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"George Washington" is an intriguing biography of America's first president as told by the man who would later become its twenty-eighth, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson takes us on a journey from a look at Washington's times to his Virginia breeding to his life in colonial America. Wilson looks at how these factors shaped the man who would lead the nation in its fight for independence and into its first years as a new nation. This is an insightful look into our nation's early history by a man who would play a key part in it more than one hundred years later.
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Copyright © Woodrow Wilson
Arcadia Press 2017
B. A. W.
Without whose sympathy and counsel literary work would lack inspiration
GEORGE WASHINGTON was bred a gentleman and a man of honor in the free school of Virginian society, with the generation that first learned what it meant to maintain English communities in America in safety and a self-respecting independence. He was born in a season of quiet peace, when the plot of colonial history was thickening noiselessly and almost without observation. He came to his first manhood upon the first stir of revolutionary events; caught in their movement, he served a rough apprenticeship in arms at the thick of the French and Indian war; the Revolution found him a leader and veteran in affairs at forty-four; every turn of fortune confirmed him in his executive habit of foresight and mastery; death spared him, stalwart and commanding, until, his rising career rounded and complete, no man doubted him the first character of his age. “Virginia gave us this imperial man,” and with him a companion race of statesmen and masters in affairs. It was her natural gift, the times and her character being what they were; and Washington’s life showed the whole process of breeding by which she conceived so great a generosity in manliness and public spirit.
The English colonies in America lay very tranquil in 1732, the year in which Washington was born. It fell in a season between times, when affairs lingered, as if awaiting a change. The difficulties and anxieties of first settlement were long ago past and done with in all the principal colonies. They had been hardening to their “wilderness work,” some of them, these hundred years and more. England could now reckon quite six hundred thousand subjects upon the long Atlantic seaboard of the great continent which had lain remote and undiscovered through so many busy ages, until daring sailors hit upon it at last amidst the stir of the adventurous fifteenth century; and there was no longer any thought that her colonists would draw back or falter in what they had undertaken. They had grown sedate even and self-poised, with somewhat of the air of old communities, as they extended their settlements upon the coasts and rivers and elaborated their means of self-government amidst the still forests, and each had already a bearing and character of its own. It was easy to distinguish the New-Englander from the man of the southern colonies; and the busy middle provinces that stretched back from the great bay at New York and from the waters of the spreading Delaware had also a breed of their own, like neither the men of the south nor the men of the northeast. Each region had bred for itself its characteristic communities, holding their own distinctive standards, knowing their own special purposes, living their own lives with a certain separateness and independence.
Virginia, the oldest of the colonies, was least to be distinguished by any private character of her own from the rural communities of England herself. Her population had come to her almost without selection throughout every stage of quick change and troubled fortune that England had seen during the fateful days since James Stuart became king; and Englishmen in Virginia were in no way radically distinguishable from Englishmen in England, except that they were provincials and frontiersmen. They had their own tasks and ways of life, indeed, living, as they did, within the old forests of a virgin continent, upon the confines of the world. But their tastes and temperament, spite of change and seclusion, they had in common with Englishmen at home. They gave leave to their opinions, too, with a like downright confidence and hardihood of belief, never doubting they knew how practical affairs should go. They had even kept the English character as they had received it, against the touch of time and social revolution, until Virginians seemed like elder Englishmen. England changed, but Virginia did not. There landed estates spread themselves with an ample acreage along the margins of the streams that everywhere threaded the virgin woodland; and the planter drew about him a body of dependents who knew no other master; to whom came, in their seclusion, none of that quick air of change that had so stirred in England throughout all her century of revolution. Some were his slaves, bound to him in perpetual subjection. Others were his tenants, and looked upon him as a sort of patron. In Maryland, where similar broad estates lay upon every shore, the law dubbed a great property here and there a “manor,” and suffered it to boast its separate court baron and private jurisdiction. Virginian gentlemen enjoyed independence and authority without need of formal title.
There was but one centre of social life in Virginia: at Williamsburg, the village capital, where the Governor had his “palace,” where stood the colonial college, where there were taverns and the town houses of sundry planters of the vicinage, and where there was much gay company and not a little formal ceremonial in the season. For the rest, the Old Dominion made shift to do without towns. There was no great mart to which all the trade of the colony was drawn. Ships came and went upon each broad river as upon a highway, taking and discharging freight at the private wharves of the several plantations. For every planter was his own merchant, shipping his tobacco to England, and importing thence in return his clothes, his tools, his household fittings, his knowledge of the London fashions and of the game of politics at home. His mechanics he found among his own slaves and dependents. Their “quarters” and the offices of his simple establishment showed almost like a village of themselves whore they stood in irregular groups about his own square, broad-gabled house, with its airy hall and homelike living-rooms. He might have good plate upon his sideboard and on his table, palatable old wine in his cellar, and on the walls about him portraits of the stately men and dames from whom he took his blood and breeding. But there was little luxury in his life. Plain comfort and a homely abundance sufficed Him. He was a gentleman, owned all he saw around him, exercised authority, and enjoyed consideration throughout the colony; but he was no prince. He lived always in the style of a provincial and a gentleman commoner, as his neighbors and friends did.
Slaves, dependents, and planters, however, did not by any means make up the tale of Virginia’s population. She had been peopled out of the common stock of Englishmen, and contained her own variety. Most of the good land that lay upon the lower courses of the James, the York, the Rappahannock, and the Potomac rivers, and upon the bay on either hand, had been absorbed into the estates of the wealthier planters, who began to conceive themselves a sort of aristocracy; but not a few plain men owned their own smaller tracts within the broad stretches of country that lay back from the rivers or above their navigable depth. Upon the western front of the colony lived sturdy frontiersmen; and no man was so poor that he might not hope by thrift to hold his own with the best in the country. Few could own slaves in any number, for the negroes counted less than a third in a reckoning of the whole population. There were hired servants besides, and servants bound for a terra of years by indenture; even criminals who could be had of the colony for private service; but most men must needs work their own plots of ground and devise a domestic economy without servants. A wholesome democratic spirit pervaded the colony, which made even the greater planters hesitate to give themselves airs. A few families that had thriven best and longest, and had built up great properties for themselves, did indeed lay claim, as royal governors found to their great displeasure, to a right to be heard before all others in the management of the government. But they could of course show no title but that of pride and long practice. It was only their social weight in the parish vestries, in the Council, and in the House of Burgesses that gave them ascendency.
It was the same in church as in state. Virginia prided herself upon having maintained the Establishment without schism or sour dissent; but she had maintained it in a way all her own, with a democratic constitution and practice hardly to be found in the canons. Nominally the Governor had the right of presentation to all livings; but the vestries took care he should seldom exercise it, and, after they had had their own way for a century, claimed he had lost it by prescription. They chose and dismissed and ruled their ministers as they would. And the chief planters were nowhere greater figures than in the vestries of their own parishes, where so many neighborhood interests were passed upon — the care of the poor, the survey of estates, the correction of disorders, the tithe rates, and the maintenance of the church and minister. Sometimes the church building was itself the gift of the chief landowner of the parish; and the planters were always the chief rate-payers. Their leadership was natural and unchallenged. They enjoyed in their own neighborhood a sort of feudal pre-eminence, and the men about them easily returned in thought and estimation to that elder order of English life in which the chief proprietor of the country-side claimed as of course the homage of his neighbors. There were parishes, not a few, indeed, in which there was no such great planter to command consideration by a sort of social primacy. It was, after all, only here and there, and in the older parts of the colony, that affairs awaited the wish of privileged individuals. But it was the ascendency of the greater planters which most struck the imagination, and which gave to Virginia something of the same air and tone and turn of opinion that existed in England, with its veritable aristocracy, its lordly country gentlemen, its ancient distinctions of class and mariners.
Those who took counsel in England concerning colonial affairs had constant occasion to mark the sharp contrast between the easy-going Virginians, who were no harder to govern than Englishmen everywhere, and the men of the northeastern colonies, with their dry reserve and their steadfast resolution not to be governed at all. These seemed unlike Englishmen elsewhere; a whit stiffer, shrewder, more self-contained and circumspect. They were, in fact, a peculiar people. Into New England had come a selected class, picked out of the general mass of Englishmen at home by test of creed. “God sifted the whole nation,” one of their own preachers had told them, at election-time, in the far year 1668, “that he might send choice grain out into this wilderness.” But the variety of the old life in England had been lost in the sifting. The Puritan, for all he was so strong and great a figure in his day, was but one man among a score in the quick and various English life. His single standard and manner of living, out of the many that strove for mastery in the old seats where the race was bred, had been transferred to New England; and he had had separate and undisputed ascendency there to build new commonwealths as he would. The Puritan Commonwealth in England had been the government of a minority. Cromwell had done his work of chastening with a might and fervor which he found, not in the nation, but in himself and in the stout men-at-arms and hardy reformers who stood with him while he purified England and brought upon all her foes a day of reckoning. The people had stood cowed and uneasy while he lived, and had broken into wild excess of joy at their release when he died. But in New England an entire community consented to the Puritan code and mastery with a hearty acquiescence. It was for this liberty they had come over sea.
And the thoughtful, strong-willed; men who were their leaders had built, as they wished, a polity that should last. Time wrought its deep changes in New England, as elsewhere, but the stamp set upon these Puritan settlements by the generation that founded them was not effaced. Trade made its characteristic mark upon them. Their merchants had presently their own fleets and markets. Their hardy people took more and more to the sea, lived the rough life of the ocean ways with a relish, beat in their small craft up and down the whole coast of the continent, drove bargains everywhere, and everywhere added a touch to their reputation as doughty sea-dogs and shrewd traders. The population that after a while came to New England did not stay to be sifted before attempting the voyage out of the Old World, and the quaint sedateness of the settlements began to be broken by a novel variety. New men beset the old order; a rough democracy began to make itself felt; and new elements waxed bold amidst the new conditions that time had wrought. The authority of the crown at last made a place of command for itself, despite every stubborn protest and astute evasion. It became necessary to be a trifle less observant of sect and creed, to cultivate, as far as might be, a temper of tolerance and moderation. But it was a slow change at best. The old order might be modified, but it could not so soon be broken. New England, through all her jurisdictions, remained a body of churches, as well as a body of towns, submissive to the doctrine and discipline of her learned clergy, keeping the old traditions distinct, indubitable, alike in her schools and her meetinghouses. Even in Rhode Island, where there had from the first been such diversity of creed and license of individual belief, there was little variety of type among the people, for all they counted themselves so free to be what they would. There was here a singular assortment, no doubt, of the units of the stock, but it was of the Puritan stuff, none the less, through all its variety.
New England, indeed, easily kept her character, for she lived apart. Her people mustered a full hundred thousand strong before the seventeenth century was out; her towns numbered many score, both upon the margins of the sea and within the forests; but she still lay within a very near frontier, pushed back only a short journey from the coast. Except where the towns of Connecticut ran in broken line close to the westward strait of Long Island Sound, a broad wilderness of untouched woodland, of thicketed hills and valleys that no white man yet had seen, stretched between them and Hudson’s river, where New York’s settlements lay upon the edge of a vast domain, reaching all the way to the great lakes and the western rivers. Not till 1725 did adventurous settlers dare go so far as the Berkshire Hills. “Our country,” exclaimed Colonel Byrd, of Virginia, who had seen its wild interior, “has now been inhabited more than a hundred and thirty years, and still we hardly know anything of the Appalachian Mountains, which are nowhere above two hundred and fifty miles from the sea.” A full century after the coming of the Pilgrims, New England, like Virginia, was still a frontier region, shut close about on every hand by thick forests beset by prowling bands of savages. She had as yet no intimate contact with the other colonies whose fortunes she was to share. Her simple life, quickened by adventure, but lacking the full pulse of old communities, kept, spite of slow change, to a single standard of conduct, made her one community from end to end, her people one people. She stood apart and compact, still soberly cultivating, as of old, a life and character all her own. Colonel Byrd noted how “New England improved much faster than Virginia,” and was fain to think that “though these people may be ridiculed for some Pharisaical particularities in their worship and behavior, yet they were very useful subjects, as being frugal and industrious, giving no scandal or bad example.” Public men in England, who had to face these “particularities in behavior,” would hardly have agreed that the men of New England were good subjects, though they must have admitted their excellent example in thrift, and Virginia’s need to imitate it.
This contrast between the northern and southern settlements was as old as their establishment, for Virginia had from the first been resorted to by those who had no other purpose than to better their fortunes, while New England had been founded to be the home of a creed and discipline; but it was not until the Commonwealth was set up in England that the difference began to be marked, and to give promise of becoming permanent. The English in Virginia, like the bulk of their countrymen at home, had stood aghast at a king’s death upon the scaffold, and had spoken; very hotly, in their loyalty, of the men who had dared do the impious deed of treason; but when the Guinea, frigate, brought the Commonwealth’s commission into the river to demand their submission, even Sir William Berkeley, the redoubtable Cavalier Governor, who had meant stubbornly to keep his province for the second Charles, saw he must yield; perceived there was too nice a balance of parties in the colony to permit an execution of his plans of resistance; heard too many plain men in his Council, and out of it, declare themselves very much of a mind with the Puritans for the nonce in politics — very willing to set up a democracy in Virginia which should call itself a part of the Puritan state in England. But a great change had been wrought in Virginia while the Commonwealth lasted. When the Commonwealth’s frigate came in at the capes she counted scarcely fifteen thousand settlers upon her plantations, but the next twenty years saw her transformed. By 1670 quite twenty-five thousand people were added to the reckoning; and of the new-comers a great multitude had left England as much because they hated the Puritans as because they desired Virginia. They were drawn out of that great majority at home to whom Cromwell had not dared resort to get a new parliament in the stead of the one he had “purged.” Many of them were of the hottest blood of the Cavaliers.
It was in these years Virginia got her character and received her leading gentry for the time to come — the years while the Commonwealth stood and royalists despaired, and the years immediately following the Restoration, when royalists took heart again and Englishmen turned with a new ardor to colonization as the times changed. Among the rest in the great migration came two brothers, John and Lawrence Washington, of a stock whose loyalty was as old as the Conquest. They came of a Norman family, the men of whose elder branch had for two hundred years helped the stout Bishops of Durham keep the border against the Scots; and in every branch of which men had sprung up to serve the king, the state, and the church with steadfastness and honor: dashing soldiers ready for the field at home or abroad, stout polemical priors, lawyers who knew the learning of their day and made their way to high posts in chancery, thrifty burghers, gallant courtiers, prosperous merchants — public-spirited gentlemen all. It was Colonel Henry Washington, cousin to the Virginian refugees, who had been with Rupert when he stormed Bristol, and who, with a handful of men, had made good an entrance into the town when all others were beaten back and baffled. It was he who had held Worcester for his master even after he knew Charles to be a prisoner in the hands of the parliamentary forces. “Procure his Majesty’s commands for the disposal of this garrison,” was all he would answer when Fairfax summoned him to surrender; “till then I shall make good the trust reposed in me. The worst I know and fear not; if I had, the profession of a soldier had not been begun.” But it was an ill time to revive the traditions of the knights of Durham; loyalty only brought ruin. The Reverend Lawrence Washington, uncle to the gallant colonel who was the King’s Governor at Worcester, had been cast out of his living at Purleigh in 1643 by order of Parliament, upon the false charge that he was a public tippler, oft drunk, and loud to rail against the Parliament and its armies; but really because, with all his race, he was a royalist, and his living one of the best in Essex. It was his sons who left off hoping to see things mend in England and betook themselves to Virginia. His ruin had come upon him while they were yet lads. He had been a brilliant university scholar, fellow and lector of Brasenose, and rector of Oxford; but he could give his sons neither a university career nor hope of fortune in the humble parish pitying friends had found for him in an obscure village of Essex; and when he was dead they saw no reason why they should stay longer in England, where Cromwell was master.
John Washington, the oldest son of the unfortunate rector, reached Virginia in 1650, having made his way to the colony as “second man” to Edward Prescott, merchant and ship-owner, in whose company he had come; and his brother Lawrence, after passing to and fro between England and the colony several times upon errands of business, presently joined him in permanent residence upon the “northern neck” of rich land that lay between the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers. It was a region where every settlement as yet was new. A few families had fixed themselves upon it when Maryland drove Captain Clayborne and his Virginian partisans forth from Kent Island in the years 1637 and 1638; and they had mustered numbers enough within a few years to send a representative to the House of Burgesses at Jamestown. But it was not till 1648 that the Assembly gave their lands a regular constitution as the County of Northumberland; for it was to this region the Indians had been driven by the encroachment of the settlements on the James and York, and for a while the Assembly had covenanted with the red men to keep it free from settlers. When once the ban was removed, however, in 1648, colonization set in apace — from the older counties of Virginia, from Maryland across the river and England over sea, from New England even, as if by a common impulse. In 1651 the Assembly found it necessary to create the two additional counties of Gloucester and Lancaster, and in 1653 still another, the County of Westmoreland, for the region’s proper government, so quickly did it fill in; for the tide out of England already began to show its volume. The region was a natural seat of commerce, and merchants out of the trading ports of England particularly affected it. Rich land was abundant, and the Potomac ran strong and ample there, to carry the commerce alike of Virginia and Maryland to the bay, upon whose tributaries and inlets lay all the older settlements of both colonies. Lawrence Washington, though he still described himself, upon occasion, as “of Luton, County Bedford, merchant,” found his chief profit where he made his home, with his brother John, in the new County of Westmoreland in Virginia. About them lived young men and old, come, like themselves, out of England, or drawn from the older settlements by the attractions of the goodly region, looking out, as it did, on either hand to a broad river and an easy trade. They felt it scarcely an expatriation to live there, so constantly did ships come and go between their wharves and the home ports at Bristol and London. It soon grew to be nothing singular to see well-to-do men go every year to England upon some errand of profit or pleasure.
It was with such a region and such stirring neighbors that the young Washingtons identified themselves while they were yet youths in their twenties; and there they prospered shrewdly with the rest. Prudent men and men of character readily accumulated estates in the untouched glades and forests of Westmoreland. The season of their coming, moreover, sadly as things seemed to go in 1656, turned out propitious. The Restoration opened a new era in the settlement of the country. Englishmen bestirred themselves to take actual possession of all the great coastline they had so long claimed without occupying. “The Dutch had enjoyed New Netherland during the distractions of the reign of Charles I. without any other interruption” than the seizure of their post upon the Connecticut by the New-Englanders, and the aggressions alike of Swedes and English upon the Delaware; but the ministers of Charles II., though “for some time perplexed in what light to view them, whether as subjects or as aliens, determined at length that New Netherland ought in justice to be resumed,” and the thing was presently accomplished in true sovereign fashion by force of arms. To the ducal province of New York, Penn presently added the thrifty Quaker colony which so promptly created a busy town and mart of trade at Philadelphia, and which pushed its rural settlements back so speedily into the fertile lands that lay towards the west. Then, while the new colonizing impulse still ran strong, New Jersey, too, was added, with her limits at one end upon the Hudson and the great bay at New York, where she depended upon one rival for a port of entry, and at the other upon the Delaware, where another rival presided over the trade of her southern highway to the sea. To the southward straggling settlements upon Albemarle Sound grew slowly into the colony of North Carolina; and still other settlements, upon the rivers that lay towards Florida, throve so bravely that Charleston presently boasted itself a substantial town, and South Carolina had risen to be a considerable colony, prosperous, well ordered, and showing a quick life and individuality of her own.
A new migration had come out of England to the colonies, and Englishmen looked with fresh confidence to see their countrymen build an empire in America. And yet perhaps not an empire of pure English blood. New York was for long scarcely the less a Dutch province, for all she had changed owners, and saw Englishmen crowd in to control her trade. There were Swedes still upon the Delaware; and Pennsylvania mustered among her colonists, besides a strange mixture out of many nations — Germans, French, Dutch, Finns, and English. Even in Virginia, which so steadily kept its English character, there were to be found groups of French Huguenots and Germans who had been given an ungrudging welcome; and South Carolina, though strongly English too, had taken some of her best blood out of France when Louis so generously gave the world fifty thousand families of the finest breed of his kingdom by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685). The second quarter of the eighteenth century saw Scots-Irish enter Virginia and the middle colonies in hosts that for a time numbered ten thousand by the year. Pennsylvania alone, in the single year 1729, could reckon five thousand of these sturdy people who had come to multiply and strengthen her settlements.
It was to the middle colonies that most foreigners came, and their coming gave to the towns and farms of that region a variety of tongues and customs, of manners and trades and ways of life and worship, to be found nowhere else. Boston, with all its trade and seafaring, had no touch of that cosmopolitan character which New York had taken on quite inevitably in the course of her varying fortunes, and which Philadelphia had assumed by choice; and rural Virginia scarcely felt amidst her scattered plantations the presence of the few families who lived by standards that were not English. The common feature of the new time, with its novel enterprises and its general immigration, was that the colonies everywhere, whether young or old, felt a keen stimulation and a new interest in affairs beyond their borders. A partial exchange of population began, a noticeable intercolonial migration. Whole congregations came out of New England to found towns in New Jersey, and individuals out of every colony ventured more freely than before to exchange one region for another, in order to coax health or fortune. Population was thus not a little compacted, while the colonies were drawn by insensible degrees to feel a certain community of interest and cultivate a certain community of opinion.
An expanding life, widened fields of enterprise and adventure, quickened hopes, and the fair prospects of a growing empire everywhere heartened strong men in the colonies to steady endeavor when the new century opened — the scheming, calculating eighteenth century, so unimpassioned and conventional at first, so tempestuous at last. The men of the colonies were not so new as their continent in the ways of civilization. They were Old World men put upon fresh coasts and a forest frontier, to make the most of them, create markets, build a new trade, become masters of vast resources as yet untouched and incalculable; and they did their work for the most part with unmatched spirit and energy, notwithstanding they were checked and hampered by the statutes of the realm. The Navigation Acts forbade the use of any but English ships in trade; forbade all trade, besides, which did not run direct to and from the ports of England. The colonies must not pass England by even in their trade with one another. What they could not produce themselves they must bring straight from England; what they had to dispose of they must send straight to England. If they would exchange among themselves they must make England by the way, so that English merchants should be their middlemen and factors; or else, if they must needs carry direct from port to port of their own coasts, they must pay such duties as they would have paid in English ports had they actually gone the intermediate voyage to England preferred by the statutes. It was the “usage of other nations” besides England “to keep their plantation trade to themselves” in that day, as the Parliament itself said and no man could deny, and it was the purpose of such restrictions to maintain “a greater correspondence and kindness between” England and her subjects in America, “keeping them in a firmer dependence,” and at the same time “rendering them yet more beneficial and advantageous” to English seamen, merchants, wool-growers, and manufacturers; but it cost the colonists pride and convenience and profit to obey.
Some, who felt the harness of such law too smartly, consoled themselves by inventing means to escape it. The coast was long; was opened by many an unused harbor, great and small; could not everywhere and always be watched by king’s officers; was frequented by a tolerant people, who had no very nice conscience about withholding taxes from a sovereign whose messages and commands came quickly over sea only when the wind held fair for weeks together; and cargoes could be got both out and in at small expense of secrecy and no expense at all in duties. In short, smuggling was easy. It was a time of frequent wars, moreover, and privateering commissions were to be had for the asking; so that French ships could be brought in with their lading, condemned, and handsomely sold, without the trouble of paying French prices or English port dues. Privateering, too, was cousin-german to something still better; it was but a sort of formal apprenticeship to piracy; and the quiet, unused harbors of the coast showed many a place where the regular profession might be set up. Veritable pirates took the sea, hunted down what commerce they would — English no less than French and Dutch and Spanish — rendezvoused in lonely sounds, inlets, and rivers where king’s officers never came, and kept very respectable company when they came at last to dispose of their plunder at New York or Charleston, being men very learned in subterfuges and very quick-fingered at bribing. And then there was “the Red Sea trade,” whose merchants sent fleets to Madagascar in the season to exchange cargoes with rough men out of the Eastern seas, of whom they courteously asked no questions. The larger ports were full of sailors who waited to be engaged, not at regular wages, but “on the grand account “; and it took many weary years of hangman’s labor to bring enough pirates to the gallows to scotch the ugly business. In 1717 it was reported in the colonies that there were quite fifteen hundred pirates on the coast, full one-half of whom made their headquarters, very brazenly, at New Providence in the Bahamas; and there were merchants and mariners by the score who had pangs of keen regret to see the breezy trade go down, as the century drew on a decade or two, because of the steady vigilance and stern endeavor of Governors who had been straightly commanded to suppress it.
The Navigation Acts bred an irritation in the colonies which grew with their growth and strengthened with their consciousness of strength and capacity. Not because such restrictions were uncommon, but because the colonies were forward and exacting. There was, indeed, much to commend the legislation they resented. It attracted the capital of English merchants to the American trade, it went far towards securing English supremacy on the seas, and it was strictly within the powers of Parliament, as no man could deny. Parliament had an undoubted right to regulate imperial interests, of this or any other kind, even though it regulated them unreasonably. But colonies that reckoned their English population by the hundred thousand and lived by trade and adventure would not long have brooked such a policy of restraint had they had the leisure to fret over it. They did not as yet have the leisure. The French stood menacingly at their western gates, through which the great fur trade made its way; where the long rivers ran which threaded the central valleys of the continent; where the Mississippi stretched itself from north to south like a great body of dividing waters, flanking all the coast and its settlements — where alone a true mastery of the continent and its resources could be held. It would be time enough to reckon with Parliament touching the carrying trade when they had made good their title to what they were to trade withal.
The French had been a long time about their work, for they had done it like subjects, at the bidding of an ambitious king, rather than like free men striving as they pleased for themselves. But what they had done they had done systematically and with a fixed policy that did not vary, though ministers and even dynasties might come and go. The English had crowded to the coasts of the continent as they pleased, and had mustered their tens of thousands before the French reckoned more than a few hundreds. But the French had hit upon the mighty river St. Lawrence, whose waters came out of the great lakes and the heart of the continent; their posts were garrisons; what men they had they put forward, at each step of discovery, at some point of vantage upon lake or river, whence they were not easily dislodged. Their shrewd fur-traders and dauntless priests struck everywhere into the heart of the forests, leading forward both trade and conquest, until at last, through the country of the Illinois and out of far Lake Michigan, the streams had been found which ran down into the west to the flooding Mississippi. Colonists were sent to the mouth of the vast river, posts presently dotted its banks here and there throughout its length, trade passed up and down its spreading stream, and the English, their eyes at last caught by the stealthy movement, looked in a short space to see French settlements “running all along from our lakes by the back of Virginia and Carolina to the Bay of Mexico.”
This was a business that touched the colonies to the quick. New York had her western frontiers upon the nearer lakes. Thence, time out of mind, had come the best furs to the markets at Albany, brought from tribe to tribe out of the farthest regions of the northwest. New England, with the French at her very doors, had to look constantly to her northern borders to keep them against the unquiet savage tribes the French every year stirred up against her. Virginia felt the French power among her savage neighbors too, the moment her people ventured across the Blue Ridge into the valley where many an ancient war-path ran; and beyond the Alleghanies she perceived she must stand in the very presence almost of the French themselves. English frontiersmen and traders, though they had no advancing military posts behind them, were none the less quick to go themselves deep into the shadowed wilderness, there to meet the French face to face in their own haunts. The Carolinas were hardly settled before their more adventurous spirits went straight into the far valley of the Tennessee, and made trade for themselves there against the coming of the French. Out of Virginia, too, and out of Pennsylvania, as well as out of New York, traders pressed towards the West, and fixed their lonely huts here and there along the wild banks of the Ohio. It was diamond cut diamond when they met their French rivals in the wigwams of the Indian villages, and their canoes knew the waterways of the wilderness as well as any man’s. It was they who learned at first hand what the French were doing. They were like scouts sent out to view the ground to be fought for.
This hazardous meeting of rival nations at the heart of the continent meant many a deep change in the fortunes of the colonies. European politics straightway entered their counsels. Here was an end of their separateness and independence of England. Charles and James and William all showed that they meant to be veritable sovereigns, and had no thought but that the colonists in America, like all other Englishmen, should be their subjects; and here was their opportunity to be masters upon an imperial scale and with an imperial excuse. In Europe, England beheld France her most formidable foe; she must look to it that Louis and his ministers take no advantage in America. The colonies, no less than the Channel itself, were become the frontiers of an empire — and there must be no trespass upon English soil by the French. The colonists must be rallied to the common work, and, if used, they must be ruled and consolidated.
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