The War of Independence Part 1

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The War of Independence.

by John Fiske.


This little book does not contain the substance of the lectures on the American Revolution which I have delivered in so many parts of the United States since 1883. Those lectures, when completed and published, will make quite a detailed narrative; this book is but a sketch. It is hoped that it may prove useful to the higher in schools, as well as to teachers. When I was a boy I should have been glad to get hold of a brief account of the War for Independence that would have suggested answers to some of the questions that used to vex me. Was the conduct of the British government, in driving the Americans into rebellion, merely wanton aggression, or was it not rather a bungling attempt to solve a political problem which really needed to be solved? Why were New Jersey and the Hudson river so important? Why did the British armies make South Carolina their chief objective point after New York? Or how did Cornwallis happen to be at Yorktown when Washington made such a long leap and pounced upon him there? And so on. Such questions the old-fashioned text-books not only did not try to answer, they did not even recognize their existence. As to the large histories, they of course include so many details that it requires maturity of judgment to discriminate between the facts that are cardinal and those that are merely incidental. When I give lectures to schoolboys and schoolgirls, I observe that a reference to causes and effects always seems to heighten the interest of the story. I therefore offer them this little book, not as a rival but as an aid to the ordinary text-book. I am aware that a narrative so condensed must necessarily suffer from the omission of many picturesque and striking details. The world is so made that one often has to lose a little in one direction in order to gain something in another. This book is an experiment. If it seems to answer its purpose, I may follow it with others, treating other portions of American history in similar fashion.

CAMBRIDGE, _February 11, 1889_.


To relate, by way of leading up to this little book, all the previous achievements of its author would–without disrespect to the greater or the less–have somewhat the appearance of putting a very big cart in front of a pony. But no idea could be more mistaken than that which induces people to believe a small book the easiest to write. Easy reading is hard writing; and a thoroughly good small book stands for so much more than the mere process of putting it on paper, that its value is not at all to be judged by its bulk. The offhand word of a man full of knowledge is worth a great deal more than the carefully prepared utterance of a person who having spoken once has nothing more to say. In our introduction to this work, therefore, we propose to reverse the common process of tracing the author’s development upwards, and instead, after stating the mere events of Mr. Fiske’s life, to begin with “The War of Independence” and to follow his work backwards, attempting very briefly to show how each undertaking was built naturally upon something before it, and that the original basis of the structure was uncommonly broad and strong.

John Fiske was born in Hartford, Conn., 30th March, 1842, and spent most of his life, before entering Harvard as a soph.o.m.ore in 1860, with his grandmother’s family in Middletown, Conn. Two years after taking his degree at Harvard, in 1863, he was graduated from the Harvard Law School, but he cared so much more for writing than for the law that his attempt to practice it in Boston was soon abandoned. In 1861 he made his first important contribution to a magazine, and ever since has done much work of the same sort. He has served Harvard College, as University lecturer on philosophy, 1869-71, in 1870 as instructor in history, and from 1872 to 1879 as a.s.sistant librarian. Since resigning from that office he has been for two terms of six years each a member of the board of overseers. In 1881 he began lecturing annually at Washington University, St. Louis, on American history, and in 1884 was made a professor of the inst.i.tution. Since 1871 he has devoted much time to lecturing at large. He has been heard in most of the cities of America, and abroad, in London and Edinburgh. All this time his home has been in Cambridge, Ma.s.s.

So much for the simple outward circ.u.mstances of Mr. Fiske’s life.

Turning to his studies and writings, one finds them reaching out into almost every direction of human thought; and this book, from which our backward course is to be taken, is but a page from the great body of his work. It is especially as a student of philosophy, science, and history that Mr. Fiske is known to the world; and at the present it is particularly as an historian of America that his name is spoken. In no other way more satisfactorily than in tracing the growth of his own nation has he found it possible to study the laws of progress of the human race, and from the first, through all the time of his most active philosophical and scientific work, this study of human progress has been the true interest of his life. With his historical works, then, let us begin.

In 1879 he delivered a course of six lectures on American history, at the Old South Meeting House in Boston. In previous years he had written occasional essays on historical subjects in general, but the impulse towards American history in particular was given by the preparation for these lectures, which were concerned especially with the colonial period. Of his own treatment of an historical subject he is quoted as saying: “I look it up or investigate it, and then write an essay or a lecture on the subject. That serves as a preliminary statement, either of a large subject or of special points. It is a help to me to make a statement of the kind–I mean in the lecture or essay form. In fact it always a.s.sists me to try to state the case. I never publish anything after this first statement, but generally keep it with me for, it may be, some years, and possibly return to it again several times.” Thus it may safely be a.s.sumed that these Old South Lectures and the many others that have followed them have found or will find a permanent place in the series of Mr. Fiske’s historical volumes.

The succession of these books has not been in the order of the periods of which they treat; but from the similarity of their method and the fact that they cover a series of important periods in American history, they go towards making a complete, consecutive history of the country.

The periods which are not yet covered Mr. Fiske proposes to deal with in time. One who has talked with him on the subject of his works reports the following statement as coming from Mr. Fiske’s own lips: “I am now at work on a general history of the United States. When John Richard Green was planning his ‘Short History of the English People,’ and he and I were friends in London, I heard him telling about his scheme. I thought it would be a very nice thing to do something of the same sort for American history. But when I took it up I found myself, instead of carrying it out in that way, dwelling upon special points; and insensibly, without any volition on my part, I suppose, it has been rather taking the shape of separate monographs. But I hope to go on in that way until I cover the ground with these separate books,–that is, to cover as much ground as possible. But, of course, the scheme has become much more extensive than it was when I started.”

Taken in the order of their subjects, the five works already contributed to this series are, “The Discovery of America, with some Account of Ancient America and the Spanish Conquest” (two volumes); “Old Virginia and her Neighbours” (two volumes); “The Beginnings of New England, or the Puritan Theocracy in its Relations to Civil and Religious Liberty;”

“The American Revolution” (two volumes); and “The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789.” Allied with these books, though hardly taking a place in the series, is “Civil Government in the United States, Considered with some Reference to its Origins,” “The War of Independence,” it will thus be seen, is the least ambitious of all these historical works. “A History of the United States for Schools” is addressed to the same audience, and in so far may be considered a companion volume.

What makes Mr. Fiske’s histories just what they are? Another step backward in the stages of his own development will enable us to see, and the sub-t.i.tle, “Viewed from the Standpoint of Universal History,” of one of his earlier books, “American Political Ideas,” will help towards an understanding of his power. It is due to the fact that he brings to his historical work on special subjects the broad philosophic and general view of a man who is much more than a specialist,–the scientific habit of mind which must look for causes when effects are seen, and must point out the relations between them. There could be no better preparation for the writing of history than the apparently alien study of the questions with which the names of Darwin and Spencer are inseparably a.s.sociated.

When Darwin’s “Origin of Species” appeared, Mr. Fiske’s own thought had prepared him to take the place of an ardent apostle of Evolution, and it is held that no man has done more than he in expounding the theory in America. Standing permanently for his work in this field are his books, “Excursions of an Evolutionist” and “Darwinism, and Other Essays.” One of his first important works was “Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy” (1874), and in more recent years “The Destiny of Man” and “The Idea of G.o.d”

speak forth very distinctly, not as interpretations, but as his own contributions to the progress of philosophic thought. One other phase of the use to which Mr. Fiske’s mind has been put should surely be mentioned in any summary of his qualifications for writing histories. He is extremely fond of hearing and telling good stories. His book on “Myths and Myth-makers” (1872) gave early evidence of this fondness, and surely there is the very spirit of the lover of tales in the Dedication of the book, “To my dear Friend, William D. Howells, in remembrance of pleasant autumn evenings spent among were-wolves and trolls and nixies.”

Thus, besides the ability to see a story in all its bearings, Mr. Fiske has the gift of telling it effectively,–a golden power without which all the learning in the world would serve an historian as but so much lead.

But all of these works preceding Mr. Fiske’s historical writings did not come out of nothing. His mental acquirements as a young man and boy were very extraordinary, and give to the last stage of his career at which we shall look–the earliest–perhaps the greatest interest of all. A description of it without a knowledge of what followed would be all too apt to remind readers whose memories go back far enough of the instances, all too common, of men whose early promise is not fulfilled.

_Summa c.u.m laude_ graduates settle down into lives of timid routine that leads to nothing, just as often as the idle dreamers who stay consistently at the foot of their wake up when the vital contact with the world takes place, and do something astonishingly good. These, however, are the exceptions. A development like Mr. Fiske’s follows the lines of nature.

Happily, there were books in the house in which he was brought up. At the age of seven he was reading Rollin, Josephus, and Goldsmith’s Greece. Much of Milton, Pope, and Bunyan, and nearly all of Shakespeare he had read before he was nine; histories of many lands before eleven.

At this age he filled a quarto blank book of sixty pages with a chronological table, written from memory, of events between 1000 B. C.

and 1820 A. D.

All this would seem enough for one boy, but there were the other worlds of languages and science to conquer. It is almost discouraging merely to write down the fact that at thirteen he had read a large part of Livy, Cicero, Ovid, Catullus, and Juvenal, and all of Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, Sall.u.s.t, and Suetonius,–to say nothing of Caesar, at seven. Greek was disposed of in like manner; and then came the modern languages, –German, Spanish,–in which he kept a diary,–French, Italian, and Portuguese. Hebrew and Sanskrit were kept for the years of seventeen and eighteen. In college, Icelandic, Gothic, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, and Roumanian were added, with beginnings in Russian. The uses to which he put these languages were not those to which the weary schoolboy puts his few of learning in foreign tongues, but the true uses of literature,–reading for pleasure and mental stimulus.

It is needless to relate the rapid course of Mr. Fiske’s first studies in science; it is no whit less remarkable than that of his other intellectual enterprises. As mathematics is akin to music, it will be enough to say that when he was fifteen a friend’s piano was left in his grandmother’s house, and, without a master, the boy soon learned its secrets well enough to play such works as Mozart’s Twelfth Ma.s.s. Later in life Mr. Fiske studied the science of music. He has printed many musical criticisms, and has himself composed a ma.s.s and songs.

Few boys can hope to take to college with them, or, for that matter, even away from it, a mind so well equipped as Mr. Fiske’s was when he went to Cambridge. Three years of stimulating university atmosphere, and of indefinitely wide opportunities for reading, left him prepared as few men have been for just the work he has done. He has had the wisdom to see what he could do, and being possessed of the qualities that lead to accomplishment, he has done it; and any reader who understands more than the mere words he reads will be very likely to discover in this small volume, “The War of Independence,” something of the spirit, and some suggestions of the method which, in this sketch, we have endeavored to point out as characteristic of one of the foremost living historians.




Since the year 1875 we have witnessed, in many parts of the United States, public processions, meetings, and speeches in commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of some important event in the course of our struggle for national independence. This series of centennial celebrations, which has been of great value in stimulating American patriotism and awakening throughout the country a keen interest in American history, will naturally come to an end in 1889. The close of President Cleveland’s term of office marks the close of the first century of the government under which we live, which dates from the inauguration of President Washington on the balcony of the Federal building in Wall street, New York, on the 30th of April, 1789. It was on that memorable day that the American Revolution may be said to have been completed. The Declaration of Independence in 1776 detached the American people from the supreme government to which they had hitherto owed allegiance, and it was not until Washington’s inauguration in 1789 that the supreme government to which we owe allegiance to-day was actually put in operation. The period of thirteen years included between these two dates was strictly a revolutionary period, during which it was more or less doubtful where the supreme authority over the United States belonged. First, it took the fighting and the diplomacy of the revolutionary war to decide that this supreme authority belonged in the United States themselves, and not in the government of Great Britain; and then after the war was ended, more than five years of sore distress and anxious discussion had elapsed before the American people succeeded in setting up a new government that was strong enough to make itself obeyed at home and respected abroad.

It is the story of this revolutionary period, ending in 1789, that we have here to relate in its outlines. When we stand upon the crest of a lofty hill and look about in all directions over the landscape, we can often detect relations between distant points which we had not before thought of together. While we tarried in the lowland, we could see blue peaks rising here and there against the sky, and follow babbling brooks. .h.i.ther and thither through the forest. It was more homelike down there than on the hilltop, for in each gnarled tree, in every moss-grown boulder, in every wayside flower, we had a friend that was near to us; but the general bearings of things may well have escaped our notice. In climbing to our lonely vantage-ground, while the familiar scenes fade from sight, there are gradually unfolded to us those connections between crag and meadow and stream that make the life and meaning of the whole. We learn the “lay of the land,” and become, in a humble way, geographers. So in the history of men and nations, while we remain immersed in the study of personal incidents and details, as what such a statesman said or how many men were killed in such a battle, we may quite fail to understand what it was all about, and we shall be sure often to misjudge men’s characters and estimate wrongly the importance of many events. For this reason we cannot clearly see the meaning of the history of our own times. The facts are too near us; we are down among them, like the man who could not see the forest because there were so many trees. But when we look back over a long interval of years, we can survey distant events and personages like points in a vast landscape and begin to discern the meaning of it all. In this way we come to see that history is full of lessons for us. Very few things have happened in past ages with which our present welfare is not in one way or another concerned. Few things have happened in any age more interesting or more important than the American Revolution.



It is always difficult in history to mark the beginning and end of a period. Events keep rushing on and do not pause to be divided into chapters; or, in other words, in the history which really takes place, a new chapter is always beginning long before the old one is ended. The divisions we make when we try to describe it are merely marks that we make for our own convenience. In telling the story of the American Revolution we must stop somewhere, and the inauguration of President Washington is a very proper place. We must also begin somewhere, but it is quite clear that it will not do to begin with the Declaration of Independence in July, 1776, or even with the midnight ride of Paul Revere in April, 1775. For if we ask what caused that “hurry of hoofs in a village street,” and what brought together those five-and-fifty statesmen at Philadelphia, we are not simply led back to the Boston Tea-Party, and still further to the Stamp Act, but we find it necessary to refer to events that happened more than a century before the Revolution can properly be said to have begun. Indeed, if we were going to take a very wide view of the situation, and try to point out its relations to the general history of mankind, we should have to go back many hundreds of years and not only cross the ocean to the England of King Alfred, but keep on still further to the ancient market-places of Rome and Athens, and even to the pyramids of Egypt; and in all this long journey through the ages we should not be merely gratifying an idle curiosity, but at every step of the way could gather sound practical lessons, useful in helping us to vote intelligently at the next election for mayor of the city in which we live or for president of the United States.

[Sidenote: The half-way station in American History]

We are not now, however, about to start on any such long journey. It is a much nearer and narrower view of the American Revolution that we wish to get. There are many points from which we might start, but we must at any rate choose a point several years earlier than the Declaration of Independence. People are very apt to leave out of sight the “good old colony times” and speak of our country as scarcely more than a hundred years old. Sometimes we hear the presidency of George Washington spoken of as part of “early American history;” but we ought not to forget that when Washington was born the commonwealth of Virginia was already one hundred and twenty-five years old. The first governor of Ma.s.sachusetts was born three centuries ago, in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada.

Suppose we take the period of 282 years between the English settlement of Virginia and the inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison, and divide it in the middle. That gives us the year 1748 as the half-way station in the history of the American people. There were just as many years of continuous American history before 1748 as there have been since that date. That year was famous for the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which put an end to a war between England and France that had lasted five years. That war had been waged in America as well as in Europe, and American troops had played a brilliant part in it. There was now a brief lull, soon to be followed by another and greater war between the two mighty rivals, and it was in the course of this latter war that some of the questions were raised which presently led to the American Revolution. Let us take the occasion of this lull in the storm to look over the American world and see what were the circ.u.mstances likely to lead to the throwing off of the British government by the thirteen colonies, and to their union under a federal government of their own making.

[Sidenote: The four New England colonies.]

In the middle of the eighteenth century there were four New England colonies. Ma.s.sachusetts extended her sway over Maine, and the Green Mountain territory was an uninhabited wilderness, to which New York and New Hampshire alike laid claim. The four commonwealths of New Hampshire, Ma.s.sachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had all been in existence, under one form or another, for more than a century. The men who were in the prime of life there in 1750 were the great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of the men who crossed the ocean between 1620 and 1640 and settled New England. Scarcely two men in a hundred were of other than English blood. About one in a hundred could say that his family came from Scotland or the north of Ireland; one in five hundred may have been the grandchild of a Huguenot. Upon religious and political questions these people thought very much alike. Extreme poverty was almost unknown, and there were but few who could not read and write. As a rule every head of a family owned the house in which he lived and the land which supported him. There were no cities; and from Boston, which was a town with 16,000 inhabitants, down to the smallest settlement in the White Mountains, the government was carried on by town-meetings at which, almost any grown-up man could be present and speak and vote.

Except upon the sea-coast nearly all the people lived upon farms; but all along the coast were many who lived by fishing and by building ships, and in the towns dwelt many merchants grown rich by foreign trade. In those days Ma.s.sachusetts was the richest of the thirteen colonies, and had a larger population than any other except Virginia.

Connecticut was then more populous than New York; and when the four New England commonwealths acted together–as was likely to be the case in time of danger–they formed the strongest military power on the American continent.

[Sidenote: Virginia and Maryland]

Among what we now call southern states there were two that in 1750 were more than a hundred years old. These were Virginia and Maryland. The people of these commonwealths, like those of New England, had lived together in America long enough to become distinctively Americans. Both New Englander and Virginian had had time to forget their family relationships with the kindred left behind so long ago in England; though there were many who did not forget it, and in our time scholars have by research recovered many of the links that had been lost from memory. The white people of Virginia were as purely English as those of Connecticut or Ma.s.sachusetts. But society in Virginia was very different from society in New England. The wealth of Virginia consisted chiefly of tobacco, which was raised by negro slaves. People lived far apart from each other on great plantations, usually situated near the navigable streams of which that country has so many. Most of the great planters had easy access to private wharves, where their crops could be loaded on ships and sent directly to England in exchange for all sorts of goods.

Accordingly it was but seldom that towns grew up as centres of trade.

Each plantation was a kind of little world in itself. There were no town-meetings, as the smallest political division was the division into counties; but there were county-meetings quite vigorous with political life. Of the leading county families a great many were descended from able and distinguished Cavaliers or King’s-men who had come over from England during the ascendency of Oliver Cromwell. Skill in the management of public affairs was hereditary in such families, and during our revolutionary period Virginia produced more great leaders than any of the other colonies.

[Sidenote: New York and Delaware]

There were yet two other American commonwealths that in 1750 were more than a hundred years old. These were New York and little Delaware, which for some time was a kind of appendage, first to New York, afterward to Pennsylvania. But there was one important respect in which these two colonies were different alike from New England and from Virginia. Their population was far from being purely English. Delaware had been first settled by Swedes, New York by Dutchmen; and the latter colony had drawn its settlers from almost every part of western and central Europe. A man might travel from Pen.o.bscot bay to the Harlem river without hearing a syllable in any other tongue than English; but in crossing Manhattan island he could listen, if he chose, to more than a dozen languages.

There was almost as much diversity in opinions about religious and political matters as there was in the languages in which they were expressed. New York was an English community in so far as it had been for more than eighty years under an English government, but hardly in any other sense. Accordingly we shall find New York in the revolutionary period less prompt and decided in action than Ma.s.sachusetts and Virginia. In population New York ranked only seventh among the thirteen colonies; but in its geographical position it was the most important of all. It was important commercially because the Mohawk and Hudson rivers formed a direct avenue for the fur-trade from the region of the great lakes to the finest harbour on all the Atlantic coast. In a military sense it was important for two reasons; _first_, because the Mohawk valley was the home of the most powerful confederacy of Indians on the continent, the steady allies of the English and deadly foes of the French; _secondly_, because the centre of the French power was at Montreal and Quebec, and from those points the route by which the English colonies could be most easily invaded was formed by Lake Champlain and the Hudson river. New York was completely interposed between New England and the rest of the English colonies, so that an enemy holding possession of it would virtually cut the Atlantic sea-board in two. For these reasons the political action of New York was of most critical importance.

[Sidenote: The two Carolinas and Georgia; New Jersey and Pennsylvania]

Of the other colonies in 1750, the two Carolinas and New Jersey were rather more than eighty years old, while Pennsylvania had been settled scarcely seventy years. But the growth of these younger colonies had been rapid, especially in the case of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, which in populousness ranked third and fourth among the thirteen. This rapid increase was mainly due to a large immigration from Europe kept up during the first half of the eighteenth century, so that a large proportion of the people had either been born in Europe, or were the children of people born in Europe. In 1750 these colonies had not had time enough to become so intensely American as Virginia and the New England colonies. In Georgia, which had been settled only seventeen years, people had had barely time to get used to this new home on the wild frontier.

The population of these younger colonies was very much mixed. In South Carolina, as in New York, probably less than half were English. In both Carolinas there were a great many Huguenots from France, and immigrants from Germany and Scotland and the north of Ireland were still pouring in. Pennsylvania had many Germans and Irish, and settlers from other parts of Europe, besides its English Quakers. With all this diversity of race there was a great diversity of opinions about political questions, as about other matters.

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