The American War of Independence

Meanwhile the remonstrances of the American colonists had induced the ministry to give up all the new taxes, with the exception of that on tea, which it was determined to keep up, as an assertion of the right of Parliament to tax the colonies. In America, this remaining tax continued to excite as much discontent as the whole had formerly done, for it was the principle of a right to impose taxes which they found fault with, and not the amount of the tax itself. Their discontent with the mother country was found to affect trade considerably, and the British merchants were anxious to bring the dispute to a close. The government was then induced to grant such a drawback from the British duty on tea, as enabled the East India Company to offer the article in America at a lower rate than formerly, so that the American duty, which was only three pence per pound, did not affect the price. It was never doubted that this expedient would satisfy the colonists, and large shipments of tea were accordingly sent out from the British ports. The principle of the right to tax still lurked, however under the concession, and the result only showed how little the sentiments of the Americans were understood at home.

The approach of the tea cargoes excited them in a manner totally unlooked-for in Britain. At New York and Philadelphia, the cargoes were forbidden to land; in Charleston, where they were permitted to land, they were put into stores, and were prohibited from being sold. In Boston harbor, a ship-load was seized and tossed into the sea. This last act was resented by the passing of a bill in Parliament for interdicting all commercial intercourse with the port of Boston, and another for taking away the legislative assembly of the state of Massachusetts. The former measure was easily obviated by local arrangements; and in reference to the latter, a Congress of representatives from the various States met at Philadelphia, in September 1774, when it was asserted that the exclusive power of legislation, in all cases of taxation and internal policy, resided in the provincial legislatures. The same assembly denounced other grievances, which have not here been particularly adverted to, especially an act of the British legislature for trying Americans, for treasonable practices, in England. The Congress also framed a covenant of non-intercourse, by which the whole utility of the colonies to the mother country, as objects of trading speculation, was at once laid prostrate. The colonists still avowed a desire to be reconciled, on the condition of a repeal of the obnoxious statutes. But the government had now resolved to attempt the reduction of the colonists by force of arms. Henceforth, every proposal from America was treated with a haughty silence on the part of the British monarch and his advisers.

The war opened in the summer of 1775, by skirmishes between the British troops and armed provincials, for the possession of certain magazines. At the beginning there seemed no hope of the contest being protracted beyond one campaign. The population of the colonies was at this time under three millions, and they were greatly inferior in discipline and appointments to the British troops. They possessed, however, an indomitable zeal in the cause they had agreed to defend, and fought with the advantage of being in the country of their friends. At Bunker's Hill, near Boston (June 17, 1775), they had the superiority in a well-contested fight with the British troops, of whom between two and three hundred were killed. At the end of one year, the British government was surprised to find that no progress had been made towards a reduction of the Americans, and sent out an offer of pardon to the colonists, on condition that they would lay down their arms. This proposal only met with ridicule.

On the 4th of July 1776, the American Congress took the decisive step of a declaration of their independence, embodying their sentiment in a document remarkable for its pathos and solemnity. During the next two campaigns, the slender forces of the new republic were hardly able anywhere to face the large and well-appointed armies of Great Britain. Much misery was endured by this hardy people in resisting the British arms. Notwithstanding every disadvantage and many defeats, America remained unsubdued.

The first serious alarm for the success of the contest in America, was communicated in December 1777, by intelligence of the surrender of an army under General Burgoyne at Saratoga. In the House of Commons, the ministers acknowledged this defeat with marks of deep dejection, but still professed to entertain sanguine hopes from the vigor with which the large towns throughout Britain were now g raisin men at their own expense for the service of the government. Mr. Fox, the leader of the Opposition, made a motion for the discontinuance of the war, which was lost by 165 to 259,' a much narrower majority than any which the ministry had before reckoned in the Lower House.

In proportion to the dejection of the government, was the elation of the American Congress. Little more than two years before, the British sovereign and ministers had treated the petitions of the colonists with silent contempt; but such had been the current of events, that, in 1778, they found it necessary, in order to appease the popular discontent, to send out commissioners, almost for the purpose of begging a peace As if to avenge themselves for the indignities of 1775, the Americans received these comissioners with the like haughtiness; and being , convinced that they could secure their independence, would listen to no proposals in which the acknowledgment of that independence, and the withdrawal of the British troops, did not occupy the first place. The ministers, unwilling to submit to such terms, resolved to prosecute the war, holding forth to the public, as the best defense of their conduct, the necessity of curbing the spirit of insubordination, both in the American colonies and at home, which they described as threatening the overturn of the most sacred of the national institutions.

The rise of Great Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in wealth and military and naval power, had been observed by many of the surrounding states with no small degree of jealousy. France in particular, had not yet forgiven the triumphant peace which Britain had dictated in 1763. The Americans, therefore, by their emissary, the celebrated Benjamin Franklin, found no great difficulty in forming an alliance with France, in which the latter power acknowledged. the independence of the colonists, and promised to send them large auxiliary forces. Viewing the distressed state to which Britain was reduced by the contest, and concluding that the time had arrived to strike a decisive blow for the humiliation, Spain soon after declared war against her; and in 1780, Holland was added to the number of her enemies. Russia then put herself at the head of what was called an Armed Neutrality, embracing Sweden and Denmark, the object of which was indirectly hostile to Britain. So tremendous was the force reared against Britain in 1779, even before all these powers had entered into hostilities, that it required about 300,000 armed men, 300 armed vessels, and twenty millions of money annually, merely to protect herself from her enemies. Even her wonted superiority at sea seemed to have deserted her; and for some time the people beheld the unwonted spectacle of a hostile fleet riding in the Channel, which there was no adequate means of opposing.

It was now obvious to the whole nation that this contest, upon whatever ground it commenced, was a great national misfortune; and the Opposition in Parliament began to gain considerably in strength. After some votes, in which the ministerial majorities appeared to be gradually lessening, Mr. Dunning, on the 6th of April 1780, carried., by a majority of eighteen, a motion, 'that the influence of the crown had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished.' This was looked upon as a severe censure of the government, considering that the House of Commons was not altogether a popular body, but included many who had seats there only through the influence of the crown, or by the favor of the nobility and gentry.

In the year 1778, an act had been passed, relieving the Roman Catholics in England from some of the severe penal statutes formerly enacted against them. The apprehension of a similar act for Scotland caused the people of that country to form an immense number of associations with a view to opposing it; and in the early part of 1779, the popular spirit broke out at Edinburgh and Glasgow in several alarming riots, during which one or two Catholic chapels, and some houses belonging to Catholics, were pillaged and burnt. An extensive Protestant Association was also formed in England, to endeavor to procure the repeal of the English act. This body was chiefly led by Lord George Gordon, a son of the late Duke of Gordon. and member of the House of Commons. In June 1780, an immense mob assembled in London to accompany Lord George to the House of Commons, where he was to present a petition against the act, signed by 120,000 persons. His motion for the repeal of the act being rejected by a vast majority, he came out to the lobby and harangued the crowd in violent terms, which to them similar acts to those wich had taken place in Scotland. The mob accordingly proceeded to demolish the chapels of the foreign ambassadors. Meeting with no effectual resistance, for the magistrates of the city were afraid to take decisive measures against them, they attacked Newgate, released the prisoners, and set the prison on fire. The new prison at Clerkenwell, the King's Bench, and Fleet Prisons, and the New Bridewell, were treated in like manner. At one time thirtysix fires were seen throughout the city. The mob had uncontrolled possession of the streets for five days, pillaging, burning, and demolishing; until the king in council determined to authorize the military to put them down by force of arms. Tranquillity was then restored, but not before upwards of 400 persons were killed and wounded. Many of the ringleaders were convicted and executed. Lord George Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted on a plea of insanity, which his subsequent life showed to be well founded. Similar outrages were attempted in other cities, but prevented by the vigor of the magistrates. The chief sufferers from these riots were the party who aimed at political reforms. On the other hand, the king obtained increased respect, in consequence of the firmness he had shown in taking measures for the suppression of the riots.

The states of North and South Carolina, which contained a larger proportion of persons friendly to the British crown than any of the northern states, had submitted, in 1780, to a British army under General Clinton. Next year the greater part of the troops which had been left in those states were conducted northward by Lord Cornwallis, in the hope of making further conquests; but the consequence was that General Greene, after a series of conflicts, in which he greatly distressed various parties of the British troops, regained both Carolinas, while Lord Cornwallis took up a position at Yorktown in Virginia. At this time, General Washington, the American commander-in-chief, to whose extraordinary sagacity and purity of motives the colonists chiefly owed their independence, was threatening General Clinton's army at New York. Clinton tamely saw him retire to the southward, believing that he only meant to make a feint, in order to draw away the British from New York, when he in reality meant to attack Cornwallis. On the 29th of September (1781), Yorktown was invested by this and other corps of Americans and French; and in three weeks more, the British batteries being completely silenced, Lord Cornwallis sur rendered with his whole army. With this event, though some posts were still kept up by the British troops, hostilities might be said to have been concluded.

At the next opening of Parliament many of those who had formerly supported the war, began to adopt opposite views; and early in 1782, a motion, made by General Conway, for the conclusion of the war, was carried by a majority of nineteen. The necessary consequence was, that, on the 20th of March, Lord North and his colleagues resigned office, after twelve years of continued misfortune, during which the prosperity of the country had been retarded, a hundred millions added to the national debt, and three millions of people separated from the parent state.

As usual in such cases, a new administration was formed out of the Opposition. The Marquis of Rockingham was made prime minister, and Mr. Fox one of the secretaries of state. The new ministers lost no time in taking measures for the restoration of peace. Unfortunately for their credit with the nation, Sir George Rodney gained an important victory over the French fleet of the island of Dominica, April 12, 1782, after the ministers had despatched another officer to supersede him in the command. On this occasion, thirty-seven British vessels encountered thirty-four French; and chiefly by the dexterous manoeuvre of a breach of the enemy's line, gained one of the most complete victories recorded in modern warfare. The triumph was eminently necessary, to recover in some measure the national honor, and enable the ministers to conclude the war upon tolerable terms. In November, provisional articles for a peace with the United States of America, now acknowledged as an independent power, were signed at Paris, and the treaty was concluded in the ensuing February. When the American ambassador was afterwards, for the first time, introduced at the British levee, the king received him kindly, and said with great frankness, that though he had been the last man in his dominions to desire that the independence of America should be acknowledged, he should also be the last to wish that that acknowledgment should be withdrawn. War was soon after concluded with France, Spain, and Holland, but not without some considerable concessions of colonial territory on the part of Great Britain.

The conclusion of this war is memorable as a period of great suffering, arising from the exhaustion of the national resources, the depression of commerce, and the accident of a bad harvest. The principles of prosperity were, after all, found to be so firmly rooted in the country, that immediately after the first distresses had passed away, every department of the state resumed its wonted vigor, and during the ensuing ten years of peace, a great advance was made in national wealth.

In 1786, Mr. Pitt established his celebrated but fallacious scheme for redeeming the national debt, by what was called a Sinking Fund. The revenue was at this time above fifteen millions, being about one million more than was required for the public service. This excess he proposed to lay aside annually, to lie at compound interest; by which means he calculated that each million would be quadrupled at the end of twenty-eight years, and thus go a great way towards the object he had in view. To this scheme Mr. Fox added the infinitely more absurd amendment, that, when the government required to borrow more money, one million of every six so obtained should be laid aside for the same purpose. The scheme was so well received as to increase the popularity of the minister, and it was not till 1813 that its fallacy was proved.

In the same year commenced the parliamentary proceedings against Mr. Warren Hastings, for alleged cruelty and robbery exercised upon the natives of India during his governorship of that dependency of Great Britain. These proceedings were urged by Mr. Burke and other members of the Whig party, and excited so much public indignation against Mr. Hastings, that the ministry were obliged, though unwillingly, to lend their countenance to his trial, which took place before Parliament in the most solemn manner, and occupied in the aggregate one hundred and forty-nine days, extending over the space of several years. The proceedings resulted in the acquittal of Mr. Hastings.

The king and queen had in the meantime become the parents of a numerous family of sons and daughters. The eldest son, George, Prince of Wales, had now for several years been of age, and exempted from the control of his father. He had no sooner been set up in an establishment of his own, than he plunged into a career of prodigality, forming the most striking contrast with the chastened simplicity and decorum of the paternal abode. He also attached himself to the party of the Opposition, though rather apparently from a principle of contradiction to his father, than a sincere approbation of their political objects. The result was the complete alienation of the Prince of Wales from the affections of his majesty.

In November 1788, an aberration of intellect, resulting from an illness of some duration, was observed in the king, and it became necessary to provide some species of substitute for the exercise of the royal functions. To have invested the Prince of Wales with the regency, appeared the most obvious course; but this would have thrown out the ministry, as it was to be supposed that his royal highness would call the chiefs of his own party to his councils. Mr. Fox contended that the hereditary nature of the monarchy pointed out an unconditional right in the prince to assume the supreme power under such circumstances; but Mr. Pitt asserted the right of Parliament to give or withhold such an office, and proposed to assign certain limits to the authority of the intended regent, which would. have placed the existing ministry beyond his reach. The Irish Parliament voted the unconditional regency to the prince; but that of Great Britain was about to adopt the modified plan proposed by Mr. Pitt, when, March 1789, the king suddenly recovered, and put an end to the difficulty. The debates on the regency question exhibit in a very striking light how statesmen will sometimes abandon their most favorite dogmas and strong est principles on the call of their own immediate interests.