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Chapter 56:

The New year. 1776.

January, 1776.

New-year's day, 1776, was the saddest day that
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ever broke on the women and children then in Norfolk. Warned of their danger by the commander of the squadron, there was for them no refuge. The King Fisher was stationed at the upper end of Norfolk; a little below her the Otter; Belew, in the Liverpool, anchored near the middle of the town; and next him lay Dunmore; the rest of the fleet was moored in the harbor. Between three and four in the afternoon the Liverpool opened its fire upon the borough; the other ships immediately followed his example, and a severe cannonade was begun from about sixty pieces of cannon. Dunmore then himself, as night was coming on, ordered out several boats to burn warehouses on the wharfs; and hailed to Belew to set fire to a large brig which lay in the dock. All the vessels of the fleet, to show their zeal, sent great numbers of boats on shore to assist in spreading the [231] flames along the river; and as the buildings were
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chiefly of pine wood, the conflagration, favored by the wind, spread with amazing rapidity, and soon became general. Women and children, mothers with little ones in their arms, were seen by the glare, running through the shower of cannonballs to get out of their range. Two or three persons were hit; and the scene became one of extreme horror and confusion. Several times the British attempted to land, and once to bring cannon into a street; but they were driven back by the spirit and conduct of the Americans. The cannonade did not abate till ten at night; after a short pause it was renewed, but with less fury, and was kept up till two the next morning. The flames, which had made their way from street to street, raged for three days, till four fifths, or, as some computed, nine tenths, of the houses were reduced to ashes and heaps of ruins.

In this manner the royal governor burned and laid waste the best town in the oldest and most loyal colony of England, to which Elizabeth had given a name, and Raleigh devoted his fortune, and Shakespeare and Bacon and Herbert foretokened greatness; a colony where the people of themselves had established the church of England, and where many were still proud that their ancestors, in the day of the British commonwealth, had been faithful to the line of kings. On second thought, Dunmore feared he had done too much, and he insinuated that the ‘great number of boats’ from his fleet had set fire only to the buildings nearest the water: but a fire kindled in many places along the outer row of houses built chiefly of pine, could extend itself with irresistible fury. Who can [232] affirm or who can deny, that mischievous persons on

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shore may not have found amusement in feeding the flames? But the American commanders, Howe and Woodford, certainly made every effort to arrest them; and troops without tents would hardly in midwinter have burned down the houses that were their only shelter.

When Washington learned the fate of the rich emporium of his own ‘country,’ for so he called Virginia, his breast heaved with waves of anger and grief; ‘I hope,’ said he, ‘this, and the threatened devastation of other places, will unite the whole country in one indissoluble band against a nation, which seems lost to every sense of virtue and those feelings which distinguish a civilized people from the most barbarous savages.’

On the first day of January, 1776, the tri-colored American banner, not yet spangled with stars, but showing thirteen stripes of alternate red and white in the field, and the united red and white crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew on a blue ground in the corner, was unfurled over the new continental army round Boston, which, at that moment of its greatest weakness, consisted of but nine thousand six hundred and fifty men.

On that day free negroes stood in the ranks by the side of white men. In the beginning of the war they had entered the provincial army: the first general order, which was issued by Ward, had required a return, among other things, of ‘the complexion’ of the soldiers; and black men, like others, were retained in the service after the troops were adopted by the continent. [233] We have seen Edward Rutledge defeated in

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his attempt to compel their discharge; in October, the conference at the camp, with Franklin, Harrison, and Lynch, thought it proper to exclude them from the new enlistment; but Washington, at the crisis of his distress, finding that they were very much dissatisfied at being discarded, took the responsibility of reversing the decision; and referred the subject to congress. That body appointed Wythe, Samuel Adams, and Wilson, to deliberate on the question; and on the report of their able committee they voted, ‘that the free negroes who had served faithfully in the army at Cambridge, might be reenlisted therein, but no others.’ The right of free negroes to take part in the defence of the country having thus been definitively established by the competent tribunal, they served in the ranks of the American armies during every period of the war.

The enlistments were embarrassed by the low state of Washington's military chest. He could neither pay off the old army to the last of December, when their term expired, nor give assurances for the punctual pay of the militia. At one time in January he had but about ten thousand dollars at Cambridge; and that small sum was held in reserve. It would have been good policy to have paid a large bounty and engaged recruits for the war; but this measure congress refused to warrant; and it was left to the government of Massachusetts, with the aid of the rest of New England, to keep up the numbers of the army while it remained on her soil. For that end five thousand of her militia were summoned to the field, and they came with alacrity. [234]

‘The amazing diligence’ of Washington had done

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what history cannot parallel; he had for six months together, without powder, maintained a post within musket-shot of more than twenty hostile British regiments; he had disbanded one army and recruited another; and was still without an adequate number of troops, or a supply of ammunition; and the arms of his soldiers were poor in quality and insufficient in number. At such a moment he received the special authority of congress to ‘attack the troops in Boston, even though it should involve the destruction of the town;’ and Hancock, who individually might be the greatest sufferer, wrote to wish him success: yet the winter was so mild, that there was no ice to pass on; and for a bombardment he was in want of powder; so that he was compelled to disregard the recommendation, and to conceal the cause of his inactivity. Yet he never admitted the thought of retiring from his post, although the situation of his army gave him many a wakeful hour when all around him were wrapped in sleep; and he often considered how much happier would have been his lot, if, instead of accepting the command, he had taken his musket on his shoulder and entered the ranks. Sometimes his eye would glance towards his lands on the Ohio; ‘in the worst event,’ said he, ‘they will serve for an asylum.’ Could he have justified the measure to posterity and his own conscience, he would gladly have retired at once to the back woods, even though it had been to live in a wigwam. If he had not consulted the public good more than his own tranquillity, he would have put every thing on the cast of a die, and forced a [235] battle at every disadvantage. The world gave him
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credit for an army of twenty thousand well armed men; and yet at the moment when Howe was receiving reenforcements, he had been left with less than half that number, including the sick, those on furlough, those on command, and those who were neither properly armed nor clothed. ‘For more than two months past,’ said he, ‘I have scarcely emerged from one difficulty before I have been plunged into another: how it will end, God in his great goodness will direct; I am thankful for his protection to this time.’

In June of the preceding year, when Lord North communicated his proposition as the ultimatum of British justice, he would have had it received as such and would have acted accordingly; on the echo from England of the battle of Bunker Hill, he saw that every hope of accommodation was delusive: the new year brought the king's speech to parliament in November, and Washington no longer held back his opinion that independence should be declared. Those around him shared his resolution; Greene wrote to his friend Ward, a delegate from Rhode Island to the general congress: ‘The interests of mankind hang upon that body of which you are a member: you stand the representative not of America only, but of the friends of liberty and the supporters of the rights of human nature in the whole world; permit me from the sincerity of my heart, ready at all times to bleed in my country's cause, to recommend a declaration of independence, and call upon the world and the great God who governs it, to witness the necessity, propriety, and rectitude thereof. The king,’ he [236] said further, ‘breathes revenge, and threatens us

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with destruction; America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of truth, freedom, and religion.’

The popular mind was more and more agitated with a silent, meditative feeling of independence; like a jar highly charged with electricity, but insulated. Their old affection for England remained paramount. till the king's proclamation declared them rebels then the new conviction demanded utterance; and as the debates in congress were secret, it had no outlet but the press.

The writer who embodied in words the vague longing of the country, mixed up with some crude notions of his own, was Thomas Paine, a literary adventurer, at that time a little under forty years of age; the son of a Quaker of Norfolk in England, brought up in the faith of George Fox and Penn, the only school in England where he could have learned the principles which he was now to defend, and which it seemed a part of his nature to assert. He had been in America not much more than a year, but in that time he had cultivated the society of Franklin, Rittenhouse, Clymer, and Samuel Adams; his essay, when finished, was shown to Franklin, to Rittenhouse, to Samuel Adams, and to Rush; and Rush gave it the title of common sense.

‘The design and end of government,’ it was reasoned,

is freedom and security. In the early ages of the world, mankind were equals in the order of creation; the heathen introduced government by kings, which the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproved. [237] To the evil of monarchy we have added

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that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a lessening of ourselves, so the second might put posterity under the government of a rogue or a fool. Nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule. England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones.

The most plausible plea, which hath ever been offered in favor of hereditary succession is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; whereas the whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions. In short, monarchy and succession have laid not this kingdom only, but the world in blood and ashes.

The nearer any government approaches to a republic, the less business there is for a king; in England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places.

Volumes have been written on the struggle between England and America, but the period of debate is closed. Arms must decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge.

The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent, of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in it even to the end of time. [238]

But Great Britain has protected us, say some.

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She did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account. America would have flourished as much, and probably more, had no European power had any thing to do with governing her. France and Spain never were, nor perhaps ever will be, our enemies as Americans, but as the subjects of Great Britain.

Britain is the parent country, say some; then the more shame upon her conduct. But Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America: this new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe; we claim brotherhood with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment. Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, are of English descent. The phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, is false, selfish, narrow and ungenerous; but admitting that we were all of English descent, Britain, being now an open enemy, extinguishes every other name.

Much hath been said of the united strength of Britain and the colonies, that in conjunction they might bid defiance to the world. What have we to do with setting the world at defiance? Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the friendship of all Europe. I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain.

As Europe is our market for trade, we ought to form no partial connection with any part of it. It is the true interest of America to steer clear of European [239] contentions, which she never can do, while by her

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dependence on Britain she is the makeweight in the scale of British politics.

Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of heaven. It is not in the power of Britain or of Europe to conquer America, if she does not conquer herself by delay and timidity.

It is repugnant to reason and the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can long remain subject to any external power. The most sanguine in Britain do not think so. The authority of Great Britain, sooner or later, must have an end; and the event cannot be far off. The business of this continent, from its rapid progress to maturity, will soon be too weighty and intricate to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience by a power so distant from us, and so very ignorant of us. There is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island: in no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than the primary planet. They belong to different systems; England to Europe, America to itself. Every thing short of independence is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when going a little further would render this continent the glory of the earth. Admitting that matters were now made up, the king will have a negative over the whole legislation of this continent. And he will suffer no law to be made [240] here but such as suits his purpose. We may be as

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effectually enslaved by the want of laws in America, as by submitting to laws made for us in England.

Reconciliation and ruin are nearly related. The best terms which we can expect to obtain can amount to no more than a guardianship, which can last no longer than till the colonies come of age. Emigrants of property will not come to a country whose form of government hangs but by a thread. Nothing but a continental form of government can keep the peace of the continent inviolate from civil wars.

The colonies have manifested such a spirit of good order and obedience to continental government, as is sufficient to make every reasonable person easy and happy on that head; if there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Let a continental conference be held, to frame a continental charter, or charter of the united colonies. But where, say some, is the king of America? He reigns above; in America the law is king; in free countries there ought to be no other.

All men, whether in England or America, confess that a separation between the countries will take place one time or other. To find out the very time, we need not go far, for the time hath found us. The present, likewise, is that peculiar time which never happens to a nation but once, the time of forming itself into a government. Until we consent that the seat of government in America be legally and authoritatively occupied, where will be our freedom? where our property?

Nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence. [241] It is unreasonable to suppose that France or

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Spain will give us assistance, if we mean only to use that assistance for the purpose of repairing the breach. While we profess ourselves the subjects of Britain, we must in the eyes of foreign nations be considered as rebels. A manifesto published and despatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and declaring that we had been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connexion with her, at the same time assuring all such courts of our desire of entering into trade with them, would produce more good effects to this continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.

Every quiet method for peace hath been ineffectual: our prayers have been rejected with disdain; reconciliation is now a fallacious dream. Bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature; can you hereafter, love, honor, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? Ye that tell us of harmony, can ye restore to us the time that is past? The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'tis time to part. The last chord is now broken; the people of England are presenting addresses against us.

A government of our own is our natural right. Ye that love mankind, that dare oppose not only tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression; Freedom hath been hunted round the globe; Europe regards her like a stranger; and England hath given her warning to depart:! receive the fugitive, and prepare an asylum for mankind.

The publication of ‘Common Sense,’ which was [242] brought out on the eighth of January, was most op-

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portune; the day before, the general congress had heard of the burning of Norfolk; on the day itself the king's speech at the opening of parliament arrived. ‘The tyrant!’ said Samuel Adams; ‘his speech breathes the most malevolent spirit; and determines my opinion of its author as a man of a wicked heart. I have heard that he is his own minister; why, then, should we cast the odium of distressing mankind upon his minions? Guilt must lie at his door: divine vengeance will fall on his head; and, with the aid of Wythe of Virginia, the patriot set vigorously to work to bring on a confederation and independence.’

The friends of the proprietary government stood in the way. The pamphlet of ‘Common Sense,’ which came suddenly into every one's hands, was written outside of their influence; and its doctrines threatened their overthrow. On the day after its publication, Wilson, to arrest the rapid development of opinion, came to congress with the king's speech in his hand, and quoting from it the words which charged the colonists with aiming at a separation, he moved the appointment of a committee to explain to their constituents and to the world the principles and grounds of their opposition, and their present intentions respecting independence. He was strongly supported. On the other hand, Samuel Adams insisted that congress had already been explicit enough; and apprehensive that they might get themselves upon dangerous ground, he rallied the bolder members in the hope to defeat the proposal; but in the absence of John Adams even his colleagues, Cushing and Paine, sided with Wilson, who carried the [243] vote of Massachusetts as a part of his majority.

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When Cushing's constituents heard of his pusillanimous wavering, they elected Elbridge Gerry to his place; at the moment, Samuel Adams repaired for sympathy and consolation to Franklin. In a free conversation, these two great sons of Boston agreed that confederation must be speedily brought on, even though the concurrence of all the colonies could not be obtained. ‘If none of the rest will join,’ said Samuel Adams to Franklin, ‘I will endeavor to unite the New England colonies in confederating.’ ‘I approve your proposal,’ said Franklin, ‘and if you succeed, I will cast in my lot among you.’

But even in New England the actors who obeyed the living oracles of freedom wrought in darkness and in doubt; to them the formation of a new government was like passing through death to life. The town of Portsmouth in New Hampshire disavowed the intention of separating from the parent country; the convention of that colony, which was the first to frame a government of its own, remembered their comparative weakness, and modestly shrunk from giving the example of a thorough change: they retained their old forms of a house of representatives and a council; they provided no substitute for their governor who had fled, but merged the executive power in the two branches of the legislature; and they authorized the continuance of the new constitution only during ‘the unnatural contest with Great Britain, protesting that they had never sought to throw off their dependence, and that they would rejoice in such a conciliation as the continental congress should approve.’ [244]

It was not the hesitancy of New Hampshire alone

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that defeated the plan of an immediate confederation; in the presence of John Adams, who had accepted for the time the office of chief justice in Massachusetts, the council in that colony would not concur with its house of representatives in soliciting instructions from the several towns on the question of independence, pretending that such a measure would be precipitate.

The convention of Maryland voted unhesitatingly to put the province in a state of defence; but moved by a sense of the mildness with which their proprietary government had been administered, on the eleventh day of January they bore their testimony to the equity of the English constitution, sanctioned no military operations but for protection, and forbade their delegates in congress to assent to any proposition for independence, foreign alliance, or confederation.

Moreover Lord Drummond, who represented a large proprietary interest in New Jersey, came to Philadelphia, and exhibited a paper which, as he pretended, had been approved by each of the ministers, and which promised freedom to America in point of taxation and internal police, and the restoration of the charter of Massachusetts. Lynch, a delegate of South Carolina, who had written to the north that John Adams should be watched because his intentions might be wicked, was duped by his arts, and thought even of recommending his proposals to the consideration of congress. Besides, it was expected by many, that agents, selected from among the friends of America, would be sent from England with full powers to grant every reasonable measure of redress. [245]

It was time for Franklin to speak out, for he best

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knew the folly of expecting peace from British commissioners. On the sixteenth his plan of a confederacy was called up, and he endeavored to get a day fixed for its consideration; but he was opposed by Hooper and by Dickinson, and they carried the question against him. Four days later, the Quakers of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, at a meeting of their representatives in Philadelphia, published their testimony that the setting up and putting down of kings and governments is God's peculiar prerogative. Yet the votes of congress showed a fixed determination to continue the struggle; twenty seven battalions were ordered to be raised in addition to those with Washington; it was intended to send ten thousand men into Canada; Arnold, on the motion of Gadsden, was unanimously appointed a brigadier general; powder and saltpetre began to be received in large quantities, and the establishment of powder mills was successfully encouraged. The expenditures authorized for the purposes of the war for the year, were computed at ten millions of dollars; and at the same time the several colonies lavished away their treasure on special military preparations.

In New Jersey the letters of the royal governor were intercepted; and their tenor was so malignant that Lord Stirling placed him under arrest. In Georgia the people were elated with their seeming security. ‘Twelve months ago,’ said they, ‘we were declared rebels, and yet we meet with no opposition; Britain may destroy our towns, but we can retire to the back country and tire her out.’ On the appearance of a small squadron in the Savannah, Joseph [246] Habersham, on the eighteenth of January, raised a

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party of volunteers, took Sir Joseph Wright prisoner, and confined him under a guard in his own house. The other crown officers either fled or were seized. After an imprisonment of more than three weeks, the governor escaped by night, went by land to Bonaventure, and was rowed through Tybee Creek to the Scarborough man-of-war. ‘Georgia,’ said he, ‘is now totally under the influence of the Carolina people; nothing but force can pave the way for the commissioners.’

When the Virginia convention, which had been in session from the first of December, heard of the burning of Norfolk, and considered that the naval power of England held dominion over the waters of the Chesapeake, they resolved to give up its shores to waste and solitude, promising indemnity to the sufferers. The commanding officer, by their order, after assisting the inhabitants in removing with their effects, demolished in Norfolk and its suburbs all remaining houses which ‘might be useful to their enemies,’ and then abandoned the scene of devastation.

For the defence of the rest of Virginia the two regiments already in service were increased; and it was ordained that seven more should be raised. Of one of these, Hugh Mercer was elected colonel; the command of another, to be composed of Germans from the glades of the Blue Ridge, was given to the Lutheran minister, Peter Muhlenburg, who left the pulpit for the army, and formed out of the men of his several congregations one of the most perfect battalions in the American army.

Colonial dependence had ever been identified [247] with restraints on trade in the minds of European

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statesmen, who would have regarded an invitation from the colonies to the world to share their commerce as an act of independence; the continental congress had interfered with the old restraints on foreign trade as little as the necessity for purchasing military stores would permit; they had moreover, with few exceptions, suspended alike importations and exportations, so that New England, for example, could not export fish to Spain, even to exchange it for powder; the impulse for a world-wide commerce came from Virginia. On Saturday, the twentieth of January, on motion of Archibald Cary, her convention gave its opinion in favor of opening the ports of the colonies to all persons willing to trade with them, Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies excepted, and instructed her delegates in the general congress to use their endeavors to have such a measure adopted, so soon as exportation from North America should be permitted. That this recommendation should have been left after ten months of war to be proposed by a provincial convention, is another evidence of the all but invincible attachment of the colonies to England.

Thus the progress of the war necessarily brought to America independence in all but the name; she had her treasury, her army, the rudiments of a navy, incipient foreign relations, and a striving after free commerce with the world. She was self-existent, whether she would be so or no; through no other way would the king allow her to hope for rest.

The declaration of independence was silently but steadily prepared in the convictions of all the people; [248] just as every spire of grass is impearled by the dews

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of heaven, and assists to reflect the morning sun. The many are more sagacious, more disinterested, more courageous than the few. Language was their spontaneous creation; the science of ethics, as the word implies, is deduced from the inspirations of their conscience; the greatest jurists have perceived that law itself is necessarily moulded and developed from their inward nature; the poet embodies in words their oracles and their litanies; the philosopher draws ideal thought from the storehouse of their mind; the national heart is the great reservoir of noble resolutions and of high, enduring designs. It was the common people, whose craving for the recognition of the unity of the universe and for a perfect mediator between themselves and the Infinite, bore the Christian religion to its triumph over every worldly influence; it was the public faith that, in the days of the reformation, sought abstract truth behind forms that had been abused, and outward acts that had lost their significance; and now the popular desire was once more the voice of the harbinger, crying in the wilderness. The people had grown weary of atrophied institutions, and longed to fathom the mystery of the life of the public life. Instead of continuing a superstitious reverence for the sceptre and the throne, as the symbols of order, they yearned for a nearer converse with the eternal rules of right as the generative principles of social peace.

The spirit of the people far outran conventions and congresses. Reid, among Scottish metaphysicians, and Chatham, the foremost of British statesmen, had discovered in common sense the criterion of [249] morals and truth; the common sense of the people

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now claimed its right to sit in judgment on the greatest question ever raised in the political world. But here as elsewhere, the decision rose out of the affections; all the colonies, as though they had been but one individual being, felt themselves wounded to the soul, when they heard and could no longer doubt, that George the Third was hiring foreign mercenaries to reduce them to subjection.

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