HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Preliminary Remarks
by Bancroft, Hubert H.

Jefferson's immortal manifesto has been pecked at by certain latter-day dilettante critics for alleged indifference to the dictates of genteel literary style, as by them understood. As if thunderbolts are to be gauged by the snapping of popguns! The men who signed the Declaration were men in earnest; they spake as they were moved by patriotic fervor, and their sound still echoes from the ends of the grateful world.

The important action taken by the Continental Congress in the passage of the Declaration of Independence was received with enthusiasm by the people of the newly-created United States of America. On the 8th of July the independence of the country was proclaimed with great solemnity at Philadelphia, and welcomed by the people with the greatest exultation, artillery being fired, bonfires kindled, and other manifestations of joy displayed. It was read to the army in New York on the 11th, and was received by them with wild acclamations. That evening the statue of King George, which had been erected in 1770, was dragged through the streets by a party of soldiers, and a resolution taken to convert into bullets the lead of which it was made. This riotous proceeding was severely rebuked by Washington.

In Baltimore independence was proclaimed amid the roar of artillery, while the effigy of the king became the sport of the populace, and was afterwards burned in the public square. In Boston the rejoicings of the people surpassed those in any other section of the country. Independence was there proclaimed from the balcony of the State-House, in the presence of all the authorities and of a great concourse of people. Salutes were fired, the troops paraded, the bells were rung, and the people went wild with joy, in their excitement tearing to pieces and burning all the ensigns of royalty. A banquet was prepared for the authorities and the principal inhabitants, at which toasts were drunk to the destruction of tyrants, the propagation of liberty, and a series of similar sentiments. In Virginia great enthusiasm also prevailed, and the convention passed a number of acts designed to remove every vestige of royalty from the public proceedings of the commonwealth.

The passage of this declaration entailed new duties upon the people, which would exhaust their powers, legislative and military, for years to come. A new government had to be formed, on a plan which had never before been applied to a country of such extent, and which involved innumerable difficulties. And the independence declared by the legislature had to be sustained by the army against all the power of the richest and most energetic nation of the Europe of that day. Some consideration of the steps taken towards the accomplishment of these purposes is important as preliminary to the story of the subsequent events of the war.

The resolution of independence had abolished one phase of political existence; it had not created a new phase. A nation was yet to be made out of the discordant elements of the separate colonies, And to this essential purpose Congress at once addressed itself. The tie which had hitherto held together the colonies was slight and temporary. It needed to be made strong and permanent. Articles of confederation satisfactory to all the States of the newly-formed republic needed to be adopted ere the American Union could claim the title of a nation.

A committee was at once appointed by Congress to frame such articles. A report was made by this committee on the 12th of July. On the 22d the House began the consideration of the proposed articles, the principal subjects of debate being the proportion of money which each State should pay into the common treasury, and the manner of voting in Congress. The financial article, as proposed, required each State to pay into the treasury a sum in proportion to its total population, exclusive of untaxed Indians. This was objected to on the plea that it included slaves, who, properly considered, were property and not persons, and that Southern slaves had no more right to be considered in fixing the tax-rate than Northern cattle. John Adams took the opposite view, with the argument that slaves by their labor added to the wealth of the States, and that they had always been taken into the estimates of taxes by the Southern provinces. The question was carried, on this basis, by the votes of the Northern delegates, who were in a majority. The other article which led to prolonged debate was that concerning the voting power of the States in Congress. The original report provided that each colony should have but one vote. Mr. Chase proposed as a compromise that on financial questions each State should have a voice in proportion to the number of its inhabitants. Franklin supported this proposition, saying that if the States voted equally they ought to pay equally. Dr. Witherspoon contended that each State should be considered as an individual, with a single vote on all matters. John Adams, on the contrary, advocated voting in proportion to numbers. He held that the individuality of the States was a mere word; it was the purpose of the Confederacy to weld them, like separate pieces of metal, into one common mass. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, ably followed from the same point of view, bringing European illustrations to show the danger of giving too much separate independence to the members of a confederated union. Thus early was brought up that burning question of State Rights, as opposed to the supremacy of the Union, which has not yet been definitely settled.

The debate on the Articles of Confederation was continued for several months, and the whole subject thoroughly canvassed, standing committees of Congress meanwhile carrying on the active affairs of the government. During this period the several States, in conformity with the act previously passed by Congress, busied themselves in organizing State governments suitable to the new condition of affairs. Not for a moment was any thought of reproducing a monarchical government entertained. The people of America had been republican in sentiment from the first, and their political history had been in great part a struggle to reduce the prerogatives of the monarch who claimed them as subjects. So much power had been exercised by the people and their representatives, and so well were they schooled in the art of self-government, that the change of sovereignty was scarcely perceptible, and very little needed to be added to existing conditions to form a complete apparatus of government.

The people were not willing that any one man should have the authority to negative the decision of a majority of their representatives. Yet long experience had taught them that it would be dangerous to lodge all power in the hands of a single body of men. Some intermediate course was desirable, and after much discussion the difficulty was overcome by the formation, in eleven out of the thirteen colonies, of a legislature of two branches, whose concurrence should be necessary to the passage of any law. The second branch was to consist of a few select persons, under the name of senate, or council, adapted to consider wisely and calmly the acts passed by the more numerous branch of representatives. Georgia and Pennsylvania alone adopted legislatures consisting of a single House.

New York and Massachusetts went a step farther. The former gave to a council composed of the governor and the heads of judicial departments, and the latter to the governor alone, the power of objecting to any proposed law and requiring its reconsideration and passage by a two-thirds majority of both Houses to make it operative. The objection in Georgia and Pennsylvania to a double Assembly arose from the difficulty of creating a higher and a lower branch by election from a homogeneous people held to be absolutely equal politically. No distinction of rank existed, and distinction of wealth was not admitted as a source of political inequality. Ten of the eleven States, with legislatures of two branches, ordained the election of both by the people. Maryland had her senate chosen by electors, two from each county, elected by the people, the senators to hold their seats for five years, while the representatives were re- elected annually. By this means a senate composed of men of influence and ability was obtained. Pennsylvania adopted the expedient of publishing bills after the second reading, so that they might be considered by the people and the sense of the inhabitants taken. It was not long, however, before it was discovered that this expedient was injudicious, and that the single chamber did not work well. A second chamber was therefore added. A similar action was afterwards taken by Georgia.

Every State appointed a supreme executive, under the title either of governor or president. In New York and the Eastern States the governors were elected directly by the people; in the other States, by the legislatures. New York alone gave the governor the right to act without the advice of a council. The jealousy of supreme power was so great among the Americans that they surrounded their executive officers with checks that proved, in the end, more cumbrous than useful. The principle of rotation in office was strongly insisted upon, frequent elections being required, and in some cases it being ordained that no office should be held by the same person longer than a specified period of time. As a further security for the permanence of republican institutions, all the States agreed in prohibiting hereditary honors or distinctions of rank. They all, moreover, abolished state religions. Some retained a constitutional distinction between Christians and others, so far as the power of holding office was concerned, but no sect was permitted legislative precedence, and the alliance between church and state was completely broken.

While the States were thus adopting new constitutions and organizing new governments, whose imperfections were negatived by the important feature that the people retained the power of altering and amending them whenever they chose, the General Congress continued the consideration of the Articles of Confederation which were to combine these separate States into a single nation. The debate upon this was very deliberately conducted, and sixteen months elapsed before it was ready to be communicated to the States. Three years more elapsed ere it was ratified by all the States. The principal objections were those which had already been abundantly debated in Congress, and that of the disposal of the vacant Western lands. This latter question was finally settled by the cession of these lands, by the States which claimed them, to the Union, for the common good of the people. The suffrage-difficulty was overcome by viewing the States as individuals and giving them equality of votes. The last State to ratify the Articles of Confederation was Maryland, on March 1, 1781. The principal powers of Congress, as defined by this agreement, were -- the sole right of deciding on peace and war, of sending and receiving ambassadors, of forming treaties and alliances, of regulating coinage, of fixing the standard of weights and measures, of managing Indian affairs, of establishing post-offices, of borrowing money or issuing bills on the credit of the United States, of raising an army through requisitions upon the States, and of forming a navy. It constituted also the final court of appeal in disputes between the States.

This system, though suitable to the conditions then existing, was destined to prove inadequate to the political requirements of the country after peace had succeeded to war. The confederation was little more than a league of friendship between the States. While investing Congress with many of the powers of sovereignty, it left it destitute of all means to enforce its decrees, the States retaining important powers which properly belonged to the central government. Not many years had passed after the termination of the war before it appeared that a radical change in the whole system was necessary for the proper government of the nation. Yet the Articles of Confederation sufficed to hold the States together till the conflict had ended, and the wisdom of American legislators could be applied to the important duty of organizing a stable union, in which the relations of the State and the national governments would be properly adjusted, and the American theory of local control of local affairs, and of national control of general affairs, could be carried out in all the complex details of the existence of a great confederated nation.

As for the means through which the declared independence was to be consummated, and the opposing means through which England hoped to reduce her revolted colonies to obedience, there were discouraging circumstances on both sides. We have already adverted to the difficulties experienced by Washington in making an army out of the intractable materials placed in his hands, and of the inconvenience arising from the short terms of enlistment of the men. There were other disheartening conditions. An officer who at that time wrote to a member of Congress presented a deplorable picture of the state of the army: "Almost every villainy that can disgrace the man, the soldier, or the citizen is daily practised, without meeting the punishment they merit. So many of our officers want honor, and so many of our soldiers want virtue, civil, social, and military, that nothing but the severest punishments will keep both from practices that must ruin us. . Our men are at present only robbers; that they will soon be murderers, unless some are hanged, I have no doubt." This is the testimony of a patriotic American, and it is confirmed by other statements.

It was evident that a total change in the military system of the country was requisite. Many of the soldiers were enlisted for a few months, and none for more than a year, and they had no time to learn the business of war. The enthusiasm of the militia quickly died out, as it necessarily always does, and it was remarked by a member of Congress that the Americans had lost most of that virtue which first drew them to the field, and were sinking into an army of mercenaries. They received so little pay, and were so ill provided with the necessaries of life, that there was some excuse for their acts of plundering. Yet these acts were of serious dimensions. Washington spoke of them as infamous, and said that no man was secure in his effects, and scarcely in his person. Yet he found it impossible to reduce the soldiers to subordination, under existing circumstances. He did his utmost to rouse Congress to the importance of long enlistments, but such was the dread of a standing army that these demands were as yet unheeded. Congress, indeed, discouraged the formation of martial habits, and required that frequent furloughs should be granted, "rather than that the endearments of wives and children should cease to allure the individuals of our army from camps to farms." This was no way to make an army, as the law-makers were destined to discover. Shortly before the evacuation of New York by General Washington, it was resolved, against considerable opposition, to reorganize the army in eighty-eight battalions, to be made up of men enlisted for the war. A quota was assigned to each State, and, to encourage enlistments, a bounty of twenty dollars and one hundred acres of land was given to every recruit, with higher bounties to officers. A new set of rules for the discipline of the army was at the same time adopted. It had become evident that a regular army must be formed if success were desired.

Yet the raising of these new levies proceeded with discouraging slowness, and meanwhile affairs were going from bad to worse. One expedient adopted by Congress was an attempt to seduce the Hessian troops from the British service by the offer of large bounties in land. Yet the condition of American affairs after the loss of New York was calculated to render all these efforts nugatory. When Washington reached the western shore of the Delaware, after his retreat through New Jersey, the fortunes of the United States were at a very low ebb. The army was greatly reduced in numbers, and the term of all its members would end within a month. Indications looked towards its complete disbandment, and a hopeless yielding of the colonies to the power against which they had rebelled.

Washington's success at Trenton radically changed this depressing state of affairs. The cruelty of the British and the Hessians had aroused the people of the occupied regions to bitter hatred, and as the Continental army gradually regained possession of the State of New Jersey, confidence returned, and the depleted ranks were filled up with new levies. From that time forward the American forces became an army more than in name, and the fortunes of the United States never again sank to so low an ebb.

While these difficulties existed in America, England had not been without her troubles. The doings of the ministry had from the first roused a powerful opposition in Parliament, and the Earl of Chatham, in particular, arraigned the government for injustice to the colonies, deprecated the attempt to reduce them by force, and demanded a complete removal of the oppressive acts which had driven the loyal colonists to rebellion. He was of opinion that this course would bring them back to their allegiance; but in this he misjudged the sentiments of the Americans, as was proved when the ministry afterwards sent out commissioners to treat with Congress and the colonies on the basis of a redress of grievances. Neither Congress nor the people of the States would listen to their proposals, and they were forced to return without achieving their purpose.

America could be reduced only by force, and this force proved difficult to obtain. The service was not popular, and recruiting for the American war went on very slowly. The British government, hampered by this circumstance, looked abroad for aid, offering its money for the men of other states. Its great hope was in Russia, whose empress had made some friendly remarks about England which were construed into a readiness to furnish troops. An application for twenty thousand infantry was made, and so sure was the British ministry of obtaining them that there was sent to Carleton, in Canada, an assurance of speedy reinforcements. But the Empress Catherine had meant nothing of the kind, and she bluntly declined to hire out her soldiers as mercenaries. Her refusal was so expressed as to give great offence to George III., who found himself now obliged to depend on the German principalities for aid. He also considered the project of rousing the High-landers of North Carolina and the loyalists of the Middle and Southern provinces.

In the latter part of 1775 the situation of England was a grave one. The opponents in Parliament to the action of the ministry were numerous, and comprised some of the foremost men in that body The military position of the country was still worse. Twenty-eight thousand sailors and fifty thousand soldiers had been asked for; but these were insufficient for the purposes required, and a bill enabling the king to call out the militia, to use in America, was passed.

Yet the need of soldiers was immediate, and application was made to various Continental powers, among them Holland, where a so-called Scottish brigade had existed since early in the seventeenth century. But Holland refused the use of this body, except for employment in Europe. This George III. declined. He had, indeed, obtained assistance from another quarter. Contracts had been made for the enlistment of soldiers in some of the petty German states. These were in part secret, but open negotiations were carried on with the Duke of Brunswick and the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. The subjects of these magnates were bought like so many cattle, it being arranged with the duke that every soldier killed should be paid for at the rate of the levy-money, and that three wounded should be reckoned as one killed. An annual subsidy was to be paid.

The German troops obtained in this discreditable manner numbered seventeen thousand men. Of these, Hesse-Cassel supplied twelve thousand, and Brunswick and other petty states the remainder. The affair was a disgraceful one on both sides, and aroused indignation throughout Europe. Frederick the Great, a man not over-scrupulous in his own measures, viewed it as an abominable traffic in human lives, and it is said that whenever any of these hirelings passed through his territory he levied on them the usual toll for cattle, saying that they had been sold as such

Many in England entertained a similar feeling; yet the treaties were ratified by large majorities in Parliament, and these disgracefully-obtained troops were shipped to America. There the proceeding was viewed with the utmost indignation, and served to increase the bitterness and determination of the colonists, whose rebellious energy was greatly added to by the means thus taken to overcome it, and particularly by the measures employed to bring the Indians into the conflict in support of the British cause. Such was the state of affairs in America and England at the period at which we have now arrived. In the Declaration of Independence America had flung the gauntlet of defiance at the feet of the British government, and both sides prepared for a stern continuance of the war.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works