any sympathy for his ideas. Adams feared that the resistance of the colonies would crumble and the British would reassert their authority unless more trouble was stirred up. This he and other Radical leaders proceeded to do.
News that the duties were withdrawn had hardly reached America when the first blood was shed. Most of the British garrison was stationed in Boston. The troops were unpopular with the townsfolk, and Adams spread evil rumours of their conduct. The “lobsters” in their scarlet coats were insulted and jeered at wherever they appeared. In March 1770 the persistent snowballing by Boston urchins of an English sentry outside the custom-house caused a riot. In the confusion and shouting some of the troops opened fire and there were casualties. This “massacre” was just the sort of incident that Adams had hoped for. But moderate men of property were nervous, and opinion in the colonies remained disunited and uncertain. The Radicals persisted. In June 1772 rioters burned the British Revenue cutter H.M.S. Gaspee, off Rhode Island.
“Committees of Correspondence” were set up throughout Massachusetts, and by the end of the year had spread to seventy-five towns. The Virginian agitators, led by the young Patrick Henry, created a standing committee of their Assembly to keep in touch with the other colonies, and a chain of such bodies was quickly formed. Thus the machinery of revolt was quietly and efficiently created.
Nevertheless the Radicals were still in a minority and there was much opposition to an abrupt break with England. Benjamin Franklin, one of the leading colonial representatives in London, wrote as late as 1773: “. . . There seem to be among us some violent spirits who are for an immediate rupture; but I trust that the general prudence of our country will see that by our growing strength we advance fast to a situation in which our claims must be allowed, that by a premature struggle we may be crippled and kept down, . . . that between governed and governing every mistake in government, every encroachment on right, is not worth a rebellion, . . . remembering withal that this Protestant country (our mother, though lately an unkind one) is worth preserving, and that her weight in the scales of Europe and her safety in a great degree may depend on our union with her.” In spite of the Boston “massacre,” the violence on the high seas, and the commercial squabbles, the agitations of Adams and his friends were beginning to peter out, when Lord North committed a fatal blunder.
The East India Company was nearly bankrupt, and the Government had been forced to come to its rescue. An Act was passed through Parliament, attracting little notice among the Members, authorising the company to ship tea, of which it had an enormous surplus, direct to the colonies, without paying import duties, and to sell it through its own agents in America. Thus in effect the company was granted a monopoly. The outcry across the Atlantic was instantaneous. The extremists denounced it as an invasion of their liberties, and the merchants were threatened with ruin. American shippers who brought tea from the British customs-houses and their middle-men who sold it would all be thrown out of business. The Act succeeded where Adams had failed: it united colonial opinion against the British.
The Radicals, who began to call themselves “Patriots,” seized their opportunity to force a crisis. In December 1773 the first cargoes were lying in Boston. Rioters disguised as Red Indians boarded the ships and destroyed the cases. “Last night,” wrote John Adams, Samuel’s cousin, and later the second President of the United States, “three cargoes of Bohea tea were emptied into the sea. . . . This is the most magnificent movement of all. There is a dignity, a majesty and sublimity in this last effort of the Patriots that I greatly admire. . . . This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid, and inflexible, and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history. This however is but an attack upon property. Another similar exertion of popular power may produce the destruction of lives. Many persons wish that as many dead carcases were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea. A much less number of lives however would remove the causes of all our calamities.”
When the news reached London the cry went up for coercion and the reactionaries in the British Government became supreme. In vain Burke and Chatham pleaded for conciliation. Parliament passed a series of “Coercion Acts” which suspended the Massachusetts Assembly, declared the colony to be under Crown control, closed the port of Boston, and decreed that all judges in the colony were henceforth to be appointed by the Crown. These measures were confined to Massachusetts; only one of them, the Quartering Act, applied to the rest of the colonies, and this declared that troops were to be quartered throughout all of them to preserve order. Thus it was hoped to isolate the resistance. It had the opposite effect.
In September 1774 the colonial assemblies held a congress at Philadelphia. The extremists were not yet out of hand, and the delegates still concentrated on commercial boycotts. An association was formed to stop all trade with England unless the Coercion Acts were repealed, and the Committees of Correspondence were charged with carrying out the plan. A Declaration of Rights demanded the rescinding of some thirteen commercial Acts passed by the British Parliament since 1763. The tone of this document, which was dispatched to London, was one of respectful moderation. But in London all moderation was cast aside. The “sugar interest” in the House of Commons, jealous of colonial competition in the West Indies; Army officers who despised the colonial troops; the Government, pressed for money and blinded by the doctrine that colonies only existed for the benefit of the Mother Country: all combined to extinguish the last hope of peace. The petition was rejected with contempt.
Events now moved swiftly. The Massachusetts Military Governor, General Thomas Gage, tried to enforce martial law, but the task was beyond him. Gage was an able soldier, but he had only four thousand troops and could hold no place outside Boston. The Patriots had about ten thousand men in the colonial militia. In October they set up a “Committee of Safety,” and most of the colonies started drilling and arming. Collection of military equipment and powder began. Cannon were seized from Government establishments. Agents were sent abroad to buy weapons. Both France and Spain refused the British Government’s request to prohibit the sale of gunpowder to the Americans, and Dutch merchants shipped it in large glass bottles labelled “Spirits.”
The Patriots began accumulating these warlike stores at Concord, a village twenty miles from Boston, where the Massachusetts Assembly, which Parliament had declared illegal, was now in session. Gage decided to seize their ammunition and arrest Samuel Adams and his colleague John Hancock. But the colonists were on the alert. Every night they patrolled the streets of Boston watching for any move by the English troops. As Gage gathered his men messengers warned the assembly at Concord. The military supplies were scattered among towns farther north and Adams and Hancock moved to Lexington. On April 18, 1775, eight hundred British troops set off in darkness along the Concord road. But the secret was out. From the steeple of the North Church, messengers were warned with lantern signals. One of the patrols, Paul Revere, mounted his horse and rode hard to Lexington, rousing Adams and Hancock from their beds and urging them to flight.
At five o’clock in the morning the local militia of Lexington, seventy strong, formed up on the village green. As the sun rose the head of the British column, with three officers riding in front, came into view. The leading officer, brandishing his sword, shouted, “Disperse, you rebels, immediately!” The militia commander ordered his men to disperse. The colonial committees were very anxious not to fire the first shot, and there were strict orders not to provoke open conflict with the British regulars. But in the confusion someone fired. A volley was returned. The ranks of the militia were thinned and there was a general mêleé. Brushing aside the survivors, the British column marched on to Concord. But now the countryside was up in arms and the bulk of the stores had been moved to safety. It was with difficulty that the British straggled back to Boston, with the enemy close at their heels. The town was cut off from the mainland. The news of Lexington and Concord spread to the other colonies, and Governors and British officials were expelled. With strategic insight the forts at the head of the Hudson valley were seized by Patriot troops under Ethan Allen, leader of the “Green Mountain Boys” from the region that became Vermont, and of Benedict Arnold, a merchant from Connecticut. The British were thus denied any help from Canada, and the War of Independence had begun.