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THE COMING ON OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.
Condition of the Thirteen Colonies in the first half of the eigh. teenth cen. tury.
The English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard of America, from feeble beginnings, had become in a
a century and a half communities populous and full of resources; but holding little communication with each other, and varying much in spirit and polity. In Massa
chusetts, which had absorbed Plymouth, and which also comprised Maine, thus becoming by far the most important colony of the North, the people were distributed among two hundred towns, each governing itself in its town-meeting, which reproduced with curious accuracy the moot-government of the primitive Teutonic community. As each Teutonic tun sent representatives to the higher moot, so each Massachusetts town sent a representative to a central assembly at Boston. There the deputies met a Crown-appointed governor, and also a council, in constituting which both assembly and governor had a voice. After the same general plan were ordered the remaining New England colonies. The oligarchic features of the earlier years had quite disappeared; not only church
members, but each reputable freeman had a vote; and, except for some restraint imposed by the Sovereign, the polity was thoroughly democratic, a resuscitation of forms most ancient.
Virginia, on the other hand, by far the most important colony of the South, resembled in her constitution contemporary England. A class of great planters, forming a landed gentry, possessed the territory and also all political power; while a numerous body below them was without estates and also without voice in the political management. While here and there divisions could be made out corresponding to the contemporary English parishes, like them called parishes and each governed by its vestry, the real unit of political life was the county, administered by its Court of Quarter Sessions, closely similar to the institution of the same name, which, in the mothercountry, had replaced, except for elective purposes, the shire-moot. In one respect, Virginia differed widely from the mother-country, - full half her population were negro slaves. For a central government there was a governor, a council, and a representative assembly. After the same general plan as that of Virginia were ordered the other Southern colonies.
In the middle colonies, both society and institutions were far from homogeneous. In New York, to the original Dutch, the English had been added, and to these again a German element; the young city at the mouth of the Hudson was made up of waifs of all nations. On portions of the territory stood towns scarcely differing from those of New England; on other portions, the great manors of the patroons; on still others, some simple patriarchal form of community. In Pennsylvania and Maryland, the state was distinctly feudal, the territory having been given to great proprietors who stood almost in the relation of suzerain to a great body of tenants. In Pennsylvania, the principal stock had been English Quakers; but a stream of Irish, Scotch, and German immigration had poured into the back settlements, which showed often small respect for the authority or the instructions of William Penn. Here the ancient shire-moot had reappeared with noteworthy vigor. In Maryland the proprietary was a Catholic, and the colony was largely of Catholic refugees. Circumstances, however, had induced Lord Baltimore, a man of liberal instincts, to practise a quite un-Roman toleration. Maryland harbored Puritan, Episcopalian, and unbe liever, - a company quite too motley in character for a harmonious social condition. For each of the middle colonies, too, there was a governor, council, and assembly. The Thirteen Colonies had at least this point in common, that in each colony there was an element, and it was sometimes the ruling element, of men and women who for conscience sake had fled westward to avoid persecution. Sometimes it was the persecution of a hostile church; sometimes of a tyrannical prince; sometimes of the English Commonwealth. Such people were sure to be earnest and of sturdy moral fibre. Probably no nation ever started on its career with a larger proportion of strong characters, or a higher level of moral convictions.1
How, precisely, did it come about that the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent?2 In the
1 Lecky: XVIIIth Century, II, p. 2.
2 In the discussion that follows, I am greatly indebted to the able chapter by Hon. Mellen Chamberlain, in Winsor: Narrative and Critical History of America, VI, p. 1, etc.
fifteenth century, by public law of all civilized nations, all unoccupied lands in newly discovered countries belonged to the Crown, under The approach whose authority the discoveries had been can Revolumade. The English colonies were held by the lawyers to belong to the Crown and not to the people, and the Crown, in their view, had a right to govern or dispose of them without interference of Parliament. The colonists were not under parliamentary jurisdiction, but responsible only to the Kings; they possessed only such rights as their charters gave them; and these charters the Crown claimed the right to amend or revoke as it chose, though usually not without much discontent on the part of the colonists. James I amended the Virginia charter in 1624, and Charles II revoked that of Massachusetts in 1684, while William III gave to Massachusetts a new charter quite different in its provisions from its predecessor. Originally, these charters were simply incorporations of trading-companies, and when they were “perverted” into instruments of government, as the trading enterprises grew into the dimension of States, the Kings continued to feel that they could do with the documents as they chose. The colonists, claiming that they had “the rights and privileges of Englishmen,” among which was the right to be free from arbitrary interference, resisted the meddling of the princes; still, the pretensions of the princes by all judicial authority, were strictly legal. In the eye of the law, the colonists when disposed to resist were of a revolutionary temper.
The Kings claimed the right to rule the colonies without parliamentary interference, but they were not
consistent. Charles II, for instance, allowed the par
liamentary acts of Navigation, laws greatly Un consistency restricting commerce, to be enforced in
the colonies; and in the time of William
and Mary, colonial affairs were to a large extent transferred from the management of the Privy Council, the King's creation, to the Board of Trade, a council of commerce created by Parliament. Among the colonists, also, the general doctrine was that they owed allegiance to the King and not to Parliament: they received the Crown-appointed governor, and were accustomed to see the laws of their own assemblies sometimes set aside by royal authority; a memorable presentation of this doctrine, from the colonial point of view, was that made by Franklin, before the bar of the House of Commons at the time of the Stamp Act agitation in 1766. Still, the colonists were no more consistent here than the Kings. Story brings up the fact, that in1757, the General Court of Massachusetts distinctly admitted the authority of Parliament; so, too, in 1761; and even so late as 1768, it was admitted “ that his Majesty's high Court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire.” 1
The fact is, that, as regards the exact legal and constitutional status of the colonies, all were at sea, both in the colonies and at home. The Kings were uncertain, as appears from their consenting now and then to parliamentary interference. The colonists were uncertain, claiming now more, now less. In the meantime, Parliament, become oligarchic and greatly invigorated during the decline of the royal
1 Story on the Constitution, Chap. XVI, § 188.