The British Parliament assembled on the 18th of November, 1777. They had not heard of Howe's success on the borders of the Brandywine, nor of Burgoyne's disasters at Saratoga. They knew that Howe had been compelled to retire from New Jersey, and gloomy forebodings occupied their minds. They knew that American commissioners were kindly received at the French court, and they dreaded a possible alliance of that nation with the insurgent subjects of Great Britain in America. The stubborn king, in his opening speech from the throne, declared his intention to prosecute the war against the "rebels," without regard to the waste of blood and treasure. He alluded to the increased armaments of France and Spain, and, urging his people to make provision of larger means for carrying on the war in America, he expressed a hope that the "deluded and unhappy multitude in the colonies" might speedily cease their resistance and return to their allegiance.
A corresponding address to the king was proposed in Parliament, when the heaviest batteries of the Opposition in both houses were brought to bear upon the ministry. In the House of Lords, the Earl of Chatham (William Pitt), who strongly desired reconciliation with the Americans and was as strongly opposed to their independence, leaning upon a crutch, poured forth a flood of oratory such as distinguished him in the prime of his vigorous manhood. He opposed the further prosecution of the "inhuman war," and pleaded earnestly for conciliatory measures. He charged the ministry with lack of courage to sustain the honor of the nation, because they had allowed to pass unnoticed, what he called an insult to his government by the French court, in receiving, on friendly terms, the ambassadors of the insurgent Americans. "Can our ministers," he asked, "sustain a more humiliating disgrace? Do they dare to resent it? Do they presume even to hint at a vindication of their honor, and the dignity of the State, by requiring the dismissal of the plenipotentiaries of America?" Alluding to the ill-success of the British arms in this country, he said: "You cannot--I venture to say it--you cannot conquer America. What is your present condition there? We do not know the worst, but we know that in three campaigns we have done nothing and suffered much. You may swell every expense and every effort, still more extravagantly; pile and accumulate every assistance you can buy or borrow; traffic and barter with every little pitiful German prince that sells and sends his subjects to the shambles of a foreign prince; your efforts are forever vain and impotent--doubly so from this mercenary aid on which you rely; for it irritates to an incurable resentment the minds of your enemies--to overrun them with the mercenary sons of rapine and plumber; devoting them and their possessions to the rapacity of hireling cruelty! If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms--never--never--never!" With equal vehemence Chatham condemned the employment of the American savages "to wage the horrors of this barbarous war." A member justified the employment of Indians, by saying that the British had the right to use the means "which God and nature had given them." Chatham scornfully repeated the passage, and said: "These abominable principles, and this most abominable avowal of them, demands most decisive indignation. I call upon that reverend bench (pointing to the Bishops), these holy ministers of the Gospel and pious pastors of the Church--I conjure them to join in the holy work, and to vindicate the religion of their God."
In the House of Commons, Burke, Fox, and Barre were equally severe in their denunciations; and when, on the 3d of December, news reached London of the defeat of the British in northern New York, the latter rose in his place, and with a serene and solemn countenance, asked Germain, the Colonial Secretary, what news he had received by his last express from Quebec, and to say, upon his word of honor, what had become of Burgoyne and his brave army. The haughty Secretary was irritated by the cool irony of the question, but he was compelled to admit that information of Burgoyne's surrender had reached him. He added--"It lacks confirmation." That confirmation speedily came, and Lord North was overwhelmed with grief. He could neither eat nor sleep. He saw in the event the result of the unwise measures of his sovereign, which he had sanctioned in opposition to the dictates of his own conscience and judgment; and he proposed to end the quarrel by conceding all that the Americans asked, or retire from the cabinet. It was perceived by all but the stupid and obstinate king and a few shallow courtiers that something must be done immediately toward reconciliation, or France would interfere. Leaders in both houses agreed with North. Fox said: "If no better terms can be had, I would treat with them as allies, nor do I fear the consequences of their independence." The king would not yield an iota of his pretensions to absolute sovereignty over the Americans. In turn he chided and coaxed the pliant North, when, finding his minister less yielding than usual, he conceded so much to his feelings as to suggest that in the event of a war with France and Spain (which then seemed probable) the royal troops might be withdrawn from the American provinces and employed in making war upon the French and Spanish islands. North yielded, and preparations for the campaign of 1775, against the Americans, went on vigorously.
Meanwhile events of great importance to the struggling patriots had taken place in France. The efforts of Beaumarchais in behalf of the Americans, and the joint mission of Franklin, Deane and Lee, to the French court must be noticed. Early in 1777, the commissioners proposed a treaty with France for mutual benefit in peace and war, and so took the initial step in the foreign diplomacy of the United States. Already the French government, in response to the efforts of Beaumarchais and Deane, had furnished essential material aid for the Americans, from the public treasury and arsenals. It was done secretly through Beaumarchais, who, as the agent of the government, opened a large commercial house in Paris, under the firm name of Rodriguez, Hortales & Co.; and by the use of money received from both France and Spain for the purpose, he sent three ship-loads of supplies to the Americans, in time to be used for the summer campaign of 1777. This mercantile disguise enabled Vergennes, the French minister, to say, with truth, at the end of the fourth year of the war: "The king has furnished nothing; he simply permitted M. Beaumarchais to be provided with articles from the arsenals upon condition of replacing them."
Out of these transactions grew much embarrassment. At an early stage of Mr. Deane's negotiations with the French, Arthur Lee of Virginia, an ambitious young man then in London, and who fell in with Beaumarchais there, informed the Congress through his brother, Richard Henry Lee, that Vergennes had sent an agent to him with the assurance that, while the French government would not then think of going to war with Great Britain, they were ready to furnish the Americans with arms and ammunition to the value of almost a million dollars. This statement was untrue, and was very mischievous, leading the Congress to believe that the supplies afterward sent by Beaumarchais were gratuities of the French monarch. This belief prevailed until the close of 1778, when, on inquiry being made of Vergennes, by Franklin, the above answer was given by that minister. Thomas Paine, minister for foreign affairs, at Philadelphia, believed it, and said so in a newspaper quarrel with Silas Deane, when the startled Congress, unwilling to compromise the French court, said by resolution, in January, 1779, that they "had never received any species of military stores as a present from the court of France or from any other court or person in Europe," and dismissed Paine from his office. Beaumarchais afterward claimed payment from the Congress for every article he had forwarded. This claim caused a lawsuit which lasted about fifty years. It was settled in 1835 by the payment to the heirs of Beaumarchais by our government, the sum of over two hundred thousand dollars.
When the news of the surrender of Burgoyne reached France, Beaumarchais, who had then sent supplies for the Americans to the amount of almost a million dollars, found himself in financial embarrassment by lack of remittances of funds from the Congress, which he had expected. That body had been deceived by the falsehoods and slanders of Lee, and had not only withheld remittances, but had not acknowledged the receipt of supplies. Beaumarchais sent an agent to America, that autumn, to seek justice, who wrote back that Lee's untruthfulness was the cause of all the trouble. Just then tidings reached Paris that the Americans had captured Burgoyne's whole army. The news filled the French capital with great joy. It was perceived that the Americans could help themselves. France saw this, and also perceived that they might be her very useful allies in the evidently impending war with Great Britain. So the French government resolved to give the patriots more substantial, material, and moral aid than ever before, by acknowledging the independence of the United States and forming a treaty of alliance with them. Beaumarchais's mission was ended. On the 6th of February, 1778, a treaty of amity, commerce, and alliance was concluded with the French government, by the American commissioners. This treaty was effected secretly; and before the fact was known at the British court, Dr. Franklin, then seventy-two years of age, was greeted as the American ambassador at the French court, and M. Gerard was appointed to represent France at the seat of government of the United States. So was begun that alliance which speedily led to a war on sea and land between the French and English.
Franklin and his colleagues were presented to the king and queen at Versailles, on the 20th of March. Willing to comply with the court etiquette on such occasions, the republican ambassador sent for a wig, and contemplated ordering a suit of blue velvet and lace. No wig in Paris would fit his capacious head; so he resolved to appear in his baldness, with his thin gray hair hanging down upon his shoulders. So he did appear in defiance of the chamberlain and fashion. Clad in an elegant suit of black velvet made as plain as one he would have worn at an evening party in Philadelphia, with white cambric ruffles in his bosom and at his wrists, white silk stockings and silver shoe-buckles, he won the admiration of all beholders in that brilliant assembly. The beautiful young queen bestowed her sweetest smiles upon him, and kept him near her person as much as possible during the audience. In one of the saloons of Paris a few evenings afterward, he was the centre of attraction. His defiance of etiquette charmed the Parisians. The ladies pressed around the Philosopher, and more enthusiastic ones saluted him with kisses on his forehead. The king was irritated by these attentions, for he despised republicans, and only consented to be their ally in war for the benefit of France. Voltaire, who, at the age of eighty-four, had just arrived in Paris after a long exile, was not more popular then than Franklin. They soon became personal friends, for Voltaire espoused the cause of the Americans. Franklin venerated him for his wisdom, and bade his grandson, a tall youth, ask the philosopher's blessing. The venerable man placed his hand on the lad's head and gave it in these words: God and Liberty.
The position now assumed by France toward the Americans greatly embarrassed the British ministry, and even the king was disposed to yield a little. Eleven days after the treaty was concluded at Paris, Lord North presented two conciliatory bills to Parliament. One declared the government did not intend to exercise the right of imposing taxes in America, and proposed to make almost every concession which the Americans had demanded two years before--even not to insist upon the renunciation of their independence; the other authorized the king to send commissioners to America to treat for reconciliation and peace. Mr. Hartley, a confidant of Lord North, sent copies of these bills to Dr. Franklin. The ambassador, with the knowledge of Vergennes, sent word back that if the king wished to treat with the Americans on terms of perfect equality, the desired result might be obtained by sending commissioners to the representatives of the United States in Paris. The French king fearing a reconciliation might take place, and so thwart his plans for using the Americans for the glory of France, hastened to officially inform the British government, through the French minister in London, of the treaty between that country and the United States. That minister, acting under instructions, in his note to the British government, spoke of the United States as being in "full possession of independence," and declared that his king was determined "to protect effectually the lawful commerce of his subjects, and to maintain the dignity of his flag," and had, "in consequence, taken effectual measures in concert with the Thirteen United and Independent States of America."
These offensive words--offensive as they were intended to be--were construed by the British government as a virtual declaration of war on the part of France; and the British minister at the French court was immediately recalled. Meanwhile the Conciliatory Bills had become laws, after much opposition in Parliament, chiefly because they allowed the Americans to assume the position of an independent nation. It would virtually be a dismemberment of the British empire, and this Chatham and his friends vehemently opposed. Afterward, when leaders of the opposition proposed, as a means for detaching the Americans from the French, to declare their independence, a most violent debate arose. That was early in April. Chatham had not appeared in the House of Lords for some time. Now his political friends urged him to be there. He appeared on the 7th of April, smothered in flannel and leaning upon two friends. He was pale and emaciated, and appeared like a dying man. Under his great wig, little more might be seen than his aquiline nose and peering eyes. He arose to speak. Leaning upon crutches, and supported by two friends, he raised one hand, and casting his eyes toward heaven, said: "I thank God that I have been enabled to come here this day--to perform my duty, and to speak upon a subject which has so deeply impressed my mind. I am old and infirm. I have one foot, more than one foot, in the grave; I am risen from my bed to stand up in the cause of my country--perhaps never again to speak in this House. My Lords, I rejoice that the grave has not closed upon me; that I am still alive to lift up my voice against the dismemberment of this ancient and most noble monarchy." His voice, at first feeble, rose in vehemence as he proceeded, and he made a most effective speech. The Duke of Richmond spoke in opposition to Chatham's arguments, and when he sat down, the great orator, much agitated, attempted to rise to reply, when he swooned and fell in the arms of his friends near by. Every one pressed around him with solicitude, and the debate closed without another word. He was conveyed to his country-seat at Hayes, where he expired on the 11th of May. The scene of his fall in the House of Lords was admirably painted by Copley, the American artist, who was then a resident of London.
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