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government, so that the old constitution will exist only in the surface, and the nation in effect will be nearer slavery than in any preceding reign.”1
Those were strong words from a ruler who was an autocrat, and who fully purposed to remain one; but the danger which threatened English liberty aroused uneasiness in a still more singular quarter than the Royal cabinet at Potsdam. Frederic, after all, was at peace with our country, although it did not break his heart to find her in a scrape ; whereas France was an active, and erelong an open, enemy.
The French Government, sore from recent losses and humiliations, greeted with delight the rebellion of our colonists; supplied them almost from the first with money and military stores; seized the opportunity of our difficulty to declare hostilities, which were prosecuted with what, for the French, was unwonted, and even unexampled, energy; and laboured to unite Europe in a coalition against the British Empire. And yet there were Frenchmen, and many Frenchmen, who never ceased to reverence England as a country which held up to the contemplation of mankind an example of the material and moral advantages arising from stable and rational self-government; and which, for more than two centuries, had been a champion of liberty outside her own borders. Their prayer, or, (more strictly speaking,) their hope and aspiration, — for advanced thinkers in France were not much given to praying,
was that England might cease to be forgetful of her high mission, and might bethink herself, before it grew too late, that in destroying the freedom of others she was striking at her own.
These ideas are reflected in letters addressed to Lord Shelburne by the Abbé Morellet when war between France and England was already imminent; and a later part of the same correspondence proves that, after four years of fierce and dubious fighting, solicitude for
1 Le Roi Frédéric au Comte de Maltzan, 14 août, 1775, (en chiffres ;) 18 décembre, 1775 ; 26 juin, 1777.
the honour of our country had not been extinguished in the hearts of some generous
enemies. The fall of Lord North in 1782 was hailed by enlightened Parisians with a satisfaction inspired by the most laudable motives. They felt joy and relief because there would be an end of bloodshed; because the highest civilisation, of which France and England were the chief repositories, would no longer be divided against itself; but above and beyond all, because liberty would henceforward be secure in the one great country of Europe which was constitutionally governed. “Yes, my Lord,” cried Morellet, “in spite of the war that divides us, I am glad to see your country better administered. I rejoice, in my quality of citizen of the world, that a great people should resume their true place; should regain a clear view of their real interests; and should employ their resources, not in the pursuit of an end which cannot be attained, but for the conservation of that wealth and influence which are naturally their due, and which, for the sake of the world at large, it is all-important that they should continue to possess. If the independence of America had perished, your constitution would have been overthrown, and your freedom lost.” 1
Among foreigners who vexed themselves about the perils which overhung the British Constitution the Whigs in America could no longer be reckoned. As the war went forward, and their sacrifices and sufferings increased, the colonists, (and none could fairly blame them,) took less and less count of the distinction between the two political parties at Westminster. They regarded Britain as one integral and formidable whole;
· Lettres de l'Abbé Morellet, de l'Académie Française, à Lord Shel. burne, depuis Marquis de Lansdowne, 1772-1803, avec Introduction et Notes par Lord Edmond Fitzmaurice : Paris, Librairie Plon, 1898; pages 110, 189, 191. The passage in the text reproduces the substance of Morellet's letter of April 1782, and some of the words ; for the words are many. Morellet was a decorative artist of a high order ; an adept in dressing up the stern discoveries of British political economists in a shape to suit the French taste. When, as in the case before us, he lighted upon a subject which admitted of sentiment and emotion, he was not sparing of his ornament.
and the character in which she presented herself at their doors was not such as to command their sympathy. Charles Fox, and his eloquent and statesmanlike speeches, were a long way off ; while General Burgoyne, with his Brunswickers and his Red Indians, was very near indeed. People who were occupied in striving to repel British armies, and in rebuilding towns which British fleets had burned, were left with very little leisure to interest themselves about the preservation of British liberties. But their descendants, who had plenty of time to think the matter over, and who, indeed, in the department of history, for many years to come thought of very little else, — have gradually arrived at the conclusion that, if the resistance of the colonies had been overpowered, British and Transatlantic freedom would have perished together. That conclusion is, now and again, set forth by living American writers in a tone of just pride, and in language worthy of the theme. Whatever, (we are told,) may be the spirit of the people of the United States to-day, in the eighteenth century the people of the colonies were English to the heart's core. Ever since the new reign began, they had noticed, with growing anxiety, the determination of George the Third to undermine and overthrow the old English structure of genuine national self-government, and real ministerial responsibility. The Englishmen in America rebelled the first, because they were the first to feel the full force of the assault upon liberty. Their Revolution was not an uprising against England, or the English people, or the English Constitution. It was a defensive movement, undertaken in behalf of essential English institutions, against the purpose and effort of a monarch to defeat the political progress of the race, and to turn back the hands of time so that they might mark again the dreary hour before Parliament had delivered us from the Stuarts.1
1 Article by Henry Loomis Nelson, in the New York Journal Literature of March 31, 1899.
PT. II.- VOL. II.
Such, in the deliberate judgement of a succeeding generation, was the aspect of the situation in England during the earlier years of the American war; and such it then seemed to Frenchmen who watched our politics from the safe side of the Channel. It was an aspect necessarily most alarming to contemporary Englishmen who foresaw that the free institutions of their own country might erelong be exposed to a final and successful assault; and who were conscious of being too high-spirited and stout-hearted to shrink, when the day of trial came, from doing their utmost in defence of freedom, however ruinous might be the penalty to themselves and their families. Those anticipations saddened their lives, inspired their public action, and coloured their written and spoken confidences. The Duke of Richmond was a senator of long experience, a man of the world, and a great peer with an enormous stake in the country; his private letters are serious documents of grave authority; and those letters supply posterity with a sample of what was thought and feared by many thousands of humbler, but not less honest and patriotic, people.
In August 1776, — on the day, as it happened, that Howe began to move against the American lines in Long Island, - Richmond wrote to Edmund Burke at great length from Paris. The Duke had repaired to France, for the purpose of looking after his hereditary estate in that country, and of making good his claim to the Dukedom of Aubigny. That proved a burdensome undertaking; for the grant of a peerage, in order to be valid, required to be registered by the Parliament of Paris; and, in the Parliament of Paris, nothing was to be had for nothing. Richmond complained that, “besides the real business itself, the visits, formalities, solicitations, dinners, suppers,” and all the rest of the machinery for bringing influence to bear upon every individual concerned, were infinitely wearisome and costly. And yet all the expense of time, trouble, and money was, in his estimation, very well laid out; be
cause, although things were ill managed in France, circumstances might arise when it would be impossible for him to reside at his English home. “Who knows," wrote Richmond, “that a time may not come when a retreat to this country may not be a happy thing to have? We now hold our liberties merely by the magnanimity of the best of kings, who will not make use of the opportunity he has to seize them; for he has it in his power, with the greatest ease and quiet, to imitate the King of Sweden. I have not the least doubt but that his faithful peers and commons would by degrees,
or at once if he liked it better, — vote him complete despotism. I fear I see the time approaching when the English, after having been guilty of every kind of meanness and corruption, will at last own themselves, like the Swedes, unworthy to be free. When that day comes, our situation will be worse than France. Young despotism, like a boy broke loose from school, will indulge itself in every excess. Besides, if there is a contest, though it be a feeble one, I, or mine, may be among the proscribed. If such an event should happen, and America not be open to receive us, France is some retreat, and a peerage here is something."
British opinion was never unanimous at any stage of the American war; but in what proportion that opinion was divided it is impossible to determine at the distance of a hundred and thirty years.
Men of practical experience in politics turn sceptical when told very positively what "the country” thinks with regard to a question even of their own day, and are inclined to ask their informant how large a part of the country has taken him into its confidence. Historians, who have tried to gauge the feeling of our ancestors during the struggle with America, have often paid far too much respect to
1 Gustavus the Third had recently subverted the Constitution in Sweden; not without excuses which were altogether wanting to George the Third when he devised his scheme of Personal Government.