Revolutionary War

Continental Army enlistment—no drums, no drunks (sorry, Adam Ruins Everything)

Posted on April 18, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

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 unan 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.

 

 

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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. Yes, few 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, he created an army of patriots out of individual militia and men who wanted 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.

To focus as this show does on how men felt when they first enlisted is to assume that they all had to be held in the army by force and lies throughout the war. The desire to knock Washington off his pedestal leads the show to go horribly off-course into something that almost goes beyond myth-making to truth destruction. But more on that next time.

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Watergate and Trump and deja-vu: The Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post from our series on the 1972-5 Watergate crisis because of the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973. They fought for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. They knew that we, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. They knew that Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis.” How will the members of our federal government act in 2017?

 

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

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Sons of Liberty on “History” is terrible and stupid and partly accurate

Posted on February 12, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Everyone by now is talking about History.com’s Sons of Liberty and how blazingly inaccurate it is. Everything that can be falsified has been falsified, from the ages of the leading participants to their motives to their actions. The AV Club sums it up better than we can here.

We went to the History.com website to take a look and were intrigued, given the circumstances, to see a box called “Historians’ View” on the landing page. Once clicked, we came to a page that begins with this statement:

“SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please check out the links below.”

A slew of links out to other resources follow this, and most of them are accurate, which seems baffling at first—if you know the real story, why not tell it?

But that brief statement explains all. Should the “History” channel offer historical fiction rather than fact? No. Should it present historical fiction as a documentary for TV viewers, with this disclaimer buried below the episodes on the website? No. Should it promote 21st-century gun values by claiming that they are part of our hallowed revolutionary history? No.

The latter is most important, because the Revolution was all about our evolution from a tradition of mindless, horrible violence to a focused legal, philosophical, and military fight for liberty and justice. In our post The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence, we describe the terrible violence and destruction that Americans felt no qualms about using when they were upset, or for no real reason at all. Violent action was sanctioned in the American colonies in ways it never was in Britain. Mobs formed at the drop of a hat, and destroyed people’s homes and businesses—literally tearing them apart brick by brick—to settle personal grudges as well as political arguments. Tarring and feathering, which is somehow presented as a harmless prank today, involved holding people down naked and pouring boiling tar over their bare skin, then covering them with feathers. At the time, it was called “the American torture”. It cost many lives.

It was this kind of violence that the real Sons of Liberty’s leaders began to realize had to go if Americans wanted to claim they were calling for a just war against Britain. The Boston Tea Party was the striking departure from that tradition of violence. It was deliberately carried out without costing a single life—the men who called for the protest and led it in the harbor read the riot act to all participants: no one was to use any violence against any one. The protest had to be completely nonviolent for the same reason Martin Luther King wanted civil rights protests to be nonviolent: to show the injustice of the inevitable hostile reaction when compared with the high ideals of the protestors. And it was successful. The Tea Party was completely nonviolent, and that’s what aroused general public sympathy throughout the American colonies when the British cracked down so hard on Massachusetts in retaliation.

So making “Sons of Liberty” violent is indeed to “capture the spirit of the times”, as the disclaimer says, and if early episodes showed the unthinking violence our forefathers used early in the run-up to revolution, it would be completely accurate. But then it has to show the evolution away from violence in late 1773. It has to focus on the efforts of John Hancock, the Adams cousins, and others to swerve the growing energy for revolution away from mindless personal attacks to directed, politically powerful stands for liberty that could serve as building blocks for that liberty.

Instead, this series unsurprisingly focuses on imaginary affairs and other forms of make-believe that just confirm our judgment that the series’ producers and the “History” channel either a) did not know the real story or b) did not believe the facts were interesting enough to present, or both. It’s baffling how many shows about historical events believe those events were so incredibly boring they’re not worth making a show about, and fill in with guns and sex and made-up speeches and events instead. If you think the facts are boring, just write your fictional show and be done with it. Why call it Sons of Liberty when it’s not about them?

Perhaps one day, 100 years from now, someone will write a miniseries about the producers and management at the History Channel that shows them all as ex-cons who commit terrorist activities on the weekends. They could hardly complain, could they, from beyond the grave?

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Why the American Revolution is not a model for gun ownership today

Posted on May 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Historians, Politics, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.

—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.

This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.

It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.

—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.

They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.

—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.

Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.

So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.

But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.

it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.

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Paul Revere with a cell phone

Posted on April 26, 2013. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: |

We can’t help liking this ad with Paul Revere.

If only he had told them “by sea”. Maybe they called him back.

 

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“I have not yet begun to fight!” John Paul Jones captures the Serapis

Posted on February 14, 2013. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

This thrilling quote is another most Americans know, and say, but don’t know the origins of. Here is the short but epic story of the defiant line and the man who uttered it, John Paul Jones.

Jones (born John Paul) was a Scot who was apprenticed to a ship’s captain and became a sailor. His elder brother William emigrated to America while John served on a few British ships, including slave ships. He was disgusted by the cruelty of slavery, and stopped serving on those ships, working on merchant vessels and rising to the rank of captain.

While slavery may have revolted John, he seems to have had no second thoughts about meting out violent punishment to his own sailors if he felt they deserved it. He brutally whipped one sailor, who died about a month later, and killed another with a sword. John claimed it was self-defense, but he did not wait to see if a court back home in Britain would agree, and fled to America.

He went to Fredricksburg, Virginia, where his brother William had lived and recently died. He decided to stay, and it was at this time that John Paul added Jones to his name, for reasons that are unclear but may have had to do with disguising his identity. When the Revolutionary War began shortly after, Jones traveled to Philadelphia to offer his services to the fledgling U.S. Navy. He led several raids south to the Bahamas, to raid British military supplies, and north to Canada, where he was to try to liberate U.S. prisoners of war. He failed to do this, but did capture the British ship Mellish, which was carrying supplies for British General Burgoyne (whose surrender at Saratoga in 1777 was so critical to the U.S. war effort).

While he was successful, Jones clashed with American authorities in Boston, who sent him to France to do whatever might be done there to help the war effort. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were in Paris at the time persuading France to ally with the United States and enter the war on the American side, and Jones became friendly with Franklin, When France did enter the war, Jones sailed his ship, Ranger, into British waters to see what damage he could do. He fired on ships at the port of Whitehaven, then crossed to Scotland to try to take the Earl of Selkirk hostage at his estate on St. Mary’s Isle. The Earl was not at home, and after restraining his men from looting and burning the great house, Jones slipped away. Jones and his crew then captured the Drake and brought it to port in Brest.

The capture of the Drake was an important symbolic victory for the U.S., and as a reward he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard, a French ship given to the U.S. for the war effort. It was on this ship, on September 23, 1779, that Jones encountered the Serapis, a new British frigate on her maiden voyage, acting as part of a convoy protecting British shipping from piracy. The Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, on sighting a French ship flying the American flag, turned to protect their convoy. The Serapis was closest, and Jones launched his attack.

The ships began firing on each other, but knowing that the British ship had more and larger cannon than his own, Jones made the bold decision to move closer to the Serapis and try to lash the two ships together, so that the Serapis could not fire its cannon without damaging itself. As his men struggled to maneuver the Bonhomme Richard, another ship sailing with Jones, the Alliance, tried to fire on the Serapis but hit the Bonhomme Richard, which began to sink. At this point, Jones was asked if he would surrender by a British sailor on the Serapis, close enough now to the Bonhomme Richard for the question to be shouted across, and it was then that Jones uttered his famous retort “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Jones finally succeeded in lashing the two ships together, and his men could pick off British sailors with their guns. The British attempted to board the Bonhomme Richard, and although they were turned back, the American flag was shot away. A British sailor on the Serapis called over to ask if the American crew had deliberately lowered their flag in surrender, an act called striking the flag. Jones called out another salty response that is not as famous as his first: “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!” Finally, a grenade thrown onto the Serapis exploded a cache of gunpowder on the lower deck, and at last the British captain surrendered. Jones and his men left their sinking ship to board the Serapis and sail it to Texel, a port in Holland. The Bonhomme Richard could not be saved, though its crew tried to repair it enough to get it to port, and they were forced to watch it sink.

For his bravery, Jones was made a Chevalier by France, and in 1787 the Continental Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. Like most American naval officers, he was discharged after the war and left with nothing to do but return to private life, which he did not want to do. He served in the Russian navy of Catherine the Great and died in Paris in 1792. He remains were returned to the U.S. in 1905.

Jones is a mix of the valiant and the troubling. On the up side, he was brave and he rejected slavery, and his victories helped the American cause in the war. On the down side, he could be savagely violent, and if war had not come along one wonders what attacks he might have perpetrated against his crew on an American merchant ship. Perhaps he is best remembered today for his service to the United States at a time when it desperately needed bold action.

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Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

Posted on November 27, 2012. Filed under: Revolutionary War, The Founders | Tags: , |

Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.

Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.

Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers.  Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:

“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”

—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.

“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.

“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”

—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.”

—Here, when speaking of “our petition”,  Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.

“I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain.”

—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.

“Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”

—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”

—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.

“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against us?

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable, and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)

Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.

We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.

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Puritan law, oligarchy, and the Body of Liberties

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first codification of law in Puritan New England, in which we wrap up our look at this groundbreaking American political document with some thoughts on its meaning in its own time, and in ours.

This first codification of Massachusetts law was, as we saw in part 1, not easily drafted, as the people of the colony resisted doing so for two reasons: first, they felt a body of laws should develop naturally over time, as it had done in England, allowing precedent rather than law-makers to rule the day; and second because their colonial charter forbid them to create any laws “repugnant” to the laws of England, and they were not certain whether the laws they drafted would violate that tenet.

The uncertainty sprang, of course, from the fact that there was no written code of law in England at that time—its famously unwritten constitution was composed of centuries of local custom. But the Puritan leaders, and a growing number of freemen, in Massachusetts were worried about following that tradition in the New World. They worried that legal and court decisions would be made based on opinion, prejudice, or personal agenda rather than an objective striving toward justice. Just four years after landing in America, the Puritans began the lengthy process of drafting a code of laws with input from all the towns, and after six years of canvassing, drafting, reviewing, and revising, the Body of Liberties was published, with copies sent to all the towns to be read aloud and voted on.

The Body was only the first of many Massachusetts codes of law. In 1660 the Body was updated and enlarged (and renamed “Laws and Liberties”), with addenda added each year from 1662-6, and again in 1668. The Laws were revised and rewritten again in 1672, and would evolve over the decades into the state law of Massachusetts.

In its own time, the Body of Liberties was daring and innovative. Daring in that it established an independent government for the colony, with laws clearly not part of English law. The Puritans broke their charter to create their laws, and this is just one example of the commitment the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made to independence almost from the moment of their arrival. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Puritan New England on the Edge, 1637, the people of the MBC feared a royal takeover of their colony, expecting warships from England to arrive in Boston harbor at any moment. Their response was to build forts overlooking the harbor and arm them with cannon, making the decision to fight to the death to preserve their religion, their laws, and their liberty.

The Body was innovative in that it set out a relatively brief yet comprehensive set of laws that reinforce a) the rights of freemen; b) the principle that no one is above the law; c) the right to a fair day in court; and d) the need for buy-in from the people themselves, who  first helped draft and then voted to approve and accept these laws. This was proto-democracy, and it was not being practiced in any other American colony—or many other places anywhere else in the world.

Today, the Body is mostly unknown to Americans. Most Americans, if asked what they think Puritan laws were like, would come up with the most repressive, draconian, irrational suggestions imaginable. (One example: on a recent tour of sites along the Freedom Trail in Boston, an acquaintance was told by the tour guide that Puritans put people in the stocks for sneezing on a Sunday. The Body, as readers of this series will note, contains no references to sneezing.) Modern-day Americans think of Puritans as witch-crazy religious nuts whose only goal was to oppress people. But we see from our study of the Body that to say this image is unfair is an understatement.

Why the Puritans continue to get such a bad rap is fairly clear: very few people actually read their documents. They read The Scarlet Letter in high school, hear the term “city upon a hill” used to refer to smug arrogance, and learn that Anne Hutchinson was persecuted, along with Quakers, for trying to spread religious tolerance. The overall effect is a rejection of the Puritans as unpleasant and even evil people, a fleeting example of intolerance that was stamped out by later Americans who created a fair Constitution.

Those who actually read what the Puritans wrote, and know what their beliefs and ideals and goals were, may not always come away happy and approving, but they have a much more accurate understanding of these revolutionary people, whose laws, and ideas of justice, in having shaped the political consciousness of Massachusetts, played an important role on the road to American independence and the Constitution we revere today.

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Assassin’s Creed III – giving George Washington the cred he deserves!

Posted on June 22, 2012. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , |

An acquaintance played me the preview trailer for the new Assassin’s Creed video game coming out in October. Why? Because it includes an edited excerpt of George Washington’s thrilling speech to his army before the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776 (he also included the stirring passage in his General Orders of July 2, 1776). Here is the actual text:

“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses, and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army—Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect—We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die: Our own Country’s Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions—The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”

…how this man had no part in writing any of our founding documents would be beyond us if we didn’t remember his great modesty, which led him to leave the writing of those documents to men considered expert writers and statesmen. Washington consistently expressed the purpose of our revolution and the highest ideals it embodied, and his eloquence and passion should be burned into our minds all throughout our education, but they are not.

Since video games reach where school cannot, here’s hoping that ACIII will lead some people to study Washington, who seems to be portrayed as the action hero he truly was in this trailer (you are following a hooded character who is the assassin of the title; at 44 seconds Washington’s speech begins to play): Washington speech – ACIII

 

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