Revolution in the United States

Revolution, the in 1899 (United States)

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REVOLUTION, The (IN U. S. HISTORY), the name commonly given in the United States to that which is elsewhere called the American revolution, 1775-83.

-I.: UNTIL 1760. The imperial development of the British constitution was for centuries very steady. The first strain upon it came from the conquest of Ireland. Wales and Scotland were tacitly or formally absorbed in the kingdom of Great Britain, in which the parliament had fairly defined rights: Ireland remained a foreign and allied or subject kingdom, in which the British parliament had all the rights which it could succeed in maintaining. The result was the genesis of the idea that the British parliament was in some sense an imperial parliament, with undefined power to legislate for those portions of the empire which were outside of its original jurisdiction.

-English colonization in America brought with it a far more severe strain, for which the British constitution was totally unprepared. A new order of things, the indefinite extension of the empire, was to be provided for; and unfortunately the task of providing for it was assumed by a legislative body whose constituents and members were equally purchasable in open market, and were equally indifferent to any consideration except present interest. To these the grand idea of an imperial parliament, clothed by the lofty patriotism of Burke and Chatham in language well worthy of it, meant only the opportunity to escape part of the burden of present taxation by transferring it to the colonies. They undertook to make an every-day matter of that which Burke and Chatham would have reserved to meet some overmastering emergency; and they lost the colonies.

-The English colonists in America always insisted that they had lost none of their hereditary rights by migrating from the king’s British to the king’s American dominions (see UNITED STATES, I.); and that they were still entitled to the free privileges of free-born Englishmen, which the king’s word had confirmed to their fathers and to them, the right to personal liberty, to private property, and to representation in the taxing body. They acknowledged that distance made it practically impossible for them to be represented in parliament; and they therefore insisted that their taxes must be levied by their own parliaments, the colonial assemblies. Two irreconcilable theories of the constitution were thus gradually developed in Great Britain and in America; and, after 1760, circumstances brought them face to face, and compelled a settlement by force.

-The American Theory. The American theory really made the empire a confederation, the king being the bond of union. In his kingdom of Great Britain the king had certain prerogatives, such as the power to make peace, war and treaties; while parliament alone had the power to grant or withhold supplies and to levy taxes to provide them. In his other kingdoms, Ireland, New York, Massachusetts, or South Carolina, the respective parliaments had just as much power, and the king just the same prerogatives, as in Great Britain. But in each kingdom the jurisdiction of the parliament was territorially limited: the parliament of Great Britain had no more rightful jurisdiction in Ireland or in Massachusetts than the parliaments of Ireland or Massachusetts had in Great Britain. Franklin formulates the theory as follows:

Our kings have ever had dominions not subject to the English parliament. At first the provinces of France, of which Jersey and Guernsey remain, always governed by their own laws, appealing to the king in council only, and not to our courts or the house of lords. Scotland was in the same situation before the union. It had the same king, but a separate parliament, and the parliament of England had no jurisdiction over it. Ireland the same in truth, though the British parliament has usurped a dominion over it. The colonies were originally settled in the idea of such extrinsic dominions of the king, and of the king only. Hanover is now such a dominion.

America is not part of the dominions of England, but of the king’s dominions. England is a dominion itself, and has no dominions.

Their only bond of union is the king.

The British legislature are undoubtedly the only proper judges of what concerns the welfare of that state; the Irish legislature are the proper judges of what concerns the Irish state; and the American legislatures of what concerns the American states respectively.

The Americans felt that the words colony and colonist were themselves misleading, as importing some superiority of privileges in the Englishmen who had remained at home; and they maintained that every charter granted by the king was a compact between him and the people of a new kingdom.

-The British Theory. On the contrary, the whole feeling of Great Britain spoke in Grenville’s pithy statement that colonies are only settlements made in distant parts of the world for the improvement of trade, and that they would be intolerable except on the conditions contained in the acts of navigation.

The colonists, then, did not escape from the jurisdiction of parliament by migrating. Parliament might allow them a temporary latitude of self-government; but its absolute power, though latent, could be called forth at any moment, and the colonists, in the view of the law, were still Englishmen and under control of the British parliament. This theory was maintained on the grounds, 1, that the omnipotence of parliament was not limited by the four seas which [632] bounded Great Britain; but that, by the extension of the empire, parliament had acquired a nobler position as an imperial body, with, as Burke expresses it, a reserved power in the empire to supply any deficiency that may weaken, divide and dissipate the whole; 2, that the colonies were virtually represented in parliament, since each member of that body represented not a particular constituency, but the whole empire and all its interests; 3, that the colonists had no more claim to a more direct representation than Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and other unrepresented cities, but must be content with the constitution as it was, 4, that it was patently unjust that the expensive duty of maintaining fleets and armies for the defense of the whole empire should be imposed upon the imperial parliament without the corresponding right to insure proportional contributions from the parts of the empire; and 5, that the colonists themselves had always acknowledged the right of parliament to levy American customs duties, from which the right to levy internal taxes could not logically be distinguished. This last assertion could not be disputed, and when it was seriously advanced as an argument it put an end to the tacit compromise which will next be considered.

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-Compromise. I will readily be perceived that these two theories were irreconcilable, and that both were equally impracticable. On the American theory it would have required superhuman tact and discretion in the king to avoid constant and ultimately fatal conflicts with his twenty different parliaments; on the British theory, the parliament would have become, under the guise of imperialism, an exasperating instrument of British selfishness. The American Union has solved its similar territorial problem by giving congress the imperial power over the territories, while holding out to the latter the promise of admission to the national government as soon as they shall develop the necessary powers and interests. (See ORDINANCE of 1787, TERRITORIES.) Until 1760 the colonies and the mother country lived under a tacit compromise of a far clumsier sort. The home government made no attempt to assert any power to levy taxes within the limits of the colonies; these were levied by the colonial assemblies, on a requisition, or request, from the king, through one of his secretaries or the governor. The supplies voted were always liberal, and sometimes so lavish that parliament voted to return a part of them. On the other hand, the colonies made no objection to the exercise by parliament of complete control over foreign trade, and in many cases over domestic trade also; and no resistance was made to the abrogation or alteration of the Massachusetts charter in 1685, 1691 and 1724. The navigation act of 1651 confined the colonial export trade to Great Britain in English-built ships; and in 1663 this was extended to the import trade also, so that the colonies could legally trade only to and from Great Britain. (See NAVIGATION LAWS.) In the commercial colonies, however, these laws were felt but little before 1760; smuggling and bribery of custom house officers opened the free foreign trade which the laws forbade. In 1672 duties were imposed on the trade from one colony to another. In 1699 the colonists were prohibited from exporting their wool, yarn or woolen manufactures to any place whatever. In 1719 the house of commons formally condemned all American manufactures as tending to independence. In 1732 the export of American hats was prohibited. In 1750, rolling mills, iron furnaces and forges in the colonies were declared public nuisances, to be suppressed by the governors. At first all these restrictions were submitted to, partly from indifference, as they were not extensively felt, and partly from inability to resist; but for some years after 1760 the right of parliament to impose them was still acknowledged, this being the last point which the colonists were prepared to yield. So late as 1774, congress, in its declaration of rights, cheerfully consented to such parliamentary restrictions on commerce as should be intended in good faith to benefit the whole empire. When it was at last found that this concession was only accepted as a basis for further demands, it was withdrawn, and all the colonists were ready to echo Franklin’s language:

That is a wicked guardian and a shameless one, who first takes advantage of the weakness incident to minority, cheats and imposes on his pupil, and, when the pupil comes of age, urges those very impositions as precedents to justify continuing them and adding others.

This language, though natural, was to a great extent unjust. The fault really lay in that narrow colonial system which was then and long afterward the law of every European nation, and is still a part of the English theory, though it is very seldom enforced in practice.

-II.: 1760-66. The open struggle between the two theories, which began in 1760-63, came from an unlucky combination of causes: the accession of a king who was determined to reign; the influence of the old whig notion of the omnipotence of parliament; the high feeling of a nation flushed with successful foreign war; the increase of the national debt, and the consequent necessity of an increase in the revenue; the increase of wealth in the American colonies; and the comparative meagreness of receipts from that quarter of the empire. The initiation of the struggle was facilitated by the fact that there was practically no denial in Great Britain of the abstract right to tax the colonies. Even when the stamp act was introduced in parliament, the opposition was publicly challenged to make such denial, and not a voice was raised to make it, though many, like Burke, considered it highly impolitic to exercise the right, and wished to restrain the controlling power of parliament to commercial regulations and to cases of supreme necessity. This, indeed, was the original ground of the colonists themselves, but it was a poor barrier to the usurpations of a hungry parliament.

-In 1760 the first effort was made to enforce the navigation act. Instructions were sent to the American custom [633] house officers to spare nothing of the revenue laws, and to obtain from the courts writs of assistance in order to enter houses and stores, and search for goods which had not paid duty or were forbidden to be imported. The first application for such writs was at Salem in November, 1760, and their issue and enforcement at once brought a few radical men, like Otis, to deny parliament’s right to levy the duties. In the great commercial colony, Massachusetts, colonial and loyalist parties were at once formed. The former was headed by James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Oxenbridge Thacher, James Bowdoin (afterward governor), and Thomas Cushing. The latter was headed by Francis Bernard, the governor; Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor, a native and the best historian of Massachusetts, the ablest royalist leader, but unscrupulous in method; Andrew Oliver, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law; Jeremiah Gridley, attorney general; and Timothy Ruggles. Behind these stood the great mass of royal officeholders in the colonies; much of the subsequent action of the ministries must be attributed to their persistent advice to establish a regular army in the colonies, and tax the colonies for its support.

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-Feb. 23, 1763, Charles Townshend became first lord of trade, with the administration of the colonies, and he inaugurated, with the support of the ministry, the new system of colonial government. It was announced by authority that there were to be no more requisitions from the king to the colonial assemblies for supplies, but that the colonies were to be taxed by act of parliament. Colonial governors and judges were to be paid by the crown; they were to be supported by a standing army of twenty regiments; and all the expenses of this force were to be paid by parliamentary taxation. It is unnecessary to follow all the windings of British politics for the next few years: the above programme was the chart of all the ministries, which each followed as closely as it dared. Gov. Hutchinson tells us that the American use of the terms whig and tory dates from this step. (See AMERICAN WHIGS.)

-In March the naval officers on the American coast were given the duties and fees of custom house officers, in order to enforce the navigation acts. In April the head of the ministry, Bute, retired, and George Grenville took his place under pledge to the programme above. May 5, the lords of trade were requested to sketch for the ministry a safe and easy method of parliamentary taxation of the colonies, but Shelburne, the head of the board of trade, declined to commit himself to any plan. Sept. 23, by direction of Grenville and North, the first secretary of the treasury (Jenkinson) wrote to the commissioners of stamp duties to draft a bill for extending the stamp duties to the colonies. Close investigation has failed to fix the real authorship of the stamp act, but the responsibility for it rests most probably on Jenkinson. March 9, 1764, Grenville announced that he intended to introduce the stamp act at the next session; and in the meantime he suggested to the colonial agents in London that their assemblies should formally approve it, in order to make a precedent for their being consulted in future taxation, or that they should propose some more palatable mode of parliamentary taxation. But the principle was carefully asserted: a bill of April 5 purported, for the first time, to grant duties in the colonies and plantations of America.

-The stamp duty was not objected to in itself: it was a convenient mode of making a tax collect itself, and for that reason was employed in 1759 by the Massachusetts assembly, and in subsequent years by the new federal government. The objection lay wholly to parliament’s power to tax, which was thus forced into the foreground of discussion. In June the Massachusetts assembly sent a circular letter asking the united assistance of the other colonies; and during the year nearly all the colonial assemblies petitioned against the new scheme. But the idea of forcible resistance does not seem to have occurred to the king, to the ministry, to parliament, to the colonial agents, or to the colonial assemblies. All believed that the tax would execute itself. The act was framed, imposing stamp duties on legal documents, marriage licenses, and publications of every description, and making offenses against it cognizable in the admiralty courts, without a jury. Petitions against it were refused a hearing, on account of an ancient and convenient rule forbidding the reception of petitions against a money bill. The bill was passed with hardly any opposition in either house; the king was by this time a lunatic, and his signature was attached by a commission; and with this evil augury the stamp act became law, March 22, 1765. With it went a suggestive act to authorize the quartering of troops in the colonies, and to require the assemblies to furnish them with subsistence.

-The first answer came from the Virginia assembly, which adopted a series of resolutions offered by Patrick Henry, May 30. These declared that the colony had never forfeited and had always enjoyed the right to be taxed by their own representatives; but the assembly rejected two further resolutions, declaring that the people of the colony were not bound to obey the stamp act, and that he who should obey it would be an enemy to the colony. June 8, the Massachusetts assembly took the more important step of calling a congress of all the colonies. (See STAMP ACT CONGRESS.) Through the summer the resistance took the form of an inchoate revolution. Associations, the Sons of Liberty, were formed; stamp agents were compelled to resign, either by ostracism, or, in some few cases, by actual violence; and the inflammatory resolutions of public meetings were steadily carrying the assemblies to the point of resistance. Nov. 1, 1765, was the day fixed for the operations of the act to begin; but there were by that time neither stamps nor stamp agents in the colonies, and the judges, like the merchants, were compelled to ignore the absence of stamps upon documents. Hutchinson wrote home that the people were absolutely without the use of reason.

[634] -In the meantime the opponents of the policy of taxing the colonies had come into power, under the Rockingham ministry, in July, 1765. Their first design was not to repeal, but to modify the act, and make it more acceptable. But when parliament met, its right to tax the colonies was at last denied by some of its own members, though even these still asserted its power to lay duties and regulate trade. Said Pitt:

In an American tax, what do we do? We, your majesty’s commons of Great Britain, give and grant to your majesty-what? Our own property? No! We give and grant to your majesty the property of your majesty’s commons in America. It is an absurdity in terms; and he rejoiced that America had resisted.

The majority, however, followed the ministerial programme. The reception of the petitions of the American congress was evaded. A declaratory house resolution was passed, Feb. 10, 1766, by almost unanimous vote, that the king, with the advice and consent of parliament, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.

This was followed up by four others: that there had been tumults and insurrections in the colonies; that these had been encouraged by the colonial assemblies; that the assemblies must make recompense for property destroyed; and that the house would sustain the lawful authority of the crown and the rights of parliament, and would favor and protect the loyal people of the colonies. Under cover of this hot fire of resolutions the stamp act was repealed, March 18. The repeal was wholly on the ground of policy, and was accompanied by a declaratory act in two clauses: 1, containing the first resolution above named; and 2, declaring null and void the votes and resolutions of the colonial assemblies in regard to taxation. One of the most valuable incidents in the repeal was the examination of Franklin before the house of commons, Feb. 13. The questions put to him numbered 174; and his answers sum up calmly, but fully, the American theory of the connection between Great Britain and the colonies, and the compromise to which the Americans were willing to agree.

-III.: 1766-70. Hutchinson dates the revolt of the colonies from the repeal of the stamp act. As soon as the rejoicings over that event had subsided, premonitory symptoms of trouble again began to appear. The Massachusetts assembly refused to make recompense for the losses in the riots without an accompanying bill of indemnity. Other assemblies refused to comply with the act of 1765 for billeting and subsisting the army. In November, 1766, the first declaration that parliament had no right to legislate for the colonies was made in the Massachusetts assembly; and there was a growing party everywhere which held to the advanced doctrine of no legislation without representation.

And all this time political events in Great Britain were tending against the colonies. In July, 1766, Chatham had formed a ministry composed mainly of friends of America; but Chatham’s continued illness was steadily throwing the real leadership into the hands of the chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend. His political creed he summed up as follows:

I would govern the Americans as subjects of Great Britain. These our children, must not make themselves our allies in time of war, and our rivals in peace.

In March, 1767, Chatham really, though not formally, retired from public affairs, and Townshend was master of the situation. He made use now of the parliamentary control over commerce, which colonial assemblies had so often expressly acknowledged: and in July a bill was passed granting duties in America on glass, lead, paints, paper and tea. But the insidiously perilous feature of the act was, that the proceeds were to go into the exchequer, and were to be distributed at the king’s pleasure in paying the salaries of governors, judges, and other civil officers. These would thus be, as they had never been before, completely independent of the American assemblies, and not only able but willing to make political war upon them. By other acts, writs of assistance were legalized, and the New York assembly was suspended altogether, until it should obey the billeting act. In September, Townshend died but his mantle fell on Lord North, his successor.

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-It was difficult, at first, to find any means of opposition to the new revenue laws. Isolated agreements were indeed made by the people of various districts, to abstain from the use of any of the articles taxed, but these depending on the persistence of individuals, were no safe reliance. Jan. 12, 1768, the Massachusetts assembly formally protested against the new system; and Feb. 11, it sent a circular letter to the other colonies, asking advice. April 21, the colonial office sent a mandate to each of the governors to prorogue the assembly of his colony rather than allow the circular letter to be discussed. To Massachusetts further orders were sent to prorogue the assembly if it should not recant the letter, and to continue the process indefinitely until submission should be made; and in June this penalty was enforced. June 8, four regiments under Gage were ordered to Boston permanently; five vessels took possession of the harbor; and the fort was repaired and occupied. Every petty disturbance, every expression of popular indignation, had been magnified and distorted by colonial officers, until the ministry really believed a rebellion imminent, and took this sure means to provoke it. Even then, it required seven years’ wrangling to break the bond of union.

-Massachusetts, however, was now very close to rebellion. Her assembly, like that of several other colonies, had been dissolved; and a convention of town delegates met, Sept. 22, protested against the revenue laws, and petitioned the king.

I doubt whether they have been guilty of an overt act of treason, said the British attorney general, but I am sure they have come within a hair’s breadth of it.

In February, 1769, parliament [635] requested the king to have the ring-leaders in Massachusetts sent to England to be tried for treason, under an old statute of Henry VIII. One step further, an attempt to arrest for that purpose, and the rebellion would have begun; but the step was not taken. Nevertheless the troops were left in Boston, a firebrand near a powder magazine; and the next six years are one long record of bickerings between the townspeople and the military, arrests of soldiers for violations of town laws, indictments of officers, even of the commander-in-chief, for slandering the town of Boston, and similar legal proceedings, blotted by the Boston massacre of March 5, 1770, in which five lives were lost.

-The whole of the year 1769 was taken up by the full development of the colonial claim of rights. The Virginia assembly, May 16, passed a series of resolutions, declaring its right of taxation, of petition, and of concurrence with other colonies, and the right of its people to a trial by a jury of the vicinage; and these, for which the assembly was dissolved, were copied by other assemblies, and the fault met the same punishment. The Massachusetts assembly absolutely refused to make provision for the troops, and was, for that reason, dissolved. Whenever an assembly was dissolved, its members at once formed a non-importation league, so that the agreement not to use taxed articles had become much more general than was to be expected. It was effective enough to extort from the ministry a circular letter, in May, 1769, promising to impose no more such duties, and to abandon all those already imposed, except that of three pence per pound on tea, which yielded about $1,500 per annum of revenue. The repeal, in these terms and to this extent, was formally enacted, April 12, 1770. But there remained the preamble, the declaration of the right and expediency of taxation of the colonies by parliament. This was still to be resisted; and the revolution, as Webster afterward remarked, was fought upon this preamble. The only result of the repeal was the dissolution of the non-importation associations, and the renewal of trade with Great Britain, except in the matter of tea.

-IV.: 1770-83. The first few years of this period are mainly occupied by apparent efforts on the part of the king and the ministry to put the colonists so far in the wrong as to excuse the use of force. The struggle against the carefully guarded and almost pedantically legal methods of the colonies was growing vexatious. In July and September, 1770, the king made preparations to declare martial law in Massachusetts, filled Boston harbor with war vessels, and even seized the castle guarding the harbor, though this had been built by the colony, and the control of it was reserved to the governor by the charter. Still the colonists avoided any open provocation, and there was no fighting except in North Carolina, where the governor, Tryon, provoked and suppressed an insurrection, and in Rhode Island, where the Gasper, a revenue cutter, was burned, June 9, 1772, by a boat party from the shore, after she had run aground. The whole period was marked by exasperating legal battles between the governors, under royal instructions, and the various assemblies. In most of the colonies the upper house, or council, was selected by the lower house, with a power of veto by the governor. Whenever persons were selected who had taken part against the parliament, their nominations were vetoed, and the war of retaliation, thus begun, kept the continent in a ferment. In Massachusetts the higher step was taken of paying the salaries of the governor and principal officials directly from the royal treasury, thus not only violating the charter by making them independent of the colony, but provoking a conflict, for it should have been evident that the assembly would never recognize or act with a governor or judges salaried by the crown. This step, like others equally ruinous, was the fruit of constant pressure by the office-holders in America. In December, 1772, Franklin obtained and sent from London to the assembly the treacherous letters of Massachusetts officers, advising these coercive measures, and these did much to undermine all public confidence in the royal civil service. Every one lived in an atmosphere of distrust, more destructive to loyalty than the open excitement produced by the stamp act.

-Nov. 2, 1772, in Boston town meeting, Samuel Adams obtained the appointment of a committee of correspondence with other towns. This was the real opening of the revolution, the installation of the first of those revolutionary bodies which within three years had practically superseded the legitimate governments in the conduct of the struggle. (See NOMINATING CONVENTIONS.) Other towns followed the example; and Virginia laid the basis of the Union, March 12, 1773, by appointing a committee of correspondence with the other colonies.

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-All this time the tax on tea had been collected, though it had shrunk to $400 per year. In April, 1773, the East India company applied for permission to export free of duty the ruinously large stock of tea which it had accumulated. This offered a fair opportunity to settle discontent, but Lord North induced parliament to vote the company a drawback of the duties, the repayment of the duties, after May 10, to the company after collection. The duties would thus be collected, the principle maintained, and yet the price of the tea would not be increased. After all, the meanness of this evasion, and of the trap which it attempted to set, seems to have had much to do with the result. It early led to the appointment of revolutionary committees by other colonies, and thus to a union antecedent to the meeting of congress. Consignments of tea were sent to Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. At Charleston it was stored in damp cellars, and destroyed; at Philadelphia and New York the ships were forced to return; but at Boston the officers would not permit the ships to return without discharging. Dec. 16, the revolutionary committee took further discussion out of the hands of the town meeting, sent a body of men, and threw [636] the tea into the harbor.

-Boston at once became the focus of interest. It had placed itself in the forefront of resistance, and behind it were the revolutionary committees of all the thirteen colonies. Its conduct was noticed severely in the king’s speech, March 7, 1774; and on the 31st the Boston port bill became law. It forbade the landing or shipping of goods in Boston after June 1, until the owners of the tea should be recompensed, and the king should be satisfied of the town’s future obedience. Lord North also declared in debate that the act would be enforced by the use of the army and navy. Salem was made the capital of the colony, and Marblehead a port of entry. Gage, the commander in-chief for North America, was made civil governor of Massachusetts, with instructions to bring the ring-leaders to punishment.

-The Boston port bill was followed. May 20, by a bill for the government of Massachusetts, which abrogated a large part of the charter. It took away the choice of the council by the lower house; forbade town meetings, except for elections or on the governor’s permission; and gave the appointment of sheriffs to the governor, and the selection of juries to the sheriffs. This might have been fairly termed a bill to transfer the de facto government of Massachusetts to revolutionary committees. With it went a supplementary act for the impartial administration of justice in Massachusetts by transferring to Nova Scotia or Great Britain the trial of officers or soldiers indicted for murder. Another act legalized the quartering of sold

Revolution. in 1899 (United States)

The following information about Revolution. is from the Cyclopaedia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers.

REVOLUTION. The word revolution is, in its political signification, so peculiar to the French language, that other languages adopt it without any modification, in default of being able to find a suitable equivalent. The Latin term, which it reproduces phonetically, has never had the same meaning; and the course of things subject to an order of successive changes, as the revolution of the stars, implies a regularity and a kind of predisposition which do not appear to be a necessary condition of political revolutions. The latter, or the changes which take place in public affairs, differ considerably in importance, in extent and in duration, as in their form, their object and their result; but they have generally the characteristic of carrying a certain disturbance into the established order of things, and in our day this disturbance has become a trait sufficiently prominent and grave, for the name of revolution to be applied almost exclusively to political changes in which violence has played a part.

-We must then almost always, in speaking of revolutions, make a distinction between the times preceding and following the French revolution. Before that event, which has become, so to speak, the type with which all others called by the same name are compared, people understood indistinctively by revolutions, either accidental and partial changes in the course of affairs, which all more especially depend on the will of individuals, or the profound and general changes which are brought about by time and the inclinations of the public, and which resemble the dénouement or at least the catastrophe of a long drama, in which neither incidents nor characters have been lacking. It is in the former sense that Montesquieu speaks when he says:

Revolutions occur every ten years in France.

He evidently designates by these words the capricious changes caused by individual influences and temporary embarrassment in a government in which neither institutions nor characters have any stability. These frequent changes are more particularly met with in absolute monarchies and pure democracies. Montesquieu adopted the second meaning, and expressed a different thought, when he wrote these lines:

Many centuries are sometimes necessary to pave the way for changes. Events ripen, and lo! the revolution breaks forth. Such are the revolutions of empires upon which great minds love to meditate, and which are the principal subject of the political part of Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History.

When we consider them methodically, connecting them with each other, we cause to enter into the general idea of a revolution the idea of a certain order which popular language seems to exclude from it. However contingent may be the events in which human activity plays the chief part, there are in nature and in the destiny of man general causes, unceasingly renewed, which in the long run, [630] combine to produce general effects susceptible of being foreseen in their aggregate, or at least of being explained by the sagacity of the statesman, of the publicist and of the historian; and these real facts appear, after they have been accomplished, impressed with a stamp of a relative necessity which is nothing but the force of things, that is to say, the natural bond between causes and their effects. But among these causes it must never be forgotten that the principal one, on this earth of ours, will always be that free cause called man.

-But it is hard to give a date in history to revolutions as thus understood. For their origin is in the depths of the past, and in this sense one might say that they are always preparing and never finished, However, a distinction has been made, and rightly so, between the, so to speak, perpetual revolution which is the slow work of ages, and the distinct manifestations, the special crises which occur in the history of peoples, and which attest in a palpable manner the work of time and the condition to which the course of ages carries powers, laws and customs, or minds and things. Then, events having ripened, some incident, a personal mistake, a fortuitous fancy, a profound scheme, in short, a determination of the will of individuals or of the masses, provokes a serious change in the state which concerns either the government or society, and transforms one or the other in a lasting manner. It was outbursts of this kind which men have in mind when they speak of the Dutch, English or American revolution. These names designate various limited series of facts sufficiently connected with each other easily to form a harmony, and which can be connected with direct causes, the date of which is assignable. We can scarcely conceive of this sort of revolution without the intervention of force, acting outside the law. The news so often received in our time of a revolution accomplished at a given moment upon a point of the inhabited globe, suggests immediately the idea of a more or less rapid change, effected either in the government, or in society, and in which violence, or the threat of it, has not been wanting, The same change, lawfully effected, would be called a reform.

-It is this intervention of force, almost inevitable in a trial of this kind, this character of illegality and violence, which makes all revolution a very grave matter for both the conscience and the reason. Even when arising from serious causes, a revolution is always a formidable and extreme measure, which should be neither lightly undertaken, easily accepted, nor blindly amnestied, no matter what the object of it, were it even the restoration of order or that of liberty. These coups d’état, even when the work of a nation, are, in internal politics, what war is in international law; and the citizens or the powers who hazard a revolution without necessity or justice, incur the same responsibility as the authors of a war which is neither just nor necessary. Independently, then, of the lawfulness of the end, the first and absolute condition of every political undertaking, the use of force, constitutes the dubious point in all questions of war or of revolution. The nature, the duration, the intensity, the success of a means odious in itself and only exceptionally licit, should be well weighed before solving the problem which is imposed upon whomsoever intends to decide the fate of men by arms.

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-The part played by force in all revolutions has made its name suspicious to a large number of upright and dispassionate minds, of whose scruples and weaknesses parties and powers often take advantage. It is thus that a certain school has striven to use this abstract expression of revolution in a bad sense. We often read that such or such a cause, such or such an enterprise, would succeed if revolution does not meddle with it. This designedly equivocal form of speech tends to decry with good citizens a certain aggregate of ideas and sentiments which brought about the liberal revolutions of which this age has afforded so many examples. At bottom it is intended, under the name of revolution to proscribe the so-called principles of 1789, that is to say, of the revolution of July 14th, in France. This language is a mask which must be torn away. If, on the contrary, the only object be to put people on their guard against violence in the passions and the acts which is too frequently the accompaniment and the ruin of revolutions, it is not these latter principles which are to be condemned en masse, but the revolutionary spirit. This last epithet, invented by the English and the Americans, and which is used among them in a neutral sense as the adjective of the noun revolution, has, with the French, hardly any but an odious sense. The revolutionary spirit may thus continue to be understood as a spirit which seeks revolutions without scruple, without measure and without choice. As the dictatorial spirit differs from the governmental spirit, and the soldierly spirit from the warlike, so should the liberal spirit be distinguished from the revolutionary spirit. The first dreads revolutions, labors to avoid them, and has recourse to them only in the last extremity; the second seeks them, paves the way for them; it commences with them, and offers to itself as an end what is only a last resort. These distinctions, always ignored, should be always insisted on and constantly called to mind. Thus, in political history, we must distinguish the revolution of the ages, or that long life of humanity, sown with innumerable events which conduct it, as it were, from station to station toward an unknown goal; then, the changes in the divisions of universal society, or in the civil and moral constitution of special political societies, changes which are brought about in the course of centuries, and which are called revolutions; then again we must distinguish those revolutions which are but the crises of the chronic condition which gives a new aspect to affairs, or those abrupt changes, the work of an accidental will or of a fortuitous circumstance. In short, for nearly ninety years, since the era opened by the French revolution, [631] the word revolution designates more especially such of these reformatory changes as have for their object the progress of liberty and equality. The reactions of which they are often the cause are revolutions in an inverse sense, and are often, for this reason, called counter-revolutions. A revolution lawful in its aim, just in its principles, moderate in its acts, happy in its results, and durable in its work, is the political ideal which the nineteenth century seems to be pursuing.

Author of this text: Charles De Rémusat.

The Situation in 1774 (the Period of the Revolution, from 1774)

In the book “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870” (1), W. E. B. Du Bois explained the following: In the individual efforts of the various colonies to suppress the African slave-trade there may be traced certain general movements. First, from 1638 to 1664, there was a tendency to take a high moral stand against the traffic. This is illustrated in the laws of New England, in the plans for the settlement of Delaware and, later, that of Georgia, and in the protest of the German Friends. The second period, from about 1664 to 1760, has no general unity, but is marked by statutes laying duties varying in design from encouragement to absolute prohibition, by some cases of moral opposition, and by the slow but steady growth of a spirit unfavorable to the long continuance of the trade. The last colonial period, from about 1760 to 1787, is one of pronounced effort to regulate, limit, or totally prohibit the traffic. Beside these general movements, there are many waves of legislation, easily distinguishable, which rolled over several or all of the colonies at various times, such as the series of high duties following the Assiento, and the acts inspired by various Negro “plots.”

Notwithstanding this, the laws of the colonies before 1774 had no national unity, the peculiar circumstances of each colony determining its legislation. With the outbreak of the Revolution came unison in action with regard to the slave-trade, as with regard to other matters, which may justly be called national. It was, of course, a critical period,—a period when, in the rapid upheaval of a few years, the complicated and diverse forces of decades meet, combine, act, and react, until 46the resultant seems almost the work of chance. In the settlement of the fate of slavery and the slave-trade, however, the real crisis came in the calm that succeeded the storm, in that day when, in the opinion of most men, the question seemed already settled. And indeed it needed an exceptionally clear and discerning mind, in 1787, to deny that slavery and the slave-trade in the United States of America were doomed to early annihilation. It seemed certainly a legitimate deduction from the history of the preceding century to conclude that, as the system had risen, flourished, and fallen in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania, and as South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland were apparently following in the same legislative path, the next generation would in all probability witness the last throes of the system on our soil.

To be sure, the problem had its uncertain quantities. The motives of the law-makers in South Carolina and Pennsylvania were dangerously different; the century of industrial expansion was slowly dawning and awakening that vast economic revolution in which American slavery was to play so prominent and fatal a rôle; and, finally, there were already in the South faint signs of a changing moral attitude toward slavery, which would no longer regard the system as a temporary makeshift, but rather as a permanent though perhaps unfortunate necessity. With regard to the slave-trade, however, there appeared to be substantial unity of opinion; and there were, in 1787, few things to indicate that a cargo of five hundred African slaves would openly be landed in Georgia in 1860.


Notes and References

  1. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870” (1893), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

See Also

Further Reading

  • Jeffrey R. Brackett. The Status of the Slave, 1775–1789. (Essay V. in Jameson’s Essays in the Constitutional History of the United States, 1775–89. Boston, 1889.)
  • George Lawrence. An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade … Jan. 1, 1813. New York, 1813.
  • Paul Leicester Ford. Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, published during its Discussion by the People, 1787–8. (With Bibliography, etc.) Brooklyn, 1888.
  • A Short Account of that part of Africa Inhabited by the Negroes, … and the Manner by which the Slave Trade is carried on. Third edition. London, 1768.
  • Moncure D. Conway. Omitted Chapters of History disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph, etc. New York and London, 1888.
  • John Pennington, Lord Muncaster. Historical Sketches of the Slave Trade and its effect on Africa, addressed to the People of Great Britain. London, 1792.
  • Daniel R. Goodloe. The Birth of the Republic. Chicago, [1889.]
  • William B. Weeden. Economic and Social History of New England, 1620–1789. 2 vols. Boston, 1890.

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