Again, Washington was not a murderer: adieu at last to Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on May 24, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Revolutionary War, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode focuses on the concluding statements.

Disillusioned narrator: So George Washington was a wealthy elitist and murderer who led drunks into battle against their will to fight for a cause they could not care less about.

Adam: No, you’re exaggerating! The modern myth is designed to inspire us, and that’s valuable. It just blinds us to more important truths.

…this is pretty staggering, considering that earlier in the very same episode Adam Conover said, and we quote, “Support for the war effort was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.”

You can’t claim someone was a liar and a murderer, then make a faint attempt to undo it without undoing it just to conjure up a “learning moment.” The episode did say everything the disillusioned narrator claims it did.

Beyond that, what on earth does it mean to say that myths are meant to inspire us, and that’s valuable? What on earth does it mean to say that and then immediately say that these myths blind us to important truths? The writing veers at this point from faulty and harmful to just plain incoherent.

And why? What’s the point of it all? The show has the classic problems of the uninformed, reckless, and non-thoughtful critic: it peddled myths in the name of truth, and chose to denigrate a truly heroic leader in American history with half-cited, mis-cited, and some just plain imaginary sources just to grab viewers’ attention. It fell for the common wisdom that cynicism is always smarter than belief. And it traded on its own reputation for doing research and presenting truth in a way that is either unbelievably lazy or unforgivably cynical.

The end result is that most viewers of the show will walk away depressed about American history, convinced that our founding principles are nothing but a pack of lies. They will join those who believe that attacking America as hypocritical is somehow doing good, and increasing justice in the world.

There are certainly terrible passages in our national history. The Revolutionary War was not one of them. Want to read some truth? Check out Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, by actual historian Benson Bobrick. Or just read what the men and women who fought for our liberty actually said–all of it, not just cherry-picking to find what you want, to satisfy your prejudices. That’s the only way not to ruin everything.

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The myths are coming! The myths are coming! Adam Ruins Everything gets it wrong about Revere

Posted on May 12, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Part 6 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode wraps up the close-read of one pretty miserable half-hour of fake history.

The show takes on the myth of Paul Revere… except there isn’t really much harmful myth here to be tackled. The two things most Americans remember learning about Revere’s ride are that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the British army setting out by sea (see our post “What did ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ mean?”); and that Revere cried out “The British are coming! The British are coming!” as he rode.

ARE tells us that Revere himself never saw the lanterns, which is true. He was alerted to British troop movements by the network of Patriot spies active that night of April 18, 1775. From where Revere waited in Charlestown—where the British would come ashore if they took the sea route (which they did)—he could not see the signals.

The show tells us Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!”  but “The Regulars are coming!”, but of course gets the reason why wrong. It incompletely cites “Jennie Cohen, History, 16 April 2013,” and once again we had to do our own research to find the article, “Eleven things you may not know about Paul Revere,” which says this:

Paul Revere never shouted the legendary phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”) as he passed from town to town. The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the “Regulars”—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.

Unfortunately, all wrong. First, Revere didn’t use the term “Regulars” instead of “British” because most Americans still considered themselves to be British, he did so because British soldiers were called Regulars (because they were in the regular army). Revere most likely shouted “The Regulars are coming out” to let people on the road from Boston to Concord know that the army was “coming out” of Boston to attack the Massachusetts Provincial Congress meeting illegally in Concord.

As for the statement that Revere did not actually shout anything, renowned historian of the Revolution in Boston and eastern Massachusetts J. L. Bell references the thrilling story of Revere making so much noise, in fact, as he reached the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying, that William Munroe, who headed the guard of eight men watching over Hancock and Adams, felt obliged to rebuke Revere:

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

More importantly, Cohen is wrong about Revere keeping quiet because most Americans were Loyalists who would have turned him in. Earlier in the episode ARE (incorrectly) referenced an article in the online Journal of the American Revolution. If the show’s researchers had revisited this site, they would have found an article by J.L. Bell that would have done two things: told them that most Americans on that road from Boston to Concord were indeed Patriots, and that there is a bigger, actually important, myth to bust about Paul Revere’s ride than what he shouted.

In “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” Bell tells us this:

The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”

Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.

…Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.

Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.

Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.

To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.

Paul Revere didn’t have to keep quiet to avoid being arrested by Loyalists. Bell’s point is that the countryside was already on the lookout for a British attack on Concord, making preparations for an armed confrontation with the Regulars, and in many cases well ahead of Revere.

This fact is so much more important than whether Revere said “the British are coming.” If ART wants to bust myths, why not bust the myth that most Americans did not support the Revolution? Why not use Bell’s article to teach Americans today that hundreds of families in eastern Massachusetts had already fully committed themselves to an armed defense of their traditional liberties by the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place?

The show can’t do that because it is at such pains to debunk the Revolution as a scam and a sham. “Every story we tell about the Revolution is useless,” mourns the fake narrator in  the episode. “Not useless,” says Adam; “just not history.” If ever the pot called the kettle black this has got to be it, coming from a show devoted to presenting myths as real history.

Let’s wrap up next time with what the Puritans would call the “application”—why does it matter if this show gets so much so wrong?

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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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Washington did not murder his soldiers–wrong again, Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on April 26, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

In part 4 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode, we address the grave claim that George Washington personally ordered the execution of 200 Continental soldiers.

The show had just left off stating that desertion was a constant problem in the Continental Army, which it was. Then the narrator, Adam Conover, goes on to say:

AC: …So Washington decided to enforce a statute that said any soldier who abandons his post will receive little mercy and suffer death immediately.

Fake narrator: No! Washington would never threaten to kill his own men! That’s blasphemy!

AC: Oh, he didn’t just threaten. Some soldiers were so upset about the poor conditions and lack of pay that they coordinated full-blown mutinies. In one case, 200 Continental soldiers mutinied but they were soon captured.

Washington: We must make an example of these traitors. Put them in front of a firing squad and make their own friends pull the trigger. Assemble all the regiments to bear witness [yelling] SO THAT EVERY SOLDIER WILL KNOW THE PRICE THAT IS PAID FOR TREACHERY!!

FN: That didn’t really happen?

AC: I cannot tell a lie—it did. Support for the war was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.

FN: That’s terrible!

The source cited onscreen for this is “Joshua Shepard, Journal of the American Revolution, 9 Feb 2016.” We went online at the Journal—https://allthingsliberty.com–and searched in vain for an article by Joshua Shepard on this topic. The only article by Shepard was from February 24, 2016, on the 1775 Gunpowder Episode. Any real citation includes the name of the book or article cited; this failure on the part of ARE makes us very suspicious. What year was this Washington revenge-murder described in the show carried out? When? What company of soldiers? The very lack of real details debunks the claim.

What we did find on the Journal’s site was an article by Michael Schellhammer called “Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line” that describes a 1780 mutiny by Continental soldiers wintering in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Schellhammer acknowledges that the soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line had not been paid for a year when they mutinied. He also describes the general the men who mutinied served under–Anthony Wayne.

Many soldiers had enlisted in 1777 under the somewhat confusing terms of “for three years or the duration of the war.” Focusing on the first clause, “for three years,” some soldiers believed that the reorganization would conclude their enlistments.  But the regimental officers focused on the second clause, “or the duration of the war,” and denied the soldiers’ requests for discharge

Knowing that his men were getting fed up with the situation, the possibility of a mutiny could not have been far from Wayne’s mind.  Mutiny was punishable by death under Congress’s Articles of War, but soldiers still chose to rebel against their higher authorities to protest harsh conditions or enlistments.

We put that last part in bold—mutiny was punishable by death in just about any army, any where, at any time in human history. Adam Conover drips scorn as he says that “Washington decided to enforce a statute that said any soldier who abandons his post will receive little mercy and suffer death immediately”—as if it were up to Washington! Or as if it was some unusual decision no other commander would make. He didn’t decide to enforce the statute; he enforced it. As any commander would.

You can click the link above to read the long article; suffice it to say here that Capt. Adam Bettin was killed by a mutineer and two other officers were wounded in the mutiny by about 1,500 soldiers. It was, according to Schellhammer, “by far the biggest uprising in the Continental Army yet” in 1780–five years into the war.

Unlike the previous mutinies, the size of this one presented more than disciplinary problems. The Continental Army could ill afford to have so many soldiers exit the ranks. Worse, for all the American commanders knew, the mutinous group could “turn Arnold” and join the British forces that were only about 20 miles away near New York City. Wayne sent two officers speeding to Philadelphia to alert Congress and the Executive Committee and dispatched an aide-de-camp to inform General Washington, who was at the army camp at New Windsor, New York.  In his return letter, Washington approved of Wayne’s actions and directed him to identify the mutineers’ grievances for Congress to address.  Washington was also concerned that the mutiny could spread to other units and stayed put to keep a lid on things at New Windsor.

We see that Washington was informed of the mutiny and his response was to confirm Wayne’s attempts to halt the mutineers and to let Congress know–once again–that the men’s legitimate grievances had to be addressed.

Here’s how the article ends:

Now let’s see how all the parties finally settled the mutiny.  The former mutineers arrived at Trenton on January 9.  Over the next week a committee reviewed enlistments, taking the men at their word about their enlistment dates, and discharging soldiers who claimed eligibility.  The soldiers also received shirts, shoes, blankets, woolen overalls and fifty Pennsylvania shillings, the equivalent of a month’s pay.  Almost the entire Pennsylvania Line went on furlough for sixty days.  None of the mutineers received punishment.  At the end of January Wayne reported to Washington the discharge of 1,220 soldiers, leaving the Pennsylvania Line with 1,180 sergeants and privates. Washington thought that some of the men lied to get out early.Recruiting efforts began soon and many men re-enlisted for a bounty of nine Pennsylvania shillings.

A court-martial convicted Gen. Clinton’s emissaries Mason and Ogden of spying and sentenced them to death.

So much for finding evidence of Washington the murderer in the source cited by the show.

Schellhammer does say at the end of his article that “In May [1781] some of Wayne’s men mutinied again, and this time the consequences were brutal.” We looked in vain for an article on the same website, but a little searching turned up articles elsewhere.

Executed Today had this summary of the mutiny that followed the Pennsylvania Line mutiny:

On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.

Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)

General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.

“The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.”

Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”

—So Washington was still attempting to get Congress to supply the soldiers when the mutiny occurred, and he laid the blame for the men’s poor conditions squarely on the men of the Congress who would not exert themselves to provide for the army.

The mischief, however, extended.

The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.

—The last is a point well-taken, and applicable to any army.  Note that the generous terms the first mutineers got actually inspired the second set to mutiny. Washington could not allow this.

Washington detailed Gen. Robert Howe to make an example.

Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.

–Washington’s explicit orders to Howe were to make an example only of the most active leaders of the mutiny—not to execute 200 men.

And as Washington reported this afternoon to New Jersey Governor William Livingstonsuccess.

Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step [of executing two leaders], notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.

A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.

—Two men executed, the rest pardoned. We just want to reiterate that.

That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.

The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)

This in-the-field execution to enforce military discipline was a precedent later cited by Alexander Mackenzie to justify hanging Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small at sea for mutiny.

—Yes, Continental soldiers were forced to execute their sergeants. But there were not 200 sergeants, and it’s unlikely the men didn’t want to carry out the execution because they were the officers’ “friends”. It’s likely that few people want to execute other people. Firing squads were professional units for this reason. Washington made men who were not members of a firing squad take part so that they would never forget the price men paid for treason…

…oh yes, that sounds familiar—it’s what ARE had Washington scream in petty, selfish anger as he sent 200 men to their imaginary deaths. In reality, 12 men had to be recruited to shoot two men.

Where did ARE really find the harmful myth they broadcast? Not in the source they cited. That problem will come up again next time when the show claims that the British Army honored its promise to free enslaved black Americans who fought on their side.

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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 unanimously elected George Washington to be commander of all forces then raised, or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty. To Washington fell the unenviable task of trying to whip up enthusiasm for reenlistment among the New England troops whose terms of service expired at the close of that year. From this nucleus he built he Continental Army, but the unpatriotic attitudes he encountered discouraged him. (pp. 5-6)

This was when Washington wrote the comments about lack of patriotism that ARE quotes. It’s one red flag that we could not find the drumming quote ARE cites in Risch, and another that this source does not corroborate the show’s picture of Washington or the army.

ARE also claims Risch says that Continental recruiters would “frame colonists for crimes and have them ‘punished’ with forced enlistment.” Again, we could not find a reference to forced enlistment in Risch; if someone out there can find these quotes, send them to us.

In fact, as we see, Risch notes that the Continental Army was well supplied with soldiers—but only for one term of service. After that, it would be a difficult process to keep soldiers in the army for anything longer than their 6-month or one-year terms. But far from resorting to crime to trick people into fighting, Washington tried to get soldiers to re-enlist by improving their food, clothing, and ammunition supply. His furious letters to members of the Continental Congress lambasting them for sitting in comfort while his army starved are legendary. Here is part of one, from December 23, 1777:

“[W]e find Gentlemen …reprobating the [decision to make a winter camp rather than attack Philadelphia] as much as if they thought Men [the Soldiery] were made of Stocks or Stones and equally insensible of frost and Snow and moreover, as if they conceived it [easily] practicable for an inferior Army under the disadvantages I have describ’d ours to be to confine a superior one (in all respects well appointed, and provided for a Winters Campaign) within the City of Phila., and [to protect] the States of Pensa., Jersey, &c. but what makes this matter still more extraordinary in my eye is, that these very Gentn. who were well apprized of the nakedness of the Troops …advised me, near a Month ago, to postpone the execution of a Plan, I was about to adopt  for seizing Cloathes… [they] think a Winters Campaign and the covering these States from the Invasion of an Enemy so easy a business. I can assure those Gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fire side than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and Snow without Cloaths or Blankets; however, although they seem to have little feeling for the naked, and distressed Soldier, I feel superabundantly for them, and from my Soul pity those miseries, wch. it is neither in my power to relieve or prevent…”

This does not sound like a man who didn’t care what happened to the men recruited into the Continental Army. Or, as ARE puts it, “even with all that chicanery, Washington still didn’t have enough men.”

We move now to the show’s aghast bombshell that “wealthy elites were able to avoid the draft by paying poor people to take their place.”

This was, in fact, a common practice by this time (mid-18th century). Hiring substitutes was not just something the wealthy did; many middling farmers did it. You didn’t have to pay substitutes a fortune, just enough to convince them to take your place. This continued during the Civil War, and was not a cause of shame at the time. Older men, men with many children, and men with vital war industries, including farming, could choose to hire a substitute with minimal or no backlash.

This doesn’t make it right, perhaps, but what we quarrel with here is ARE’s seeming lack of any historical understanding or context for substitutions.

The narrator of the show interjects at this point to say, “You’re telling me Washington’s army was made of people drafted, tricked, or paid off?” The answer? “Yes, and as a result, desertion was a constant problem… as many as 30% of all the soldiers deserted.”

The source cited here is James Howard Edmonson, “Desertion in the American Army,” 1971. We looked this up and found it was a dissertation, but could not find a copy online. Edmonson from 1971, Risch from 1981; it’s not quite ancient historiography, but one wonders why ARE’s sources are, so far, so dated. History, like any field, is constantly updated. A few classic works stand the test of time, but in general, we wouldn’t try to prove a hypothesis strictly with works that are 40-50 years old.

We’ll stop here, because next time we’re tacking the thorniest problem of the show: the claim that Washington murdered 200 Continental soldiers.

 

 

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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 ever after. 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. ART 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. ART 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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