History of America: 1780



The year 1780 now drew to a close, yet the patriots were far from being subdued. The British government had expended vast sums of money and many precious lives in endeavors to subjugate them, and had involved the nation in a war with France, as a consequence. Yet English pluck would not yield an iota to adverse circumstances. Great Britain seemed to acquire fresh vigor when any new obstacle presented itself. Seemingly unmindful of the fact that large French land and naval forces were on the shores of America, the British ministry, when satisfied that Holland would give national aid to the "rebellious colonies," caused a declaration of war to be made against that power by the king, and procured from Parliament immense appropriations of men and money, ships and stores, to sustain the power of the empire on land and sea. British cruisers had already depredated upon Dutch commerce in times of peace; and the British government treated the Netherlands more as a vassal than as an independent nation. So early as May (1780) the British minister at the Hague had been instructed to inform his government concerning the current voyages of Dutch merchantmen, "that the British cruisers might know where to go for the richest prizes."

To prevent Holland joining the Armed-Neutrality league, the ministry sought a decent pretext for making war on that republic. It was found in October (1780) when Henry Laurens, late president of the Congress, who had been authorized by that body a year before to negotiate a commercial treaty with Holland and for a loan of ten million dollars from that government, was captured on the high seas by a British cruiser. Among his papers (which he threw into the sea, but which were recovered) were found an unofficial copy of a treaty with the Netherlands, and evidence that such negotiations had been going on between Holland and the United States. Here was the coveted pretext. Laurens was confined as a state prisoner in the Tower of London under circumstances of great severity, and on the 20th of December, the king declared war against Holland. Before his declaration had been promulgated, and while efforts were a-making at the Hague to conciliate England and avoid war, British cruisers pounced upon and captured two hundred unsuspecting Dutch merchantmen, laden with cargoes valued at more than five million dollars; and orders had gone forth for the seizure of the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. It was a cruel and unjust war, and deepened the hatred of Continental Europe for Great Britain. That government was regarded as a bully ready to oppress and plunder the weak.

Notwithstanding the Americans were not subdued at the close of 1780, their cause was in great peril from the weakness of its material props. The condition of the currency was an impediment to all vigorous measures. "A wagon-load of money would scarcely buy a wagon-load of provisions." The States were urged to supply quotas of funds for the common use, but their responses were slow and feeble, and there was no central power competent to levy taxes or demand forced loans. A closer union and greater power in the general government were essential to success, and wise patriots in every position appealed to the people in favor of a stronger government. General Greene, who, as quartermaster-general, saw clearly the public needs, wrote in June, 1780: "The Congress have lost their influence. I have for a long time seen the necessity of some new plan of civil constitution. Unless there is some control over the States by the Congress, we shall soon be like a broken band." There was a spirit of patriotism among the people ample to meet the great emergency; but legislators lacked wisdom to grasp the problem. While the people yearned for a closer union and a truly national government, Virginia was contending for State supremacy. The legislators of that State agreed with John Adams, who wrote that the assembly in any State was "every way adequate to the management of all the federal concerns of the people of America, because Congress is not a legislative assembly, nor a representative assembly, but a diplomatic assembly."

At a convention of delegates from three New England States, held in Philadelphia in August, 1780, it was resolved that the national concerns should be "under the superintendency and direction of one supreme head," and recommended the investment of the Congress with such power. These words powerfully impressed the mind of young Hamilton, who was then a member of Washington's military family and his able secretary. He invited Mr. Duane, a representative of New York in the Congress, to propose in that body a convention of all the States in November following, and submitted a general plan for a national government, not in form but in concrete suggestions, full of wisdom and evidences of sound statesmanship. He said, truly, that the plan for a confederation which the Congress had adopted, and was awaiting the ratification of the several States, was "neither fit for war or peace," saying: "The idea of uncontrollable sovereignty in each State will defeat the powers given to Congress, and make our union feeble and precarious." At the same time Washington, who, from the beginning, had urged the necessity of a permanent military force, now pleaded for a system of enlistments "for the war," and other reforms in the army. "We have lived," he wrote, "upon expedients till we can live no longer. The history of this war is a history of temporary devices instead of a system." The Congress took measures for "reforming the army," but that body was powerless, and cast the burden of responsibility upon the several States.





Return to Our Country, Vol II