George Washington - Ada Russell

Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century

The Seven Years' War, one of the most triumphal wars England has ever waged, and mixed with almost equal good and evil for her destinies, since by it she won India and Canada and ultimately lost the American colonies, formed and trained almost all the American officers of the subsequent War of Independence. As we have seen, it set up the first serious friction between Great Britain and the colonies and showed the colonists how sometimes Great. Britain was not all-wise or all-powerful; and it is related that a French statesman foretold long before the event that the Treaty of Paris of 1768, by which France lost her possessions in America, would mean the severance of the link that hound the American colonies to the mother country. "She will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her," he said, "and they will answer by striking off all dependence."

The affection of Great Britain for her children across the seas had always been frankly an interested one. Their commerce had made her rich and it now appeared as though greediness were about to burst the sack. She was no longer satisfied with her indirect gains, and moreover, as hinted above, wished to recuperate for her enormous expenditure on the protection of the colonies in the late war. Scarcely therefore was the ink dry on the treaty with France when schemes were pushed forward at "Home" to draw a direct revenue from the American colonies. Directly the rumour of approaching taxation crossed the Atlantic, Washington, among others, counselled resistance, declaring that the colonists could never agree to taxation without representation. Already, they said, the mother country had pushed her restrictions on American commerce to their utmost extent; the colonies were not allowed to import or export except to Great Britain and to British possessions, and in order to ensure the balance of trade being in favour of Great Britain they were not allowed to manufacture certain articles, which they were tints forced to buy from Great Britain.

The best statesmen at home disapproved of the new financial policy with regard to America. Sir Robert Walpole said, years before, in words long remembered:

"It must be a holder man than myself, and one less friendly to commerce, who should venture on such an expedient."

In spite of an opposition of the weightiest kind, from the point of view of brains and character, the British Parliament in 1764 declared that the British legislature had the right to tax America, and a plan to establish a standing army there found favour.

Before beginning, however, our story of the American Revolution, we will take a brief glance at the home country on the eve of this revolution, and in order to understand how great and splendid was Britain at that time, when she had first taken her place at the head of all nations, we cannot do better than go to the pages of Thackeray, and especially to his lectures on "The Four Georges."

We will start with Thackeray's picture of the King, or at least with a corner of his portrait of the poor old monarch who has been the butt for so many wits; and if any of you have time to read it you may enjoy one of the best of the satires on him in Byron's "Vision of Judgment." Thackeray's account is almost as cruel, and nearly as amusing. George III (1760-1820), he relates, "is said not to have cared for Shakespeare or tragedy much; farces and pantomimes were his joy; and especially when clown swallowed a carrot or a string of sausages he would laugh so outrageously that the lovely Princess by his side would have to say: 'My gracious monarch, do compose yourself.' But he continued to laugh, and at the very smallest farces, as long as his poor wits were left him. His mother was a harsh and gloomy woman. 'George, be a King!' were the words which she was for ever croaking in the ears of her son: and a king the simple, stubborn, affectionate, bigoted man tried to be. He did his best; he worked according to his lights; what virtue he knew, he tried to practise; what knowledge he could master, he strove to acquire. . . There is something grand about his courage. The battle of the King with his aristocracy remains yet to be told. . . . It was he, with the people to back him, who made the war with America; it was he and the people who refused justice to the Roman Catholics; and on both questions he beat the patricians. He bribed, he bullied, he darkly dissembled on occasion; he exercised a slippery perseverance and a vindictive resolution, which one almost admires as one thinks his character over. His courage was never to be beat. It trampled North under foot; it bent the stiff neck of the younger Pitt: even his illness never conquered that indomitable spirit. As soon as his brain was clear it resumed the scheme, only laid aside when his reason left him; as soon as his hands were out of the strait-waistcoat they took up the pen and the plan which had engaged him up to the moment of his malady."

"King George's household was a model of an English gentleman's household. It was early; it was kindly; it was charitable; it was frugal; it was orderly; it must have been stupid to a degree which I shudder now to contemplate . . . Day after day was the same. At the same hour at night the King kissed his daughters' jolly cheeks; the Princesses kissed their mother's hand; and Madame Thielke brought the royal nightcap. At the same hour the equerries and women in waiting had their little dinner, and cackled over their tea.. The King had his backgammon or his evening concert; the equerries yawned themselves to death in the anteroom; or the King and his family walked on Windsor slopes, the King holding his darling little Princess Amelia by the hand; and the people crowded round quite good-naturedly; and the Eton boys thrust their chubby cheeks under the crowd's elbows; and the concert over, the King never failed to take his enormous cocked hat off and salute his band, and say, 'Thank you, gentlemen.'

"A quieter household, a more prosaic life than this of Kew or Windsor cannot be imagined. Rain or shine, the King rode every day for hours; poked his red face into hundreds of cottages round about, and showed that shovel hat and Windsor uniform to farmers, to pig-boys, to old women making apple-dumplings, to all sorts of people, gentle and simple, about whom countless stories are told. Nothing can be more undignified than these stories. When Haroun Alraschid visits a subject incognito the latter is sure to be much the better for the caliph's magnificence. Old George showed no such royal splendour. He used to give a guinea sometimes, sometimes feel in his pockets and find that he had no money; often ask a man a hundred questions—about the number of his family, about his oats and beans, about the rent he paid for his house—and ride on . . . All the world knows the story of his malady; all history knows no sadder figure than that of the old man, blind and deprived of reason, wandering through the rooms of his palace, addressing imaginary parliaments, reviewing fancied troops, holding ghostly courts. I have seen his picture as it was taken at this time, hanging in the apartment of his daughter, the Landgravine of Besse Hombourg amidst books and Windsor furniture and a hundred fond reminiscences of her English home. The poor old father is represented in a purple gown, his snowy beard falling idly over his breast—the star of his famous Order still idly shining on it. He was not only sightless, he became utterly deaf. All light, all reason, all sound of human voices, all the pleasures of this world of God were taken from him. Some slight lucid moments he had, in one of which the Queen, desiring to see him, entered the room and found him singing a hymn and accompanying himself at the harpsichord. When he had finished, he knelt down and prayed aloud for her, and then for his family, and then for the nation, concluding with a prayer for himself, that it might please God to avert his heavy calamity from him, but if not, to give him resignation to submit. He then burst into tears and his reason again fled."

We do not quite leave him as Byron does, "practising the Hundredth Psalm."

For the aristocracy of Great. Britain, it was at the height of its splendour under the nominal headship of George III.

"As one reads the Selwyn letters," says Thackeray as one looks at Reynolds's noble pictures illustrative of those magnificent times and voluptuous people, one almost hears the voice of the dead past—the laughter and the chorus; the toast called over the brimming cups; the shout at the race-course or the gaming-table; the merry joke frankly spoken to the laughing fine lady. How fine those ladies were, those ladies who heard and spoke such coarse jokes; how grand those gentlemen!

"I fancy that peculiar product of the past, the fine gentleman, has almost vanished of the face of the earth, and is disappearing like the beaver or the Red Indian . . . Children do not go down on their knees to beg their parents' blessing; chaplains do not say grace and retire before the pudding; servants do not say 'your honour' and 'your worship' at every moment; tradesmen do not stand hat in hand as the gentleman passes; authors do not wait for hours in gentlemen's anterooms with a fulsome dedication for which they hope to get five guineas from his lordship. In the days when there were fine gentlemen, Mr. Secretary Pitt's undersecretaries did not dare to sit down before him, but Mr. Pitt in his turn went down on his gouty knees to George II; and when George III spoke a few kind words to him, Lord Chatham burst into tears of reverential joy and gratitude; . . . Fancy Lord John Russell or Lord Palmerston on their knees whilst the Sovereign was reading a dispatch, or beginning to cry because Prince Albert said something civil."

Turning away from this great world, gay and corrupt as never before or since in English history, so tradition says, we will turn to the real glory of Britain,—"the working educated men, away from Lord North's bribery is the senate; the good clergy not corrupted into parasites by hopes of preferment; the tradesmen rising into manly opulence; the painters pursuing their gentle calling; the men of letters in their quiet studies: these are the men we love and like to read of in the last age. How small the grandees and the men of pleasure look beside them—how contemptible the stories of George III court squabbles are beside the recorded talk of dear old Johnson! What is the grandest entertainment at Windsor compared to a night at the club over its modest cups, with Percy and Langton, and Goldsmith and poor Bozzy at the table! I declare I think that of all the polite men of that age Joshua Reynolds was the finest gentleman. And they were good as well as witty and wise, those dear old friends of the past . . . Ah! would have liked a night at the Turk's head, even though bad news had arrived from the colonies, and Doctor Johnson was growling against the rebels; to have sat with him and Goldy, and to have heard Burke, the finest talker in the world, and to have had Garrick flashing in with a story from his theatre:"

The estimation in which the colonies were held in British society at that time was very like the present attitude of the metropolis intellectually and artistically, to the provinces; and an eminent administrator even went so far as to call them Britain's "backdoors." The idea that they might dispute British acts called forth a scorn that was almost brutal from hoary Tories and old-aristocratic Whigs, and following the Declaratory Act of 1764 referred to above came the notorious Stamp Act of 1765, which was the signal for the first rising. By this act all legal documents were to be written on stamped paper purchased from the British Government. The opposition in America took at first the form of respectful petitions, and when the petitions were disregarded, and the Act came into force, the day from which it dated was observed as a day of mourning, with tolling bells and flags at half-mast. Parliament on this felt its dignity suffer and became anxious about obtaining due respect for its "prerogative," a favourite word in the eighteenth century, before statesmen learned that this terrible fear of loss of dignity was more befitting a village schoolmaster than the statesmen of a large empire. To humble the colonists, therefore, the appointment of judges in America was reserved to British commissioners, and it was decreed that, Americans might be taken to Great Britain for trial.

Nearly all the provincial Assemblies denounced the Act, and Associations were formed and pledges taken against the use of British manufactures. This brought the commercial interest in Great Britain to their side and, giving way before the clamours of this party, a Committee of the House of Commons was formed to consider the question. Before this Committee appeared Benjamin Franklin, then in London, and his statements led to the repeal of the Act in February, 1766. Many people thought the colonists were simply showing an unruly spirit and discontented disposition, that this opposition was only a pretext for a quarrel, and that their victory would be the thin end of the wedge—giving in, they said, would fatally injure "prerogative" and encourage further impudence. Therefore Franklin was eagerly questioned as to the disposition of America before the passing of the Act, and it was noted that he had no hesitation in replying:

"The best in the world. . . . They were governed by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink and paper. . . . Natives of Great Britain were always treated with particular regard; to he an Old England man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us."

If the Stamp Act were not repealed, he foretold the total loss of the respect and affection of the Americans and also the total loss of their commerce, while they would only submit to it by force of arms.

The repeal was carried out by the ministry of Rockingham, the friend and patron of Burke, but this ministry, pledged to a broadminded policy with regard to America, did not last very long, and was replaced by a curious administration described by Burke, in a well-known passage:

"He (the aged Chatham, the statesman of the Seven Years' War) made an administration so checkered and speckled; he put together a piece of joinery so crossly indented and whimsically dove-tailed; a cabinet so variously inlaid; such a piece of diversified mosaic; such a tesselated pavement without, cement; here a bit of black stone, and there a bit of white; patriots and courtiers, king's friends and republicans; Whigs and Tories; treacherous friends and open enemies—that it was indeed a very curious show, but utterly unsafe to touch and unsure to stand on. The colleagues whom he had assorted at the same boards stared at each other, and were obliged to ask, 'Sir, your name?'—'Sir, you have the advantage of me'—'Mr. Such-a-one'—'I beg a thousand pardons'. . . When his face was hid but for a moment, his whole system was on a wide sea, without chart or compass. The gentlemen, his particular friends, who with the names of various departments of ministry were admitted to seem as if they acted a part under him, with a modesty that becomes all men, and with a confidence in him that was justi5ed even in its extravagance by his superior abilities, had never in any instance presumed upon any opinion of their own. Deprived of his guiding influence, they were whirled about, the sport of every gust, and easily driven into any port; and as those who joined with them in manning the vessel were the most directly opposite to his opinions, measures and character, and far the most artful and most powerful of the set, they easily prevailed, so as to seize upon the vacant, unoccupied and derelict minds of his friends, and instantly they turned the vessel wholly out of the course of his policy . . . and with great parade, in his name, they made an act declaring it highly just and expedient to raise a revenue in America."

So the new Revenue Act of 1767 and other oppressive measures were passed, and the colonies were set aflame. Not only were resolutions taken not to use British goods again, but it was decided to start the manufacture of the prohibited articles. This led Great Britain to send an army to the colonies to restore the authority of Government, and in September, 1768, fourteen men-of-war, bearing 700 British troops, appeared off Boston harbour.