In February, 1775, Great Britain had virtually declared war against the colonies. "The time for reconciliation, moderation, and reasoning is over," General Gage wrote to Lord Dartmouth. Even the boys of Boston asserted their rights in the presence of the military governor. They had built some snow-hills on the Common, down which they slid on to a pond. The soldiers, to annoy them, frequently demolished these hills. They complained to the captain, but could not obtain redress. At length a large deputation of older boys called upon General Gage. He received them courteously, and said: "Why have so many children waited upon me?" "We have come, sir," said the tallest boy, "to demand satisfaction." "What!" said the general with surprise, "have your fathers been teaching you rebellion, and sent you here to exhibit it?" "Nobody sent us here, sir," replied the boy, while his eyes flashed, and his cheeks reddened with indignation at the imputation of being a rebel. "We have never injured nor insulted your troops," he continued, "but they have trodden down our snow-hills, and have broken the ice on our skating-ground. We complained, and they called us young rebels, and told us to help ourselves if we could. We told the captain of this, and he laughed at us. Yesterday our works were destroyed for the third time, and we will bear it no longer." The good-natured general felt touched with admiration for the spirit of these boys, and turning to an officer near him, he said: "The very children here draw in a love of liberty with the air they breathe." To the boys he said: "Be assured that if my troops trouble you again, they shall be punished."
In reply to a letter from Dartmouth, ordering him to assert, by force, the absolute authority of the king, Gage wrote that civil government was nearly at an end in Massachusetts. He advised the sending of twenty thousand troops, with whom he would undertake to enforce the new form of government, to disarm the colonists, and to arrest and send to England for trial the chief traitors in Massachusetts. Meanwhile the British government were preparing to reinforce the troops in Boston. It was determined to make the number there ten thousand. They also resolved to send another general to take the place of Gage, whom ministers considered too inefficient for the exigency. General William Howe was chosen to succeed him. His major-generals were Sir Henry Clinton and John Burgoyne. The former was a son of a provincial governor of New York; the latter was ambitious to win renown that he might wipe out the stain of his ignoble birth. He boastfully said: "I am confident there is not an officer or soldier in the king's service who does not think the Parliamentary right of Great Britain a cause to fight for; to bleed and die for." There were many and noble soldiers who did not agree with him. For that reason Amherst declined the chief command which was offered to him, and partly for the same reason General Howe took the appointment with reluctance. "Is it a proposition or an order from the king?" Howe asked. "It is an order." "Then it is my duty to obey," he said with real reluctance, for he remembered with gratitude the vote of Massachusetts to erect a monument in memory of his brother, Lord Howe, who was killed near Ticonderoga. His reluctance was somewhat diminished when he was told that he and his brother Richard, Earl Howe (who had been appointed naval commander in America), would go as peace commissioners also, bearing the sword in one hand and the olive-branch in the other.
Franklin, not long before his departure from England, had written to friends in Massachusetts, saying, in substance, "Do not begin war without the advice of the Continental Congress, unless on a sudden emergency." He said: "New England alone can hold out for ages against this country, and, if they are firm and united, in seven years will win the day." The prophecy was fulfilled in time and facts. "The eyes of all Christendom," he wrote, "are now upon us, and our honor as a people is become a matter of the utmost consequence. If we tamely give up our rights in this contest, a century to come will not restore us, in the opinion of the world; we shall be stamped with the character of dastards, poltroons, and fools; and be despised and trampled upon, not by this haughty, insolent nation only, but by all mankind. Present inconveniences are, therefore, to be borne with fortitude, and better times expected." The French minister in London wrote to his government: "Every negotiation which shall proceed from the present administration will be without success in the colonies. Will the king of England lose America rather than change his ministry? Time must solve the problem; if I am well informed, the submission of the Americans is not to be expected." The conduct of the Americans gratified the wishes of Franklin and the hopes of the French ambassador.
When news of the contemptuous reception of the petition of Congress to the King, and copies of the Address of Parliament to his majesty, reached the Americans, there was an outburst of patriotism from the hearts of all the colonies. The spirit of the times gave fire to the tongue of Joseph Warren, when, on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he thrilled the souls of a vast concourse of citizens in the Old South Meeting-house, and drew from some of the forty British officers who were present, insulting hisses. His words went deep into the hearts of the people, and Gage well knew their significance.
Before this the air was full of rebellious utterances; now it seemed as if the lightning of the popular wrath was about to kindle a mighty conflagration. On both sides watchful eyes never slept, and watchful ears were always open. All through March and far into April, Boston was like a seething cauldron of intense feeling. Gage was irresolute and timid. He had about four thousand well-drilled soldiers, eager to fall upon the "rebels," yet he hesitated. At length he resolved to nip rebellion in the bud. He prepared to seize John Hancock and Samuel Adams as arch-traitors, and send them to England for trial on a charge of treason. He also determined to send out troops to seize all the munitions of war which he knew the people had gathered at Concord and other places; and he fixed upon the night of the 18th of April as the time for the execution of his scheme. The plan was to be kept a profound secret until the latest moment.
In the meantime Hancock and Adams, who were in attendance at the Provincial Congress held at Concord, had received warning of their personal danger, for an intercepted letter from London had revealed it; and when that Congress adjourned on the 15th April, they tarried at Lexington, where they lodged at the house of Rev. Jonas Clarke, yet standing. At the same time the Minute-men were on the alert everywhere, and the fifteen thousand troops which the Provincial Congress had called for were in readiness to confront the oppressors of the people. Couriers were ready to ride over the country, and arouse the inhabitants, if the British should march that way; and wagons were prepared to remove the hidden stores to places of greater safety.
The capital part of the scheme was to arrest Hancock and Adams at Lexington, ten miles from Boston. For this purpose, the soldiers who were to do the work, were to leave Boston secretly in the evening, at an hour that would enable them to reach Lexington at past midnight, when the doomed patriots would be sleeping soundly. Their arrest accomplished, the troops were to move rapidly forward to Concord, six miles further, and seize or destroy the cannon and military stores which the patriots had gathered. Preparations for the expedition were made as early as the fifteenth. On that day about eight hundred grenadiers and infantry were detached from the main body and marched to a different part of the town, under the pretense of teaching them some new military movements. At night, boats from the transports which had been hauled up for repairs, were launched and moored under the sterns of the men-of-war. Dr. Warren, one of the most watchful of the patriots, sent notice to Hancock of these suspicious movements, and enabled the Committee of Safety, of which the latter was chairman, to cause some of the stores at Concord to be removed to places of safety, in time to save them from the invaders. To prevent a knowledge of his expedition spreading into the country, Gage sent out a number of his officers to post themselves on the several roads leading from Boston; and to prevent suspicions, they went out of the city at different times. But they were discovered, and the design suspected, by a Son of Liberty of Lexington, who informed Colonel Monroe, then sergeant of a militia company. That officer, suspecting a design to capture Hancock and Adams, collected a guard of eight well-armed men, who watched Mr. Clarke's house that night.
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