Colonial America

Truth v Myth and the First Thanksgiving

Posted on November 21, 2018. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s almost Thanksgiving, and what would it be like if the HP didn’t run its time-honored post on this American holiday, which debuted on November 15, 2010? Related is our short series on the NatGeo made-for-TV movie Saints and Strangers, in which we painstakingly debunk a pack of myths about the Pilgrims and the Americans they lived in relation to and dependence on. Enjoy, as you enjoy the holiday.

 

In honor of the season, we’re re-posting our classic Truth v. Myth post on Thanksgiving. This is the time of year when people take a moment to wonder about the Pilgrims: why were they so cruel to the Indians? The Thanksgiving celebration is marred by this concern. There are many reasons why it shouldn’t be. First, Thanksgiving has only been a holiday since 1863. It’s fitting that President Lincoln instituted this holiday during the Civil War to unite the U.S. in thanks for its blessings even in the midst of that terrible war. Here’s how he put it:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

—Britain and France have refused, in the end, to support the Confederacy, the U.S. itself is still intact and strong, and the U.S. Army and Navy are driving back the enemy.

Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

—The U.S. economy has not fallen apart for lack of slave-produced cotton, as the South had always predicted it would. Industry and agriculture are stronger than ever and the U.S. continues to expand.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

—God has punished the U.S. with this war for the sin of slavery, but is showing encouraging signs of his support for the U.S. war effort.

And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

—While thanking God for his mercies to the U.S. so far, Americans should also offer up prayers asking for his care for all those who have lost someone in the war, and asking for his help in ending the war as quickly as possible.

So the First Thanksgiving was in November 1863 and inaugurated for a good cause. The first thanksgiving in what would become the U.S. was held in November 1621 and was merely the first of many, many days of thanksgiving observed by the Pilgrims and was not celebrated as an annual holiday at all. Let’s go back to the original article to learn the real story:

____

The first Thanksgiving: it’s a hallowed phrase that, like “Washington crossing the Delaware“, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” or “Damn the torpedoes!”, does not bring up many solid facts. Unfortunately, “the first Thanksgiving” is usually either completely debunked, with people saying no such thing ever happened, or used as a weapon against the Pilgrims—i.e., they had a lovely Thanksgiving with the Indians and then killed them all.

The truth about the first Thanksgiving is that it did happen, in the fall of 1621. The Pilgrims had landed in what is now Massachusetts the previous November—a terrible time to begin a colony. Their provisions were low, and it was too late to plant anything. It is another myth that they landed so late because they got lost. They had intended to land south of Long Island, New York and settle in what is now New Jersey, where it was warmer, but their ship was almost destroyed in a dangerous area just south of Cape Cod, and the captain turned back. They then had to crawl the ship down the Cape, looking for a suitable place to land. Long story short, they ended up in what is now Plymouth.

Most Americans know how so many of those first settlers died from starvation and disease over the winter, and how it was only by raiding Wampanoag food caches that the colony survived at all. By the spring, there were not many colonists left to plant food, but they dragged themselves out to do so. They had good luck, and help from the Wampanoags, who showed them planting techniques—potentially just to keep the Pilgrims from raiding their winter stores again. By November 1621, a very good harvest was in, and Governor William Bradford called for a day of thanksgiving.

The Pilgrims often had days of thanksgiving. In times of trouble, they had fasts, which were sacrifices given for God’s help. In celebration times, they had thanksgivings to thank God for helping them. So thanksgivings were a common part of Pilgrim life, and calling  for a thanksgiving to praise God for the harvest would not have been unusual, and would have been a day spent largely in church and at prayer.

So the men went out to shoot some “fowls” for the dinner, and perhaps they ran into some Wampanoags, or maybe a few Wampanoags were visting Plymouth, as they often did, and heard about the day of celebration. At any rate, here is the only—yes, the one and only—eyewitness description of what happened next:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.  They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.  At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.  And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

That’s Edward Winslow, writing about the thanksgiving in his journal of Pilgrim life called “Mourt’s Relation”, published in 1622. We see that Massasoit and 90 of his men arrived at some point, having heard about the feast, and the Pilgrims hosted them for three days, and had some rather Anglican sport firing their guns. Certainly the Wampanoags had a right to feel they should join in, since it was their help that had led to the good harvest. A one-day thanksgiving turned into three days of feasting and games.

And that was it. People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came randomly when the people felt they were needed as a response to current events, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. Holidays were a human invention that made some days better than others when God had made all days equally holy. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way. When things were going well, Separatists and Puritans had days of thanksgiving. When things were going badly, they had days of fasting. None of them were annual holidays or cause for feasting (of course fast days weren’t, but even thanksgivings were mostly spent in church, with no special meal).

So that one-time harvest thanksgiving was indeed a happy event, shared in equally by Pilgrim and Wampanoag. And those Pilgrims who sat down with Massasoit and his men did not then slaughter them all; it would not be until their grandchildren’s generation that war broke out, in 1676, once Massasoit and the Pilgrims at that table were long dead.

The first Thanksgiving was an impromptu, bi-cultural celebration that we can all think of happily as we sit down to our annual table (provided by Abraham Lincoln, who made an annual Thanksgiving a holiday in 1863).

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How the U.S. Constitution was born

Posted on October 18, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to part the last of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political thought in the decade before 1775. Here we look at how the idea of a Constitution of principle took off once it was properly presented. As Bailyn puts it:

The transition to more advanced group was forced forward by the continuing need, after 1764, to distinguish fundamentals from institutions and from the actions of government so that they might serve as limits and controls. Once its utility was perceived and demonstrated, this process of disengaging principles from institutions and from the positive actions of government and then of conceiving of them as fixed sets of rules and boundaries, when on swiftly. [181]

Americans, as Bailyn spends a long early chapter explaining, seemed to fear nothing more than unlimited government that became tyrannical. Abuse of power was the worst possible abuse. That’s why most Americans had resisted a government based on theory–theory could infinitely expand and be used to justify any abuse of power. Better to send reps to the legislature with a few concrete demands than to have them while away their hours coming up with “ideas” to guide them.

But it became clear to these Americans that Principle did not have to be used for evil expansion of power. Principles could be used to limit government. The U.S. Constitution is a tribute to where this thinking quickly led–it can definitely read sometimes like it’s primarily a list of what the federal government cannot do rather than what it can. Principles can be used to curb government by giving natural rights to the individual citizen, and institutions like the free public press.

If politicians drew their power to act from a set of written principles that the voters had agreed upon, then those principles–the Constitution–began to seem like it had a lot in common with those written rules and requirements towns used to send their reps to the legislature with. One knew that one’s reps were bound by the principles of the Constitution, and, if that constitution was properly written, it would curb the power of the government.

This helped Americans to separate bodies of law from actual bodies of government. Parliament, or the colonial legislature, were not the constitution. They were not the law. They did not write laws by their own authority. Americans quickly adopted the idea that legislatures were authorized to write laws by authority of the constitution they were governed by. They could not create laws that violated that constitution. Legislatures were not synonymous with the law, and they were not above it.

This flew in the face of the established English legal tradition that the body of laws Parliament had created over the centuries was the English constitution, and therefore Parliament itself was the ultimate authority. As Zubly put it, the Americans were diverging into the belief that

Parliament derives its authority and power from the constitution, and not the constitution from Parliament… the constitution is permanent and ever the same, [and Parliament] can no more make laws which are against the constitution or the unalterable privileges of the British subjects than it can alter the constitution itself… The power of Parliament, and of every branch of it, has its bounds assigned by the constitution. [181-2]

This leads fairly naturally to the idea that a people and their legislature must have a written constitution to operate by. The English tradition that the entire great body of law and precedent created over the centuries was the constitution was unacceptable. That great body of law had no guiding principles–it contained laws that contradicted each other, laws that were written on the spur of the moment, laws that were the brainchild of individual men. And it put the cart before the horse: a legislature doesn’t make a constitution possible; a constitution makes legislation possible.

Bailyn goes on to the end of this chapter to describe how different colonies began to implement this idea, and it’s good reading. But we’ll close our series with a final quote from this great historian:

These changes in the view–of what a constitution was and of the proper emphasis in the understanding of rights–were momentous; they would shape the entire future development of American constitutional thought and practice.

It’s great to really study the intellectual history of our revolution, and to remind ourselves that it was not all about “Americans didn’t want to pay taxes”.

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How America developed its Constitution

Posted on October 14, 2018. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Colonial America, Politics, three branches of government, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

Here in part 5 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s, we come to the second revolution in political thinking that occurred in a very short period: the idea of a constitution of principles.

English legal tradition had defined the “constitution” as the legislature itself–“a legal constitution, that is, a legislature”, as Richard Bland put it. Bailyn describes how the work of the American lawyer James Otis began to articulate a new definition of a constitution as a moral foundation for the work of a legislature, a set of principles that informed and put boundaries on what a legislature could do. Bailyn sums this up as “a set of fixed principles and rules distinguishable from, antecedent to, more fundamental than, and controlling the operating institutions of government” (176).

In this understanding, a constitution authorized and limited the legislature’s actions. Since all of this thinking was going on in the context of English law, the question of whether a constitution authorized and limited the monarch’s actions did not come into play. And as we know, after the Revolution there was still substantial support in the new United States for a monarch-like president who stood above the law. But the idea that Congress, House and Senate, had to abide by a constitution of principles was firmly established–so much so that the American people famously demanded a Bill of their rights be added to the Constitution that they, the people, ratified, so that Congress would be clearly bound to protect principles of personal liberty, and, even more important to people at the time, restrained, constrained, and prevented from expanding its powers and becoming tyrannical.

But that’s leaping ahead. During the period 1765-1775, Americans were working out the first step, which was how to define the principles a constitution should uphold. Were they simply the recognized legal principles handed down from legislature to legislature over the centuries of English practice? Were they religious principles of Anglican Christianity? Were they the new and radical tenets of natural law? It was easier to use the term “fundamental law” and “formal principles” than to define them, especially in America, where there had been so much steely and deliberate resistance to the idea of men in a legislature serving any other principle than “I will follow the orders my townspeople gave me.”

Otis wrote that Parliament could not be allowed to violate natural laws “which are immutably true,” because that would violate “eternal truth, equity, and justice,” and therefore any act of Parliament that violated natural law would be “void.” But how do we define what is “immutably true”? How do we come to agree on what is eternally true, fair, and just? What we discover is that the foundation of any constitution is a shared agreement on, and belief in, some powerful concepts of truth, fairness, and justice.

We see this shared agreement stated elegantly in the opening words of our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We hold these truths–it took years of debate, ten thousand letters and editorial essays printed in newspapers, tens of thousands of sheets of paper, a million letters between Americans, and countless millions of conversations in taverns, family homes, business offices, and farm fields to define who “We” were and what the “truth” was. That all this intellectual activity was compressed into about 10 years–1765-1776–is remarkable, and shows how important those definitions were to Americans at all levels of society. The same debate went on for another ten years, until our Constitution was drafted in 1787.

Even Otis did not go as far as his fellow Revolutionaries would. He did not believe that a constitution would “furnish judges with grounds for declaring [laws] nonexistent because they conflicted with the ‘constitution,’ but only[provide] judges with principles of interpretation by which to modify gross inequities in ways that would allow traditional [definitions] of justice to prevail.” [180] The idea that inherited laws and legal procedures, inherited concepts of law that were centuries-old, should still stand as the test of whether an act of Parliament was valid would be vehemently discarded by the men who wrote our Declaration and, eventually, our Constitution. Longevity was not truth, tradition was not equity.

We’ll finish next time with the path to concretizing the new American idea(l) of a modern constitution of principle.

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Government for the people’s sake in Colonial America

Posted on October 5, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s.

We left off describing the common American conception of government as a purely practical delivery system in which their representatives to the colonial seat of government, meeting in a general assembly once or twice a year, followed their written instructions by asking for things their towns wanted, then came home. There was no sense of government as something larger than the sum of its parts. Government was not something that expressed certain ideals. It didn’t inspire people, it wasn’t generally seen as an instrument that could be used to expand the common good.

Government for most American colonials was, in fact, an ever-present danger. Bailyn spends the first part of his book illustrating that the deepest fear Americans had about government was that it would abuse its power–that it would become tyrannical. If you were to tell representatives that they were politicians, that meant their job was being in the government, working in government, and soon they would do anything to preserve and extend their power. Better to keep reps firmly in place as the dispensable, dependent servants of their constituents, sent to the assembly to do a short-term job for someone else.

This served to restrict the power of government by preventing it, as much as possible, from taking on a life and meaning of its own. As Bailyn puts it,

In effect the people were present through their representatives, and were themselves, step by step and point by point, acting in the conduct of public affairs, No longer merely an ultimate check on government, they were in some sense the government. Government had no separate existence apart from them; it was by the people as well as for the people; it gained its authority from their continuous consent. [173]

That’s why most colonial assemblies only met once a year. The idea of a standing government, like a standing army, always around, always acting, was unnatural and repellent to most Americans. It was the norm in Europe for all national legislatures to meet for short periods only–Parliament met briefly then disbanded. It did not stay in session all year. Government came into being, into existence, when the people came together to make their demands. Then it disappeared again when they left. The people were the government.

We begin to see in this alien state of affairs the seeds of our own familiar American conception of government. The people would accept a colonial assembly coming into being because they made it come into being by sending their reps to the capital. The people controlled their reps, and so controlled the government. Thus the people felt safe consenting to the decrees of the temporary assembly. If their representatives stayed in the capital all year, and talked amongst themselves, and came up with laws on their own,  based on their reading or some other source than their direct voters, then those voters–the people–would not accept those laws or consent to them.

Electing reps each year was a way to ensure that no one stayed in politics so long that they began to pursue their own, or someone else’s, agenda. In this way, short terms in brief assemblies secured consent. Voters had to feel that their positions were represented   in their assemblies, or they would not consent to the laws the assemblies passed. This was government by the people, as much as possible, and for the people (who could vote), not government for government’s sake. Government for the sake of promoting and protecting a leader (a monarch or governor), for the sake of providing people with government jobs, for the sake of enriching politicians and capital cities–this was anathema to Americans.

Of course, some men were elected as reps over and over by their towns, for decades. But even these men could be suddenly and swiftly unseated if they crossed their constituents. Men who represented their town for years on end were men who did their town’s bidding.

Underlying this state of affairs, and making it possible, was the lack of a king in America. Yes, the American colonists were servants of the king, just as people in England were. But they did not participate in Parliament, and so their experience of their own government passing laws to please the king, or enrich him, or reflect his religious beliefs, etc., was extremely limited. A series of English monarchs declared war on France, and Americans fought the French in Canada many times. This was the most directly felt impact of having a king for most American subjects. Otherwise, Americans governed themselves to serve themselves.

Bailyn quotes the Tory Anglican minister Samuel Seabury apprehending in 1774 how differently  the American perception was from the British, and anticipating the trouble it must cause:

The position that we are bound by no laws to which we have not consented either by ourselves or our representatives is a novel position unsupported by any authoritative record of  the British constitution, ancient or modern. It is republican in its very nature, and tends to the utter subversion of the English monarchy.

Next time: constitutions and rights

 

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Is representative federal government possible? American colonists said no

Posted on September 27, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, The Founders | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 3 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the transformation of American political understanding in the 13 colonies in the 1760s and 70s. We left off in part 2 talking about the impossibility of 1:1 political representation and Americans’ growing discomfort with the idea that the ever-increasing size and diversity (read new immigrants) of their population meant that the old days of towns being peopled by four generations of a dozen families, and governed pretty representationally by representatives of those families, were over. As we say in one post in our earlier series on the Federalist Papers:

The idea of equal numbers of Senators for all states, and proportional representation in the House did not pit Federalists and Anti-Federalists against each other. But the reality of defining “proportional representation” did. Anti-Federalists pointed out the impossibility of one person capably and honestly representing the wants and needs of 30,000 people. The Federalists replied that lowering the number (1 Rep for every 1,000 people, for example) would not solve the problem of one person representing multiple constituents—any time one person represents a group there is no way that person can fully represent their wants and needs unless that group is fully united. Since it is very rare for any group to be fully united, no representative can ever do justice to that group. But as usual, the Federalists used this flaw of human nature as a strength: the one thing that can give a Representative some authority to say that he accurately represents his many constituents is elections themselves. In elections, the people are forced to choose someone they think will do the best possible job representing their basic wants and needs. Not everyone will be happy, but the majority of the people will be satisfied, and if too many people are not satisfied, then they elect someone new. Elections will also force the people to focus their wants and needs into a few main issues, on which candidates will campaign. What the people really want most will come out during election campaigns, and the person who best represents what the people think is most important will go to the House.

The Federalists also pointed out, yet again, that the growing nation would soon have so many millions of citizens that it would be impossible to have 1:1 or even 1:1,000 or 1:100,000 representation in the House. The House had to be a figurative representation of the nation; it could not be a literal one.

This kind of thinking was over a decade away in the 1760s. It was the cauldron of political crisis that boiled through the 1760s and 1770s, and the Revolution it led to, that melted down traditional colonial thinking about government and reshaped it into virtual representation to Congress.

Part of that cauldron of crisis was the ever-stronger reaction against the wholesale rejection of virtual representation. This came mostly from Tories in America. Bailyn quotes one who complained that

…by the patriots’ reasoning, “every man, woman, boy, girl, child, infant, cow, horse, hog, dog, and cat who now live, or ever did live, or ever shall live in this province [must be] fully, freely, and sufficiently represented in this present glorious and august Provincial Congress.”

Traditionalists responded vigorously, insisting that the old American way of giving explicit, limited instructions to local reps in writing was the only way to avoid the trap of federal corruption. It’s really interesting to read how very, very strongly the majority of American colonists were against giving a federal government power. It could be Parliament in London, it could be Boston in Massachusetts, it could be Williamsburg in Virginia. Give a legislative body in one town a general mandate to make laws and it became suspect. (It’s also interesting to note that Americans did not feel this way about courts, and spent a great deal of time in their courts, persistently pursuing and appealing to higher and higher courts whenever possible.) Bailyn spends the earlier part of his book dissecting this fear of federal corruption in colonial America, and it’s fascinating to see him locate it ultimately in a fear of unchecked power that remained strong in America for centuries. It’s worth noting that it lives on today in a common hatred or disdain for the federal government in Washington, while the unchecked power of Wall Street is celebrated and protected by the same people who would dismantle Congress. Some unchecked powers are better, it seems, than others.

Giving reps explicit instructions from which they could not vary also underlined that politics was a job. Representatives were not young idealists who wanted to make a better nation. They were men chosen to get something specific–that bridge or mill–from an outside source and that was it. Politics were remorselessly practical. The idea that men in a legislature sought “the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole”, as Edmund Burke put it, was nonsense. Because it’s such a part of our Constitution and our political tradition as the United States, it’s hard for us to realize today that colonial Americans had very little sense of “common good”. A sense of politics serving humanity as a whole, of existing to provide liberty and justice for all, was hard-won from the cauldron of crisis. Until then, most American colonists agreed with Arthur Lee’s assessment that elected reps were “trustees for their constituents to transact for them the business of government… and for this service only the, like all other agents, were paid by their constituents”; Lee complained bitterly that these paid employees had come to find it “more advantageous to sell their voices in Parliament and [become] independent of the People.” [Bailyn 171]

So we have most Americans firm in the belief that reps are basically hired to do a specific job obtaining concrete items for their constituents in the colonial legislature, after which they return home as soon as possible. Reps were not to make decisions about philosophical issues concerning the greater good or the American colonies as a whole. They were not to make decisions about other towns, let alone other colonies. They were not “the representatives fo the whole kingdom” but of “a particular part.” They were not to know better than the people who elected them, but to be an invisible delivery system through which their electors’ voices were heard. They were, as James Wilson said, the “creatures” of their constituents”. [171]

Bailyn goes into the practical effects of this belief next, and we will go with him.

 

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Why did Americans protest taxation without representation?

Posted on September 19, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the sea change that American colonists’s ideas about representative government went through in the decades before the Revolutionary War.

(We’re in the middle of a series here; if you’re looking for a stand-alone, quick answer to the question, see Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes.)

We left off last time with Americans living happily with a medieval concept of local representation to colonial legislative bodies: we send our representative with a few, specific, brass-tacks practical requests and the concessions that we authorize him to offer in return for those requests being granted. We want a mill, and we’re willing to help build a local bridge in return.

England, on the other hand, had evolved its political system to include the concept of virtual representation: districts composed of multiple towns and counties, or a populous city borough, elect a representative to the House of Commons who will vote on issues of national importance in a way that he believes best represents his constituents’ views on said issues. This is very abstract. This English rep is not going to Parliament with a piece of paper listing the 1-3 concrete things his town wants to have that he is supposed to ask for. He is not going to Parliament representing a single town. He represents many towns, or, if he represents a city borough, the various inhabitants of that borough. He represents hundreds or (as the 18th century wore on) thousands of people, and he represents their thoughts and feelings about issues, not their physical wants and needs. He can’t leave Parliament once he’s requested the 1-3 things his town want. He sits in on all debates, touching towns he is not part of, and issues that may not immediately impact his constituents. In short, he is a modern representative to a national governing body.

Two other modern conditions applied: first, very few people could vote, so any rep necessarily represented the interests of those who could, and this meant that most people were not truly represented. If someone represented a town, he represented the dozen male landowners who could vote and who chose him. Next, even if someone could vote, there was no obligation on their representative to express that constituent’s individual thoughts, desires, or demands. Think of it this way: does your current Senator or Representative in Congress ensure that all your individual demands are satisfied? Of course not. it’s not possible to do that if you are representing more than one person. A rep has to try to represent the majority, and even that is difficult. If your rep does vote the way you want, English authors of the 1760s would have described that as “accidental and not necessary” representation.

Thus, when England began to claim in the 1760s that it had a right to tax the American colonies because they had virtual representation to Parliament, that made sense to English people.

…the principal English argument put forward in defense of Parliament’s right to pass laws taxing the colonies was that the colonies, like the “nine tenths of the people of Britain” who do not choose representatives to Parliament, were in fact represented there. The power of actually voting for representatives, it was claimed, was an accidental and not a necessary attribute of representation, “for the right of election is annexed to certain species of property, to peculiar franchises, and to inhabitancy in certain places.” In what really counted there was no difference between those who happened to live in England and those in America: “none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament…” [p. 166]

This worked in England, Bailyn says, because “the practice of ‘virtual’ representation provided reasonably well for the actual representation of the major interests of the society, and it raised no widespread objection.” [p. 167]  People in the city of Bath, for instance, felt that Parliament did a good job steering the nation, even if Bath itself never came up inside its walls. Bath didn’t have to insert its particular, individual, local needs into national legislation because people in Bath believed that those local needs would be met by general legislation—all towns would benefit from good laws, all would suffer under bad laws. If all towns suffered, the laws would change.

Americans, however, did not have this faith in centralized government. Americans in the 1760s  believed they needed to elect men to represent them in Parliament because they still operated in a direct-representation system where

  1. reps represented their single town,
  2. many people in that town could vote (in many American colonies, all adult males could vote; there was no property-owning restriction),
  3. those people had concrete demands they expected their rep to voice, and
  4. they expected their rep to keep all his business local to their town. He was not at the legislature to conduct colony-wide business.

When Americans were told that men from Birmingham or Leeds or Coventry, London or Bath or Norwich, “virtually” represented them because those men were working for the common good of Britain, which would be the common good of the British colonies, they did not buy it. At all. What did these English men know about life in America, let alone in Massachusetts, let alone in the town of Ipswich? A Norfolk landowner knew nothing about the town of Ipswich’s need for a new bridge. A Norfolk man’s vote on a European trade bill would do nothing to get Ipswich that bridge. Even a Norfolk man’s vote to build more bridges in Britain and her colonies would not guarantee that a bridge was built in Ipswich.

Americans believed in local government because it was immediately accountable for its actions. If your town rep did not do your town’s bidding, he was not re-elected. Any distance from the voters, the constituents, was dangerous. Bailyn records a statement by the American Daniel Dulany in 1765 with which “almost every writer in America agreed, was the extent to which representation worked to protect the interest of the people against the encroachments of government.” This is telling: in America, “government” was  a double-edged sword: necessary, but needing to be tightly controlled lest it free itself from its commitments to specific, local needs and rage out of control.

Next, the problem was that maybe English reps really could provide virtual representation to other English people. But as Bailyn sums up Dulany’s argument,

…”no such intimate and inseparable relation” existed between the electors of Great Britain and the inhabitants of the colonies. The two groups were by no means involved in the same consequences of taxation: “not a single actual elector in England might be immediately affected by a  taxation in American imposed by a statute which would have a general operation and effect upon the properties of the inhabitants of the colonies.”

Once a lack of natural identity of interests between representatives and the populace was conceded, the idea of virtual representation lost any force it might have had; for by such a notion, James Otis wrote, you could “as well prove that the British House of Commons in fact represent all the people of the close as those in America.” [Arthur Lee wrote that’ “our privileges are all virtual, our sufferings are real… We might have flattered ourselves that a virtual obedience would have exactly corresponded with a virtual representation…” [The question was] who, precisely, is the American freeman’s virtual representative in England? [168]

So often we’re told that Americans rebelled in 1775 because they didn’t want to pay taxes. This is so crude and so untrue and so much less interesting than the truth, which is that Americans rebelled in 1775 partly because they believed in actual representative government, despite the impossibility that already existed, at that time, of anyone, even a local town rep, truly representing his local constituents. Even small towns in America had populations in the thousands by 1760. Americans were trying to come to grips with that change on their own, in their own back yards, when suddenly England claimed virtual representation and began taxing them.

This claim would drive American colonists to grapple with, and come up with solutions for, the impossibility of 1:1 local government. But they would have to struggle first—and millions of trees would die to provide the paper needed to argue that struggle out from the 1760s through the 1780s.

Next up: struggling to see politics as more than a job

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Are our politicians supposed represent “we, the people”?

Posted on September 9, 2018. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’ve been re-reading that classic, magnificent, super-charged, and piercingly relevant masterpiece of discovery about the real roots and goals of the American Revolution called The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn. It was republished last year for its fiftieth anniversary, but there is nothing stuffy, boring, or outdated about this electric book.

That being the case, we’re going to devote a few series to this book, beginning here, with Bailyn’s masterful description of how radically… old-fashioned the American revolutionaries’ ideas about representative government were in the 1770s. In fact, they were positively medieval. This is the heart of Chapter Five: Transformation.

We all learn that the Americans (our shorthand going forward for revolution-minded American colonists in the mid-1700s) demanded representative government—government consented to by the governed. But that gloss is tragically incomplete, for it describes where we landed—with difficulty, just barely—by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and where we as a nation only fully rested after the Civil War.

Bailyn takes us back to the pre-Revolution mindset by comparing the American colonies to medieval England, before the 1400s. At that time, representatives of the common people to Parliament in London were “local men, locally minded, whose business began and ended with the interests of the constituency”. They were given explicit, written instructions about what they were to ask for and what they were allowed to promise in return. For instance, did the constituents want access to a waterway? That’s what their representative would ask for. The was the only reason he was sent to London to sit in Parliament. It was the only thing he would discuss in Parliament. He would not get involved in any other representative’s requests, which were all hyper-local as well. There would be no point. There were no grand debates about larger issues, no votes on items that impacted the whole kingdom—that was restricted to the House of Lords. (From 1341 on the Commons met separately from the Lords. Throughout the 14th century the Commons only acted as a single body twice, to complain about taxes in 1376 and to depose Richard II, with the House of Lords, in 1399).

In return, the local representative to the Commons might be allowed to promise that men from his locality would serve on a work crew elsewhere, or patrol the coast, or something else. The representative was sent to Parliament for that single purpose–to get the new mill–and was not authorized or expected to participate in any other discussion. If he got the mill but promised something he had not been authorized to promise, he would not be sent to Parliament again. Government was pinpoint specific and local, an amalgam of individual grants and favors repaid individually. [Bailyn 162-3]

Over the 1400s and 1500s, this slowly changed. It became something we recognize today as “right” and much more inspiring. Members of Parliament were not “merely parochial representatives, but delegates of all the commons of the land”; as Edmund Burke, the great political theorist (1730-1797) summed it up, members of Parliament stood for the interest of the entire kingdom of England. They were not

…a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which [they] must maintain against other agents, [but] Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. [Bailyn 163]

This sounds right to us. That’s the American political philosophy we know and love. We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We’re greater than the sum of our parts. Our members of Congress are in Washington not just to get our individual states things they want, like new roads. They’re not there to write laws that only benefit their individual states. They’re in Washington to write laws that preserve the national trust, that promote democracy for all citizens. They’re supposed to work together for the common good. That’s how we define government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Well, that’s how we define it now. But in the American colonies, the polar opposite was true.

Bailyn points out that this new, universal definition of political representation developed in England as it became more modern. The population grew, and towns and counties were less isolated and less independent, less like small kingdoms unto themselves. There was more of a sense of Parliament representing the English people, not this town and that town.

Just as this concept was settling into place in England, the Thirteen Colonies were being formed, and the situation in America was entirely different. It was a throwback to medieval times: a small population lived in tiny towns that were separated by long distances and therefore basically governed themselves. They were technically bound to follow laws made by the general court of the colony they were in, but those laws were few and not far-reaching. Local town government was much more important and vital and apparent to the vast majority of American colonists than the central, colonial government in the capital city. Each town sent representatives to the general court in the capital, usually once a year, and each town gave their representatives explicit, written instructions about what benefits to ask for and what concrete items they could give in return for the benefits. If a representative violated these written instructions they would not be re-elected by their town.

So as England was finalizing the concept of the representative as politician, of men skilled in general principles of law who worked with other politicians to create general laws that would benefit the kingdom as a whole, America remained firmly rooted in and dedicated to the concept of the non-professional representative, the local man bound to local interests. Americans preferred their representatives to be local businessmen, which at that time meant most representatives were farmers representing farmers, whose concerns were often minutely focused. As Bailyn notes, “disgruntled contemporaries felt justified in condemning Assemblies composed of ‘plain, illiterate husbandmen, whose views seldom extended farther than to the regulation of highways, the destruction of wolves, wildcats, and foxes, and the advancement of the other little interests of the particular counties which they were chosen to represent.'” [Bailyn 165]

It’s ironic, then, that as the revolutionary age began in America, it was England, not America, that had the attitude of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

How did America move from this medieval concept of government to the vision of democracy and justice for all? We’ll move closer next time.

 

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Many black Americans fought with the Continental Army–sorry, Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on May 5, 2018. Filed under: Civil Rights, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 5 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, in which we address the ludicrous claim that the British army was a haven of freedom and happiness for those enslaved black Americans who risked their lives to fight therein.

AC: …while the British actively recruited slaves to fight—

British soldier: Hear ye, hear ye! All who fight for the Crown shall be free!

AC: —the patriots didn’t even allow it at first. And when they did, they made no promises of freedom:

American soldier: Hear ye, hear ye! All who fight for liberty will still be slaves. [As black Americans walk past] Sucks for you.

AC: Due to this, there were up to 20 times more slaves fighting for the British, than for the patriot side.

The show then tells the story of James, an enslaved black American in Virginia who fought for the Continental Army. He was a hero who won the admiration of the Marquis de Lafayette, and was eventually helped by the Marquis to win his freedom and become James Lafayette.

We suppose we will just mention that the show misspells Lafayette’s name as “da Lafayette” instead of “de”. It’s all part of the slipshod, half-baked research paper feel of the show.

More importantly, the episode glosses over the facts of the British offer of freedom to enslaved Americans who fought for them. The show says that after the war, which James helped to win, he was returned to slavery, which implies that if Britain had won, he would have been freed. The truth is abysmally different.

Let’s look into the article they cite—incompletely, of course, by failing to give the name of the article. All they say is “Lloyd Dobyns, Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Autumn 2007.” I think we all know from high school research paper writing that you have to include the title of the article you’re citing. We put Dobyns and the Journal into a search engine and found it: “Fighting… Maybe for Freedom, but Probably Not”  in which we read this:

Those who sided with the British were told, more or less, that they were manumitted and would be given land and self-government. They had a better hope for freedom with the British than they had with Americans. But the British found it easier to promise liberty and land than to provide them. Slaves who departed with the redcoats when the conflict was over were in their new lands—Canada, England, Australia, and Sierra Leone—still treated much as they had been before.

The first wholesale promise from the British of freedom to slaves came just as the war was starting, in November 1775. The last royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, having fled Williamsburg for his safety first to HMS Fowey and then to HMS William, offered freedom to slaves and indentured servants “able and willing to bear arms” for the British. There was, however, a catch.

Dunmore’s proclamation applied to slaves owned by rebels, not to slaves held by loyalists. His offer, the realization of an oft-repeated threat, was intended as much to terrify and punish rebels, and to furnish himself with more troops, as to help the slaves. Though slavery had been limited in England three years before—the Court of Kings Bench ruled in 1772 that slaves could not be taken out of the realm for sale—it was still legal and would be until 1834. Nevertheless, the rumor spread in the colonies that slaves had been freed in Britain, and it proved a powerful magnet for bondsmen.

Blacks who answered Dunmore’s call suffered hunger, disease, and bombardment. Eight times as many died of sickness as did of battle wounds. After Yorktown, where for practical purposes, the fighting ended six years later, they found that their sacrifices would profit them little. Yorktown meant victory for the American cause, but spelled disaster for the enslaved.

As the war proceeded, some rebel slaves were given to loyalist slave owners or shipped to English slave properties in the Caribbean or, for that matter, sent back to their rebel owners when they proved of little or no value to the British.

—So we see that the British offer of freedom was not an honest one. Enslaved Americans were either not freed, or shipped off to barren lands to live in as free, yet utterly impoverished, people.

Those black Americans who risked all for freedom found only misery, virtual enslavement, and death:

…Carleton sent a fleet with five thousand settlers to Nova Scotia, including white loyalists and black runaways. We do not know how many of either. Historian Simon Schama identifies the episode as “a revolutionary moment in the lives of African-Americans.” It may also have been the high point in their search for freedom.

Nova Scotia, on the southeast coast of Canada, extends farther south than northern Maine and is all but surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean—basically, a flat almost-island first settled by the French in 1605. Scots came in 1621, hence the name of the place, Latin for New Scotland.

The refugees landed in a cold, sparsely settled, forested place, populated by Scots, Protestants from France, Switzerland, and Germany, and a few of the Mi’kmaq tribesmen who were the original residents. In no time at all, it was clear that whatever the American blacks were called, and whatever they had been promised, they would be treated like slaves and live a life not much better, and a lot colder, than they had lived in the American colonies.

They were segregated in housing enclaves and churches, economically oppressed, cheated, and lied to. When, infrequently, land was parceled out, theirs was the worst. One of the few ways to survive was to sign on for pitiful wages as indentured servants to white loyalists, some from the slave-owning South. The major difference was that the former slaves could and did sue for redress of wrongs in the Nova Scotia courts and sometimes won against whites. In Virginia, by contrast, blacks could not, in district courts, so much as testify against whites.

—How on earth ARE read this article and decided that the “fact” to pull out of it was that the British offered freedom to enslaved people we will never know. Especially when the same article includes this:

The Continentals, including George Washington’s troops, had such a mixture of black and white soldiers that a French staff officer referred to them as “speckled.” American combat troops were not integrated as they were in the 1770s and 1780s until the Korean War 170 years later.

Free blacks and slaves often enlisted from New England. The First Rhode Island, a majority black unit, was well known. In the South, there was a congressionally approved plan—never realized—to arm, and eventually to free, three thousand slaves for service as a military unit for South Carolina and Georgia. Slaves sent to take the place of white owners were commonplace in the ranks, particularly in southern state militias. British commanders other than Dunmore encouraged rebel slaves to run away, and run away they did. The figures are guesstimates, but they are the best we have. Dunmore’s promise attracted eight hundred to a thousand blacks, about a third of them women, though his proclamation applied only to males. In the South, perhaps eighty thousand to one hundred thousand slaves ran to British lines.

—What’s this? The Continental Army did have black soldiers? How could ARE have missed this? All you have to do is search “black soldiers in Continental Army” and hundreds of sites come up. Let’s choose one at random for the story ARE chose not only not to tell, but to hide: Black Soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

At the start of the war, Washington had been a vocal opponent of recruiting black men, both free and especially slaves. He wasn’t alone: Most southern slave owners (and many northern slave owners), found the idea of training and arming slaves and thereby abetting a possible slave rebellion far more terrifying than the British. Black men had long served in colonial militias and probably even saw action during the French and Indian War, explained retired Maj. Glenn Williams, a historian at the U.S. Army Center for Military History, but they had usually been relegated to support roles like digging ditches. In fact, he continued, most southern militias had been created precisely to fight off slave insurrections.

As war with Britain broke out in the spring of 1775, however, Massachusetts patriots needed every man they could get, and a number of black men — both slave and free — served bravely at Lexington and Concord and then at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In fact, according to documents archived on http://www.fold3.com, a former slave named Salem Poor performed so heroically at Bunker Hill — exactly what he did has been lost to history — that 14 officers wrote to the Massachusetts legislature, commending him as a “brave and gallant Soldier” who deserved a reward. Valor like this wasn’t enough, however, and shortly after his appointment as commander in chief, Washington signed an order forbidding the recruitment of all blacks.

The British saw an opportunity to divide the colonies, however, and the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to any slave who ran away to join British forces. Thousands took him up on it, and Washington relented almost immediately. In fact, the famous picture of him crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day, 1776, also features a black Soldier who many historians, according to “Come all you Brave Soldiers” by Clinton Cox, believe is Prince Whipple, one of Washington’s own bodyguards, who had been kidnapped into slavery as a child and was serving in exchange for freedom. Another black Soldier, Primus Hall, reportedly tracked down and single-handedly captured several British soldiers after the battle of Princeton a week later.

—Yes, Washington opposed arming black men to fight as soldiers. Knowing Washington, it was less because of racism and much more likely because he didn’t want southern states to oppose the war effort because a) they feared it would lead to a rebellion of enslaved Americans, and b) they didn’t want any avenue to be created that could justify freeing enslaved Americans.

We also see that the British did not offer freedom to the enslaved because the British were awesome. It was a cynical divide-and-conquer tactic, the true nature of which was revealed by what they actually did to their black soldiers.

Washington still wasn’t prepared to go as far as recruiting and freeing slaves, but many northerners had begun to question how they could call for freedom and enslave others. As that terrible winter at Valley Forge dragged on, the state of Rhode Island learned it needed to raise more troops than it could supply. State legislators not only promised to free all black, Indian and mulatto slaves who enlisted in the new 1st Rhode Island Regiment, but offered to compensate their owners. Desperate for manpower, Washington reluctantly agreed, and more than 140 black men signed up for what was better known as the “Black Regiment,” according to Williams, and served until Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Va., in 1781.

In fact, they fought so bravely and inflicted so many casualties on Hessian mercenaries during the battle of Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1778, that Williams said one Hessian officer resigned his commission rather than lead his men against the 1st Rhode Island after the unit had repelled three fierce Hessian assaults. He didn’t want his men to think he was leading them to slaughter.

The 1st Rhode Island was a segregated unit, with white officers and separate companies designated for black and white Soldiers. It was the Continental Army’s only segregated unit, though. In the rest of the Army, the few blacks who served with each company were fully integrated: They fought, drilled, marched, ate and slept alongside their white counterparts. There was never enough food or clothes or even pay for anyone, but they shared these hardships equally.

After watching a review of the Continental Army in New York, one French officer estimated that as much as a quarter of the Army was black. He may have been looking at the 1st Rhode Island or units from Connecticut and New Jersey, which also had high rates of black enlistment, Williams explained. Many muster roles have been destroyed so there isn’t an exact count, but Williams said most historians believe that 10 to 15 percent is a more accurate representation of black Soldiers who served in the Revolution. They served in almost every unit, in every battle from Concord to Fort Ticonderoga to Trenton to Yorktown.

“I’ve heard one analysis say that the Army during the Revolutionary War was the most integrated that the Army would be until the Korean War,” Williams said…

It was a war for freedom, not only for their country, but for themselves. After the men of the1st Rhode Island and other black Soldiers served bravely at Yorktown alongside southern militiamen whose jobs it had been to round up runaway slaves, the war gradually drew to a close. Soldiers began to trickle home. Some black soldiers like those in the 1st Rhode Island, went on to new lives as freemen. Far too many, however, returned to the yoke of slavery, some for a few years until their masters remembered promising to free them if they served, but others, having fought for freedom, were doomed to remain slaves forever.

—Clearly, we are not saying that all black Americans who enlisted in the Continental Army were treated fairly after the war. We’re saying:

a. Yes, there were black soldiers in the Continental Army. Many soldiers.

b. They were promised freedom by northern states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

c. This promise was fulfilled for some black soldiers, but not all.

d. It was their experience of living and fighting alongside black Americans that led many northern Americans to question, and finally abandon, race-based slavery.

And, we’d also like to say that there should be some research done on black women who contributed to the war effort—you know they did. They must have; if anyone knows of research on that, please share it.

Next time, we’ll finally conclude our close-reading of this horribly misleading and damaging episode by addressing their final pack of myths about Paul Revere.

 

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Recruiting for the Continental Army–the true story (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything!)

Posted on April 7, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Economics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

In part one of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode and its myth-creation promoted as myth-busting, we focused on the premise of the episode—that everyone in the Continental Army during the Revolution whether a drunk, or an immigrant, or a farmer, was there for mercenary reasons only; as Adam puts it, “to get paid.”

The episode quickly “proves” this by moving on to characterize George Washington as a criminal.

Narrator: But I thought these people had so much of that patriotic spirit.

Adam: They weren’t. George Washington himself said, “it grieves me to see so little of that patriotic spirit, which I was taught to believe was characteristic of this people.”

As we mentioned in part one, Adam Ruins Everything always posts its sources on-screen so you can check them. Here, the citation is “The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, U.S. Government Printing Office.” This is less complete than his sources usually are, including those posted later in this episode—no date of the “Writings” publication, no editor. Under Washington’s words, it says “George Washington, 1775.”

This Washington quote is taken wildly out of context, as we’ll see below. For now, let’s continue.

Adam: Without the support of the people, Washington and the Continental Congress were desperate for an army, so they resorted to shady recruitment practices to raise their ranks.

Washington: Let’s go trick some rubes into fighting against their will! [evil laugh]

Narrator: Come on: how shady could they possibly have been?

Adam: First, they offered money to bribe the potential recruits.

Washington to a man in tavern: Look, I know you don’t want to fight, but maybe my friend Mr. Washington can change your mind? [holds a dollar] …I’m bribing you.

Man: Bribe? Why didn’t you say so? Gimme a gun, I’ll shoot those red jackets.

Adam: But the Continental Army didn’t have enough money to actually pay the soldiers, so most received IOUs.

Washington: Here you are! You can cash it in at the end of the war… if we win. And if you don’t lose that [piece of paper]. Washington runs away …And if you survive!

So Washington himself went into bars to recruit drunks through bribes that could not be paid in cash… Unwilling to suspend our disbelief on this one, we did some research.

We quickly found the source cited: John Smith, Jr. Journal of the American Revolution, Feb. 2015. This is a reputable journal. The article is online at the site All Things Liberty,  it’s called “How the Revolutionary War was Paid For,” and it tells a different story. Smith gives six ways the U.S. tried to pay for all of the expenses of the war, including soldiers’ and officers’ pay: Congress and the states printing money, we got loans from Europe, and just as during WWI and WWII, wealthy Americans bought war bonds.

But the other ways to try to pay were debt certificates:

3 // The 13 States Issued Their Own Debt Certificates (14%): Most of these were like state-issued war bonds. Also called “bills of credit,” they were “interest bearing certificates” with the buyer putting up their land as collateral. The patriotic buyer would then (or so they were told) get their principal back plus interest – assuming America won the war! As support for the common defense, states would also issue these as “requisition certificates” to vendors or suppliers to pay for food and supplies if the Continental Army happened to be camped in their state.

4 // Congress Issued Its Own Debt Certificates (10%): These certificates were also called (in politically correct verbiage of its time) “involuntary credit extensions” because they paid no interest and their value, tied to the Continental dollar, dropped like lead daily. These were mostly given out by the Continental Army quartermaster corps to citizens when buying or confiscating materials. In the last two years of the war, the Continental Army soldiers were also paid in these, so you can see why there was much grumbling – and mutiny. Some discharged soldiers sold their certificates to investors for literally pennies on the dollar.

In fact, what we call IOUs or debt certificates were common in colonial America, and most often called “bills of credit,” as Smith points out. There was very little cash money in the colonial world. Americans exchanged/bartered goods and services in 9 out of 10 transactions. Bills of credit were IOUs—if you needed something that couldn’t be traded for, or you didn’t have enough to trade, you gave a bill of credit to the merchant, with an agreed-upon time when he would call in the payment.

So no American would have been outraged or confused by being given a bill of credit. The problem was that men enlisting as soldiers were leaving their families with fewer goods and services to trade, since their labor was missing to create goods and perform services. So they would have much preferred it if the Continental Congress could have given their families the bills of credit, to use to get food and other necessaries, or if they could have been paid in food and cloth, directly going to their families.

The problem was not the IOU, it was the fact that it was for cash, which already had a limited value in the colonial world. On top of that, the cash value was low—almost worthless—because the dollar was so unstable. Printing money to use in most transactions was unheard of. Each colony minted its own coins, and during the war printed its own money. Money printed in Maryland could not be used in Virginia. The federal government’s dollars were new to all the colonies, of course, and not trusted. So paying soldiers in cash, and a new kind of printed “dollar”, would have been a problem even in the best of times.

But the Continental Congress could hardly come up with cloth and food for all of its soldiers’ families—it would have to mandate that the new states provide these, but it did not have the power to do so. And none of the states could do it, in part because because both food and cloth would have to come in large part from the people who should have been receiving it—soldiers’ families—and in part because the state governments were notoriously opposed to spending one (not yet existent) dime on the war.

Smith continues:

…In July 1777, a Continental dollar had already dropped two-thirds of its value. …By 1780, Congress revalued its dollar as officially only one-third of its 1775 value. But the new and improved dollar still plummeted to the point where, by 1781, it took 167 dollars to equal the previous one dollar. So what did Congress do? They couldn’t tax, so they printed even more dollars to be able to buy an ever-shrinking amount of goods and services. Prices were skyrocketing with severe depreciation and hyperinflation happening everywhere. States were still demanding that taxes be paid. It was a crisis, which threatened the existence of the new republic.

By 1781 and in desperation, Congress put strong-willed financier and Congressman Robert Morris into the new office of Superintendent of Finance. Some of the first emergency actions Morris took were to devalue the dollar, and then he squeezed about $2 million in specie from the states. But in a very controversial move, he suspended pay to the Continental Army enlisted soldiers and officers. Instead, he decreed that the army be paid in debt certificates or land grants until the peace treaty was signed. In 1782, the new consolidated national debt was so enormous that Morris suggested Congress only pay the interest on the debt, saying (this may sound familiar in today’s world) “… leave posterity to pay the principle.”

So we see that it was not just enlisted men but also officers whose pay was suspended in 1781. Long before then, soldiers had told their families that it was up to them to keep them supplied, and those families did so. They traveled to winter camps to bring supplies, and often stayed with their men as camp-followers over the winter, when there was no farm work. Martha Washington was one of the women who banded together to do washing and cooking for the enlisted men in winter camp, including at Valley Forge.

To say, as this episode does, that Washington deliberately lied to/bribed men to enlist when he knew they would not be paid is ludicrous. On a completely practical level, Washington didn’t recruit anyone. He was head of the army. On the moral and truthful level, he had no way of knowing how those IOUs would fare. He didn’t know his own pay would be cut off when the dollar sank.

More importantly, to insist that men enlisted in the CA strictly for the money is not only ridiculous but provably untrue.

Men enlisting in the Continental Army early on did so for a few reasons—the same mix of reasons that still moves people to enlist in the armed forces. They wanted adventure. They wanted to defend their country (even if, to them, that was just their state). Their friends and relatives enlisted, and they wanted to be there with them. They didn’t want to be cowards. They thought it would end quickly.

When the war did not end quickly, and winter dragged on, most men left the CA when their one-year or six-month term of service was through. But even at the time, they were condemned for it. In December 1776, Thomas Paine called them out in The Crisis:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

Those summer soldiers and sunshine patriots did not sign up to get rich. They signed up for patriotism, glory, and adventure. Even mercenary soldiers at that time did not get rich in military service.

Patriotic men were recruited not by George Washington in a bar but created years before 1775, by men they respected and honored all their lives: ministers.  New Englanders had been primed with local patriotism for a century before 1775, and specifically primed to resist and, if necessary, to fight British attacks on their long-held liberties for about a decade before actual fighting broke out in 1775. In 1774, during the hardships brought on New England by the Intolerable Acts, the minister at Wethersfield, Connecticut added this to his sermon on Matthew 10:28:

I say Unto you, my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed hath the power to cast into hell, yea I say unto you fear him.

…In this day of our public trouble when we are threatened with being deprived of those immunities and Liberties with which God & the Constitution have made us free. Let us not be so afraid of man that killeth the body & hath no more that he can do as to offend God by tamely giving up any part of that freedom with which he has blest & intrusted us as a talent improvable to the happiest purposes. But may we obey God rather than man & stand fast in the Liberty wherewith he has made us free. May we account no exertions, no Self-denials, no Sacrifice too great upon this occasion. And whilst we are taking the most probable & vigorous methods to preserve our freedom may we diligently seek after and cultivate that fear & trust in God… We shall see our desire upon our enemies & experience his Salvation.

In New England, patriotism as defined by the willingness to oppose any law or action from Britain that interfered with inherited political processes and liberties was alive and well long before 1775, and this—not “getting paid”—did inspire many men to enlist.
In “Why the Patriots Really Fought,” Justin Ewers includes another pastor in his analysis: “Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom,” wrote Nathaniel Niles, a pastor in Norwich, Conn., in 1775, “Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with.”

Over 30,000 men enlisted in Washington’s army in the first year. That’s an enormous number that could never have been recruited in bars. They were there not for the money and clothes they were promised, but because they were patriotic. The problem is they were not professional soldiers.

When those men’s year or half-year of fighting was up, most went home, which seems at odds with their patriotism. But we have to remember that these were not professional soldiers, and more than that, there was no understanding of how long the war would go on—no one, on either side, would have guessed seven more years—and serving for one year was indeed a real sacrifice of time, labor, family safety, and, crucially, health. “Just one year” is easy for us to say. But one year in a colonial army was a lifetime.

A side note is that the men who enlisted in the first year were well aware that, in 1776, the fighting was all in New England, and mostly in Massachusetts, and their families were suffering. They could continue to fight at home by providing food and shelter when the British were doing their best to destroy both, and by defending their towns from British attacks.

This is when Washington wrote the words ARE quotes about grieving over a lack of patriotism, in a letter written during the winter of 1776/7, after his inexperienced army had for the most part fought bravely as it was pushed out of New York and into New Jersey.  As Ewers describes it,

During the long retreat, Washington learned a hard lesson about the staying power of patriotic soldier-farmers. “These men,” he wrote, “are not to be depended upon for more than a few days, as they soon get tired, grow impatient and ungovernable, and of course leave the Service.” From a high of 31,000 troops, by year’s end, Washington’s force had dwindled to fewer than 3,000. Many of the men had enlisted for six-month terms. When their contracts expired, they went home.

That winter, Washington pleaded with Congress for a real army, one that wouldn’t rely on farmers’ idealism to survive. “When men are irritated, & the Passions inflamed,” he had written to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, “they fly hastily, and chearfully to Arms, but after the first emotions are over to expect that they are influenced by any other principles than those of Interest, is to look for what never did, & I fear never will happen.”

Washington knew militiamen had their reasons for keeping their service short, of course. They had farms and businesses to run and families to feed. Still, when the states began to struggle to re-enlist enough soldiers to keep the war going, Washington was disappointed. “No Troops were ever better provided or higher paid, yet their Backwardness to inlist for another Year is amazing,” Washington wrote. “It grieves me to see so little of that patriotick Spirit, which I was taught to believe was Charackteristick of this people.”

The point is that Washington did not grieve over the lack of patriotism of men at the start of the war, as ARE says. He wasn’t complaining that men would not enlist to fight. He was made aware a year later, during winter camp in NJ, that the men who “flew hastily, and cheerfully to Arms” because of their “emotions”—i.e., patriotism—were not willing to actually, permanently sacrifice their families and their livelihoods for their country. Their patriotism was too shallow. It was easy to promise to fight in 1774; in 1776, after tough fighting, it was easy to say “I kept my promise to fight; now I’m going home.” Few men were like Washington—willing to stay and fight as long as it took to win or die trying.

And note this important item: Washington’s assessment of a lack of true patriotism, that is willing to sacrifice all, came after a year of fighting, in 1776—not at the start of the war, when the army was first formed, as ARE argues.

As the first recruits left, the make-up of the army changed. As Ewers says,

…after the first year of fighting, the nascent Continental Army was forced to leave its now mythic origins behind. The high-minded middle-class farmers went home, and a new army was formed, made up mostly of poor, propertyless laborers, unmarried men in their early 20s who took up arms not to defend some abstract ideal but because they were offered money and land. The militias would supplement this core of increasingly professional soldiers throughout the war, but the Army would never again look the way it did on the road to Boston. By 1778, the average Continental soldier was 21 years old; half the men in the Army were not even of English descent. “The folks who made the long-term commitment,” says James Kirby Martin, a professor of history at the University of Houston and coauthor of A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763 – 1789, “were the folks who didn’t have another alternative.”

If ARE wanted to jab at the Continental Army for being full of “rubes” and drunks and mercenaries, he should have focused on the later army, not the first recruits.

To sum up:

  1. ARE mis-uses the Smith article, which never a) accused Washington of criminality, and b) points out that many attempts were made to pay the soldiers, but the weakness of the Continental Congress, which was forbidden to raise taxes, made that impossible.
  2. ARE mis-uses and perhaps misunderstands the Washington quote.
  3. The first recruits were indeed starry-eyed patriots who had been prepping for this war for many years in New England.
  4. The show does not understand the financial world of colonial America, nor
  5. the real reason why soldiers did not get paid as they should have been after the war.

We’ve gone on at length here so we’ll stop, but if 45 seconds of video from ART can provoke this much correction, we fear for our next posts. But we’ll keep on, because we want ART to know that myth-busting is important.

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Adam Ruins Everything–including his own show; or, the American Revolution was not a sham

Posted on April 2, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Historians, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Ah the perils of myth-busting. Before you revel in exposing myths, you have to be absolutely sure all of your facts are straight. It reminds us of the first rule of editing: don’t introduce mistakes into something you’re trying to correct.

Someone who has fallen afoul of this rule is Adam Conover, of the TruTV show Adam Ruins Everything. We enjoyed season 1 of this show very much; there was a lot of effective myth-busting in many different categories—health, economics, politics, etc. But the new season that began recently was a disaster of myth creation in the guise of myth-busting.

The locus of the show is that everything Conover says is backed up by research. His sources appear briefly onscreen as he speaks. But if the first tool of the myth-maker is to create your own facts out of whole cloth, the second is to cherry-pick, mis-represent, and de/re/mis-contextualize facts in the sources you read. This episode, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth,” did all of those things with its sources.

Before we go through it with a fine-tooth comb, the overall point to make is that history is like science in that you must look at all the data. Cherry-picking is what we call looking for data that only supports your position and ignoring data that does not. History also requires objectivity and open-mindedness: if you begin research with the goal of making someone look good or bad, you are not going to do good research.

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” is so irritated with the positive myths about the American Revolution, and somehow George Washington in particular, that it goes overboard trying to prove that it and he were awful and that all Americans should be ashamed of both.  Now the show must bear the brunt as The HP Clarifies Everything.

The episode begins with Adam contradicting a pompous narrator who says the Continental Army during the Revolution was filled with patriots. Adam swiftly steps in to claim, for the first of many, many times, that the CA was “not made up of patriots, but drunks, immigrants, and farmers looking to get paid.” We’re not sure why immigrants cannot be classified as patriots—Adam implies that all of them were very recent arrivals who could not have had any loyalty to the patriot cause. He continues:

In 1775, as few as 1 in 5 colonists even supported the independence movement. And much of that support came from wealthy, land-owning elites.

WEALTHY MAN: It would be great for me if we were our own country. The king’s taxes are really hurting my bottom line.

But the average colonist didn’t care about patriotism at all.

FARMER: I’ve got a farm to tend. I don’t care which elitist wig-head is in charge.

And on top of that, about a third of the colonists actually supported the British side.

Where to begin with the problems here? First, it’s true that support for independence from Britain did not have majority support amongst American colonists. But to basically say that the independence movement was a tool used by wealthy men to make more money is not accurate, and certainly not myth-busting. To bullet it out:

—You cannot generalize about “the colonies”. Support for independence differed in each colony and each region of the 13 American colonies. Not all wealthy people supported it. And basically no wealthy man thought that separating from Britain, and leaving behind the lucrative trade with England that had made him wealthy in the first place was going to help his “bottom line.” Wealthy men who supported independence were men who were well-educated and believed it was worth the sacrifice of their wealth, at least temporarily.

—The comment about “average” colonists and “farmers” shows a complete lack of knowledge about revolutionary America. What made our revolution extraordinary was that it was debated amongst average people for a long time. Most Americans were farmers. All of the farmers in New England voted for their representatives to their colonial legislatures. Farmers in most of the Mid-Atlantic and South did the same. Americans were very politically active. They were unusual in the British Empire; the political identity and strong views most average American farmers–men and women—held and constantly aired surprised and sometimes amused visiting Englishmen and women. Very few American farmers believed their colony’s government was made up of “elitists,” and they cared very much about who served in their names. Voting rates were high and steady.

—Yes, a third of Americans supported British rule; that is, remaining part of the Empire. But even these were divided about what that should mean going forward, as America grew economically. Even Americans who did not want independence thought that the colonies should elect men to serve in the House of Commons in London, to represent America’s wants and needs.

—They wanted that in large part because they wanted to have some say in taxation, which was not hurting anyone’s bottom line as much as it was reducing America to the status of a vassal state, in that Americans had no say in taxation, and most of the taxes they were protesting throughout the 1760s and 70s had been levied not to raise money but as punishments for political protest—many were literally taxes levied to pay the tax collectors’ salaries. Taxation was protested against on a political level, for its political effects, not because it was hurting a few rich elitists’ incomes. One of the first things you learn when studying revolutionary New England is that wealthy merchants like John Hancock remained quite wealthy during these periods of taxation and trade bans because they continued to operate by illegal smuggling.

There’s another large problem that will become clear in our next post, when the show introduces George Washington as a swindler, liar, and criminal. Not all Americans in the Continental Army were true-blue patriots ready to die for their newly declared country. But that’s the miracle of the Revolution, and the testament to Washington’s leadership: slowly but surely, after the hot patriots served and left the Continental Army, he created a new army of patriots out of individual militia and men who did want to get paid and get out after one year. The American cause of liberty was something that Washington built up out of very little, out of defeat and suffering, through personal example and commitment, and ingrained in the hearts of the men of his army.

So to assume that all the Continental soldiers all had to be held in the army by force and lies throughout the war is simply wrong. The desire to knock Washington off his pedestal leads the show to go horribly off-course into something that goes beyond myth-making to truth destruction. But more on that next time.

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