Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Declaration of Independence

"Beyond the vast Atlantic tide

Extend your healing influence wide,

Where millions claim your care;

Inspire each just, each filial thought,

And let the natives round be taught

The British oak is there."

—WHITEHEAD (1775).

The hour of the American Revolution had come, but England knew it not. The conduct of the men of Boston roused her wrath, and she prepared punishment. The liberties of Massachusetts—enjoyed for a hundred and fifty years—were taken away: the port of Boston was blockaded.

"The die is cast," said George III. triumphantly. "The colonies must either triumph or submit. We must be resolute."

But there was resolution on the other side of the Atlantic too. A Congress of colonists met at Philadelphia to consider the question. Men from all the thirteen colonies were there, their petty disputes forgotten in the face of this common danger.

"I am not a Virginian, I am an American," said one member, speaking for all.

They now drew up and sent to England their famous Declaration of Rights. They did not ask for independence as yet: they did not want to break with the mother country. They asked for the freedom of their forefathers, for the right of making their own laws and levying their own taxes.

England was astonished and dismayed. Pitt, no longer the Great Commoner but Earl of Chatham, came forward and begged for moderation.

"It will soon be too late," he pleaded. "It is not repealing a piece of parchment that can win back America. You must respect her fears and resentments, and you may then hope for her love and gratitude."

But Chatham's ominous words "availed no more than the whistling of the winds." More English troops were sent out to Boston, and America prepared to resist by force. The call to arms went forth. Washington was made commander-in-chief of the army of the "United Colonies of America." The thunder-cloud so long hanging over the land had broken at last.

Already skirmishes had taken place between the English and Americans, but the first battle was fought at Bunker's Hill in the year 1775. It was one of the strangest battles ever fought. Entrenched on the hills above the town of Boston were some 1600 simple civilian citizens. They had no uniform: each man was dressed in his homely working clothes, each man carried his own gun. All were unskilled in warfare.

At the foot of the hills were 4000 of the finest troops in the world. Their uniforms shone with scarlet, white, and gold, while on their banners blazed the names of famous battles won.

But resplendent as they were, the British troops were unable to endure the destructive fire of the colonists. Again and again they advanced up the hill; again and again they reeled back with shattered ranks, leaving heaps of English dead upon the fire-swept slope.

"Are the Yankees cowards?" shouted the men of Massachusetts, as the English retreated before them.

But there came a time when the colonial troops could hold out no longer. They had fired their last volley, their supply of powder was exhausted, and the English charged the hill and took it.

A hundred and fifteen Americans lay dead across the threshold of their country, but they had shown what they could do.

"How did they behave?" asked Washington anxiously, when he heard news of the battle.

"They stood their ground well," was the proud answer.

"Then the liberties of the country are safe," replied Washington, with a weight of doubt lifted from his heart, as he rode on to take supreme command of the troops.

[Illustration] from Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge


There was stiff work yet before him. All through the long winter of snow and ice he defended Boston with his raw, ill-fed, ill-armed army, until, in the spring of 1776, the English were obliged to withdraw to New York.

And Washington entered the gates of Boston in triumph, the flag of the thirteen stripes—emblem of the thirteen united colonies—waving above his head.

Gradually an idea of independence was growing in the colonies—of separation from the mother country, who had failed to understand her children. They would have clung to her still, had she but treated them with the consideration they had deserved.

Congress met at Philadelphia, and on July 4 1776 the colonists drew up their famous Declaration of Independence, disclaiming all obedience to the British crown. The words of the Declaration are still read aloud on the anniversary of every year.

The war was continued with renewed vigour. The sufferings of the Americans were very great, and would have broken the heart of any man of less heroic mould than George Washington. But the autumn of 1777 saw one of his noblest triumphs, when 3500 British soldiers were surrounded and forced to surrender on the heights of Saratoga. It was the turning-point of the war.

"You cannot conquer America," cried Chatham once more. "Redress their grievance and let them dispose of their own money. Mercy can do no harm: it will seat the king where he ought to be—throned in the hearts of his people."

His words were too late. The British disaster at Saratoga had encouraged the French, and early in 1778 France openly allied herself to America, acknowledging the independence of the United States. For five years more the war languished, and then England too had to acknowledge the independence of her colonies. She had learnt a lesson which would teach her in future how much consideration was due to those dependencies which were left.

The United States were now a Republic. Their government was to consist of a President, a Vice-President, and a Congress, to sit at New York.

And who should the colonists choose for their first President but George Washington? He had led them to victory. He should guide them through peace.

As he stepped forward to accept the honoured post a great shout of joy arose from the enthusiastic colonists. He looked an old man now, grown grey and blind in the service of his country. Dressed in simple dark-brown cloth, his sword by his side, he solemnly swore to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." And so, amid the waving of flags, the ringing of bells, the firing of guns, and the shouts of the people, the great ceremony ended.

George Washington, soldier and patriot, was the first President of the United States of America.