General Washington, by Bradley T. Johnson, Chapter 7

Washington and Lee University

General Washington

By General Bradley T. Johnson

CHAPTER VII.

WAR, AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

FOR twelve months the colonies had resisted the Government troops, nullified the Government laws, defied the Government, Governors, and courts. They had met the King’s troops at Lexington and Concord, hunted them back to Boston, and then bottled them up in that town until by force they had expelled them from the colony. In Virginia, the royal Governor Dunmore had been defeated at Great Bridge in a battle on December 9th, 1775. In North Carolina, Richard Caswell had met the Highland Tories under Donald McDonald at Moore’s Creek, February 27, 1776, and routed them with a loss of nine hundred prisoners, two thousand stand of arms, and £15,000 in gold. Connecticut and Massachusetts had captured and held Crown Point and Ticonderoga, the gateway to Canada. On May 10, 1775, Montgomery had captured Montreal, and the conquest of Canada was averted only by the accident of the death of Montgomery and the wounding of Arnold.

The rebel flag was flying on the Atlantic from Bermuda to Newfoundland, and British commerce was dominated in the North Atlantic by piratical cruisers. In the summer of 1775 Gage had been made by Washington to recognize belligerent rights in treatment of prisoners of war, but the British Government still insisted upon regarding the movement as rebellion. Now, in rebellion—resistance to the laws—every individual is held responsible for his own action, in his own person and his own property. The status of war changes all that, and transfers responsibility from the individual to his government, or supreme authority, which is waging the war, and responsibility ceases to be personal and becomes national.

Considering the rebellion as necessary to be repressed, the Government first read the Riot Act to the rebels in the way of the Boston Port Bill, then sent in the troops to disperse disorderly assemblies and suppress turbulence. The disorderly assemblies at Bunker Hill, at Moore’s Creek, at Great Bridge, all refused to disperse, and, after a manner, mainly dispersed the posse cumitatus sent against them. Therefore, without recognition and acknowledgment, the fact of war made itself known and appreciated, and it got to be understood in London that a fact can not be waived or suppressed by a preamble of Parliament or an Order in Council, or by a decision in the Court of King’s Bench. War must be met by war, and war is not only fighting and killing and burning but requires thinking and brains, reason and intelligence, a directed plan, a method, to accomplish results. Over such a territory as that occupied by the colonies, the possession of certain positions were necessary in order to dominate it, and the control of certain lines of communication imperative.

Geography remains unchanged from century to century, and the same geographical conditions will require substantially the same movements. The advance of the Russians on the Bosporus is by the same lines that Alaric and Attila marched to the west. Napoleon’s inroad into Italy was on the track of Hannibal. The same things to be done, the identical obstacles to meet with, the means employed will always be the same in substance, whether in the first, the twentieth, or the thirtieth century. The invasion of Europe by the hordes of Asia will be round the eastern shore of the Black Sea; and the mountain ranges of middle Europe will be used and held as defenses against them, just as they were against the Huns and the Goths.

The physical conformation of the United States, as long as Canada is occupied by an alien power, renders the line of Lake Champlain and the Hudson its weakest point. A force moving down the lake could easily unite with a force coming up the Hudson, and thus isolate New England. In the summer of 1759, the British, under General Amherst, had secured Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and thus closed the postern by which the French could move between the middle, southern, and eastern colonies. The possession of Canada gave assurance of the control of this outwork. But the capture of Ticonderoga and Crown Point by Allen and Arnold had nearly neutralized the position of the northern province, and destroyed the great advantage the St. Lawrence secured.

With the control of deep water, British arms would threaten the northern settlements, and the troops of Vermont and New Hampshire be called back to defend their homes and their farms. Howe and Gage had both served in this campaign on Champlain, and had an idea of the importance of the line. Whether they suggested it or not, the ministry at length arrived at the determination to treat the insurrection as war, and to operate against it on defined lines of strategy. They proposed to move Howe from Boston to New York, take possession of the sea and the city, and move up the Hudson to Albany, to meet a force coming down Champlain under command of General Sir Guy Carleton, Governor of Canada, which was to retake the lake forts, and complete the British line from the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence, and separate New England from Virginia.

Sir Henry Clinton had taken off two thousand men from Howe at Boston to reduce the Carolinas, but the Highland rout at Moore’s Creek gave him check on the Cape Fear, and his prompt repulse by Moultrie in Charleston harbor made him pause in his campaign of subjugation. Howe had moved to Halifax, but the military instinct of Washington convinced him that Clinton could not stay South, nor Howe North. They could not remain idle after their repulse at Boston, at Great Bridge, at Moore’s Creek, at Sullivan’s Island; to do so would be not only confession of defeat, but defeat itself. In the game that Washington had been playing for ten months in the trenches at Boston, he had foreseen the next move, and had provided against it as far as his means would allow. New York and the line of the St. Lawrence—the lake and the river—must be the next move of the enemy. At least it ought to be, for it was the proper move to make.

Therefore, when Washington occupied Boston on March 17th, he put his entire energies to work in stamping out smallpox there, and collecting the arms and munitions of war left by the enemy, and on the 20th started his advance on the march for New York. He himself set out on April 4th, and on April 14th reported to Congress the arrival of himself and army at New York on the day before.

His army present for duty was 8,101; aggregate present and absent 10,235; which shows a high standard of discipline and efficiency in an army of green troops after a year’s service in camp without marching and fighting, and after a long march of twenty-four days. Under such circumstances, a loss of only twenty per cent of the aggregate present and absent and the number for duty proves fidelity and devotion in the troops, and firmness and capacity in the commander. A march of twenty-four days by troops not inured to the discipline, the fatigue, and the customs of the march, fresh from ten months’ camp duty, was a severe test for men and officers, and the way they stood it was in the highest degree satisfactory. This was the end of the war in New England. With the exception of Stark’s fight at Bennington, August 16, 1777, and Sullivan’s abortive attempt on Newport, August 29, 1778, the scene of war moved south and west of the Hudson.

It was a fixed delusion of the British mind that the insurrection in America was instigated, organized, and supported by a small minority of malcontents composed of ignorant agitators and needy adventurers. The gentry, the property holders, the educated class, were all believed to be “loyal,” and rebellion to be promoted in the main by the “low Irish” and the radical descendants of the Puritans of the Commonwealth. This conviction constrained action and directed sentiment in the great mass of the English people. Disunion was to them the direst disaster, for it would bring the loss of the American trade, and with it the downfall of British dominion of the seas, But added to this material consideration was the honorable sentiment that it would be base to desert kith and kin engaged in a death-struggle with faction in defense of the rights of the mother country, when desertion meant defeat, and defeat destruction of life, liberty, and property.

Although in England there was a large and influential sentiment against the coercion of America by arms, there was absolutely none in favor of dissolving the union and permitting the colonies to establish an independent and separate government. Every party was agreed upon the necessity of bringing them back—George II and Lord North by force of arms and by conquest, the Earl of Chatham and the Duke of Richmond by conciliation and guarantee of local self-government. But this extraordinary delusion on the part of the mother country, like the identical one believed in by the Northern States toward the Southern States in the war of secession, 1861–’65, was absolutely unfounded in each case. The resistance to British laws did not mean, in the first place, revolution. The right of rebellion had been always the right to resist illegal acts of government by arms, and was the method by which the balance of liberty had been preserved and the English Constitution developed. It was the check on absolute power.

The men of New England and of Virginia were close to the Revolution of 1688. They were only four generations from that of 1649, and they under stood that the right of petition was backed by the right of resistance. “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God,” had always been the foundation creed of the race; and when the King’s officers attempted to do illegal things in Boston, or in Norfolk, or in Alamance, or on the Cape Fear, or on Sullivan’s Island, the English took arms and resisted. The affairs at Lexington and at Breed’s Hill, the attacks at Great Bridge, at Moore’s Creek, and at Fort Moultrie, had developed the rebellion into war, and the English colonies were almost unanimous in support of it. They were led by no minority. It was an uprising of the whole people. New England rushed to arms as one man at the sound of the guns at Lexington. The countrymen of Virginia, from the Blue Mountains to Old Point Comfort, marched on Lord Dunmore when he attempted to incite their servants and negroes against them and add the horrors of servile to the barbarities of savage warfare.

The conditions in North Carolina were peculiar. After the rebellion of 1745 large numbers of the followers of Prince Charlie had been deported to the Cape Fear, and had been voluntarily followed by their friends and relatives. They were entirely Jacobite and bitterly anti-Hanoverian. But they had been spared death and confiscation on condition of taking the oath of allegiance to the House of Hanover, and had given their paroles never to take up arms against the Hanoverian King. When, therefore, the question of resistance came up, the inflexible Presbyterian conscience controlled them, and they were bound by their oaths and their paroles.

This was true of the Highlanders. The Scotch-Irish of the western part of the colony about Mecklenburg took up the question of conscience and solemnly debated it, and decided that, inasmuch as the King of England had broken his oath to do justice and obey the laws, their oath of allegiance bound them no longer. They arrived at the same conclusion that the Virginians under Patrick Henry and the Massachusetts men under James Otis and Samuel Adams did, that protection and allegiance are reciprocal, and that the failure of the King to do his duty absolved them from all obligation to him.

It became manifest to all that the condition of resistance to law must of necessity be temporary; that either the Government must abandon its pretension of the right to make laws for the colonies, and that they must govern themselves, or that they must be reduced to the condition of conquered provinces. They must be governed by England, or they must govern themselves. The logical result of the situation was, that victory was absolutely necessary to success. It was clear that victory could not be achieved by the colonies alone. The sea was entirely controlled by the British. Every port, bay, sound, and river could be closed by their fleets, and while they could be prevented from penetrating the country, as long as they held the sole means of communicating with the world at large no recognition of the right of self-government could ever be wrested from them.

Samuel Adams says that from the beginning he saw clearly that the only safe and permanent security from the aggressions of the mother country was disunion and a separate government. It is certain that Virginia did not enter into the war with any such view or intention. She intended to resist usurpation until usurpation ceased, and she desired to go no further. The first and second Continental Congress had no other view. They sent petitions to the King and addresses to the people of Great Britain, of Canada, and of Bermuda, insisting that their cause—the preservation of liberty and the right to be taxed only by their own representatives—was the cause of every British freeman at home and in every colony.

As events unfolded, and the great exhibition of military force in the occupation of Boston and the concentration of troops and ships against the colonists got them to understand that war was being waged against them, they fully appreciated the necessity and the duty of meeting war with war; and war could only be carried on by a state—a government; therefore it became necessary that the colonies should become States, should undertake the responsibility of war, and should protect their citizens from the penalties of rebellion.

The movement of public opinion in the colonies had tended to this conclusion, since the passage of the Boston Port Bill and the affair at Lexington. The garrison of Boston with an army had arrayed all New England in armed resistance. The proclamation of Lord Dunmore, offering liberty to servants and slaves in Virginia, was followed by the victory at the Great Bridge. The rising of the loyal Highlanders on the Cape Fear was dispersed at Moore’s Creek, and the attack on South Carolina had been defeated at Fort Moultrie. New England, Virginia, and the Carolinas were at war with the mother country. Between the two sections the Middle Colonies lay neutral.

Maryland was contented with her government and her charter. She felt secure in her right of local self-government, and had asserted it in her General Assembly from the foundation of the colony. The right of free thought secured by Cæcilius Calvert, and never impaired while the proprietaries and the native Marylander controlled the Government, had evolved a type of character distinct and sharply defined. The delightful climate of the bay, and its great rivers, the picturesque scenery of meadow and forest, of plain and of mountain, made life one continual delight, cultivated an æsthetic enjoyment of beauty and pleasure, and produced a race liberal in thought, tender in sentiment, brave, chivalric, and generous. It was frank, manly, courageous, and determined. When its rights were infringed by the Stamp Act, the county court of Frederick County decided that the law was void, because contrary to common right, and required its officers to disobey and ignore it, by its recorded action. When tea was attempted to be imported on the 19th of October, 1775, at Annapolis, the Marylanders burnt ship and cargo in open day, and no attempt was ever made to extort from them apology or compensation. No British garrison ever affronted their borders, no British soldier ever trod their soil; but when Boston was attacked and New England invaded, the chivalry of the race rose at once, declared that the cause of Boston was the cause of all, and, feeling that “blood is thicker than water,” rallied from mountain to sea, and marched to the relief of their kin beyond the Hudson. And from the hour Cresap marched from Frederick to the day of the surrender at Yorktown, the Maryland line on every stricken field—at Long Island, at White Plains, at Brandywine, Gemantown, Trenton, and Monmouth, and the long roll of Southern battles—bore the standard of the black and gold in the front of fire, sometimes to victory, oftentimes to defeat—always to glory.

But Maryland loved the mother. The ties of blood were as close to her as to brethren in New England. They were faithful to their friends, and they stood fast by them in the test of trial. No Tory regiment was ever raised and served in Maryland. One was organized on the eastern shore, but it was promptly moved to New Jersey, and soon afterward to Nova Scotia and dispersed. The pressure of the war drove all men’s minds in the same direction. The Scotch-Irish of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, first reached the logical conclusion that final separation and disunion could afford the only guarantee of future peace, and security for local self-government.

A meeting at Charlotte, on the 20th day of May, 1775, solemnly resolved “That we, the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the mother country, and do hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and abjure all political connection, contract, or association with that nation, which has wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties, and inhumanly shed the blood of American patriots at Lexington. That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people; are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing association, under the control of no power other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress, to the maintenance of which independence we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.” And they adopted a rule of law, and organized a government to enforce the law and carry out their determination. The similarity of some expressions of this declaration with those of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, has led to vehement denial of its genuineness, and the overwhelming proof of there having been a meeting at Charlotte in May, 1775, which made some hostile declaration, has been sought to be met by substituting the action of a meeting which, it is conceded, did take place there on May 31st, but which did not declare independence.

But the evidence that Mecklenburg County did declare independence in May, 1775, is absolutely conclusive. The contemporaneous records of the county court show more than twenty deeds recorded between 1785 and 1793, which date the independence of North Carolina from May, 1775, and of the United States from July, 1776. Patents for land, issued by the Governor of North Carolina about the same time, date the independence of the State from May, 1775. Therefore, though much denied, it must be agreed that Mecklenburg County did declare independence on the 20th of May, 1775. A copy of their resolutions was sent to the Provincial Congress at Halifax, which promptly passed resolutions directing their deputies in the Continental Congress to vote for independence and to form foreign alliances. Events had lagged for a year. At Lexington, on April 19, 1775, and Breed’s Hill, June 17, 1775, at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, May 10, 1775—New England had made the issue of war. The summer was occupied in carrying on correspondence, discussion, and conference.

The Continental army, under its Virginian commander, held Gage fast in Boston. In November, Dunmore offered freedom to the servants of Virginia. The Virginians rose, drove him from his fortification of Great Bridge, December 9, 1775, and on New Year’s day, 1776, he burnt Norfolk. On February 27, 1776, the Whigs routed the Highlanders at Moore’s Creek. On June 28, 1776, Rutledge and Moultrie defeated Sir Henry Clinton on Sullivan’s Island, in Charleston harbor. These fast following events were heating the hearts of the people.

In May, 1776, Virginia instructed her deputies in Congress “to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, and to give the assent of the colony to measures to form foreign alliances, and a confederation, provided the power of forming governments for the internal regulations of each colony be left to the colonial legislatures.” Maryland, on June 28th, instructed her deputies to assent to a declaration of independence, and to foreign alliances, and on July 3d issued her solemn declaration that Maryland was, and of right ought to be, a free, sovereign, and independent State. On May 4, Rhode Island omitted the King’s name from all writs and proclamations, and the May town meetings throughout Massachusetts declared for independence. In June, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, all declared for independence.

On June 7th, Richard Henry Lee, a deputy from Virginia, submitted to the Congress a resolution “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown; and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared, and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.” This resolution was promptly seconded by John Adams, of Massachusetts, and opposed by Dickenson and Wilson, of Pennsylvania, and Robert Livingston, of New York. The issues presented were, first, Independence; second, Foreign Alliances. Attachment to home, home people, and home ties arrayed a large section of public sentiment against the first. Inherited race antagonisms of a thousand years forbade sympathy with the second. There never had been a time since the Crusades when Englishmen were in alliance with Frenchmen and Spaniards. They were the natural-born enemies of the English race, and it was just as natural for Englishmen to attack them on sight as to kill a snake.

The grandfathers of many of the colonists had won fame and fortune by the plunder of treasure galleons on the Spanish main, and the present generation had fought them and their savage allies from the Lakes to the Gulf, on the Ohio, along the French Broad, the Chattahoochee, and the St. Mary’s. The very idea of foreign alliance was distasteful and hateful to very many earnest Englishmen who sincerely desired to preserve their rights, but they doubted whether such alliance would not lead to subordination to their hereditary foes. The Congress was divided. Independence with alliance, subjugation without alliance, undoubtedly led to future danger; but subjugation was present and pressing. In the debate the aggressive, radical thought—as it always has and always will—prevailed over the conservatism which is in the main timidity. Action, which is courage, must overcome non-action, which is always cowardice.

And therefore the timid counsels of New York and Pennsylvania were overridden by the positive enthusiasm of Virginia, backed by Massachusetts, and on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted. The whole weight and influence of Washington were thrown on the side of action. With patient, persistent correspondence, he urged on the governors of the States the necessity of foreign alliance to prevent subjugation, and the necessity of a declaration of independence to secure alliance. It is not just to say that his influence contributed largely to secure the declaration. It did not—nor did any one man’s, nor any one State’s. Independence was the necessary consequence of armed resistance to the laws; and when the issue was made between the supremacy of the law or the supremacy of force, one or the other must prevail. If Great Britain was resolved to hold to the right to make laws for the colonies, she alone would have the power to decide what laws she would make. If, on the other hand, it be held that the colonies had the right to make their own laws, that fact made them independent.

The supreme intelligence of a race, of a great mass of people, takes in and appreciates such an issue, as clearly, as strongly, and as vividly as the highest intellect or the most vigorous mind, and the people think with their hearts. They arrive at conclusions independent of and superior to ratiocination and to logic. They knew that they must be free—free to govern themselves according to their own ideas of justice—or that they must be governed and controlled by the ideas of Great Britain. All along the seaboard, in the township meetings of New England, in the vestries of Maryland and Virginia, in the county meetings of the Carolinas, the body of the people were meditating, ruminating, discussing, debating these problems. What Henry, and Lee, and Adams, and the leaders did, was to point the way. The people had resolved on independence before the Congress acted or the provincial assemblies had taken ground.

Independence was a popular movement, originating among and propagated by the great mass of the people, and it is error to think that any one man, or set of men, contributed largely to it. It would have come if the leaders had never lived; it would have created leaders. If Washington had not lived at that particular epoch, the rebellion of 1775–’76 would probably have failed, but it would have arisen again and been successful in the next generation. For when men mature from boyhood, they must emancipate themselves.

Return to General Washington