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George Washington
The First Gun
by Thayer, William Roscoe

Meanwhile the course of events was leading toward a new and unexpected goal. Chief Justice Marshall said, as I have quoted, that 1763, the end of the French-Indian War, marked the greatest friendship and harmony between the Colonies and England. The reason is plain. In their incessant struggles with the French and the Indians, the Colonists had discovered a real champion and protector. That protector, England, had found that she must really protect the Colonies unless she was willing to see them fall into the hands of her rival, France. Putting forth her strength, she crushed France in America, and remained virtually in control not only of the Colonies and territory from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, but also of British America. In these respects the Colonies and the Mother Country seemed destined to be bound more closely together; but the very spirit by which Britain had conquered France in America, and France in India, and had made England paramount throughout the world, prevented the further fusion, moral, social, and political, of the Colonies with the Mother Country.

That spirit was the Imperial Spirit, which Plassey and Quebec had called to life. The narrow Hanoverian King, who now ruled England, could not himself have devised the British Empire, but when the Empire crystallized, George III rightly surmised that, however it had come about, it meant a large increase in power for him. The Colonies and Dependencies were to be governed like conquered provinces. Evidently, the Hindus of Bengal could hardly be treated in the same fashion as were the Colonists of Massachusetts or Virginia. The Bengalese knew that there was no bond of language or of race between them and their conquerors, whereas American Colonists knew that they and the British sprang from the same race and spoke the same language. One of the first realizations that came to the British Imperialists was that the ownership of the conquered people or state warranted the conquerors in enriching themselves from the conquered. But while this might do very well in India, and be accepted there as a matter of course, it would be most ill-judged in the American Colonies, for the Colonists were not a foreign nor a conquered people. They originally held grants of land from the British Crown, but they had worked that land themselves and settled the wilderness by their own efforts, and had a right to whatever they might earn.

The Tory ideals, which took possession of the British Government when Lord Bute succeeded to William Pitt in power, were soon applied to England's relations to the American Colonies. The Seven Years' War left England heavily in debt. She needed larger revenues, and being now swayed by Imperialism, she easily found reasons for taxing the Colonies. In 1765 she passed the Stamp Act which caused so much bad feeling that in less than a year she decided to repeal it, but new duties on paper, glass, tea, and other commodities were imposed instead. In the North, Massachusetts took the lead in opposing what the Colonists regarded as the unconstitutional acts of the Crown. The patriotic lawyer of Boston, James Otis, shook the Colony with his eloquence against the illegal encroachments and actual tyranny of the English. Other popular orators of equal eminence, John and Samuel Adams and Josiah Quincy, fanned the flames of discontent. Even the most radical did not yet whisper the terrible word Revolution, or suggest that they aspired to independence. They simply demanded their "rights" which the arrogant and testy British Tories had shattered and were withholding from them. At the outset rebels seldom admit that their rebellion aims at new acquisitions, but only at the recovery of the old.

Next to Massachusetts, Virginia was the most vigorous of the Colonies in protesting against British usurpation of power, which would deprive them of their liberty. Although Virginia had no capital city like Boston, in which the chief political leaders might gather and discuss and plan, and mobs might assemble and equip with physical force the impulses of popular indignation, the Old Dominion had means, just as the Highland clans or the Arab tribes had, of keeping in touch with each other. Patrick Henry, a young Virginia lawyer of sturdy Scotch descent, by his flaming eloquence was easily first among the spokesmen of the rights of the Colonists in Virginia. In the "Parsons Cause," a lawsuit which might have passed quickly into oblivion had he not seen the vital implications concerned in it, he denied the right of the King to veto an act of the Virginia Assembly, which had been passed for the good of the people of Virginia. In the course of the trial he declared, "Government was a conditional compact between the King, stipulating protection on the one hand, and the people, stipulating obedience and support on the other," and he asserted that a violation of these covenants by either party discharged the other party from its obligations. Doctrines as outspoken as these uttered in court, whether right or wrong, indicated that the attorney who uttered them, and the judge who listened, and the audience who applauded, were not blind worshippers of the illegal rapacity of the Crown.

Patrick Henry was the most spectacular of the early champions of the Colonists in Virginia, but many others of them agreed with him. Among these the weightiest was the silent George Washington. He said little, but his opinions passed from mouth to mouth, and convinced many. In 1765 he wrote to Francis Dandridge, an uncle of Mrs. Washington:
The Stamp Act imposed on the colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain, engrosses the conversation of the speculative part of the colonists, who look upon this unconstitutional method of taxation, as a direful attack upon their liberties, and loudly exclaim against the violation. What may be the result of this, and of some other (I think I may add) ill-judged measures, I will not undertake to determine; but this I may venture to affirm, that the advantage accruing to the mother country will fall greatly short of the expectations of the ministry; for certain it is, that an whole substance does already in a manner flow to Great Britain, and that whatsoever contributes to lessen our importations must be hurtful to their manufacturers. And the eyes of our people, already beginning to open, will perceive, that many luxuries, which we lavish our substance in Great Britain for, can well be dispensed with, whilst the necessaries of life are (mostly) to be had within ourselves. This, consequently, will introduce frugality, and be a necessary stimulation to industry. If Great Britain, therefore, loads her manufacturies with heavy taxes, will it not facilitate these measures? They will not compel us, I think, to give our money for their exports, whether we will or not; and certain I am, none of their traders will part from them without a valuable consideration. Where then, is the utility of the restrictions? As to the Stamp Act, taken in a single view, one and the first bad consequence attending it, I take to be this, our courts of judicature must inevitably be shut up; for it is impossible, (or next of kin to it), under our present circumstances, that the act of Parliament can be complied with, were we ever so willing to enforce the execution; for, not to say, which alone would be sufficient, that we have not money to pay the stamps, there are many other cogent reasons, to prevent it; and if a stop be put to our judicial proceedings, I fancy the merchants of Great Britain, trading to the colonies, will not be among the last to wish for a repeal of it.[Footnote: Ford, II, 209-10.]
This passage would suffice, were there not many similar which might be quoted, to prove that Washington was from the start a loyal American. A legend which circulated during his lifetime, and must have been fabricated by his enemies, for I find no evidence to support it either in his letters or in other trustworthy testimony, insinuated that he was British at heart and threw his lot in with the Colonists only when war could not be averted. In 1770 the merchants of Philadelphia drew up an agreement in which they pledged themselves to practise non-importation of British goods sent to America. Washington's wise neighbor and friend, George Mason, drafted a plan of association of similar purport to be laid before the Virginia Burgesses. But Lord Botetourt, the new Royal Governor, deemed some of these resolutions dangerous to the prerogative of the King, and dissolved the Assembly. The Burgesses, however, met at Anthony Hay's house and adopted Mason's Association. Washington, who was one of the signers of the Association, wrote to his agents in London: "I am fully determined to adhere religiously to it."

Five years had now elapsed since the British Tories attempted to fix on the Colonies the Stamp Act, and although they had withdrawn that hateful law, the relations between the Mother Country and the Colonists had not improved. Far from it. The English issued a series of irritating provisions which convinced the Colonists that the Government had no real desire to be friendly, and that, on the contrary, it intended to make no distinction between them and the other conquered provinces of the Crown. Then and always, the English forgot that the Colonists were men of their own stock, equally stubborn in their devotion to principles, and probably more accessible to scruples of conscience. So they were not likely to be frightened into subjection. The governing class in England was in a state of mind which has darkened its judgment more than once; the state of mind which, when it encounters an obstacle to its plans, regards that obstacle as an enemy, and remarks in language brutally frank, though not wholly elegant: "We will lick him first and then decide who is right." In 1770 King George III, who fretted at all seasons at the slowness with which he was able to break down the ascendency of the Whigs, manipulated the Government so as to make Lord North Prime Minister. Lord North was a servant, one might say a lackey, after the King's own heart. He abandoned lifelong traditions, principles, fleeting whims, prejudices even, in order to keep up with the King's wish of the moment. After Lord North became Prime Minister, the likelihood of a peaceful settlement between the crown and the Colonies lessened. He ran ahead of the King in his desire to serve the King's wishes, and George III, by this time, was wrought up by the persistent tenacity of the Whigs--he wished them dead, but they would not die--and he was angered by the insolence of the Colonists who showed that they would not shrink from forcibly resisting the King's command. On both sides of the Atlantic a vehement and most enlightening debate over constitutional and legal fundamentals still went on. Although the King had packed Parliament, not all the oratory poured out at Westminster favored the King. On the contrary, the three chief masters of British eloquence at that time, and in all time--Edmund Burke, William Pitt, and Charles James Fox--spoke on the side of the Colonists. Reading the magnificent arguments of Burke to-day, we ask ourselves how any group in Parliament could have withstood them. But there comes a moment in every vital discussion when arguments and logic fail to convince. Passions deeper than logic controlled motives and actions. The Colonists contended that in proclaiming "no taxation without representation," they were appealing to a principle of Anglo-Saxon liberty inherent in their race. When King George, or any one else, denied this principle, he denied an essential without which Anglo-Saxon polity could not survive, but neither King George nor Lord North accepted the premises. If they had condescended to reply at all, they might have sung the hymn of their successors a hundred years later:
  "We don't want to fight,
  But by jingo! if we do,
  We've got the men, we've got the ships,
  We've got the money too."
Meanwhile, the Virginia Planter watched the course of events, pursued his daily business regularly, attended the House of Burgesses when it was in session, said little, but thought much. He did not break out into invective or patriotic appeals. No doubt many of his acquaintances thought him lukewarm in spirit and non-committal; but persons who knew him well knew what his decision must be. As early as April 5, 1769, he wrote his friend, George Mason:
At a time, when our lordly masters in Great Britain will be satisfied with nothing less than the deprivation of American freedom, it seems highly necessary that something should be done to avert the stroke, and maintain the liberty, which we have derived from our ancestors. But the manner of doing it, to answer the purpose effectually, is the point in question.

That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment, to use a--ms in defence of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends, is clearly my opinion. Yet a--ms, I would beg leave to add, should be the last resource, the dernier resort. Addresses to the throne, and remonstrances to Parliament, we have already, it is said, proved the inefficiency of. How far, then, their attention to our rights and privileges is to be awakened or alarmed, by starving their trade and manufacturers, remains to be tried.[Footnote: Ford, II, 263-64.]
Thus wrote the Silent Member six years before the outbreak of hostilities, and he did not then display any doubt either of his patriotism, or of the course which every patriot must take. To his intimates he spoke with point-blank candor. Years later, George Mason wrote to him:
I never forgot your declaration, when I had last the pleasure of being at your house in 1768, that you were ready to take your musket upon your shoulder whenever your country called upon you.
Some writers point out that Washington excelled rather as a critic of concrete plans than of constitutional and legal aspects. Perhaps this is true. Assuredly he had no formal legal training. There were many other men in Massachusetts, in Virginia, and in some of the other Colonies, who could and did analyze minutely the Colonists' protest against taxation without representation, and the British rebuttal thereof; but Washington's strength lay in his primal wisdom, the wisdom which is based not on conventions, even though they be laws and constitutions, but on a knowledge of the ways in which men will react toward each other in their primitive, natural relations. In this respect he was one of the wisest among the statesmen.

He does not seem to have joined in such clandestine methods as those of the Committees of Correspondence, which Samuel Adams and some of the most radical patriots in the Bay State had organized, but he said in the Virginia Convention, in 1774: "I will raise one thousand men, subsist them at my own expense and march myself at their head for the relief of Boston."[Footnote: John Adams's Diary, August 31, 1774, quoting Lynch.] The ardor of Washington's offer matched the increasing anger of the Colonists. Lord North, abetted by the British Parliament, had continued to exasperate them by passing new bills which could have produced under the best circumstances only a comparatively small revenue. One of these imposed a tax on tea. The Colonists not only refused to buy it, but to have it landed. In Boston a large crowd gathered and listened to much fiery speech-making. Suddenly, a body of fifty men disguised as Mohawk Indians rushed down to the wharves, rowed out to the three vessels in which a large consignment of tea had been sent across the ocean, hoisted it out of the holds to the decks and scattered the contents of three hundred and forty chests in Boston Harbor.

The Boston Tea Party was as sensational as if it had sprang from the brain of a Paris Jacobin in the French Revolution. It created excitement among the American Colonists from Portsmouth to Charleston. Six more of the Colonies enrolled Committees of Correspondence, Pennsylvania alone refusing to join. In every quarter American patriots felt exalted. In England the reverse effects were signalized with equal vehemence. The Mock Indians were denounced as incendiaries, and the town meetings were condemned as "nurseries of sedition." Parliament passed four penal laws, the first of which punished Boston by transferring its port to Salem and closing its harbor. The second law suspended the charter of the Province and added several new and tyrannical powers to the British Governor and to Crown officials.

On September 5, 1774, the first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Except Georgia, every Colony sent delegates to it. The election of those delegates was in several cases irregular, because the body which chose them was not the Legislature but some temporary body of the patriots. Nevertheless, the Congress numbered some of the men who were actually and have remained in history, the great engineers of the American Revolution. Samuel Adams and John Adams went from Massachusetts; John Jay and Philip Livingston from New York; Roger Sherman from Connecticut; Thomas Mifflin and Edward Biddle from Pennsylvania; Thomas McKean from Delaware; George Washington, Patrick Henry, Peyton Randolph, Edmund Pendleton, and Richard H. Lee from Virginia; and Edward and John Rutledge from South Carolina. Although the Congress was made up of these men and of others like them, the petitions adopted by it and the work done, not to mention the freshets of oratory, were astonishingly mild. Probably many of the delegates would have preferred to use fiery tongues. Samuel Adams, for instance, though "prematurely gray, palsied in hand, and trembling in voice," must have had difficulty in restraining himself. He wrote as viciously as he spoke. "Damn that Adams," said one of his enemies. "Every dip of his pen stings like a horned snake." Patrick Henry, being asked when he returned home, "Who is the greatest man in Congress," replied: "If you speak of eloquence, Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina is by far the greatest orator; but if you speak of solid information and sound judgment, Colonel Washington is unquestionably the greatest man on that floor." The rumor had it that Washington said, he wished to God the Liberties of America were to be determined by a single Combat between himself and George. One other saying of his at this time is worth reporting, although it cannot be satisfactorily verified. "More blood will be spilled on this occasion, if the ministry are determined to push matters to extremity, than history has ever yet furnished instances of in the annals of North America." The language and tone of the "Summary View"--a pamphlet which Thomas Jefferson had issued shortly before--probably chimed with the emotions of most of the delegates. They adopted (October 14, 1774) the "Declaration of Rights," which may not have seemed belligerent enough for the Radicals, but really leaves little unsaid. A week later Congress agreed to an "Association," an instrument for regulating, by preventing, trade with the English. Having provided for the assembling of a second Congress, the first adjourned.

As a symbol, the First Congress has an integral importance in the growth of American Independence. It marked the first time that the American Colonies had acted together for their collective interests. It served notice on King George and Lord North that it repudiated the claims of the British Parliament to govern the Colonies. It implied that it would repel by force every attempt of the British to exercise an authority which the Colonists refused to recognize. In a very real sense the Congress thus delivered an ultimatum. The winter of 1774/5 saw preparations being pushed on both sides. General Thomas Gage, the British Commander-in-Chief stationed at Boston, had also thrust upon him the civil government of that town. He had some five thousand British troops in Boston, and several men-of-war in the harbor. There were no overt acts, but the speed with which, on more than one occasion, large bodies of Colonial farmers assembled and went swinging through the country to rescue some place, which it was falsely reported the British were attacking, showed the nervous tension under which the Americans were living. As the enthusiasm of the Patriots increased, that of the Loyalists increased also. Among the latter were many of the rich and aristocratic inhabitants, and, of course, most of the office-holders. Until the actual outbreak of hostilities they upheld the King's cause with more chivalry than discretion, and then they migrated to Nova Scotia and to England, and bore the penalty of confiscation and the corroding distress of exile. In England during this winter, Pitt and Burke had defended the Colonies and the Whig minority had supported them. Even Lord North used conciliatory suggestions, but with him conciliation meant that the Colonies should withdraw all their offensive demands and kneel before the Crown in penitent humiliation before a new understanding could be thought of.

Meanwhile Colonel Washington was in Virginia running his plantations to the best of his ability and with his mind made up. He wrote to his friend Bryan Fairfax (July 20, 1774):
As I see nothing, on the one hand, to induce a belief that the Parliament would embrace a favorable opportunity of repealing acts, which they go on with great rapidity to pass, and in order to enforce their tyrannical system; and on the other, I observe, or think I observe, that government is pursuing a regular plan at the expense of law and justice to overthrow our constitutional rights and liberties, how can I expect any redress from a measure, which has been ineffectually tried already? For, Sir, what is it we are contending against? Is it against paying the duty of three pence per pound on tea because burthensome? No, it is the right only, we have all along disputed, and to this end we have already petitioned his Majesty in as humble and dutiful manner as subjects could do[Footnote: Ford, II, 421-22.]....

And has not General Gage's conduct since his arrival, (in stopping the address of his Council, and publishing a proclamation more becoming a Turkish bashaw, than an English governor, declaring it treason to associate in any manner by which the commerce of Great Britain is to be affected) exhibited an unexampled testimony of the most despotic system of tyranny, that ever was practised in a free government? In short, what further proofs are wanted to satisfy one of the designs of the ministry, than their own acts, which are uniform and plainly tending to the same point, nay, if I mistake not, avowedly to fix the right of taxation? What hope then from petitioning, when they tell us, that now or never is the time to fix the matter? Shall we after this, whine and cry for relief, when we have already tried it in vain? Or shall we supinely sit and see one province after another fall a prey to despotism?[Footnote: Ibid., 423-24.]
In the early autumn Washington wrote to Captain Robert MacKenzie, who was serving in the Regular British Army with Gage at Boston:
I think I can announce it as a fact, that it is not the wish or intent of that government, (Massachusetts) or any other upon this continent, separately or collectively, to set up for independence; but this you may at the same time rely on, that none of them will ever submit to the loss of these valuable rights and privileges, which are essential to the happiness of every free state, and without which, life, liberty, and property are rendered totally insecure.[Footnote: Ibid., 443.]
In the following spring the battles of Lexington and Concord, on April 19th, began the war of the American Revolution. A few weeks later, a Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. The delegates to it, understanding that they must prepare for war, proceeded to elect a Commander-in-Chief. There was some jealousy between the men of Virginia and those of Massachusetts. The former seemed to think that the latter assumed the first position, and indeed, most of the angry gestures had been made in Boston, and Boston had been the special object of British punishment. Still, with what may seem unexpected self-effacement, they did not press strongly for the choice of a Massachusetts man as Commander-in-Chief. On June 15, 1775, Congress having resolved "that a general be appointed to command all the continental forces raised or to be raised for the defence of American liberty," proceeded to a choice, and the ballots being taken, George Washington, Esq., was unanimously elected. On the next day the President of the Congress, Mr. John Hancock, formally announced the election to Colonel Washington, who replied:
Mr. President, though I am truly sensible of the high honor done me in this appointment, yet I feel great distress from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty and exert every power I possess in the service and for the support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation. But lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.

As to pay, Sir, I beg leave to assure the Congress, that as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. Those I doubt not they will discharge, and that is all I desire.[Footnote: Ford, II, 477-78-79, 480-81.]
Accompanied by Lee and Schuyler and a brilliant escort, he set forth on June 21st for Boston. Before they had gone twenty miles a messenger bringing news of the Battle of Bunker Hill crossed them. "Did the Militia fight?" Washington asked. On being told that they did, he said: "Then the liberties of the country are safe." Then he pushed on, stopping long enough in New York to appoint General Schuyler military commander of that Colony, and so through Connecticut to the old Bay State. There, at Cambridge, he found the crowd awaiting him and some of the Colonial troops. On the edge of the Common, under a large elm tree broad of spread, he took command of the first American army. It was the second of July, 1775.


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