Causes of the American Revolution



Let us look a little behind the stirring events of the spring of 1775. One cannot fail to have discovered the existence of a controlling spirit of independence-a spirit yearning for free thought and action-a spirit of resistance to unlawful restraint, everywhere manifested by the early settlers and colonists-emigrants from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; from France, Switzerland, Holland, and Sweden. The sentiment uttered by Patrick Henry in old St. John's Church in Richmond in 1775--"Give me liberty or give me death!" had been the sponsor of that faith and courage which impelled men and women to leave home and kindred, brave the storms of the Atlantic and the perils of the wilderness, and seek abiding places in the forests of America. That spirit was not born in these forests, as some suppose. It was older than the gnarled oak and lofty pines-as old as civilization-aye, as old as the race-a child of remote ages. It had been seen emerging from the mists of pre-historic times. It walked arm-in-arm with young Christianity when it went forth from the gates of Jerusalem to conquer the earth with its sublime ethics, for the Founder had said: "The Truth shall make you free." It asserted its power at Runnymede; and it spoke out boldly in the theological and ecclesiastical reformation of the sixteenth century. It found a rare coadjutor in the new-born printing-press; and from the advent of that mighty teacher, it was rapidly diffused. It was the prevailing spirit of the century, when the greater portion of the English colonies in America were planted-a century most remarkable for its energy and development.

The immigrants hither came chiefly from among the middle-classes of society in Europe, who, with strong bones and tough muscles, brought to this virgin land an indomitable love for personal freedom. They brought the spirit of independence with them. They cherished it as a priceless jewel. From the beginning, they yearned for independent local legislation; and that aspiration deepened, and widened, and grew more sturdy as time passed on, until, at about the middle of the last century, as we have seen, the colonists, many in numbers and firm in faith, defied the government of England. It was high time for them to do so; for that government, wielded by an unwise and headstrong king with corrupt and obsequious advisers, meditated bold revolutionary schemes by which the ancient constitutions of the colonies were to be destroyed, and the people deprived of rights which they had ever held most sacred. We have seen how the attempt at subversion was made openly, and in secret, and with what patient dignity the oppressed colonists pleaded for redress and justice in loyal words. We have seen how they were spurned-spit upon, as it were, by the haughty king and his ministers, until Dr. Franklin, their chief representative in England, losing all hope, folded his papers, sailed away from that country and came home to help his countrymen in the impending struggle with the brute force of Great Britain. Not long before Franklin's departure, he gave to the world that remarkable fable of the eagle and the cat, which, in the light of subsequent events, seemed prophetic. He was at Lord Spencer's one evening, with a number of English noblemen, when the conversation turned upon the subject of fables. Some one of the company observed that he thought the subject was exhausted; he did not believe that any beast, bird, or fish could be worked into a new fable with any success. The whole company appeared to agree with the gentleman excepting Franklin, who was silent. The company insisted upon his expressing his opinion. "I believe, my lords," said the sage, in substance, "that the subject is inexhaustible, and that many new and instructive fables might be made out of such materials." He was asked if he would think of one at present. "If your lordship," he said, turning to Earl Spencer, "will provide me with a pen, ink, and paper, I believe I can furnish your lordship with one in a few minutes." The paper was brought, and Franklin wrote as follows:

"Once upon a time, an eagle soaring around a farmer's barn and espying a hare, darted down upon him like a sunbeam, seized him in his claws, and remounted with him in the air. He soon found that he had a creature of more courage and strength than a hare, for which, notwithstanding the keenness of his eyesight, he had mistaken a cat. The snarling and scrambling of the prey was very inconvenient, and, what was worse, she had disengaged herself from his talons, grasped his body with her fore limbs, so as to stop his breath, and seized fast hold of his throat with her teeth. `Pray,' said the eagle, `let go your hold and I will release you.' `Very fine,' said the cat, `I have no fancy to fall from this height, and be crushed to death. You have taken me up, and you shall stoop and let me down.' The eagle thought it necessary to stoop accordingly."

John Adams, who received the story from Franklin's lips, wrote: "The moral was so applicable to England and America [England the Eagle, and America the Cat] that the fable was allowed to be original, and was highly applauded."

The colonists now said: "We must fight." They repeated it from Maine to Georgia. They buckled on their armor and stood on the defensive determined not to give the first blow. We shall now see how their oppressors became the aggressors, and spilled the first blood that flowed in the war of that momentous revolution which King George the Third began. That revolution, as we have observed, was not the work of the people. They did not seek to overturn anything; they sought only to preserve the precious things that existed. They had never known hereditary titles, nor prerogatives, nor any of the forms of feudalism, in America, other than as temporary exotics. They had grown to greatness in plain, unostentatious ways, chiefly as tillers of the soil and moving on a social plane of almost absolute equality. They had all been born free. They were not called upon to fight for freedom, for they already possessed it; they were compelled to fight for its maintenance. Therefore, the American people in 1775 were not revolutionists. They, only, were revolutionists, who, by arbitrary methods, attempted to deprive the Americans of their rights. This aspect of the case I wish to impress upon the minds of my countrymen. I shall not dwell long upon the sanguinary features of that war. An eminent author, in a deprecatory spirit, wrote :-- "They Muse of History has been so much in love with Mars, that she has seldom conversed with Minerva." Acting upon that hint, I shall, in telling the story of that war, touch as lightly upon the terrible details of battles as faithfulness to the task before me will allow. With that governing thought, I have traced the course of the colonies through the several phases of their growth from feeble, scattered settlements to powerful commonwealths, endued with a pervading love of freedom, and possessing large liberties. I have endeavored to unfold the causes which gradually made them gravitate toward a common center of nationality, in the form of a colonial Union. We will now consider their tremendous struggle during seven years for the maintenance of their liberties, and the establishment of a new and independent nation on the earth.





Return to Our Country, Vol II