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THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION
Like Calvinism, the American Revolution has generally been discussed so passionately that in eagerness to prove one side right historians have hardly been able to consider the questions which arose as matters of mere historic fact.
And as Professor Tyler's “ Literary History” shows, the tradition of the Revolution which commonly prevails in the United States is a remarkable distortion of a familiar truth. The war which began at Lexington and ended six years later with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown has been talked about in public places and taught about in schools as if it had been a rising against a foreign invader, like the old Spanish wars in the Netherlands, or those more recent wars in which the Austrians were expelled from what is now united Italy. No error could be much graver. Up to 1760 the colonies of America were as loyal to the crown of England as Australia or Canada is to-day. England, of course, was separated from America by the Atlantic Ocean; and, so far as time goes, the North Atlantic of the eighteenth century was wider than the equatorial Pacific is to-day. But the people of the American colonies were as truly compatriots of Englishmen as the citizens of our Southern States in 1860 were compatriots of New England Yankees. The Revolution, in short, was a civil war, like the wars of Cavaliers and Round-heads a century before in England, or the war in our own country between 1861 and 1865. Both of those other civil wars, the older English and the newer American, have already faded into a past where one can feel them, for all their tragedy, to
have something of the character of family quarrels which have ended in fresh family concord. What distinguishes the American Revolution from other civil wars is the fact that the quarrel which produced it a century and a quarter ago has never been truly settled or forgotten.
Already in 1780 American feeling toward England had become consciously foreign. Consciously foreign it remains ; there are plenty of sensible Americans to-day who really feel less strange in Paris than in London. In modern Boston the unaltered King's Chapel of the royal governors, surrounded by the tombs of colonial worthies, seems almost as much a relic of some mysterious past as the ruins of Stonehenge seem on Salisbury Plain. Yet one has but to land at Halifax to see a surviving image of what Boston was in 1775; Canada today is English in the sense in which Boston was English when George III. ascended the throne. The political frontier which divides Canada from New England, however, remains as distinct as it was when Canada was French; for New England now is not English but American. The American Revolution was a civil war whereof the end is not yet, and indeed may never be.
To those Americans who most cherish our deep national ideal of union, this fact has an aspect which may well qualify our just pride of independence. This ideal of union means that, however much men of common race, language, and principles may differ, it is best that they devote their energies to neglecting, or at worst to compromising, their differences, and to working in common for ends in which all believe, trusting that from such common effort better things shall ensue for mankind. It needs no great effort of imagination, and as time passes it will probably need less and less, to see that this ideal of union applies as fully to the events of 1776 as to those of 1861. Had the Southern States succeeded in their heroic attempt at secession, our country to-day, whatever its condition, must have been politically so weak as to make impossible the
imperial questions now affecting our politics. If the American colonies had failed in their heroic attempt to assert independence of England, there can be little question that by this time the imperial dominance of our language, our law, and our ideals would be assured throughout the world. The American Revolution, then, disuniting the English-speaking race, has had on history an effect which those who cherish the moral and political heritage of our language may well grow to feel in some sense tragic.
To modern scholars of the critical kind, too, the Revolution is becoming more of a puzzle than it used to be. The distortion of tradition which has represented it rather as a war against an alien invader than as a civil war, is not our only popular error. American writings, in general, tell only one side of the story ; and we have been accustomed to accept their ex parte, though sincere, assertions as comprehensive. So much is this the case that few remember the origin of a phrase which from a political letter written by Rufus Choate in 1856 has passed into idiomatic use. This phrase, “glittering generality,” is commonly used of empty rhetoric : Mr. Choate used it of a piece of rhetoric which American tradition is apt to believe the least empty in our history. His words were : “ The glittering and sounding generalities of natural right which make up the Declaration of Independence.” Now, to describe the Declaration of Independence as a tissue of glittering generalities is by no means to tell its whole story; but so to describe it is probably as near the truth as to accept it for a sober statement of historic fact. Not that Jefferson, who wrote it, or his compatriots who signed it, were insincere; the chances are that they believed what they said. But the fact that in a moment of high passion a man believes a thing does not make it true. And when under the cool scrutiny of posterity fervid convictions prove somewhat mistaken, the vital question is from what they arose. Professor Tyler collects and arranges as
material which may help one to hazard an answer to this question. Although in pure literature the Revolution has left no more permanent record than was left by the century and a half which came before, it was almost as fruitful of publication bearing on contemporary fact as were those Civil Wars of England which resulted in the execution of King Charles I. and the momentary dominance of Cromwell's Puritanism. Professor Tyler is a thoroughly patriotic American citizen; this does not prevent him from setting forth with full sympathy a fact which any one who reads the long-neglected writings of the American loyalists must be brought to acknowledge. Right or wrong, these loyalists were sincerely patriotic, too, and willing, when the crucial moment came, to sacrifice fortune and home to the principles which they held as devoutly as ever revolutionist held his. What is more, as one considers to-day the arguments of the loyalists, it is hard to feel them legally weaker than those which finally prevailed. Rather one begins to feel that the two sides misunderstood one another more profoundly than has yet been realised. They used the same terms, but they
. assumed them to mean widely different things.
Take, for example, one of the best-remembered phrases of the period, - « no taxation without representation." What does this really mean? To the American mind of to-day, as to the mind of the revolutionary leaders in King George's colonies, it means that no constituency should be taxed by a legislative body to which it has not actually elected representatives, generally resident within its limits. To the English mind of 1770, more than sixty years before the first Reform Bill, it meant something very different. In England to this day, indeed, the notion that a representative should be resident in his constituency is as strange as to any American it is familiar. Not only was this the case in eighteenth-century England, but many boroughs which returned members to Parliament had hardly any residents; while some of the chief cities in the kingdom returned no members at all. In King George's England, we see, the question of representation had little to do with actual suffrage. What no taxation without representation meant there, was that no British subject should be taxed by a body where there was not somebody to represent his case. This view, the traditional one of the English Common Law, was held by the loyalists of America. When the revolutionists complained that America elected no representatives to Parliament, the loyalists answered that neither did many of the most populous towns in the mother country; that the interests of those towns were perfectly well cared for by members elected elsewhere; and that if anybody should inquire what members of Parliament were protecting the interests of the American colonies, the answer would instantly satisfy any complaint. This contention is really strong. Among the men who defended the American cause in the House of Commons were the elder Pitt, Fox, and Burke. It is doubtful whether New England or Virginia could have exported to Parliament representatives in any respect superior.
But the argument of the American loyalists — Tories, we have called them for the last century or so, but a truer name were Imperial Unionists — had no effect on the revolutionists,
patriots, Imperial Secessionists. The course of the equally sincere arguments of this party may be typified in two brief extracts from the utterances of one of their first heroes, James Otis. In February, 1761, having resigned the office of Advocate-General because he would not support an application to the Superior Court for writs of assistance, he appeared against them, and among other things spoke as follows:
“ I shall not think much of my pains in this cause, as I engaged in it from principle. I was solicited to argue this cause as advocategeneral; and because I would not, I have been charged with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this cause, from the same principle ; and I argue it with the greater pleasure, as it is in favour of British liberty, at a time when we hear the greatest monarch upon