The Gaspée was a British customs schooner under a bellicose commander, Lieutenant Dudington, who pursued his task as if he carried a personal warrant from the King to stamp out smuggling in the thousand isles and inlets of Narragansett Bay. Boarding and examining every ship he met, threatening to blow recalcitrant skippers out of the water, he aroused a lust for revenge in the Rhode Islanders that found its moment when his schooner ran aground below Providence. Within hours local seafarers organized eight boatloads of men who attacked the ship, wounded Lieutenant Dudington, put him and his crew ashore and burned the Gaspée.
As so often, Britain’s response started out sternly and ended feebly. The Attorney-General and Solicitor-General decided that the attack on the Gaspée was an act of war on the King and as such was treasonable, requiring the culprits to be sent to England for trial. First they had to be discovered. A Royal Proclamation offered a £500 reward and the King’s pardon to informants, and an imposing Commission of Inquiry consisting of the Governor of Rhode Island and the chief justices of New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts and of the Vice-Admiralty Court of Boston was appointed to indict the suspects. This announcement revived every slumbering suspicion of a conspiracy against liberty. Rhode Island, together with Massachusetts the most intractable of the colonies, shook with cries of “Tyranny!” and “Slavery!” “Ten thousand deaths by the haltar and the ax” proclaimed the Newport Mercury in outraged italics, were preferable “to a miserable life of slavery in chains under a pack of worse than Egyptian tyrants.” No informants came forward; no suspects could be found although every neighbor knew who they were. After several hollow sessions in Newport, the Court of Inquiry in all their wigs and scarlet sheepishly adjourned, never to reconvene. One more chastisement went unexecuted, confirming the perception of Britain as both despotic in intent and ineffectual in execution.
The consequence was important because Rhode Island’s roars of protest caused a decisive step toward unity. Following a model created among the towns of Massachusetts, Virginia’s House of Burgesses invited the colonies to form Committees of Correspondence to consult on joint acts and methods of resistance. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry served on Virginia’s Committee. This was the beginning of the development toward intercolonial union, which Britain remained confident could never occur and on whose non-occurrence her confidence rested. The Committees excited little attention—except in moments of confrontation, American affairs on the whole did not. The letters of Mrs. Delany, a well-connected lady and wife of an Anglican dean who corresponded actively throughout this period with friends and relatives in social and literary circles, do not notice America at all.
The two legal officers of the home government who were immediately responsible for the Gaspée order, Edward Thurlow, the Attorney-General, and Alexander Wedderburn, the Solicitor-General, were an unpleasant pair. Unmanageable as a schoolboy, expelled from Cambridge University for insolence and misconduct, surly and assertive in the law, Thurlow had a savage temper and reputedly the foulest mouth in London. He was nevertheless an impressive figure, although according to Charles James Fox his deep voice and solemn aspect proved him dishonest “since no man could be as wise as he looked.” His treatment of defendants in court was often offensive. In policy he was inflexible on the demonstration of British sovereignty over America and, although Lord North was known to hate him, the King eventually rewarded his firm support with appointment as Lord Chancellor and a barony to go with it. Equally coercive as regards America, Wedderburn was a Scot of voracious ambition who would use any means, suck up to or betray any associate, to gain advancement. “There was something about him,” said an acquaintance, “that even treachery could not trust.” Although despised by the King, he too eventually became Lord Chancellor.
Yet it was the Cabinet, in which Thurlow and Wedderburn had no place, that ordered the Court of Inquiry and the summons for trial in England, and it was “the good Lord Dartmouth,” as Hillsborough’s successor, who signed the order. In response to an attack on the state, they acted with every conviction of righteousness, and if it was the proper response from the ruler’s point of view, it was utter folly as practical politics. Given the known outrage at the idea of transporting Americans to trial in England, and the obvious unreality of expecting Rhode Islanders to mark their fellows for that fate, the mischief once more lay “in asserting a right you know you cannot exert.” This became very openly apparent at Newport, the hub of coastal communication, from where the impression of the mother country as ineffectual quickly spread.
Lord Dartmouth, although a stepbrother of Lord North, with whom he had grown up and shared the Grand Tour, was an earnest friend of America, possibly as a result of his having joined the Methodists, whose missions and preaching in America were a major activity. Amiable and pious and said to be the model of the virtuous Sir Charles Grandison in Samuel Richardson’s novel of that name, Dartmouth was nicknamed the “psalm-singer.” He had served as President of the Board of Trade in the Rockingham ministry, though credited with very little administrative capacity. Lord North brought him in as Secretary of State for the Colonies when Hillsborough, as a result of an intrigue against him by the Bedfords for reasons of place, not policy, was forced to resign. Alone in the Cabinet as pro-American, Dartmouth “wishes sincerely a good understanding with the colonies,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “but does not have strength equal to his wishes” and while wishing “for the best measure is easily prevailed with to join in the worst.” Gradually, as American intransigence defeated his well-meant paternalism, he was to turn against conciliation in favor of repression.
At this point tea becomes the catalyst. The financial troubles and notorious abuses of the East India Company and its complex financial connections with the Crown had for years been a problem almost as intractable as Wilkes and are relevant here only because they precipitated the period of no return in the British-American quarrel. To evade the tea duty, Americans had been smuggling Dutch tea, reducing the sale of the Company’s tea by almost two-thirds. To rescue the Company, whose solvency was essential to London for an amount of £400,000 a year, Lord North devised a scheme by which the surplus tea piling up in Company warehouses could be sold directly to America, skipping England and the English customs duty. If the duty in America was reduced to 3d. a pound, the tea could be sold at 10s. instead of 20s. a pound. Considering the Americans’ known extraordinary fondness for tea, the lowered price was expected to overcome their patriotic resistance to paying duty. A million Americans reportedly drank tea twice a day, and according to one report from Philadelphia “the women are such slaves to it that they would rather go without their dinner than without a dish of tea.” Since the collapse of Non-Importation, restored trade, apart from tea, had mollified both sides and many people thought past troubles were now a bygone issue. The Tea Act of May 1773 accordingly passed by Parliament with no expectation of another American outburst.
That the British were invincibly uninformed—and stayed uninformed—about the people they insisted on ruling was a major problem of the imperial-colonial relationship. Only some fifteen years had elapsed, Colonel Barré told Josiah Quincy, agent of Massachusetts, since two-thirds of the people of Great Britain were of the opinion that Americans were Negroes. Americans in London like Arthur Lee of Virginia, who had been partly educated in England and lived there for ten years prior to hostilities, and Henry Laurens, a wealthy merchant-planter of Charleston and future President of the Continental Congress, and such other South Carolina planters as Ralph Izard and Charles Pinckney associated mostly with merchants and men of the City. Although friendly with Burke, Shelburne and other partisans, they had no entrée into aristocratic society, which in turn knew nothing of them.
Pamphlets and petitions, Dickinson’s Letters, Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America and many other polemics on issues and sentiments of the colonies were published in London, but the peers and country squires hardly read them. Special agents like Josiah Quincy were more often than not refused hearings in the Commons on one technical ground or another. “In all companies I have endeavored to give a true state of the affairs of the Continent and of the genuine sentiments of its inhabitants,” Quincy wrote home, but he added no assurance of a successful effort. Fixed in the preconception of “our inherent pre-eminence,” in Hillsborough’s phrase, Englishmen held to the view of Americans as uncouth obstreperous trouble-makers, regardless of the example in their midst, among others, of Benjamin Franklin, as variously talented and politically sophisticated as anyone in Europe, and thoroughly dedicated to the goal of reconciliation.
The attitude of America’s friends was also wide of the mark. Rockingham thought of Britain as the parent and the colonies as “the children [who] ought to be dutiful.” Chatham shared this view, although if either had visited America, attended the colonial assemblies, experienced the mood of the people, he might have come away with some remedial knowledge. It is an astonishing fact that, apart from Army and Navy officers, no minister of a British government from 1763 to 1775, much less before or after, ever visited the trans-Atlantic provinces upon which they felt the empire depended.
They were more determined to maintain a firm hold because they believed that the Americans were bent on rebellion and their independence would mean England’s ruin. Chatham’s insistence on conciliation was based on his fear that if America were driven to resistance by force and the empire were lost, France or Spain would acquire it and “if this happens, England is no more.” Losing that tremendous stake, she would be cut off from development as a world power. Murkily, the King had something of this in mind when he wrote, “We must get the Colonies in order before we engage our neighbors.”
In another sense, too, Chatham felt, as many did, that England’s fate was tied to the colonies, “for if liberty be not countenanced in America, it will sicken, fade and die in this country.” That was the argument of liberty. The argument of power held that if untaxed, the colonies would attract many English skilled workmen and manufacturers to settle there, would prosper and eventually dominate, leaving old England “A poor deserted deplorable Kingdom.” Letters to the press worried this theme, some predicting that America would soon surpass in population the mother country “and then how are we to rule them?” or even become the seat of empire after two centuries. If Americans outnumbered Englishmen, stated the St. James Chronicle on Christmas Eve 1772, then only natural interest and friendship in some form of commonwealth could keep America attached to Britain, so that united they might “defy the world in arms.”
The Tea Act proved a startling disappointment. Instead of happily acquiescing in cheap tea, Americans exploded in wrath not so much from popular feeling as from agitation inspired by the merchants, who saw themselves eliminated as wholesalers and their trade ruined through underselling by the East India Company. Ship owners and builders, captains and crews, whose livelihood was in smuggling, also felt threatened. Political agitators, delighted to have a cause again, accommodated them. They raised the horrid cry of “Monopoly” about to grip America by a company notorious for its “black, sordid and Cruel Avarice.” If established in tea, it would soon extend to spices, silks, chinaware and other commodities. Once India tea was accepted in America, the 3 d. duty would “enter the bulwark of our sacred liberties” and would accomplish Parliament’s purpose of taxation for revenue; nor would its authors desist “till they have made a conquest of the whole.”
Peace-makers in the colonies hoped to arrange return of the tea ships before any cargo was unloaded and duty paid. This was accomplished in ports other than Boston by raising the threat of mobs and frightening the Company’s consignees into resigning as purveyors to the retail grocers. In Boston, two of the consignees were sons of Governor Hutchinson, who had come to believe in a firm stand against the agitators. They stood ready to take delivery. The first tea ship docked at a Boston wharf on 1 December 1773, followed by two more. Because unloaded cargoes after a stated period were liable to seizure by customs commissioners for nonpayment of duty, the patriots suspected the commissioners would sell the confiscated cargo under the counter for revenue. To forestall them and perhaps also to intimidate any hopeful purchasers, they boarded the ships during the night of 16 December and in the enterprise to be known forever after as the Boston Tea Party, slashed open the tea chests and dumped the contents into the water.
News of this criminal attack on property, which reached London as early as 20 January, exasperated the British. It wrecked the plan for quiet establishment of a revenue tax, jeopardized the finances of the East India Company and proved the people of Massachusetts to be incorrigible insurrectionists. Britain’s interest might have suggested at this point a review of the series of increasingly negative results in the colonies with the aim of re-directing the by now alarming course of events. That would have required thought instead of mere reaction, and pause for serious thought is not a habit of governments. The ministers of George III were no exception.
They launched themselves instead upon that series of measures generally called the Coercive or Punitive Acts, and in America the Intolerable Acts, which served to advance antagonism in the direction it was already pointing and to pass the fork in the road at which another path might have led to another outcome.
As an act of war upon Crown property, the Tea Party was adjudged another case of treason. Judiciously deciding to avoid the embarrassment of the Gaspée procedure, the Cabinet chose instead to punish Boston as a whole by act of Parliament. Accordingly, a bill was presented to close the port of Boston to all commerce until indemnity had been paid to the East India Company and reparations to the customs commissioners for damages suffered, and until “peace and obedience to the Laws” was assured sufficiently that trade might be safely carried on and customs duly collected.
While preparing the bill, the Cabinet, having learned nothing from the ten years of angry protests since Grenville’s first tax, expected, as always, no trouble. Ministers believed the other colonies would condemn the Bostonians’ destruction of property, would not intervene on their behalf and might indeed be happy to absorb the tea diverted to their ports by the closing of Boston. Wooden-headedness enjoyed no finer hour. To respond angrily and positively to the grand larceny on the wharves was natural and lawful, but to suppose that the Boston Port Bill would contribute to control of the situation or to the stability of empire or be regarded with equanimity by Massachusetts’ neighbors was to let emotional reaction prevail over every indication of recent evidence.
Emotionalism is always a contributory source of folly. It showed itself at this time in the savage glee of which Benjamin Franklin was made a target at the hearings in the affair of the Hutchinson letters. These letters to Thomas Whately, the Treasury Secretary, advising more emphatic measures to suppress the rebelliousness of Massachusetts had been acquired by Franklin sub rosa and when published caused Massachusetts, in a fury against Hutchinson, to petition Parliament for his dismissal as Governor. Wedderburn conducted the examination of Franklin in hearings on the petition in a chamber aptly called the Cockpit before 35 members of the Privy Council, the largest number ever to attend such a hearing, and an eager audience of peers, M.P.S and other guests. They responded with snickering delight and open laughter as Wedderburn rose through sneers and jibes to heights of brilliant and malevolent invective depicting the most influential American in London as a thief and a traitor. Lord North was reported to be the only listener who did not laugh. Franklin was dismissed next day by the Crown from his post as Deputy Postmaster of the colonies, which did nothing to encourage the man who was the strongest advocate of accommodation, and Franklin did not forget. Four years later, when signing the Treaty of Alliance with France that confirmed the birth of his nation, he dressed himself in the same suit of Manchester velvet he had worn under Wedderburn’s torment.
Sentiment against Boston was so strongly with the Government that the Port Bill excited no disapproval at its first two readings; even Barré and Henry Conway spoke in favor of firm action. At the third reading, opposition speakers found their voice, pointing out that other ports had sent the tea back to England and urging that Boston be given a chance to pay the indemnity before her commerce was cut off. The most important statement was made by a person with experience on the spot, former Governor George Johnstone of West Florida, who warned “that the effect of the present Bill must be productive of a General Confederation, to resist the power of this country.” Few listened to his prophecy. Opposition speakers, admitted Burke, who was one of them, “made so little impression” that the House did not need to divide for the vote. In the Lords, Shelburne, Camden and the Duke of Richmond deplored the bill with no greater effect. The Boston Port Bill passed through Parliament like melted butter.
Three more Coercive Acts followed in rapid succession. First was the Massachusetts Regulatory Act, virtually annulling the charter of the Bay colony. Rights of election and appointment of officials, representatives, judges and juries and the basic right to summon town meetings, all that had been at “the sole disposal of her own internal government,” in Burke’s phrase, were taken over by the Crown acting through the Governor. Not unnaturally, this suggested to other colonies that what was done to Massachusetts could be done to them. The Administration of Justice Act followed, which allowed Crown officials accused of crime in Massachusetts who claimed they could not be assured a fair trial to be tried in England or in another colony. This was an insult considering that Boston had leaned over backward to give Captain Preston, commanding officer in the “Massacre,” a fair trial with defense by John Adams and had acquitted him. Next, the annual Quartering Act added a new provision authorizing, in case of any refusal to furnish barracks, the billeting of troops in citizens’ homes, taverns and other buildings. At the same time, General Gage was ordered to Boston to take over from Hutchinson as Governor.
The most furiously resented of the measures, though it was not one of the Coercive Acts, was the simultaneous Quebec Act extending Canada’s boundaries to the Ohio River, where Virginia and other colonies had territorial claims. The Act also formulated terms of civil government in Canada providing for the right of taxation by Parliament, for trial without jury according to the French manner and for toleration of the Catholic religion. Since 95 percent of Canadians were Catholic, this was a surprisingly sensible measure of toleration, but it gave the colonists and their friends in England a fiery issue. Roars of “Popery” thundered. The Inquisition was forecast for Pennsylvania, the “carnage of a St. Batholomew’s Day” foreseen in Philadelphia, the whore of Babylon invoked, a “Popish army” and “Popish hordes” pictured by Lord Camden as ready to subvert the liberties of the Protestant colonies. As for the elimination of trial by jury, it was declared by the St. James Chronicle “too scandalous a clause to have been framed by any Englishman.” A motive for this strangely ill-timed act granting favors to the Canadians may have been the hope of winning their loyalty in order that they might help to check any American outbreak. Yet if any intention remained of calming and eventually reconciling the colonies, passage of the Quebec Act on top of the Coercive Acts was a perfect model of how not to proceed.
How much of the Government’s ineptitude was ignorance and how much deliberate provocation, as the opposition firmly believed, is impossible to say. Governor Johnstone once remarked rather helplessly in the Commons that he noticed “a great disposition in this House to proceed in this business without knowing anything of the constitution of America.” Ignorance was certainly a factor.
The measures of March–June 1774 roused the opposition to real apprehension and to explicit warnings of dire consequences. Coming use of force could be sensed and the prospect of its use against people of English blood and tradition appalled many. John Dunning, a liberal-minded lawyer who had served as Solicitor-General in Grafton’s ministry and who would later summarize matters toward the end of the war in the memorable Dunning’s Resolution, saw in the Coercive Acts a trend toward “war, severe revenge and hatred against our own subjects.” It was the lack of chance of success that disturbed others. Major General William Howe, who had scaled the Heights of Abraham with Wolfe at Quebec, told his constituents while canvassing for the election of 1774 that the whole British Army together would not be enough to conquer America. General John Burgoyne, who also held a seat in Parliament, said he would like “to see America convinced by persuasion rather than the sword.”
Ministers too were warned. Henry Laurens, when consulted by Dartmouth as to the probable effect of the Coercive Acts, prophesied, as had Governor Johnstone in Parliament, that the people “from Georgia to New Hampshire would be animated to form such an Union and phalanx of resistance” as had hitherto been thought only a miracle could accomplish. But the fate of warnings in political affairs is to be futile when the recipient wishes to believe otherwise. In formulating Cassandra’s curse—that she would tell the truth and not be believed—the ancient Greeks showed their remarkable early insight into the human psyche.
In the debate of 19 April 1774, on a motion by the opposition for repeal of the tea duty, Burke delivered the foundation speech of his views on the American question. It was an immense peroration on the successive acts and repeals, the vacillations and equivocations, the empty menaces, false assumptions and history of colonial policy all the way back to the Navigation Acts and forward to “the distempered vigor and insane alacrity with which you are rushing to your ruin.” Never, he said, “have the servants of the state looked at the whole of your complicated interests in one connected view.… They never had any system of right or wrong but only invented occasionally some miserable tale for the day in order meanly to sneak out of difficulties into which they had proudly strutted.… By such management, by the irresistible operation of feeble councils … they have shaken the pillars of a commercial empire that circled the globe.” Striking at the token assertion of authority—what today would be called credibility—he said, in words with a long echo, “They tell you that your dignity is tied to it.… This dignity is a terrible encumbrance to you for it has of late been ever at war with your interest, your equity and every idea of your policy.”
That “terrible encumbrance” has pursued policy-makers in every century. Benjamin Franklin, a wise man and one of the few who derived principles from political experience and were able to state them, wrote during the Stamp Act crisis that it should not be supposed that honor and dignity are better served “by persisting in a wrong measure once entered into than by rectifying an error as soon as it is discovered.”
In America, the Boston Port Bill ignited solidarity. In May, Rhode Island issued the first call for an intercolonial congress, while Connecticut towns held indignation meetings and took vows to rush aid in money and provisions to Boston and “to sprinkle American altars with our hearts’ blood” if occasion arose. The old Indian fighter and ranger of the Seven Years’ War, Colonel Israel Putnam, chairman of the Connecticut Committee of Correspondence, personally drove 130 sheep 100 miles from his home in Pomfret to Boston. Baltimore sent 1000 bushels of corn and ultimately gifts were received from all thirteen colonies. Patriot leaders demanded a complete denial of tea throughout the colonies, smuggling was stopped, the “hurtful trash” was burned on village greens and unappetizing herb potions called Liberty Tea substituted.
The summons to a congress was quickly supported by New York and Philadelphia and brought acceptances from twelve colonies during the summer. Many Americans had become convinced that, as Jefferson wrote in a draft of instructions to the Virginia delegates to the congress, Britain’s series of oppressions “pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
This became an article of faith in America. George Washington endorsed it, speaking of “a regular systematic plan [to] fix the shackles of slavery upon us.” Tom Paine maintained “it was the fixed determination of the British Cabinet to quarrel with America at all events” in order to suppress her charters and control her progress in population and property. The accusation was convenient because it justified the ultimate rebellion, and indeed if Britain had really been pursuing a plan to goad the colonies to insurrection in order to subjugate them, then her conduct of policy becomes rational. Unhappily for reason, that version cannot be reconciled to the repeals, the backings and fillings, the haphazard or individual decisions. Rather than “deliberate and systematical,” English policy, its critics complained, was exactly the opposite. “What enforcing and what repealing,” cried Burke; “what bullying and what submitting; what doing and undoing; what straining and what relaxing.… Let us embrace some sort of system before we end this session.… Let us hold some sort of consistent conduct.”
Believing, on the contrary, that England’s policy was consistent, Americans moved toward the overt break. By uniting the colonies into a whole, the Coercive Acts accomplished the same cohesion in the adversary as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor accomplished two centuries later—and with ultimately the same result. The first Continental Congress of 56 members representing all colonies except Georgia convened at Philadelphia in September 1774. They declared all acts of Parliament respecting the colonies since 1763 to have violated American rights and pledged themselves to renew Non-Importation until all were repealed. If there were no redress of grievances within a year, they would move to Non-Intercourse, that is, cessation of exports as well as imports. They adopted ten resolutions on the rights of self-government, including self-taxation by their own legislatures, and under pressure by the radicals, endorsed the Resolves taken by Suffolk County in Massachusetts, which declared the Coercive Acts to be unconstitutional and invalid, authorized no obedience until they were repealed and advised citizens to arm and form militia for defense if attacked. While acknowledging allegiance to the Crown, they considered themselves a “dominion” not subject to Parliament. In order not to alienate the conservatives among them, they issued no call for independence, “a Hobgoblin of so frightful mien,” declared John Adams, “that it would throw a delicate Person into Fits to look it in the face.”
Some were ready, however, for the alternative, as Jefferson phrased it in his instructions to the delegates of Virginia, of “union on a generous plan.” His conditions were that there must be no limitation of the colonies’ external trade and no taxation or regulation of their properties “by any power on earth except our own.” Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, leader of the conservatives at the Congress, officially presented a similar plan of “Proposed Union between Great Britain and her Colonies” but it found few delegates to support it. They were men who had no wish to combine with a Britain they thought of as corrupt, decadent and hostile to liberty. “When I consider,” wrote Franklin to Galloway, “the extreme corruption prevalent among all orders of men in this old rotten state” with its “numberless and needless places, enormous salaries, pensions, perquisites, bribes, groundless quarrels, foolish expeditions, false accounts or no accounts, contracts and jobs [that] devour all revenue …” he would fear more mischief than benefit from closer union.
As the crisis in relations worsened, the idea of union found advocates among progressive thinkers in England. In 1776, Adam Smith was to propose it in The Wealth of Nations as the means “to the prosperity, to the splendour, and to the duration of the empire.” In the same year, Dr. Richard Price, intellectual leader of the Non-conformists, proposed Anglo-American union on a basis of equality in his Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and War with America. Wrapped in Enlightenment, he based his case on the civil liberties that “reason and equity and the rights of humanity give.”
Here was the alternative to force on the one hand and rebellion on the other, although to say it was feasible at that time would be an overstatement. Majority opinion in Britain did not for a moment tolerate the idea of equality with the Americans, and federation could not have been reached in any case, for no one in power in England would have yielded the right to regulate trade. These were not, however, everyone’s conditions, and had there been desire and will on both sides to achieve it, some form of federation might have been slowly worked out. At that time it was too soon. Fixed ideas and biases were against it and the technology of overseas communication was a hundred years away.
England saw treason in the unpleasing unity of the Continental Congress. By now, resort to force had become an accepted idea. Increasingly alarming letters had been coming from General Gage, who reported that “the Flame of Sedition” was spreading rapidly, that it was not confined to a “faction” of agitators but shared by the generality of freeholders and farmers in Massachusetts and its neighbors, that they were assembling arms and ammunition and even artillery, and finally that all New England must be considered in open rebellion. In November the King acknowledged that “blows must decide” whether the colonies were to be subject or independent, and that he was “not sorry that the line of conduct seems now chalked out.”
The Cabinet reached a decision to send three warships with reinforcements, but with everyone busy canvassing for the election of that fall, action was postponed until the new Parliament should convene. Meanwhile within the Ministry, if not in the inner Cabinet, Viscount Barrington, the long-serving Secretary at War, entered a dissent. Although formerly in favor of a hard line toward America, he was one of the few in any group who allowed facts and developments to penetrate and influence their thinking. By 1774 he had come to believe that to coerce the colonies to the point of armed resistance would be disastrous. He had not turned pro-American or changed his political loyalties in any way; he had simply come to the professional conclusion, as he explained to Dartmouth in two letters of November and December 1774, that a land war in America would be useless, costly and impossible to win. Useless because it was plain that Britain could never successfully impose internal taxation; costly and impossible to win because conquered areas must be held by large armies and fortresses, “the expense of which would be ruinous and endless,” besides producing “the horrors and bloodshed of civil war.” Britain’s only war aim was proving supremacy without being able to use it; “I repeat, our contest is merely a point of honor” and “will cost us more than we can ever gain by success.”
Barrington proposed that rather than reinforcing the Army in Massachusetts, the troops should be withdrawn from Boston, leaving that city in its present “distracted state” until it should be better disposed to cooperate. Without small successes and the “violence of persecution” to animate the colonies, their rebelliousness would fade and they would eventually be ready to treat.
The earmark of so many follies—disproportion between effort and possible gain—and the “terrible encumbrance” of honor were here clearly expressed by Barrington, but since his office was not policy-making, merely administrative, his views had no effect. Required to implement a policy he did not believe in, he asked to resign, but the King and North held on to him, not wishing to reveal the doubters in their ranks.
In the City, popular opinion was strongly with the colonies to the extent that the freemen of London chose two Americans, Stephen Sayre of Long Island and William Lee of Virginia, as sheriffs. Candidates for the London seats were required to sign a pledge to support a bill giving America the right to elect its own Parliament and tax itself. With equal if opposite conviction a more notable Londoner, Dr. Samuel Johnson, expressed his view that the Americans were “a race of convicts and ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” His thumping pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny delighted the country squires, the universities, the Anglican clergy and all the firmly anti-American community. Privately, however, he acknowledged to Boswell that “administration is feeble and timid” and, as the year went on, that “the character of our own government at present is imbecility.”
The last chance for Britain to guard her own interest, to grasp an alternative that was feasible, was offered when Parliament convened in January 1775 by the outstanding statesman of his time, Lord Chatham, now ill and failing. On 20 January he moved for the immediate withdrawal of British forces from Boston as evidence that England could afford to “make the first advances for concord.” He said the troops were provocative without being effective. They might march from town to town enforcing a temporary submission, “but how shall you be able to secure the obedience of the country you leave behind you …?” Resistance to “your arbitrary system of taxation might have been foreseen.” What forces now would be required to put it down? “What, my Lords, a few regiments in America and 17,000 or 18,000 men at home! The idea is ridiculous.” To subdue a region extending over 1800 miles, populous in numbers, valorous and infused with the spirit of liberty would be impossible. To “establish despotism over such a mighty nation must be vain, must be fatal. We shall be forced ultimately to retreat: let us retreat when we can, not when we must.”
It was the masterful eloquence of the old Pitt, but arrogant in his mastery, he had ignored political necessities, failed to assemble supporters to vote for his motion, failed even to tell anyone except Shelburne that he was going to speak or make a motion. All he told Shelburne was that he was going to knock on the door of “this sleeping and confounded ministry.” His realism was hard, his foresight precisely on target, but the House did not want realities; it wanted to whip the Americans. Presented with Chatham’s unexpected motion, “the opposition stared and shrugged; the courtiers stared and laughed,” wrote Walpole, and the motion won only 18 votes against 68 nays.
Although his magic dominance was gone, Chatham had not lost the sense that “I know I can save this country and that I alone can.” After privately consulting with Benjamin Franklin and other Americans, he introduced on 1 February a bill for settlement of the American crisis which provided for repeal of the Coercive Acts, freedom from taxation for revenue without consent, recognition of the Continental Congress, which would then be responsible for assessing the colonies for self-taxation to raise revenue for the Crown in return for its expenses, and an independent judiciary with juries and no removal of accused for trial in England. The regulation of external trade and the right to deploy an army when necessary were to be retained by the Crown. Lord Gower, leader of the Bedfords since the Duke’s death, “rose in great heat” to condemn the bill as a betrayal of the rights of Parliament. “Every tie of interest, every motive of dignity, and every principle of good government,” he said, required the assertion of “legislative supremacy entire and undiminished.”
Thirty-two peers voted in favor of Chatham’s plan of settlement, although it was of course rejected by the majority. He could not save an empire for the unwilling. Embittered by sneers in the debate, he vented his frustration in a summary indictment as savage and unsparing as any government is ever likely to hear: “The whole of your political conduct has been one continued series of weakness, temerity, despotism, ignorance, futility, negligence, and notorious servility, incapacity and corruption.”
The next day the Government presented a bill declaring New England to be in rebellion and asking for augmented forces to reduce it to obedience. The nays in the Commons rose to 106, although the bill was quickly passed, together with a Restraining Act to bring economic pressure by excluding the New England colonies from the Newfoundland fisheries and prohibiting them from trade with any but British ports. The Cabinet nominated three general officers to serve in America: Major Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton. That their future held recall and a surrender was then unimaginable.
At the same time, three regiments were sent to reinforce General Gage, and the King asked Sir Jeffery Amherst, former Commander-in-Chief during the Seven Years’ War, to take command again of the forces in America on the ambivalent theory that as someone known and trusted in the colonies he might bring the “deluded people to due obedience without putting a dagger to their throats.” Whether from doubts of the outcome or distaste of the policy, Amherst, though offered a peerage, declined to serve against the Americans, “to whom he had been so much obliged.” He was not the last to make that refusal.
Suddenly North too seemed to vacillate. Pushed by Dartmouth, who was still trying for a peaceful settlement, he presented his own Conciliatory Proposition, which offered to exempt from taxation any individual colony that raised its own revenue for administration and defense in amounts that the King and Parliament approved. “Uncertainty, surprise, and distraction were seated on every countenance” until it became apparent that the plan was designed to divide the colonies against each other and that, since it offered no repeal of the Coercive Acts, it would not be accepted anyway.
Burke prolonged the last chance in a major effort and another enormous outpouring—for he never spoke in less than a torrent. His main point was “the absolute necessity of keeping up a concord of this empire by a unity of spirit.” This could only be managed, he said, by possessing the sovereignty but not exercising it. Whether they liked it or not, the American spirit of liberty existed; their forebears emigrated because of it, and it remained stronger in the English colonists than probably in any other people on earth. “It cannot be removed, it cannot be suppressed, therefore the only way that remains is to comply with it, or if you please, to submit to it as a necessary evil.” Here he reached the great prescription: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.” Let the Coercive Acts be repealed, let the Americans tax themselves “by grant and not by imposition.” Allow them freedom and opportunity to grow rich and they will supply all the more resources against France and Spain.
Large minds are needed for magnanimity. George III and his ministers and their majority in Parliament, heedless of reason and their ultimate interest, proceeded on their course toward suppression. It was plain that even if they should win, which experienced soldiers like Amherst and Howe thought doubtful, they would lose through the enmity created. This was not a hidden perception. “It is that kind of war in which even victory will ruin us,” wrote Walpole at this hour to his friend Horace Mann. Why were King and Cabinet blind to that outcome? Because they could think no further ahead than affirming supremacy and assumed without thinking about it that military victory over the “rabble” was a matter of course. They never doubted that Americans must succumb to British arms. This was the governing factor. A Colonel Grant, who said he had served in America and knew the Americans well, assured the House of Commons that “they would not fight. They would never dare to face an English army and did not possess any of the qualifications necessary to make a good soldier.” The House of Lords heard the same kind of thing. Lord Sandwich, replying to an opposition member who warned that the colonies would draw on unlimited numbers, said fatuously, “What does that signify? They are raw undisciplined cowardly men,” and the more the better because “if they did not run away, they would starve themselves into compliance with our measures.” He and his colleagues were glad to have the interminable quarrel with the colonies finally settled by force, which to those who feel themselves stronger always seems the easiest solution.
Further, they continued to believe, as Lord Gower put it, that the rebellious language of the Americans “was the language of the rabble and a few factional leaders,” and that the delegates to the Continental Congress, “far from expressing the true sense of the respectable part of their constituents,” had been chosen “by a kind of force in which people of consequence were afraid to interpose.” While there may have been a certain validity to his idea about the people of consequence, it was not as determining or as general as he supposed.
Lazy preparation was a product of these assumptions. Although the coming of hostilities was a predictable consequence of the Coercive Acts of the year before, no measures for military readiness had been undertaken in the interim. The swaggering Sandwich, long an advocate of forceful action, had done nothing as First Lord of the Admiralty to prepare the Navy, essential for transportation and blockade; in fact, he had reduced its strength by 4000 men, or a fifth of the total, as late as December 1774. “We took a step as decisive as the passage of the Rubicon,” General Burgoyne was to say some months later, “and now find ourselves plunged at once in a most serious war without a single requisition, gunpowder excepted, for carrying it on.”
In April 1775, General Gage, upon learning of a large quantity of rebel arms stored at Concord, twenty miles away, took the obvious decision to despatch a force to destroy the stores. Despite his attempted secrecy of movement, the warning signal lights flashed, the messengers rode, the Minute Men gathered at Lexington, exchanged fire and were scattered. While the redcoats marched on to Concord, the alerted countryside rose, men with their muskets poured in from every village and farm, and engaged the returning British troops in relentless pursuit with deadly accuracy of fire until the redcoats themselves had to be rescued by two regiments sent out from Boston. “The horrid Tragedy is commenced,” sadly acknowledged Stephen Sayre when news of the event reached London.
That actual war had commenced beyond retrieval seemed still uncertain in England, and the event inspired a last impassioned appeal to common sense from John Wesley, the Methodist leader. In a letter to Lord Dartmouth on 14 June, he wrote, “Waiving all considerations of right and wrong, I ask is it common sense to use force toward the Americans? Not 20,000 troops, not treble that number, fighting 3,000 miles away from home and supplies could hope to conquer a nation fighting for liberty.” From the reports of his preachers in America he knew that the colonists were not peasants ready to run at the sight of a redcoat or the sound of a musket, but hardy frontiersmen fit for war. They would not be easily defeated. “No, my Lord, they are terribly united.… For God’s sake,” Wesley concluded, “Remember Rehoboam! Remember Philip the Second! Remember King Charles the First!”