The American Evolution: Dependence, Independence, Interdependence

How ought we, great-grandsons, to judge the cause of American Independence, the cause for which our fathers fought a hundred years ago ? Says an excellent English writer of the present year: “To whoever believes in progress along the slow but sure lines of natural evolution, the breach between the two great branches of the English-speaking race, which never seems thoroughly able to heal, must always appear one of the most calamitous events in the world’s history.”1 To this view few Americans will subscribe : the triumph gained by our fathers we believe to have been for the good of the world. But the question as to whether the Revolution turned out well or ill can be regarded as one by no means yet settled among thoughtful men. It well deserves to be studied and restudied; it will not be out of place, perhaps, to outline the case once more, though it may be for the thousandth time. It is still possible to present it from a point of view unfamiliar; but though unfamiliar, it is hoped the view will not be unwelcome.

What the Revolution gained was government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It is right to believe that in any Anglo-Saxon community Abraham Lincoln’s “plain people ” can be trusted to govern themselves, and that power to do so should belong to the masses, each man having his vote. Undoubtedly, such a democracy is often unlovely in its manifestations. Emerson quoted approvingly Fisher Ames as saying that “ a monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom ; while a republic is a raft which would never sink, but then your feet are always in the water.” The discomforts of the raft are indeed great, and the feet of those who are embarked upon it have never been wetter, probably, than at the present hour. Many who until now have floated upon the raft confidently begin to feel that it must be forsaken. When such a leader as Herbert Spencer declares that his faith in democracy is gone, and that we are on the highroad to military despotism, — believing apparently that it will be a better consummation than a continuance of present conditions, — ordinary men cannot be blamed for feeling some doubt about institutions heretofore cherished and implicitly trusted. We are, however, on the raft for good and all. We must make the best of it ; whatever defections may occur, it is unmanly for Americans to be fainthearted. When all is said that can be said, democracy exhibits no disadvantages which cannot at once be paralleled or surpassed in the experience of aristocracies and monarchies. In an AngloSaxon community, inheriting as it does the traditions of two thousand years of self-government, the people can and ought to take care of themselves; and it is culpable faint-heartedness to believe that the elements other than Anglo-Saxon which have flowed in upon us have so far canceled or emasculated Anglo-Saxon virility that we need to be taken in hand by a master.

Unquestionably, a state of dependence during the first century and a half of America was a salutary, indeed an indispensable thing. During the early days a powerful foe might at any time easily have wiped out the English colonies ; the tenure hung upon a very light thread. As time advanced, and France, during the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., became ambitious in America, the peril from the foreign power was imminent. However well the provinces may sometimes have fought the French, they were utterly unable of their own strength to keep the foreigner at bay. Even the capture of Louisburg, the most conspicuous military feat of the provincials, could never have been achieved without the support of the British fleet. In the hard campaigns that followed, the provincials played a very secondary part; often enough, the French, with their Indian allies, were on the threshold of success. The line of posts stretching from New Orleans to Quebec was in the way to be strongly confirmed, and the disunited and discouraged populations scattered along the seaboard seemed on the point of subjection. When Braddock failed, when Montcalm won at Ticonderoga, when Pontiac threatened Detroit, all was precarious for English America. But at last British soldiers under General Forbes captured Fort Duquesne ; British soldiers under Colonel Bouquet broke the Indian spirit at Bushy Run ; British soldiers, again, under Wolfe won at Quebec, — and after that everything was secure. We scarcely realize to-day how precarious the Anglo-Saxon hold upon America was up to the capture of Quebec. Says an intelligent writer : “ The conjunction of the genius of Pitt and the genius of Wolfe was almost miraculous, and that conjunction alone it was that ruined the cause of France.”2 It was only by a hair’s breadth that America was saved to the Anglo-Saxons. The colonies alone, at this time, poor and without cohesion, were quite powerless to cope with the danger. But for their dependence upon the arm of the mother country they would have been lost.

The necessity for this dependence came to an end through the conquest of Pitt and Wolfe ; but the habit had been formed, and was slow in yielding. When, a little later, under the initiative of Samuel Adams, independence became a popular cry, it was only after long hesitation, and in spite of the resistance of a mass of the best people of the country, who were never able to see that independence had become expedient. But the time had come for America to enter upon the second phase in her evolution. The “Anglo-Saxon schism ” came to pass. Shall we say with Mr. Egerton, and with many another good Englishman whose heart yearns toward the brethren who became estranged, that it was “one of the most calamitous events in the world’s history ” ? While reciprocating the brotherly yearning, Americans should think that no mistake was made; it is well that the schism came. A people sprang into being the breath of whose nostrils became, instead of provincialism, the noblest national spirit.

To use a figure no homelier, perhaps, than that of the raft, which Emerson takes so approvingly from Fisher Ames, a political construction for a vast multitude should be after the model of the “ bob-sled ” of the lumberman of the Northwest. If the vehicle were in one frame, the load pressing from above and the inequalities of the road beneath would rack it to pieces at once ; let there be runners, however, before and behind, each pair distinct and independent, yet linked by appliances always flexible but never parting, all immediately goes well. Among the stumps and gullies of the rough track, the contrivance, readily yielding, yet never disconnected, easily bears on its weight of timber ; the shortest corners are turned, the ugliest drifts surmounted. That Anglo - Saxondom was sundered is not a subject for regret. In one frame, so to speak, it could not do its work. That its burden might be well and safely borne the division into two was salutary, indeed inevitable. What is to be regretted is that the severance involved bloodshed, and produced a hatred which rankles yet. The split should not be utter. While the two frames are separate an indestructible link should connect them, allowing to each free play while making the two after all one.

But without stopping to consider a proposition to us so obvious as the benefit to America herself of becoming independent, let us inquire for a moment as to the effect of the American revolt elsewhere than at home. Charles James Fox is said to have exclaimed once, “ The resistance of the Americans to the oppression of the mother country has undoubtedly preserved the liberties of mankind ! ” If such a declaration appears too sweeping, the value of the American revolt as regards the British empire, at any rate, can scarcely be exaggerated. How has it come to pass that the magnificent freedom to-day allowed to the dependencies of England exists ? Englishmen have ascribed it directly to the circumstance that the mother country learned wisdom from her fiery experience with America. Her eyes were opened to what was and what was not possible, and it is directly as a consequence of the American struggle that she has finally established it as a principle that colonies are to be left to themselves. America by conquering secured not only her own freedom, but probably that of her fellow dependencies, — those then existing and those afterward to be established.

Perhaps still more than this can be said : did not the resistance of America save England herself ? Buckle, in his History of Civilization, speaking of the danger to England, one hundred years ago, through the encroachments upon her liberty of royal and aristocratic power, says : “ The danger was so imminent as to make the ablest defenders of popular liberty believe that everything was at stake, and that if the Americans were vanquished the next step would be to attack the liberties of England, and endeavor to extend to the mother country the same arbitrary government which by that time would have been established in the colonies. . . . The danger was far more serious than men are now inclined to believe. During many years the authority of the Crown continued to increase, until it reached a height of which no example had been seen in England for several generations. . . . There is no doubt, I think, that the American war was a great crisis in the history of England, and that if the colonists had been defeated our liberties for a time would have been in considerable jeopardy. From that risk we were saved by the Americans, who with heroic spirit resisted the royal armies.”3

But is there not something higher for nations than independence? “ We are members one of another,” the apostolic admonition, deserves heed from states as well as individuals. The wise and benevolent look forward to Tennyson’s “ Parliament of man, the federation of the world ; ” and as a first step toward that happy consummation, what can be better than that among nations like should connect itself with like ? There is no other kinship among peoples so marked as that between the two great branches of the English-speaking race.

The notion of Anglo-Saxon brotherhood ought to have some interest for Americans. Says Sir Louis Mallet, rendering an idea of Cobden : “ Coöperation, and not competition, international interdependence, and not national independence, are the highest end and object of civilization.”4 The suggestion of Sir Edwin Arnold, made to President Harrison, was that there should be an international council to arbitrate all matters in dispute, from whose decisions there should be no appeal, and this within a year or two has seemed not far from realization. Such a scheme would be a loose kind of federation ; and as far as a formal bond is concerned, without doubt it would be all that is expedient. As to a union, only one purely moral is possible or desirable. For some such clasping of hands the world is certainly ripe. Through steam and electricity, time and space are annihilated. The seas no longer divide, but unite. Should the will for such fraternity be felt, there is no power of nature or man which could interfere to prevent. Had we but the will ! We nurse too carefully old prejudices ; we remember too long ancient injuries. We train our children as we were trained ourselves, to execrate all things British, and to think only of England’s tyranny. We ought to know that in the Revolution possibly half of England were really on our side, regarding our cause as their own, and that the descendants of the great masses who felt with us, prayed for us, and rejoiced in our success now hold England in their own hands.

This view is so unfamiliar to Americans that it well deserves illustration.

It is not right to regard George III. as a fair representative of the England of his time, nor to think that in the great war of the American Revolution, of which, on the British side, he was the central figure, Americans were really fighting England. Says the Westminster Review : “ Of course Americans regard independence as their great achievement. In this they are quite right. When, however, they proceed to regard independence as a victory gained over England, their enemy, they are surely egregiously in error. . . . At the time the United States were fighting for independence, England was fighting for her liberties: the common enemy was the Hanoverian George III. and his Germanized court. . . . When the news was brought to London that the United States had appealed to arms, William Pitt, an Englishman if there ever was one, rose in his seat in Parliament, and with uplifted voice thanked God that the American colonists retained enough of English blood to fight for their rights. Nine Englishmen out of every ten outside of court influence similarly rejoiced. Independence Day is as much a red-letter day for every genuine Englishman as for every genuine American. And so it should be. Washington but trod in the footsteps of Hampden. His task was easier than that of Hampden, and the solution he wrought, which an interval of three thousand miles of ocean practically dictated, was more thorough.”5

Vast misapprehension as to the true character of the American Revolution no doubt prevails. The English radical whose words have been quoted puts the case none too strongly. A high American authority 6 declares that the American Revolution was not a quarrel between two peoples, but a strife between two parties in one people, conservatives and liberals. These parties existed in both countries ; the battle between them was waged not only on the fields of America, but in the British Parliament also, — some of the fiercest engagements in the latter arena. The strife took place on both sides of the water, with nearly equal step, and was essentially the same on both sides ; so that if, at the close of the French war, all the people of Great Britain had been transported to America, and all the people of America to Great Britain, and put in control of British affairs, the American Revolution and the contemporary British Revolution might have gone on just the same, and with the same final result.

As to the embarrassments which the king and his ministers underwent from a powerful opposition, in their attempts to coerce America, the best historian of the eighteenth century makes out a strong case. At first the immense influence of Pitt, soon to be Earl of Chatham, then the most powerful of subjects, was on the side of America. He justified with all his eloquence the resistance to the Stamp Act, seconded by Lord Camden, who also had great influence. At the time of the tea duty there was in Parliament a strong section supporting the Americans, and outside of Parliament a still more democratic party who kept the country in alarm through fierce political agitation, — all which, as was truly said by Lord North, lured on America and blocked the efforts of the ministry.7

In another sphere, the tried and skillful soldiers, Amherst, Conway, and Barré, did not conceal their sympathy. In the House of Commons Fox eulogized Montgomery, slain at Quebec ; while the Duke of Richmond said in the House of Lords, after Bunker Hill, that the Americans were not in rebellion, but resisting acts of the most unexampled cruelty and oppression. The gleeful exclamation of Horace Walpole, somewhat later, over the surrender of Burgoyne, and the declaration of his belief that the Americans were better Englishmen than the English themselves, is very significant. “ Thank God,” said he, “ old England is safe. I mean New England, whither the true English retired under Charles I.”8 In the House of Commons the American army was spoken of as “ our army.” William Pitt, in 1781, called the attempt to reduce America “ most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, diabolical.” In the ruling class, a minority containing personages of the highest rank and the ablest men in the nation had identified itself completely with the insurgents. They resisted with passion, for they came to feel — a feeling which writers like Buckle declare thoroughly justified — that the defeat of the Americans would probably be followed by a subversion of the constitution of England. Meantime, among the people, the war was to the last degree unpopular. London was sometimes at the mercy of mobs; the army could be maintained only by pressgangs, by emptying into the regiments the prisons, and by buying Hessians.

If the king and his ministers were embarrassed by an opposition, the American patriots were no less embarrassed. An energetic minority, it has been said, brought to pass the Revolution, which, proceeding especially from New England, was carried through in spite of a majority in the colonies, — a majority in great part quite apathetic, but to some extent actively resisting.9 The emigration of Tories, when the day was at last won, was relatively as great as that of the Huguenots from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The total number is estimated to have been at least one hundred thousand. In this multitude were comprised only such, with their families, as had been active for the king. The indifferent, who had lent no helping hand to the patriots, must have been a multitude much larger; these remained behind, inertly submitting to the new order of things as they had swayed inertly this way or that, following the power and direction of the blast of war.

The war of the American Revolution, then, was a strife, not of countries, but of parties ; a strife carried on both in England and in America, — bloodless in the motherland, bloody in the dependency ; but nevertheless a strife carried on in each arena for the preservation of the same priceless treasure, — AngloSaxon freedom, — and fought through with similar spirit. On one side of the Atlantic victory came speedily. In America there were no traditions and institutions, rooted for centuries, to be upturned ; and besides, there came most timely help from France. Victory in America drew necessarily with it victory in England. It has long been delayed, but it has been steadily coming, until at the present moment, as regards popular freedom, the two countries stand nearly together, — England, perhaps, though preserving monarchical forms and much social feudalism, really in advance. Popular freedom was possibly saved to England by the success of the American struggle ; on the other hand, America has derived that popular freedom nowhere but from the motherland, through the struggles of her Alfred ; of her Langton and the barons of 1215 ; of her Earl Simon ; of her knights of the shire, her Ironsides, her supporters of the Bill of Rights. What a noble community is this, — common striving so heroic for a common cause of such supreme moment! How mean the nursing of petty prejudice between lands so linked ; how powerful the motive to join hand with hand, and heart with heart !

England is not only herself, at the present hour, practically a democratic republic, but is the parent of vast republics in the quarters of the earth most distant from her.10 In America, Australia, and Africa, enormous tracts of territory, best adapted by climate and soil to the habitation of Europeans, are in the possession, and have become the seats, of vigorous and growing Anglo-Saxon peoples. The extent to which these have become endowed with the ancient freedom so thoroughly recovered by the motherland can be made plain in a few words. The old colonial empire, the thirteen colonies, which, after revolting, became the United States, had been ruled after the precedents of Spain. The dependencies were regarded as a source from which the motherland might be enriched, and their interests were neglected and sacrificed in the pursuit by the motherland of this selfish end. “ Till alienated by the behavior of England, the colonists had far more kindly feelings toward her than she had toward them. To them she was the old home ; to her they were simply customers.”11 Exasperation in the colonies was the inevitable fruit of so base a policy, and in the end England, like Spain, lost the new lands whose rights she had abused. The bitter experience, as we have seen, perhaps saved her own freedom ; she derived from it also the wisdom which enabled her, when presently the vast new colonial empire fell within her grasp, so to proceed that the dependencies, instead of chafing under their bond, cherish it with warm affection, looking upon independence as a calamity rather than a blessing.

The work of our fathers, then, was to sever the English-speaking world, — a work one hundred years ago most noble and necessary to be done, for only so, in that day, could freedom be saved. At the present time, however, may it not be the case that the work to be done is not of severance, but of union ?

John Bright wrote, in 1887, to the committee for the celebration of the centennial of the American Constitution : “ As you advance in the second century of your natural life, may we not ask that our two nations may become one people ? ”

Sir Henry Parkes, perhaps the foremost statesman of Australia, addressing the legislature of New South Wales, November 25,1887, said still more definitely : “ I firmly believe it is within the range of human probability that the great groups of free communities connected with England will, in separate federations, be united to the mother country ;

. . . and I also believe that in all reasonable probability, by some less distinct bond, even the United States of America will be connected with this great English-speaking congeries of free governments. I believe the circumstances of the world will develop some such new complex nationality as this, in which each of the parts will be free and independent while united in one grand whole, which will civilize the globe.”

Sir George Grey, at different times governor of West Australia, of New Zealand, and of South Africa, one of the most illustrious of the men who have developed for England her great possessions in the South Pacific, contemplates an eventual though perhaps far-off league between members of the English-speaking race, in which the United States will not only be included, but, displacing England, will become the leader.

The declarations of Joseph Chamberlain, of a spirit similar to those of the statesmen just quoted, are at the present hour agitating Europe.

Gladstone once wrote : —

“ If love unite, wide space divides in vain,
And hands may clasp across the flowing main.”

That clasp of hands Gladstone could not live to bring to pass; but though he is gone, we are not therefore without resource.

Among Americans Edward Atkinson has declared : “ The two great branches of the English-speaking people, politically separated by the misconceptions of a small faction which governed England during the latter part of the last century, are becoming more and more reunited through their interdependence. Their wants and their supplies are the complements of each other. . . . The time is not far distant when the control of commerce, passing more completely than ever to the English-speaking people of the world, will bring them into closer union, each branch maintaining its own form and system of government, but all working together for the benefit of all who share in the abundance of their products.”12

The idea of some reconstitution of the family bond has found expression more often from citizens of the British Empire than from Americans, though men are not wanting in America in whose minds has arisen the conception of doing away with the Anglo-Saxon schism as a thing possible and to be wished for. The prevailing mood among us, however, has been that of self-sufficiency. Absorbed with problems and interests that seem nearer, we have let the broad thought go.

But if the reader has followed with any sympathy and attention the view held in this paper, he will be prepared to see that if we form a link anywhere, our proper affiliation is with England and her children scattered east and west. There are indeed to-day, as there were in the time of the American Revolution, two Englands and two Americas. Of one England Lord Dundreary is the type; as of one America the appropriate type is the tuft-hunting daughter of the plutocrat, who will sell soul and body to get Lord Dundreary for a husband. There is, besides, the stalwart, manful England, for which stand Gladstone, John Bright, and James Bryce ; as there are in America the excellent “ plain people ” whom Abraham Lincoln loved and trusted. While Miss Moth flies at her aristocratic luminary, careless of the singeing she may receive, why should not the nobler England and the nobler America clasp hands ?

The townships make up the county, the counties the state, the states the United States. What is to hinder a further extension of the federal principle, so that finally we may have a vaster United States, whose members shall be, as empire state, America ; then the mother, England ; and lastly the great English dependencies, so populous and thoroughly developed that they may fitly stand coördinate ? It cannot be said that this is an unreasonable or Utopian anticipation. Dependence was right in its day ; but for English help colonial America would have become a province of France, Independence was and is right. It was well for us and for Britain too that we were split apart. Washington, as the main agent in the separation, is justly the most venerated name in our history. But interdependence, too, will in its day be right; and great indeed will be that statesman of the future who shall reconstitute the family bond, conciliate the members into an equal brotherhood, found the vaster union which must be the next great step toward the universal fraternity of man, when patriotism may be merged into a love that will take in all humanity.

Such suggestions as have just been made are sure to be opposed both in England and in America. We on our side cite England’s oppression of Ireland, the rapacity with which in all parts of the world she has often enlarged her boundaries, the brutality with which she has trampled upon the rights of weaker men. They cite against America her “ century of dishonor ” in the treatment of the Indians, the corruption of her cities, the ruffian’s knife and pistol ready to murder on slight provocation, the prevalence of lynch law over all other law in great districts, her yellow journalism. Indeed, it is a sad tale of shortcoming for both countries. Yet in the case of each the evil is balanced by a thousand things great and good, and the welfare of the world depends upon the growth and prosperity of the English-speaking lands as upon nothing else. The welfare of the world depends upon their accord ; and no other circumstance at the present moment is so fraught with hope as that, in the midst of the heavy embarrassments that beset both England and America, the long-sundered kindred slowly gravitate toward alliance.

James K. Hosmer.

  1. H. E. Egerton: A Short History of English Colonial Policy.
  2. W. F. Lord : Lost Empires of the Modern World, p. 224.
  3. Vol. i. p. 345, Am. ed.
  4. Quoted in London Spectator, vol. lxiii. p. 381.
  5. Vol. cxxxi. p. 328.
  6. Hon. Mellen Chamberlain in Winsor’s Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. vi. chap. i.
  7. Lecky, Eighteenth Century, vol. iii. pp. 403, 404.
  8. Walpole’s Letters to the Countess of Ossory, December 11, 1777.
  9. Lecky, Eighteenth Century, vol. iii. p. 458, etc.
  10. Sir T. Erskine May : Constitutional History, vol. xi. p. 537.
  11. Bryce : American Commonwealth, vol. i. p. 416, note.
  12. The Century for April, 1898.