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“THE SIGNIFICANCE OF YORKTOWN.”
An Address by CHARLES H. MACDOWELL, at the Annual York
town Dinner of the Illinois Chapter, Sons of
October 19th, 1923. My boyhood was spent in Spoon River country in middle Illinois. This garden spot was near the center of the pioneer movement from East to West in the days of timber clearing, and before the value of the then swampy prairie country was known. With the pioneer, land which would not grow trees was no good. Here in the early eighteen hundreds came the folk from New England, from the Central Eastern states, from Virginia and the Carolinas;—plied their different vocations, worshipped God publicly Sundays and prayer meeting nights, and lived in competitive harmony with each other until the coming of the Civil War. These settlers were a representative cross-section of the breeds whose forebears had peopled the Atlantic Coast colonies. They were pioneers and children of pioneers, with all of the directness and personal competency of those who, having no one else upon whom to depend, must needs do everything for themselves.
Among these pioneers, and a neighbor, was Major Newton Walker, a Virginian by birth, who had built in this Illinois land a replica of the old Colonial brick central-halled homestead with the smoke-house, tool-house, barns and outbuildings accompanying the integrated plantation life of old Virginia. The Major, Jacksonian in features, tall, lean, active, although then in the eighties, was a source of joy to the youngsters. Many were the tales told by the boys of his past prowess in the hunt and Indian fight; of his accuracy with the long-barrelled flint-lock rifle; his skill in woodcraft. Major Walker was a man of culture; his small library was well selected and ran to history; his memory was especially retentive, and his conversation delightful.
It was the Major who built the courthouse between whose Doric standstone columns stood Lincoln, an old friend, when delivering one of his Douglas Debate classics. I well remember his chuckle as he told of building a large sled in one of the rooms of the courthouse too big to get out through the door. I can still lear the thump, thump, thump of his cane on the sidewalk as he walked to town for his daily paper and his nip of “tea”. The Major was a privileged person in a dry community.
In his youth le had been on the staff of the Governor of Virginia, and was in command of the honor guard accompanying General Lafayette in his travels in that State on his second after-the-war visit to America. On many a winter afternoon did he tell me of the General and of other notables he had met—of the battlefields—of Lafayette's visit to Shawneetown-of Mount Vernon; all to my great delight. So I too can say, as did the small boy, “I knew a man who knew the General."
It is but natural in a study of our Revolution that our thoughts should wander back to the European homes of the men and women who came early to the American colonies, and to the time of their leaving. What manner of folk were they, and why did they adventure? It was no Pullman car trip, and courage of a high order was shown by those who made the journey. There was an unknown factor which must have de pressed as well as stimulated. We cannot say that the ignorance of youth displaced courage, for men and women of all ages journeyed to the wilderness.
From these folk sprang the minute men of the rebellion to be organized into the armies of the cooperating colonies and placed under the unified control of Washington.
It is fitting that we should assemble here on the one hundred and forty-second anniversary of the winning of Yorktown to do honor to those who fought and won the war that made America free. It is also natural that the Sons of the American Revolution, the direct descendants of those who took part in the war, should celebrate annually the occasion of the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown as the result of the long fight for the principle of representative Government. The colonists had long adopted the theory of "No taxation without representa
tion," and they were ready to die to the last man for that principle.
We are told in our school days that "action and reaction are equal and opposite.” As we read history we are impressed with the thought that with people, “oppression and rebellion may also be equal and opposite." Reaction may be retarded by force, but when opportunity arrives, old scores are quickly evened. Compression makes for explosion. Social forces are dynamic rather than static, and social equilibrium is difficult to maintain. Memories persist and hates hold on indefinitely. Much of today's trouble 'round world is the rebound from the injuries of long ago, as well as from those resulting from the late war.
The nations whose statesmen early sensed the fact that personal liberty, free speech, sacred homes, law observance, and equal opportunity made for stability, have made the greatest progress and attained the maximum of security. Whenever they have departed from this charting, trouble has started.
The story of the war is well known, and we will not review it. We will, on the contrary, bring to your attention some of the significant and fundamental questions at issue at the time; questions that always arise in connection with the formation of new states out of old. Since the days of tribal life new nations have been formed out of old in one way or another, but seldom without war. While war may not have been a necessity, it has always been a fact in the dividing of any compact race or nation into two or more parts. The formation of the American colonies into a new state was no exception to the rule.
A little study of the history of the formation of states will give us a clearer understanding of the difficulties and the achievements of the English colonies in America. Political history is the history of nation-making. Economic history is the record of the behavior of nations in regard to the conservation or use of the forces at their command, and the development of commerce, industry, transportation—all that affects the economic welfare of the people. In the evolution of society we are taught that there have developed three distinct methods of nation-making. The first is known as the Oriental method or "conquest without corporation,” by which a tribe grew to national dimensions by conquering and annexing its neighbors
without admitting them into a share in its political life. The second, known as the Roman method, may be described as "conquest with incorporation, but without representation. The strength of Rome lay in the fact that she incorporated the vanquished people in her own body politic. The third method of nation-making is commonly known as the Teutonic method or English method, containing the principle of representation, in accordance with which England and all her colonies have been built.
America is essentially a product of and the best exemplification of the representative principle in nation-making. It is the last fruits of this new principle in the evolution of states. The seeds were no doubt sown in antiquity, but bore little fruit before the Teutonic nations came to the shores of England. The Achaean League formed in old Grecian days is looked upon by historians as an attempt at representative government, but it failed in a great measure because of personal jealousies and heresy among the populace. A few leading thinkers in all nations ancient and modern have kept the flame of representative government burning, though dimly at times.
Having gotten a clear idea of the class of nations to which we belong, it seems proper next to show how we came into being as a nation, why our forefathers left England and the Continent, and how they happened to unite into one great state. The Magna Charta was wrested from King John by the Barons of England on June 15, 1215. It has been called the “keystone of English liberty.” It was a treaty of peace between the King and his subjects in arms, but it was also an indication of the rise of the people against royalty and of a general demand for representation in affairs of government. The settlement of English colonies in America and elsewhere is part of the fruit of Magna Charta. The colonies coming to America were composed of men in the various walks of life feeling their way to a new freedom, a taste of which they had experienced at home but which they could not develop on account of church and state interference.
At the time of the discovery of America by Columbus, the whole of Europe was on the eve of a great awakening. The crusades had come and gone, but their influence was indelibly impressed upon the people. New ideas were drifting in from
all quarters. The mariner's compass was discovered, and under its guidance longer voyages could be undertaken. Gunpowder had just been invented, which changed the character of war and enlarged the scale on which it was waged. Constantinople had just fallen, which resulted in a great revival of learning in all Europe. Driven from the East, learned Greeks and Jews came to settle in Italy, bringing with them the arts, sciences, history, poetry, and philosophy of old Greece and Rome. Just at this time the invention of printing came to spread whatever new ideas there were, with a velocity never known before.
The discoverey of the new world was immediately followed up by Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru and by Portuguese settlements in Brazil, and by the gaining of a foothold on the eastern shores of North America by the Cabots for England, which is the forerunner of the New England or the extension of Old England across the sea. A way was opened up to the East Indies in 1497 by Vasco de Gama which led to the control of India by the British. Men's minds were prepared for great events, and it is little wonder that Columbus thought he had reached the Orient when he first saw land in the West Indies. No one had ever suspected that there was a great stretch of land almost from pole to pole near half way around the globe from where he started, and what great opportunities there were for a new civilization.
The first discovery of the new mind that was developed during the Protestant Revolution was the defects of the old Roman civilization. The masses were governed under Roman domination not for the benefit of all, but for the benefit of a few wealthy Roman citizens. The new civilization "sought to secure the common weal of the people.” The time had come for the old order gradually to die out and for the new order gradually to spring up, and that is just what happened. Part of this great movement expressed itself in the colonization of parts of North America by England and the colonization of other parts of North and South America and other parts of the world by other European nations. The whole of Europe was seeking an expression of the new ideas that had been born with the general awakening, and that had helped to dispel much of the superstition of the earlier times. They were working out a way of escape from the domination of royalty over