36.1 Inconveniences of the Great Power System¶
When Gibbon, nearly a century and a half ago, was congratulating the world of refined and educated people that the age of great political and social catastrophes was past, he was neglecting many signs which we—in the wisdom of accomplished facts—could have told him portended far heavier jolts and dislocations than any he foresaw. We have told how the struggle of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century princes for ascendancies and advantages developed into a more cunning and complicated struggle of foreign offices, masquerading as idealized «Great Powers», as the eighteenth century wore on. The intricate and pretentious art of diplomacy developed. The «Prince» ceased to be a single and secretive Machiavellian schemer, and became merely the crowned symbol of a Machiavellian scheme. Prussia, Russia, and Austria fell upon and divided Poland. France was baffled in profound schemes against Spain. Britain circumvented the «designs of France» in America and acquired Canada, and got the better of France, in India. And then a remarkable thing occurred, a thing very shocking to European diplomacy. The British colonies in America flatly refused to have further part or lot in this game of «Great Powers». They objected that they had no voice and no great interest in these European schemes and conflicts, and they refused to bear any portion of the burthen of taxation these foreign policies entailed. «Taxation without representation is tyranny»; this was their dominant idea.
Of course this decision to separate did not flash out complete and finished from the American mind at the beginning of these troubles. In America in the eighteenth century, just as in England in the seventeenth, there was an entire willingness, indeed a desire on the part of ordinary men, to leave foreign affairs in the hands of the king and his ministers. But there was an equally strong desire on the part of ordinary men to be neither taxed nor interfered with in their ordinary pursuits. These are incompatible wishes. Common men cannot shirk world politics and at the same time enjoy private freedom; but it has taken them countless generations to learn this. The first impulse in the American revolt against the government in Great Britain was therefore simply a resentment against, the taxation and interference that followed necessarily from «foreign, policy» without any clear recognition of what was involved in that objection. It was only when the revolt was consummated that, the people of the American colonies recognized at all clearly that’ they had repudiated the Great Power view of life. The sentence in which that, repudiation was expressed was Washington’s injunction to «avoid entangling alliances». For a full century the united colonies of Great Britain in North America, liberated and independent as the United States of America, stood apart altogether from the bloodstained intrigues and conflicts of the European foreign offices. Soon after (1810 to 1823) they were able to extend their principle of detachment to the rest of the continent, and to make all the New World «out of bounds» for the scheming expansionists of the old. When at length, in 1917, they were obliged, to re-enter the arena, of world politics, it was to bring the new spirit and, new aims their aloofness had enabled them, to develop into the tangle of international relationships. They were not, however, the first to stand aloof. Since the treaty of Westphalia (1648) the confederated states of Switzerland, in their mountain fastnesses, had sustained their right to exclusion from the schemes of kings and empires.
But since the North American peoples are now to play an increasingly important; part in our history, it will be well to devote a little more attention than we have hitherto given to their development. We have already glanced at this story in (sec 8) of the preceding chapter. We will now tell a little more fully-though still in the barest outline-what these colonies were, whose recalcitrance was so disconcerting to the king and ministers of Great Britain in their diplomatic game against the rest of mankind.