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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

In May the second Continental Congress met


character and progress of that battle will best be grasped if we mark down certain decisive incidents which determine its course. The first of these was the celebrated "Boston Tea Party" referred to above. It was the first act of overt resistance, and it was followed on the English side by the first dispatch of an armed force--grossly inadequate for its purpose--to America, and on the American by the rapid arming and drilling of the local militias not yet avowedly against the Crown, but obviously with the ultimate intention of resisting the royal authority should it be pushed too far.

The next turning-point is the decision of the British Government early in 1774 to revoke the Charter of Massachusetts. It is the chief event of the period during which war is preparing, and it leads directly to all that follows. For it raised a new controversy which could not be resolved by the old legal arguments, good or bad. Hitherto the colonists had relied upon their interpretation of existing charters, while the Government contented itself with putting forward a different interpretation. But the new action of that Government shifted the ground of debate from the question of the interpretation of the charters to that of the ultimate source of their authority. The Ministers said in effect, "You pretend that this document concedes to you the right of immunity from taxation. We deny it: but at any rate, it was a free gift from the British Crown, and whatever rights

you enjoy under it you enjoy during His Majesty's pleasure. Since you insist on misinterpreting it, we will withdraw it, as we are perfectly entitled to do, and we will grant you a new charter about the terms of which no such doubts can arise."

It was a very direct and very fundamental challenge, and it inevitably produced two effects--the one immediate, the other somewhat deferred. Its practical first-fruit was the Continental Congress. Its ultimate but unmistakably logical consequence was the Declaration of Independence.

America was unified on the instant, for every colony felt the knife at its throat. In September a Congress met, attended by the representatives of eleven colonies. Peyton Randolph, presiding, struck the note of the moment with a phrase: "I am not a Virginian, but an American." Under Virginian leadership the Congress vigorously backed Massachusetts, and in October a "Declaration of Colonial Right" had been issued by the authority of all the colonies represented there.

The British Ministers seem to have been incomprehensibly blind to the seriousness of the situation. Since they were pledged not to concede what the colonists demanded, it was essential that they should at once summon all the forces at their command to crush what was already an incipient and most menacing rebellion. They did nothing of the sort. They slightly strengthened the totally inadequate garrison which would soon have to face a whole people in arms, and they issued a foolish proclamation merely provocative and backed by no power that could enforce it, forbidding the meeting of Continental Congresses in the future. That was in January. In April the skirmishes of Lexington and Concord had shown how hopelessly insufficient was their military force to meet even local sporadic and unorganized revolts. In May the second Continental Congress met, and in July appeared by its authority a general call to arms addressed to the whole population of America.

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