So firmly supported in the House of Lords, the ministers proceeded to put the engine of coercion into full play against the Americans. On the 2nd of February, Lord North proposed the first of a series of measures for compelling the Americans to submit. He moved in the House of Commons for an address to the king, affirming that the province of Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion; that Great Britain would not relinquish an iota of her sovereign rule in the colonies; and urging his majesty to take immediate and effectual measures for enforcing obedience to the laws. They contemplated a material increase of the military force in America, and to restrain the entire commerce of New England with Great Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies. Charles James Fox moved an amendment censuring the ministry, and praying for their removal. A warm debate ensued, when Fox's amendment was negatived by a vote of three hundred and four against one hundred and five. North's motion, which ended with the usual pledge of "lives and fortunes," prevailed by a majority of two hundred and ninety-six in the Commons, and in the Lords by eighty-seven to twenty-seven; nine peers protesting. Gibbon the historian, who then had a seat in the Commons, and had veered from the Opposition to the Ministerial side, wrote: "We voted an address of 'lives and fortunes,' declaring Massachusetts Bay in a state of rebellion; more troops, but, I fear, not enough to go to America, to make an army of ten thousand men at Boston; three generals, Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne! In a few days we stop the ports of New England. I cannot write volumes, but I am more and more convinced that, with firmness, all will go well; yet I sometimes doubt." Gibbon had written in favor of the Americans. Fox, in an epigram of twelve lines, alludes to his venality in these words:
"King George in a fright, lest Gibbon should write The story of Britain's disgrace, Thought no means more sure, his pen to secure, Than to give the historian a place."
North presented another bill--a Restraining Act--which provided for the destruction of the fisheries and other commerce of the New England colonies, exempting from its force those only who should produce evidence that they were supporters of the supremacy of Parliament. Protests from merchants and manufacturers, and also from the Friends or Quakers, in behalf of those people on Nantucket, engaged in the fishing, were presented, but without effect. The bill was passed by an overwhelming majority, and twenty thousand inhabitants of New England, employing four hundred ships and two thousand fishing-shallops, were seriously injured by it. At this juncture news came from America of the general adhesion of the several colonies to the Continental Congress, when North presented another bill (March 8, 1775), which included all the colonies in the operation of the Restraining Act, excepting New York and North Carolina, where loyalty prevailed. In New York, conservatism was now rife, especially among the "Patricians," or what is termed the "upper classes" in society. Loyalty to the crown, and lukewarmness in the cause for which Boston was suffering, prevailed in the New York Assembly at the beginning of 1775, then in the seventh year of its existence. To stimulate and diffuse that conservatism and loyalty--to detach New York from the rest of the colonies, in political feeling, was now a prime object of the ministry and their American supporters. Severance from Great Britain was not to be thought of, said these loyalists. Even John Jay, one of the most active men in the Continental Congress, declared that he "held nothing in greater abhorrence, than the malignant charge of aspiring after independence." The New York Committee of Correspondence expressed their anxiety for the maintenance of union with Great Britain. And in the New York Assembly conservatism was strongly manifested, when a motion of Colonel Tenbroeck, to take into consideration the proceedings of the Continental Congress, was negatived. Again, when Philip Schuyler made a motion in that body that certain letters, which, the previous summer, had passed between the New York Committee of Correspondence and that of Connecticut on the subject of a General Congress; also that a letter of a committee of the New York Assembly to Edmund Burke (the agent for the province in England) a little later, should be entered upon the Journals of the House, the clerk to furnish copies for the newspapers, his motion was negatived. A proposition of Colonel (afterward General) Woodhull to vote thanks to the New York delegates in the Continental Congress for their faithfulness; another to thank those merchants who adhered to the nonimportation agreements, and still another to appoint delegates to the next Continental Congress, were negatived by the same vote. At about the same time the majority of the Assembly, on motion of Mr. DeLancey, decided by a resolution that the king and Parliament had a right to regulate the trade of the colonies, and to levy taxes by impost duties. A most obsequious petition to the king, in which he was styled "an indulgent father," was then offered. This excited the indignation of Schuyler and other republicans of the Assembly. The former attacked expressions in the paper with great vigor, and offered amendments substituting manly words for degrading ones. But the petition unamended, and a humble petition to the House of Lords, were adopted, and were sent to England, with a record of the proceedings of the Assembly. These papers caused the exemption of the province of New York from the force of the Restraining Act. They did not represent the feelings of the great mass of the people of that province, but only of the ruling classes. But the votes gave great joy to the Tories and the crown-officers everywhere, and made the ministry hope that New York would be permanently disaffected, and so cut off New England from the other provinces until the war that ensued had made considerable progress. The Tories confidently looked for failure in the rebellion through dissension. John Adams predicted twenty years before, that the grand scheme of the British government would be the promotion of dissensions among the colonies.
There was now much fluttering among the ministers. Lord North, to the astonishment of everybody, submitted a sort of conciliatory plan that pleased nobody, yet he adroitly carried it through. Other plans, more favorable to the Americans, were offered and rejected. Franklin's "Hints" had been considered by the ministry, and propositions had been made to him which were so much short of justice that he replied, "While Parliament claims the right of altering American constitutions at pleasure, there can be no agreement, for we are rendered unsafe in English privilege." When it was suggested that an agreement was necessary for America, as it would be "so easy for Britain to burn all their seaport towns," the philosopher answered bravely: "My little property consists of houses in those towns; you may make bonfires of them whenever you please: the fear of losing them will never alter my resolution to resist, to the last, the claim of Parliament."
The British government, by its acts, had now virtually declared war against the English-American colonists as rebels. Abandoning all hope of reconciliation, Franklin returned to America in the spring of 1775, and entered vigorously upon the prosecution of the war that soon afterward broke out.
Return to Our Country, Vol II