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Washington and the Birth of the U.S.A.

IN the Seven Years' War England had won Canada from the French (1759). Yet in a few years she lost her own thirteen colonies, which had been growing into manhood since Stuart times.

The immediate cause of the American Revolution was taxation, but the real causes were much deeper. Unlike Spanish and French colonies, the British colonies had always enjoyed much freedom. It is true that the mother-country regulated trade and commerce, but this was accepted in those days as quite natural, though it was felt to be irksome. Again, the King of Britain -- even though he were the obstinate George III -- had to protect his subjects, even though they might live in America, and it seemed to him natural that his subjects overseas, as well as at home, should help to pay for their protection.

To the colonists, however, the French danger seemed past after the victory at Quebec. And when a new but small tax was imposed for their defence against further French attack, they raised the old English cry of "no taxation without representation," though the 3,000 miles of ocean made the latter sound impracticable. It was, however, a new thing for the colonies to be taxed, except by their own assemblies. Disputes, riots, and war followed in quick succession.

"One of the tea ships in Boston harbour was boarded at night, and the tea chests were flung into the Atlantic. That was the mild beginning of the greatest revolution that has ever broken out among civilized men.... The case was found on the ground of the Law of Nature. On that evening of the 16th of December 1773 it became, for the first time, the reigning force in history. By the rules of right, which had been obeyed till then, England had the better cause. By the new principle, England was wrong, and the future belonged to the colonies." (Lord Acton, Lectures on Modern History)

Yet the very idea of independence was abhorrent to the colonies as late as 1776. However, many of the colonists were of sturdy Puritan origin, and they had all the Englishman's love of liberty. A spirit of independence had grown up, unconsciously fostered by their ability to look after themselves and by the liberal "let alone" policy of the English people, who were indeed ignorant of American affairs. "Great empires and little minds go ill together," wrote Burke.

Led by Jefferson, the colonists issued their famous "Declaration of Independence" (1776): "These United States are, and of right ought to be, free and independent" -- and a new nation, the United States of America, was born. One of the greatest of American citizens, George Washington, led the colonists in the war (1776-83). They knew their country; our British and German troops did not. War brought its usual miseries with it. "As the poor soldiers marched to their winter quarters, the route could be traced on the ground by the blood which oozed from bare, frost-bitten feet. For want of blankets, many were fain to sit up all night by fires. Cold and hunger daily added to the sick list, and men died for want of straw to put between them and the frozen ground."

Then, at the most critical stage in the fighting, when Britain had for a moment lost control of the seas, France joined in the struggle, and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown (1781) gave victory to the new nation.

The great Washington found the problems of peace no less difficult than the problems of war, for the different origins and interests of the colonies had made deep divisions between them. How was the new republic to be governed? After long debates, it was decided that while each state should govern itself in local affairs, there should also be a Union of States, with a President and two Houses of Parliament, for matters of common interest -- e.g, the army and navy, the making of war and peace.

Washington himself became the first President and the founder of the modern America. He was descended from a Cavalier who had adhered to the fortunes of Charles I, and then emigrated to Virginia. As a youth he was expert in all athletic exercises, strong and muscular, and used to fatigue. Throughout his period of office he urged union and devotion to public interests without passion or prejudice. He himself was happiest when leading a quiet life at his house at Mount Vernon and looking after his large estates. As a man, he had his faults; but "as the ages roll on, mankind will see nought but the lustre of his virtues and the greatness of his services."

Before he died, a quarrel broke out between two other famous Americans, Hamilton and Jefferson. This led to the formation of the two great political parties which, under different names, have ever since divided the nation.