Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Article Index

 

Another thing we notice among the Colonies, which had no inconsiderable influence on their growth, was the use of fire-arms among all the people, to defend themselves from hostile Indians. Every man had his musket and powder-flask; and there were several periods when it was not safe even to go to church unarmed. Thus were the new settlers inured to danger and self-defence, and bloody contests with their savage foes. They grew up practically soldiers, and formed a firm material for an effective militia, able to face regular troops and even engage in effective operations, as seen afterwards in the conquest of Louisburg by Sir William Pepperell, a Kittery merchant. But for the universal use of fire-arms, either for war or game, it is doubtful if the Colonies could have won their independence. And it is interesting to notice that, while the free carrying of weapons, in these later days at least, is apt to result in rough lawlessness, as in our frontier regions, among the serious and law-abiding Colonists of those early times it was not so. This was probably due both to their strict religious obligations and to the presence of their wives and children.

The unrestricted selection of parish ministers by the people was no slight cause of New England growth, and was also a peculiar custom or institution not seen in the mother country, where appointment to parishes was chiefly in the hands of the aristocracy or the crown. Either the king, or the lord chancellor, or the universities, or the nobility, or the county squires had the gift of the "livings," often bestowed on ignorant or worldly or inefficient men, the younger sons of men of rank, who made no mark, and were incapable of instruction or indifferent to their duties. In New England the minister of the parish was elected by the church members or congregation, and if he could not edify his hearers by his sermons, or if his character did not command respect, his occupation was gone, or his salary was not paid. In consequence the ministers were generally gifted men, well educated, and in sympathy with the people. Who can estimate the influence of such religious teachers on everything that pertained to New England life and growth,--on morals, on education, on religious and civil institutions!

Although we have traced the early characteristics of the New England Colonists, especially because it was in New England first and chiefly that the spirit of resistance to English oppression grew to a sentiment for independence, it is not to be overlooked that the essential elements of self-controlling manhood were common throughout all the Colonies. And everywhere it seems to have grown out of the germ of a devotion to religious freedom, developed on a secluded continent, where men were shut in by the sea on the one hand, and perils from the fierce aborigines on the other. The Puritans of New England, the Hollanders of New York, Penn's Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, the Huguenots of South Carolina, the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, were all of Calvinistic training and came from European persecutions. All were rigidly Puritanical in their social and Sabbatarian observances. Even the Episcopalians of Virginia, where a larger Norman-English stock was settled, with infusions of French-Huguenot blood, and where slavery bred more men of wealth and broader social distinctions, were sternly religious in their laws, although far more lax and pleasure-loving in their customs. Everywhere, this new life of Englishmen in a new land developed their self-reliance, their power of work, their skill in arms, their habit of common association for common purposes, and their keen, intelligent knowledge of political conditions, with a tenacious grip on their rights as Englishmen.

In the enjoyment, then, of unknown civil and religious liberties, of equal laws, and a mild government, the Colonies rapidly grew, in spite of Indian wars. In New England they had also to combat a hard soil and a cold climate. Their equals in rugged strength, in domestic virtues, in religious veneration were not to be seen on the face of the whole earth. They may have been intolerant, narrow-minded, brusque and rough in manners, and with little love or appreciation of art; they may have been opinionated and self-sufficient: but they were loyal to duties and to their "Invisible King." Above all things, they were tenacious of their rights, and scrupled no sacrifices to secure them, and to perpetuate them among their children.

It is not my object to describe the history of the Puritans, after they had made a firm settlement in the primeval forests, down to the Revolutionary War, but only to glance at the institutions they created or adopted, which have extended more or less over all parts of North America, and laid the foundation for a magnificent empire.

At the close of the Seven Years' War, in 1763, which ended in the conquest of Canada from the French by the combined forces of England and her American subjects, the population of the Colonies--in New England and the Middle and Southern sections--was not far from two millions. Success in war and some development in wealth naturally engendered self-confidence. I apprehend that the secret and unavowed consciousness of power, creating the desire to be a nation rather than a mere colony dependent on Great Britain,--or, if colonies, yet free and untrammelled by the home government,--had as much to do with the struggle for independence as the discussion of rights, at least among the leaders of the people, both clerical and lay. The feeling that they were not represented in Parliament was not of much account, for more than three quarters of the English at home had no representation at all. To be represented in Parliament was utterly impracticable, and everybody knew it. But when arbitrary measures were adopted by the English government, in defiance of charters, the popular orators made a good point in magnifying the injustice of "taxation without representation."

The Colonies had been marvellously prospered, and if not rich they were powerful, and were spreading toward the indefinite and unexplored West. The Seven Years' War had developed their military capacity. It was New England troops which had taken Louisburg. The charm of British invincibility had been broken by Braddock's defeat. The Americans had learned self-reliance in their wars with the Indians, and had nearly exterminated them along the coast without British aid. The Colonists three thousand miles away from England had begun to feel their importance, and to realize the difficulty of their conquest by any forces that England could command. The self-exaggeration common to all new countries was universal. Few as the people were, compared with the population of the mother country, their imagination was boundless. They felt, if they did not clearly foresee, their inevitable future. The North American continent was theirs by actual settlement and long habits of self-government, and they were determined to keep it. Why should they be dependent on a country that crippled their commerce, that stifled their manufactures, that regulated their fisheries, that appointed their governors, and regarded them with selfish ends,--as a people to be taxed in order that English merchants and manufacturers should be enriched? They did not feel weak or dependent; what new settlers in the Western wilds ever felt that they could not take care of their farms and their flocks and everything which they owned?

Doubtless such sentiments animated far-reaching men, to whom liberty was so sweet, and power so enchanting. They could not openly avow them without danger of arrest, until resistance was organized. They contented themselves with making the most of oppressive English legislation, to stimulate the people to discontent and rebellion. Ambition was hidden under the burden of taxation which was to make them slaves. Although among the leaders there was great veneration for English tradition and law, the love they professed for England was rather an ideal sentiment than an actual feeling, except among aristocrats and men of rank.

Nor was it natural that the Colonists, especially the Puritans, should cherish much real affection for a country that had persecuted them and driven them away. They felt that not so much Old England as New England was their home, in which new sentiments had been born, and new aspirations had been cultivated. It was very seldom that a colonist visited England at all, and except among the recent comers their English relatives were for the most part unknown. Loyalty to the king was gradually supplanted by devotion to the institutions which they had adopted, or themselves created. In a certain sense they admitted that they were still subject to Great Britain, but one hundred and fifty years of self-government had nearly destroyed this feeling of allegiance, especially when they were aroused to deny the right of the English government to tax them without their own consent.