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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

But the State of Massachusetts remained in American hands


It

is, however, no part of the function of this book to argue upon the propositions contained in the Declaration of Independence. It is merely necessary to chronicle the historical fact that Jefferson, as mouthpiece of the Continental Congress, put forward these propositions as self-evident, and that all America, looking at them, accepted them as such. On that acceptance, the intensity and ardent conviction of which showed itself, as will presently be seen, in a hundred ways, the American Commonwealth is built. In the modern haze of doubt and amid the denial of all necessary things, there have been found plenty of sophists, even in America, to dispute these great truisms. But if the American nation as a whole ever ceases to believe in them, it will not merely decay, as all nations decay when they lose touch with eternal truths; it will drop suddenly dead.

We must now turn back a little in time in order to make clear the military situation as it stood when Jefferson's "Declaration" turned the war into a war of doctrines.

The summer of 1775 saw the first engagement which could well be dignified with the name of a battle. A small English force had been sent to Boston with the object of coercing the recalcitrant colony of Massachusetts. It was absolutely insufficient, as the event showed, even for that purpose, and before it had landed it was apparent that its real task would be nothing less than the conquest of America.

The Massachusetts rebels wisely determined to avoid a combat with the guns of the British fleet; they abandoned the city and entrenched themselves in a strong position in the neighbourhood known as Bunker's Hill. The British troops marched out of Boston to dislodge them. This they eventually succeeded in doing; and those who regard war as a game like billiards to be settled by scoring points may claim Bunker's Hill as a British victory. But it produced all the consequences of a defeat. The rebel army was not destroyed; it was even less weakened than the force opposed to it. It retired in good order to a position somewhat further back, and the British force had no option but to return to Boston with its essential work undone. For some time England continued to hold Boston, but the State of Massachusetts remained in American hands. At last, in the absence of any hope of any effective action, the small English garrison withdrew, leaving the original prize of war to the rebels.

On the eve of this indecisive contest the American Congress met to consider the selection of a commander-in-chief for the revolutionary armies. Their choice fell on General George Washington, a Virginian soldier who, as has been remarked, had served with some distinction in the French wars.

The choice was a most fortunate one. America and England have agreed to praise Washington's character so highly that at the hands of the young and irreverent he is in some danger of the fate of Aristides. For the benefit of those who tend to weary of the Cherry Tree and the Little Hatchet, it may be well to say that Washington was a very typical Southern gentleman in his foibles as well as in his virtues. Though his temper was in large matters under strict control, it was occasionally formidable and vented itself in a free and cheerful profanity. He loved good wine, and like most eighteenth-century gentlemen, was not sparing in its use. He had a Southerner's admiration for the other sex--an admiration which, if gossip may be credited, was not always strictly confined within monogamic limits. He had also, in large measure, the high dignity and courtesy of his class, and an enlarged liberality of temper which usually goes with such good breeding. There is no story of him more really characteristic than that of his ceremoniously returning the salute of an aged Negro and saying to a friend who was disposed to deride his actions: "Would you have me let a poor ignorant coloured man say that he had better manners than I?" For the rest the traditional eulogy of his public character is not undeserved. It may justly be said of him, as it can be said of few of the great men who have moulded the destinies of nations, that history can put its fingers on no act of his and say: "Here this man was preferring his own interest to his country's."


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