Mother England and Her Spoiled Child

AMERICAN independence was born in the first 60 years of the colonies, while they were growing up free as weeds — and, in some ways, as wild. In those threescore years of their formative youth Mother England had no time to attend to them. She was kept busy all that while with the civil war which overthrew Charles I, brought in Cromwell and ended in the restoration of the Stuarts under Charles II. When, at last, she was free to take in hand her neglected offspring, the rod had been spared too long, and the child was spoiled — ungovernable.

The colonists had come to America on their own. They were then too poor to interest Kings and gilded loafers about the throne, or to attract place holders to follow them over the ocean. They have been followed by the English flag, it is true, and had enjoyed its protection. But this had not yet cost England a round of shot. Unaided, the settlers had faced and fought the Indians, cleared places for themselves in the wilderness, set up their governments, made their laws and gone their way without let or hindrance. The New England colonies even usurped the imperial authority by forming a confederation, a Federal Government of their own, which exercised complete sovereignty in making an important boundary treaty with the Dutch of New Netherland.

When Mother England did find time to assert her maternal authority, she seemed more like a step-mother to the colonial waifs, and they treated her as an intruder in their home. By no fault of theirs or hers, but by sheer force of circumstances, they and she had grown apart. Thenceforth they were to be but players in a great tragedy, which ended in the estrangement of the two English-speaking families.

In the English civil war also Yankee ships and merchants had stolen away from the mother country much of her West Indian trade. New England's rivers being short, because they rise in the nearby uplands, they gave her access only to a small hinterland. In that restricted area, the fur-bearing animals quickly were exterminated, and the New Englanders were driven to the sea, to the fisheries, to shipping and to foreign trade.

New England's forests of oak and pine swiftly were being made into a fleet that soon would total 400 vessels. These took lumber and dried fish to the West Indies and reloaded with sugar and molasses. They carried to England also much of the tobacco of both Maryland and Virginia.

No one in all England, King or Parliament, chartered company or individual capitalist, had yet succeeded in extracting a farthing of profit out of the American colonies. Perhaps Baltimore lord proprietor of Maryland, was the exception that proved the rule. Every one else who tried to get anything out of this country without coming over and putting himself into it, met only with losses and disappointment.

When Charles II came back from his exile he was dead broke and up to his neck in debt. His empty palms naturally itched for some share of the wealth that the colonies were producing. He raised the wind wherewith to inflate his own flat wallet by taking a bribe from Louis XIV. But the merry monarch needed that French money for riotous living, and he had the happy idea of making America pay off his creditors and followers.

To seven or eight of his needy courtiers the King passed out a fat slice of the continent, five degrees parallel in width and running clear through from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They were made absolute proprietors of what was called Carolina in honor of the King. They landed a few settlers at Charleston, but the entire venture brought them a heavy loss. In the end they were glad to sell out cheap, and the crown brought back their principality.

Charles paid off two other hungry and thirsty followers with New Jersey. They, too, sickened of their bargain and got out of it with small gains or none. To still another two the generous King gave away Virginia for a limited term of 31 years. But those Earls of Arlington and Culpepper had a thankless job on their hands when they started in to collect quit rents from the actual occupants of the soil.

Brother James was as hard up as Charles himself, and the King gave him all New York. The most that the Duke of York got out of his share of America was the imperishable honor of being the name father of the empire State in the republic of the United States.

The merchants of London also had a claim on Charles, and they pressed it. They had welcomed him back to the throne of his fathers, partly perhaps because Cavaliers were better for business than Roundheads. At their demand that something be done to protect them from the dangerous competition which had so suddenly burst forth from the wilderness, a tariff barrier was erected between the colonies, both those on the mainland and those in the West Indies. They were also cut off from trading with foreign Nations, except through London, whose merchants thus were to reap the profits of the middleman.

The New Englanders drove their ships, like six-horse coaches, through the restrictions on their trade. At the royal elbow stood a man who well knew the human elements in the problem that this defiance presented to the King.

This was Sir George Downing, who was a nephew of John Winthrop and had himself lived in Massachusetts. He is said to have been the second man to graduate from Harvard College.

Going back to England, Sir George had turned his coat with the turning fortunes of the Civil War and was the financial adviser of Charles. The little dead-end street where he lived near Whitehall became the center of the Government. And the far-flung Empire of Britain still is ruled from that Downing Street.

With Downing prompting him, the King decided to send over a royal commission to spy out the ground in Boston and to feel out the people. When the commissioners arrived and attempted to hold a hearing, the colonial authorities had the assurance to send a trumpeter up and down the town to warn the inhabitants to stay away, and the commission was balked.

The Massachusetts Government thereupon sent to Charles the gift of a cargo of masts for his navy. Yet we are told that the Puritans were without a sense of humor!

Thus it was that the King, "who never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one," took the first fateful steps on a course that led to the American Revolution a hundred years afterward.

James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Nov 9, 1927, p. 20