Hello and welcome to part 3 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, in which we hope to go through more than 90 seconds of video per 10,000 words (which we failed to do last time, in post 2).
So far, the episode has claimed that in 1775 there were no patriotic Americans who supported independence, and so George Washington personally tricked drunks and immigrants into joining the army. It was, we have shown, the other way around: most revolutions enjoy a surge of passionate but temporary support fueled by the excitement of the moment, deeply held belief in the cause, or a mix of both. If the revolution is not over quickly, most of those original volunteers melt away, and few want to take their places; the majority of the population holds out until something—a great victory, a heroic sacrifice, a threat by the enemy—prompts them to join.
Thus it was with the American Revolution. In 1775 the ranks of the Continental Army were pretty well filled, and not with drunks or rubes swindled by Washington, but by men who were hot to fight the British. By the beginning of the 1776 campaign, Washington and all the other generals were struggling with far fewer soldiers than they needed to face the enemy.
This point is made by one of the authors ARE actually sources: Erna Risch, “Supplying Washington’s Army.” (1981) ARE quotes Risch as saying that Continental Army recruiters (and Washington himself, according to the show) would “walk into bars beating a drum and literally march drunks into the army,” We could not find anything in Risch about drums or forced enlistment. Here’s what we did find:
Four days after the battles of Lexington and Concord [on April 19, 1775], the Massachusetts Provincial Congress voted to raise an army of 30,000 men and requested the other New England colonies to join this effort. New England colonies then began the process of forming from their various militias a volunteer army enlisted for the rest of the year. In June the Continental Congress took over the New England army besieging Boston and reinforced it with ten rifle companies from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, the first soldiers drawn from outside New England. Congress thereby created the CA.
The delegates unanimously elected George Washington to be commander of all forces then raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty. To Washington fell the unenviable task of trying to whip up enthusiasm for reenlistment among the New England troops whose terms of service expired at the close of that year. From this nucleus he built he Continental Army, but the unpatriotic attitudes he encountered discouraged him. (pp. 5-6)
This was when Washington wrote the comments about lack of patriotism that ARE quotes. It’s one red flag that we could not find the drumming quote ARE cites in Risch, and another that this source does not corroborate the show’s picture of Washington or the army.
ARE also claims Risch says that Continental recruiters would “frame colonists for crimes and have them ‘punished’ with forced enlistment.” Again, we could not find a reference to forced enlistment in Risch; if someone out there can find these quotes, send them to us.
In fact, as we see, Risch notes that the Continental Army was well supplied with soldiers—but only for one term of service. After that, it would be a difficult process to keep soldiers in the army for anything longer than their 6-month or one-year terms. But far from resorting to crime to trick people into fighting, Washington tried to get soldiers to re-enlist by improving their food, clothing, and ammunition supply. His furious letters to members of the Continental Congress lambasting them for sitting in comfort while his army starved are legendary. Here is part of one, from December 23, 1777:
“[W]e find Gentlemen …reprobating the [decision to make a winter camp rather than attack Philadelphia] as much as if they thought Men [the Soldiery] were made of Stocks or Stones and equally insensible of frost and Snow and moreover, as if they conceived it [easily] practicable for an inferior Army under the disadvantages I have describ’d ours to be to confine a superior one (in all respects well appointed, and provided for a Winters Campaign) within the City of Phila., and [to protect] the States of Pensa., Jersey, &c. but what makes this matter still more extraordinary in my eye is, that these very Gentn. who were well apprized of the nakedness of the Troops …advised me, near a Month ago, to postpone the execution of a Plan, I was about to adopt for seizing Cloathes… [they] think a Winters Campaign and the covering these States from the Invasion of an Enemy so easy a business. I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, wch. it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent…”
This does not sound like a man who didn’t care what happened to the men recruited into the Continental Army. Or, as ARE puts it, “even with all that chicanery, Washington still didn’t have enough men.”
We move now to the show’s aghast bombshell that “wealthy elites were able to avoid the draft by paying poor people to take their place.”
This was, in fact, a common practice by this time (mid-18th century). Hiring substitutes was not just something the wealthy did; many middling farmers did it. You didn’t have to pay substitutes a fortune, just enough to convince them to take your place. This continued during the Civil War, and was not a cause of shame at the time. Older men, men with many children, and men with vital war industries, including farming, could choose to hire a substitute with minimal or no backlash.
This doesn’t make it right, perhaps, but what we quarrel with here is ARE’s seeming lack of any historical understanding or context for substitutions.
The narrator of the show interjects at this point to say, “You’re telling me Washington’s army was made of people drafted, tricked, or paid off?” The answer? “Yes, and as a result, desertion was a constant problem… as many as 30% of all the soldiers deserted.”
The source cited here is James Howard Edmonson, “Desertion in the American Army,” 1971. We looked this up and found it was a dissertation, but could not find a copy online. Edmonson from 1971, Risch from 1981; it’s not quite ancient historiography, but one wonders why ARE’s sources are, so far, so dated. History, like any field, is constantly updated. A few classic works stand the test of time, but in general, we wouldn’t try to prove a hypothesis strictly with works that are 40-50 years old.
We’ll stop here, because next time we’re tacking the thorniest problem of the show: the claim that Washington murdered 200 Continental soldiers.