Life of George Washington

These are specimens of the marks of popular reprobation with which the
stamp act was universally nullified. No one would venture to carry it into
execution. In fact no stamped paper was to be seen; all had been either
destroyed or concealed. All transactions which required stamps to give them
validity were suspended, or were executed by private compact. The courts of
justice were closed, until at length some conducted their business without
stamps. Union was becoming the watch-word. The merchants of New York,
Philadelphia, Boston, and such other colonies as had ventured publicly to
oppose the stamp act, agreed to import no more British manufactures after
the 1st of January unless it should be repealed. So passed away the year

As yet Washington took no prominent part in the public agitation. Indeed he
was never disposed to put himself forward on popular occasions, his innate
modesty forbade it; it was others who knew his worth that called him forth;
but when once he engaged in any public measure, he devoted himself to it
with conscientiousness and persevering zeal. At present he remained a quiet
but vigilant observer of events from his eagle nest at Mount Vernon. He had
some few intimates in his neighborhood who accorded with him in sentiment.
One of the ablest and most efficient of these was Mr. George Mason, with
whom he had occasional conversations on the state of affairs. His friends
the Fairfaxes, though liberal in feelings and opinions, were too strong in
their devotion to the crown not to regard with an uneasy eye the tendency
of the popular bias. From one motive or other, the earnest attention of all
the inmates and visitors at Mount Vernon, was turned to England, watching
the movements of the ministry.

The dismissal of Mr. Grenville from the cabinet gave a temporary change to
public affairs. Perhaps nothing had a greater effect in favor of the
colonies than an examination of Dr. Franklin before the House of Commons,
on the subject of the stamp act.

“What,” he was asked, “was the temper of America towards Great Britain,
before the year 1763?”

“The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the
crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to the acts of Parliament.
Numerous as the people are in the several old provinces, they cost you
nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies, to keep them in
subjection. They were governed by this country at the expense only of a
little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread. They had not only a
respect, but an affection for Great Britain, for its laws, its customs, and
manners, and even a fondness for its fashions, that greatly increased the
commerce. Natives of Great Britain were always treated with particular
regard; to be an Old-England man was, of itself, a character of some
respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.”

“And what is their temper now?”

“Oh! very much altered.”

“If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?”

“A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to
this country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and

“Do you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty if
it was moderated?”

“No, never, unless compelled by force of arms.” [Footnote: Parliamentary
Register, 1766.]

The act was repealed on the 18th of March, 1766, to the great joy of the
sincere friends of both countries, and to no one more than to Washington.
In one of his letters he observes: “Had the Parliament of Great Britain
resolved upon enforcing it, the consequences, I conceive, would have been
more direful than is generally apprehended, both to the mother country and
her colonies. All, therefore, who were instrumental in procuring the
repeal, are entitled to the thanks of every British subject, and have mine
cordially.” [Footnote: Sparks. Writings of Washington, ii., 345, note.]

Still, there was a fatal clause in the repeal, which declared that the
king, with the consent of Parliament, had power and authority to make laws
and statutes of sufficient force and validity to “bind the colonies, and
people of America, in all cases whatsoever.”

As the people of America were contending for principles, not mere pecuniary
interests, this reserved power of the crown and Parliament left the dispute
still open, and chilled the feeling of gratitude which the repeal might
otherwise have inspired. Further aliment for public discontent was
furnished by other acts of Parliament. One imposed duties on glass,
pasteboard, white and red lead, painters’ colors, and tea; the duties to be
collected on the arrival of the articles in the colonies; another empowered
naval officers to enforce the acts of trade and navigation. Another wounded
to the quick the pride and sensibilities of New York. The mutiny act had
recently been extended to America, with an additional clause, requiring the
provincial Assemblies to provide the troops sent out with quarters, and to
furnish them with fire, beds, candles, and other necessaries, at the
expense of the colonies. The Governor and Assembly of New York refused to
comply with, this requisition as to stationary forces, insisting that it
applied only to troops on a march. An act of Parliament now suspended the
powers of the governor and Assembly until they should comply. Chatham
attributed this opposition of the colonists to the mutiny act to “their
jealousy of being somehow or other taxed internally by the Parliament; the
act,” said he, “asserting the right of Parliament, has certainly spread a
most unfortunate jealousy and diffidence of government here throughout
America, and makes them jealous of the least distinction between this
country and that, lest the same principle may be extended to taxing them.”
[Footnote: Chatham’s Correspondence, vol. iii., p. 189-192.]

Boston continued to be the focus of what the ministerialists termed
sedition. The General Court of Massachusetts, not content with petitioning
the king for relief against the recent measures of Parliament, especially
those imposing taxes as a means of revenue, drew up a circular, calling on
the other colonial Legislatures to join with them in suitable efforts to
obtain redress. In the ensuing session, Governor Sir Francis Bernard called
upon them to rescind the resolution on which the circular was
founded,–they refused to comply, and the General Court was consequently
dissolved. The governors of colonies required of their Legislatures an
assurance that they would not reply to the Massachusetts circular,–these
Legislatures likewise refused compliance and were dissolved. All this added
to the growing excitement.

Memorials were addressed to the lords, spiritual and temporal, and
remonstrances to the House of Commons, against taxation for revenue, as
destructive to the liberties of the colonists; and against the act
suspending the legislative power of the province of New York, as menacing
the welfare of the colonies in general.

Nothing, however, produced a more powerful effect upon the public
sensibilities throughout the country, than certain military demonstrations
at Boston. In consequence of repeated collisions between the people of that
place and the commissioners of customs, two regiments were held in
readiness at Halifax to embark for Boston in the ships of Commodore Hood
whenever Governor Bernard, or the general, should give the word, “Had this
force been landed in Boston six months ago,” writes the commodore, “I am
perfectly persuaded no address or remonstrances would have been sent from
the other colonies, and that all would have been tolerably quiet and
orderly at this time throughout America.” [Footnote: Grenville Papers, vol.
iv., p. 362.]

Tidings reached Boston that these troops were embarked and that they were
coming to overawe the people. What was to be done? The General Court had
been dissolved, and the governor refused to convene it without the royal
command. A convention, therefore, from various towns met at Boston, on the
22d of September, to devise measures for the public safety; but disclaiming
all pretensions to legislative powers. While the convention was yet in
session (September 28th), the two regiments arrived, with seven armed
vessels. “I am very confident,” writes Commodore Hood from Halifax, “the
spirited measures now pursuing will soon effect order in America.”

On the contrary, these “spirited measures” added, fuel to the fire they
were intended to quench. It was resolved in a town meeting that the king
had no right to send troops thither without the consent of the Assembly;
that Great Britain had broken the original compact, and that, therefore,
the king’s officers had no longer any business there. [Footnote: Whately to
Grenville. Gren. Papers, vol. iv., p. 389.]

The “selectmen” accordingly refused to find quarters for the soldiers in
the town; the council refused to find barracks for them, lest it should be
construed into a compliance with the disputed clause of the mutiny act.
Some of the troops, therefore, which had tents, were encamped on the
common; others, by the governor’s orders, were quartered in the
state-house, and others in Faneuil Hall, to the great indignation of the
public, who were grievously scandalized at seeing field-pieces planted in
front of the state-house; sentinels stationed at the doors, challenging
every one who passed; and, above all, at having the sacred quiet of the
Sabbath disturbed by drum and fife, and other military music.



Throughout these public agitations, Washington endeavored to preserve his
equanimity. Removed from the heated throngs of cities, his diary denotes a
cheerful and healthful life at Mount Vernon, devoted to those rural
occupations in which he delighted, and varied occasionally by his favorite
field sports. Sometimes he is duck-shooting on the Potomac. Repeatedly we
find note of his being out at sunrise with the hounds, in company with old
Lord Fairfax, Bryan Fairfax, and others; and ending the day’s sport by a
dinner at Mount Vernon, or Belvoir.

Still he was too true a patriot not to sympathize in the struggle for
colonial rights which now agitated the whole country, and we find him
gradually carried more and more into the current of political affairs.

A letter written on the 5th of April, 1769, to his friend, George Mason,
shows the important stand he was disposed to take. In the previous year,
the merchants and traders of Boston, Salem, Connecticut, and New York, had
agreed to suspend for a time the importation of all articles subject to
taxation. Similar resolutions had recently been adopted by the merchants of
Philadelphia. Washington’s letter is emphatic in support of the measure.
“At a time,” writes he, “when our lordly masters in Great Britain will be
satisfied with nothing less, than the deprivation of American freedom, it
seems highly necessary that something should be done to avert the stroke,
and maintain the liberty which we have derived from our ancestors. But the
manner of doing it, to answer the purpose effectually, is the point in
question. That no man should scruple, or hesitate a moment in defence of so
valuable a blessing, is clearly my opinion; yet arms should be the last
resource–the _dernier ressort_. We have already, it is said, proved
the inefficacy of addresses to the throne, and remonstrances to Parliament.
How far their attention to our rights and interests is to be awakened, or
alarmed, by starving their trade and manufactures, remains to be tried.

“The northern colonies, it appears, are endeavoring to adopt this scheme.
In my opinion, it is a good one, and must be attended with salutary
effects, provided it can be carried pretty generally into execution. …
That there will be a difficulty attending it every where from clashing
interests, and selfish, designing men, ever attentive to their own gain,
and watchful of every turn that can assist their lucrative views, cannot be
denied, and in the tobacco colonies, where the trade is so diffused, and in
a manner wholly conducted by factors for their principals at home, these
difficulties are certainly enhanced, but I think not insurmountably
increased, if the gentlemen in their several counties will be at some pains
to explain matters to the people, and stimulate them to cordial agreements
to purchase none but certain enumerated articles out of any of the stores,
after a definite period, and neither import, nor purchase any themselves.
… I can see but one class of people, the merchants excepted, who will
not, or ought not, to wish well to the scheme,–namely, they who live
genteelly and hospitably on clear estates. Such as these, were they not to
consider the valuable object in view, and the good of others, might think
it hard to be curtailed in their living and enjoyments.”

This was precisely the class to which Washington belonged; but he was ready
and willing to make the sacrifices required. “I think the scheme a good
one,” added he, “and that it ought to be tried here, with such alterations
as our circumstances render absolutely necessary.”

Mason, in his reply, concurred with him in opinion. “Our all is at stake,”
said he, “and the little conveniences and comforts of life, when set in
competition with our liberty, ought to be rejected, not with reluctance,
but with pleasure. Yet it is plain that, in the tobacco colonies, we cannot
at present confine our importations within such narrow bounds as the
northern colonies. A plan of this kind, to be practicable, must be adapted
to our circumstances; for, if not steadily executed, it had better have
remained unattempted. We may retrench all manner of superfluities, finery
of all descriptions, and confine ourselves to linens, woollens, &c., not
exceeding a certain price. It is amazing how much this practice, if adopted
in all the colonies, would lessen the American imports, and distress the
various trades and manufactures of Great Britain. This would awaken their
attention. They would see, they would feel, the oppressions we groan under,
and exert themselves to procure us redress. This, once obtained, we should
no longer discontinue our importations, confining ourselves still not to
import any article that should hereafter be taxed by act of Parliament for
raising a revenue in America; for, however singular I may be in the
opinion, _I am thoroughly convinced, that, justice and harmony happily
restored, it is not the interest of these colonies to refuse British
manufactures. Our supplying our mother country with gross materials, and
taking her manufactures in return, is the true chain of connection between
us. These are the bands which, if not broken by oppression, must long hold
us together, by maintaining a constant reciprocation of interests_.”

The latter part of the above quotation shows the spirit which actuated
Washington and the friends of his confidence; as yet there was no thought
nor desire of alienation from the mother country, but only a fixed
determination to be placed on an equality of rights and privileges with her
other children.

A single word in the passage cited from Washington’s letter, evinces the
chord which still vibrated in the American bosom: he incidentally speaks of
England as _home_. It was the familiar term with which she was usually
indicated by those of English descent; and the writer of these pages
remembers when the endearing phrase still lingered on Anglo-American lips
even after the Revolution. How easy would it have been before that era for
the mother country to have rallied back the affections of her colonial
children, by a proper attention to their complaints! They asked for nothing
but what they were entitled to, and what she had taught them to prize as
their dearest inheritance. The spirit of liberty which they manifested had
been derived from her own precept and example.

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