George Washington - Ada Russell

The Ancestors

Before beginning our story of the eighteenth century and its great movements, which will centre in our hero George Washington, we must go briefly over the history of the rise and growth of the British colonies in North America,—to what President Wilson has called the "swarming of the English."

The thirteenth century A.D. saw the beginnings of that rich eastern commerce which was the dream and prize of the medieval merchant and made cities like Venice and Genoa so great and prosperous; but hardly had the riches of the Orient begun to pour into Europe than the growing power of the Turks made the land routes to Asia almost impracticable. However, the invention of the mariners' compass in the fourteenth century made long sea-voyages possible, and the idea became stronger and stronger that Asia could be reached by sea.

As only a few of the most enlightened people seriously entertained the notion that the earth was spherical in form, the first schemes were directed to the possible route round Africa, for although no one knew the extent of Africa to the south there was a very strong belief that it came to an end somewhere.

Prince Henry "the Navigator" of Portugal, therefore, an illustrious prince whose knowledge and enterprise raised Portugal to a leading position in the scientific world, gathered together experienced mariners, founded a naval college and an observatory, and fitted out expeditions for exploring the African coast.

All sailors with dreams of adventure and all sea-captains who desired to share in the profitable trade with Asia, wandered to Lisbon, and thither came among the rest the famous Genoese mariner, Christopher Columbus, the ancestor of American civilisation.

Prince Henry the Navigator unfortunately never saw the reward of his toil and faith, dying in 1473, before the great discoveries, for not until 1487 did Bartholomew Diaz round the Cape of Good Hope, and so find the long-hoped-for path to Asia by the eastern seas, and not until 1492 did Columbus set sail for the West.

Columbus had no idea of following in the steps of the Portuguese pioneers. Devoted all his life to the study of geography, in the intervals of his seafaring he read ancient Greek geographical writers and became inspired with the belief that to him Providence had reserved the greatest of all geographical discoveries, the proof of the sphericity of the globe; and if the earth were indeed spherical in shape he believed that by sailing west he must necessarily reach Asia, for that another great continent lay between Europe and Asia did not even enter his head. Now that Prince Henry was dead be could expect no help from the Portuguese sovereign, and he tried in turn all the kings of Europe, and at last obtained the assistance of the Spanish crown. He set sail therefore on 3rd August, 1492, and on 11th October landed on the Bahamas, which he named the West Indies. His discovery aroused eager enthusiasm in Spain, who was not slow to follow up her fortunate enterprise, and within twenty-seven years from his first departure from Spain the eastern shores of South and Central America had been explored by Spaniards, nearly to the southern tip of the continent.

Spain founded a mighty empire in Central and Southern America, and she was such a powerful nation that it seemed to all men a miracle when England was able to maintain her independence against her in the sixteenth century. It was indeed almost an impertinence for England to oppose her power, but from the time England became a Protestant country she hated Spain bitterly, and she resented her monopoly of the New World, whither English mariners were longing to sail treasure-hunting and adventure-seeking. A little crew of Bristol sailors planted the English flag in Newfoundland in 1497, but there was no public interest in this colony, and Canada for the moment passed to the French, who also colonised Louisiana, to the south. It was necessary for England to make haste if she was to obtain any part in the rich heritage which had fallen so unexpectedly to the old countries of Europe.

So one hundred years after Columbus attempted to put into execution his dreams, Frobisher set out on the same errand. He was followed by the famous unfortunate hero Sir Humphrey Gilbert, and to fight Spain and found American colonies was the twin ambition of all Elizabethan sailors. The soldier-poet Sir Walter Raleigh was haunted by these ambitions and he projected the plantation on the Atlantic seaboard which was called "Virginia" after the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, and consolidated under James I. Virginia, the home of Washington and many another of America's future statesmen, was thus the first of the English colonies, and it always had different traditions from the States that were founded subsequently. It had, strangely enough, no traditions of revolt, religious or political, and as it was afterward to lead the others in rebellion, so now it led them in politeness and the arts, in obedience to the Mother Country and the Established Church and Crown.

Then came various installments of religious refugees. When the Stuarts came to the throne of England in 1603 they found that bodies of all shades and shapes of religious opinion were hoping for their acceptance and support, and only waiting until stern Elizabeth, who suppressed both Roman Catholics and Non-conformists, should have died. To their dismay, James I continued the policy of Queen Elizabeth. He had learned in Scotland to dislike the Presbyterians, who had little respect for royalty—they called him "God's silly vassal"—and he used to say "No bishop, no King." So when the Pilgrim Fathers, who had fled from the Elizabethan regime to Holland, found that conditions were not improved under James, they set sail in the Mayflower  for the New World. "We are well weaned from the delicate milk of the mother country," wrote one of their ministers, "and inured to the difficulties of a strange land. The people are industrious and frugal. We are knit together as a body in a most sacred covenant of the Lord, of the violation whereof we make great conscience, and by virtue whereof we hold ourselves strictly tied to all care of each other's good and of the whole." They landed in 1620 on the coast of Massachusetts, and soon the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, and later New Hampshire and Maine, represented "New England." As the Lincolnshire Boston had helped to fit out one of these Puritan emigrations, the name of Boston was given to that famous New England town, the capital of Massachusetts.

James I disliked the Roman Catholics less than the Puritans, and so he very readily granted to a Catholic nobleman, Lord Baltimore, the permission to found a Roman Catholic colony in America. Charles I granted it a royal charter and it was incorporated under the name of Maryland, after Queen Henrietta Maria. Here religious liberty first flourished, for in English colonies Roman Catholics dared not persecute Protestants, and the State religion being Roman Catholic, Protestants could not persecute Roman Catholics.

You will all have heard of the "Laudian persecution" in the Church of England at home. Under the influence of Laud and with the approbation of Charles I, the Church of England drew immeasurably away from Puritanism. Ritual and ceremony, moot points for so long after the Reformation and throughout the sixteenth century, were enforced rigorously, and Puritan usages, including the strict observance of the Sabbath Day and the marriage of priests, were discouraged. The immediate consequence was the emigration of thousands of Puritans to the New World.

Thus, long before the new ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity came over to America from France, there was a set of colonies founded by people who had given up home and kith and kin for the sake of freedom of faith, people who were willing to give up life itself for their idea of duty and what they conceived were their rights.

In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the English colonies were added to by the Dutch wars. Between Maryland and New England there was a Swedish colony which subsequently became Dutch, with a capital—New Amsterdam. By the treaty with Holland which Charles II made, this colony was handed over to Britain and New Amsterdam received the title of the King's brother, the Duke of York, being called New York. Delaware was ceded by the Dutch at the same time, and Britain also made good her claim to the small colony of New Jersey. New York, like Virginia, had no peculiar religious traditions, and her history, like that of Virginia, always shows this.

A further Puritan colony was that of Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn especially for Quakers (but granting religious toleration to all), under James II; and in the same reign the colony of Carolina, called after Charles II, who had granted its charter, was established to the South of Virginia. Carolina obtained its population chiefly from emigrations from Ireland of Ulster men, and to these emigrations the population of Georgia, to the west, was also chiefly due; and so two States sprang up in the South quite different from the Virginian type, now the old aristocracy of the colonies. These colonies thus came to occupy a large, compact stretch of territory on the Atlantic coast, stretching for over 1,000 miles between Spanish Florida on the South and French Canada on the North. They prospered in the most marvellous fashion, and in the middle of the century following that of their formation Burke said they seemed to him:

"Rather ancient nations grown to perfection through a long series of fortunate events and a train of successful industry, accumulating wealth in many centuries, than the colonies of yesterday; than a set of miserable outcasts, a few years ago, not so much sent as thrown out on the bleak and desert shore of a barren wilderness, three thousand miles from all civilised intercourse."

Talking of one Lord Bathurst, he was, says Burke, in 1704 of an age to be made to comprehend such things, and "Suppose . . . that the angel of this auspicious youth, foreseeing the many virtues which made him one of the most amiable, as he is one of the most fortunate men of his age, had opened to him in vision that when, in the fourth generation, the third prince of the House of Brunswick had sat twelve years on the throne of that nation, which . . . was to be made Great Britain, he should see his son, Lord Chancellor of England, turn back the current of hereditary dignity to its fountain, and raise him to a higher rank of peerage, whilst he enriched the family with a new one. If amidst these bright and happy scenes of domestic honour and prosperity, that angel should have drawn up the curtain and unfolded the rising glories of his country and, whilst he was gazing with admiration on the then commercial grandeur of England, the genius should point out to him a little speck scarce visible in the mass of the national interest . . . and should tell him: 'Young man, there is America,' which at this day serves for little more than to amuse you with stories of savage men and uncouth manners; yet shall, before you taste of death, show itself equal to the whole of that commerce which now attracts the envy of the world!"

In the warm regions of the South, cotton and tobacco were grown, largely by slave labour. These, by the "Navigation Laws," might only be exported to British possessions and constituted the chief part of the commercial riches of Britain. The raw cotton exported to Lancashire inaugurated the commercial greatness of that county and so exercised an important influence on English life then and ever afterward. To work the tobacco and cotton plantations of the South, slaves were imported in large numbers and a slave trade, common to both North and South, developed and became almost a rival to tobacco and cotton as a mercantile item. The new ideas of the rights of man made people examine their consciences, and a very strong minority began to look upon slavery as a social evil; but profit and conscience had a hard struggle and for a long time profit won the day. Carrying slaves and the products of the Southern plantations, a brisk transport business sprang up in New England, but for the most part agriculture and cattle-rearing were the staple industries of the Northern colonies.

Each colony was governed after the fashion at Home, by three Estates—Governor, representing the King; senators; and a popular element in the House of Burgesses. Where the Governor, as often happened, bad great ideas of the royal prerogative and his own dignity, he often, before there was any idea of revolt from England at large, got across the House of Burgesses and even the local Senates. The Board of Trade at Home received by almost every mail from some of the colonies reams of complaints by the Governor of the impertinence to which he was subjected and reams of representations from the colonists against the conduct of the Governor. It is impossible not to feel on reading these papers, still unpublished in the archives of the Public Record Office, that long before the American Revolution, American Pyms and Hampdens were collecting their arguments, polishing their grievances and fretting at their subjection to institutions entirely alien to their inherent tastes and trend of mind.

As a social institution, the Governor was well-liked in an aristocratic State like Virginia, where social life in the eighteenth century resembled very much that of England at the same period. He made a centre for polite life, and his position made a hierarchy of social precedence possible. The carriages of the local gentry, like the Lees and Washingtons, with liveried servants in the English manner, would drive into Williamsburg or Annapolis (in Maryland) of a winter evening, and ladies in enormous crinolines and tower-like head-dresses would step out on to the red carpet and trip up the steps of big houses under an awning, while the sounds of a gay band would issue; and the gentlemen in knee-breeches, silken hose, silver-buckled shoon, gaily coloured coats, frilled ruffles and powdered wigs, would hand them out of their carriages and lead them to the ballroom and dance with them the stately minuet, even as their brothers and cousins at Home were doing in London, Bath or Wells.

But there was very little of such aristocratic life in the colonies. Indeed, it was confined to the big planter colonies and to large towns like New York. Elsewhere, the Governor conflicted with popular institutions and tastes, as representative of class distinctions and privileges of birth and rank that the New World was already conscious of a wish to abolish.