France and England were still at peace with each other. The British cabinet was then controlled by absurd men, who were likely to embroil the nation in useless war at any time by their folly or by acts deserving a harsher name. They did so by rank perfidy. Secret orders were suddenly issued to the commanders of all British men-of-war to seize all French vessels, public or private. The British king's share of the spoils gathered under the operations of this order was three and a half million dollars; and eight thousand French prisoners were made captives. "What has taken place," indignantly exclaimed a French minister, "is nothing but a system of piracy on a grand scale unworthy of a civilized people." He was right. "Never," said the French monarch, "will I forgive the piracies of this insolent nation;" and in an autograph letter to the British king, he demanded full reparation for the insults offered to the French flag, and the injury done to the French people. But Great Britain then arrogantly claimed, and with reason, that she was "Mistress of the Seas;" and Thomson had lately uttered the sentiments of the proud British nation in his stirring song, "Britannia rules the Waves," saying boastfully:
"When Britain first at Heaven's command, Arose from out the azure main, This was the charter of the land, And guardian angels sung the strain; Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves! Britons never shall be slaves."
The exploit of the British ships-of-war in capturing so many French vessels was boasted of in the British parliament, and the people, rejoicing in their strength, were almost unanimously in favor of war with the French. That spirit prevailed for three-quarters of a century until the mistressship of the seas was successfully contended for by the Americans in the war of 1812-15.
The home governments of the two nations now took up the quarrel. The campaign of 1755 had assumed all the features of regular war between their respective subjects. When the flowers bloomed in the spring of 1756, the British ministry and people had resolved to make war, and the French were compelled to accept the issue. On the 17th of May, 1756, a declaration of war went forth from the British cabinet. This action was reciprocated by the French cabinet on the 9th of June following. The die was then cast. The peace solemnly guaranteed at Aix-la-Chapelle was ruthlessly broken to gratify a lust for power. While these two potential nations had been preparing, for several years, for the impending strife for dominion, the thoughtful men among the English-American colonists, who loved liberty more than power, had been musing upon the glorious probabilities of their future. John Adams, a school-teacher in Worcester in 1755, in a letter to Nathan Webb, wrote: "Mighty states and kingdoms are not exempted from change." Soon after the Reformation, a few people came over into this new world for conscience sake. This apparently trivial incident may transfer the great seat of empire into America.. If we can remove the turbulent Gallics, our people, according to the exactest calculations, will, in another century, become more numerous than in England itself. The united force of Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves, is to disunite us." This dream became a prophecy. Less than thirty years afterward, the dreamer stood before the monarch of England, as the representative of an American Republic where, only ten years before, were flourishing English colonies. And just a century after that dream, the number and strength of the people here exceeded the calculation of the dreamer. The population was more than double that of England; and while his country was fiercely torn by a Indian civil war, its government defied the powers of Great Britain, France, Spain, the Papal States and other European nations whose rulers were the enemies of our free institutions. In the utterance of that defiance, a grand son of John Adams bore a conspicuous part. That government lives to enjoy the respect of the civilized world. In 1765, Lord Kames uttered a prophecy similar to that of young Adams.
Shirley, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in America, called a convention of royal governors at New York, late in 1755, when a plan for a splendid campaign in 1756 was arranged. It included the capture of Quebec, Forts Duquesne, Frontenac, Niagara, Detroit, and other French posts in the northwest. They again urged the parliament to take vigorous measures for compelling the colonists, by a tax, to furnish a general fund for military purposes in America, and that body was disposed to do so, when the question assumed minor importance in the presence of grave dangers. The Indians were threatening the frontier settlements of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania with desolation; and very soon whole families were flying back to the older settlements, leaving their dwellings and crops to the mercy of the Indians. The authorities of those colonies took action to stay the flood of desolation surging upon their frontiers. Those of Virginia appointed Washington commander-in-chief of all her forces; those of Pennsylvania gave Dr. Franklin the commission of colonel, with instructions to raise troops and construct a line of forts of block-houses along the frontier, which he did. Those of Maryland joined in measures for the common defence. But the selfish claims of the proprietaries of Pennsylvania, and the absurd and arrogant assumption of inferior officers commissioned by the crown, to superiority over provincial officers of much higher rank, stood in the way of efficient action. Delays were dangerous to the public good, and Washington was chosen by his brother provincial officers to go as an ambassador to General Shirley to seek a removal of the latter-named difficulty. Early in the month of February, 1756, he set out on a journey to Boston, five hundred miles distant, on horseback, accompanied by Captains Mercer and Stewart, the former being his aide-de-camp. His fame had preceded him, and he received much attention in the several cities through which he passed. His mission to Shirley was successful, and at the end of seven weeks after his departure, he returned to Williamsburgh with a satisfactory arrangement for the future.
While he was on his way to Boston, Colonel Washington tarried a little in New York, where he was the guest of Beverly Robinson, son-in-law of the Lord of the Phillipse Manor on the Hudson. There he met Mrs. Robinson's sister Mary, who was young, vivacious, accomplished and beautiful. This maiden's charms made a deep impression on the mind and heart of the young hero. Her musical culture was displayed by the singing of sweet songs accompanied by a spinet; and in every aspect of her character, she was a charming young lady. The day-dreams of the young Virginian, while on his way to Boston and back, were of her; and at their second meeting at Mr. Robinson's (where he was a guest on his return), he was still more deeply impressed with the charms of the heiress of the money and broad acres. He left her with a resolution no doubt formed, but not expressed, to offer her his hand and heart. But a rival soon appeared in the person of Colonel Roger Morris, Washington's companion-in-arms in the field when Braddock fell, and he won the fair lady and her splendid fortune. All but the lady was lost in the fires of the Revolution that burst out twenty years later, for Morris was a Tory and so were his wife's family, and their property was swept away by remorseless confiscation. The colonel and his family were compelled to fly from the elegant mansion built on Harlem Heights (yet standing) with the money of Mary Phillipse, and it was used as headquarters by her Virginia lover in the autumn of 1776.
Shirley did not long remain commander-in-chief. The Earl of Loudon, a cold-hearted, bilious, indolent and inefficient peer, who was a zealous advocate of the prerogatives of the crown and despised republicanism, was appointed the successor of Shirley, and governor of Virginia. As an attempt to establish centralized royal government in America had failed, it was now determined to place the colonies under absolute military rule. The commission of Loudon and his instructions, carefully drawn by the Chancellor of England, did establish such rule throughout the continent, making it independent of and superior to the authority of the royal governors. This commission, so contrary to the spirit of the British constitution, remained a precedent for others until the general revolt of the colonies.
Procrastination marked every step of the campaign on the part of the English. Loudon did not send General James Abercrombie (his lieutenant) with troops until near the close of April. The ship with money was not dispatched until the middle of June, at which time Abercrombie arrived; and the commander-in-chief did not reach our shores until past midsummer. The plan of the campaign called for ten thousand men to attack Crown Point; six thousand to proceed against Niagara; three thousand against Fort Duquesne, and two thousand to cross the country from the Kennebeck to the Chaudiere-a feat performed by Arnold and a few followers, twenty years afterward--to attack some French settlements in Canada. Many of those destined for Crown Point and Niagara were already at Albany when Abercrombie arrived. He was not remarkable for either vigor or fore-thought. He loved his ease, and was a great stickler for the assertion of royal authority; and instead of stimulating the provincials with hope and patriotism, he depressed them with disappointment and disgust. Seven thousand troops were there, under General Winslow, impatient to be led to Lake Champlain; and another party were anxiously awaiting orders to hasten to Oswego, for rumors came down through the forests from the St. Lawrence that the French were about to move in large force against the English frontiers.
But the Scotch general seemed more intent upon asserting royal authority by forcing the colonists to have the regular troops quartered upon them, than in pressing forward against the enemy; and he cast a firebrand into the army at Albany (composed of regular and provincial troops, about ten thousand strong), by compelling the officers of the latter to obey the commands of those of the former of equal rank. He and Mayor Sybrant Van Schaick had many stormy interviews about the billeting of regulars upon the people. On one occasion, there was an open quarrel between the lean Scotchman and the burly Dutchman, when the mayor, terribly excited, shook his fist at the general and exclaimed: "Go back again with your troops; we can defend our frontiers ourselves." The general triumphed; and he sent to his superiors, at a time when Crown Point should have been in his possession, and the garrison at Fort Niagara his prisoners, a shout of exultation because of his victory, saying: "In spite of every subterfuge, the soldiers are at last billeted upon the town." This victory cheered the hearts of the Lords of Trade, who now believed that the absolute submission of the colonies was an event near at hand.
Abercrombie loitered in Albany, waiting for the arrival of Loudon, when he predicted mighty things would be done. He would go neither backward nor forward, but wasted strength there in constructing useless fortifications, when the best defence for that city would have been the security of the frontier posts. Meanwhile the brave and active Colonel John Bradstreet arrived from Oswego with the startling news that the French and Indians were threatening the forts there, and that a strong force was actually moving at the foot of Lake Ontario for the capture of the post. But Abercrombie was unmoved, and the ten thousand men, chafing with impatience and suffering from sickness, were kept at Albany.
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