Truth v. Myth: 5 Myths about the American Revolutionary War

Posted on May 21, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , |

Our 100th post is, fittingly, a Truth v. Myth bonanza.

I was sitting through a slideshow about the Revolution designed for third-graders last week and thinking about the legends we all know by name—Washington crossing the Delaware, Valley Forge, Yorktown—but don’t really understand. Me being me, I was inevitably led to think of five quick myths about the Revolution. There are plenty more, I’m sure, and these aren’t even necessarily the most important ones, but you have to start somewhere. So today we address the first:

Myth 1: Americans were on board with the Revolution.

The majority of Americans did not see any need to separate from Great Britain. While they might not have considered it “home” anymore, they did take a good deal of their identity from being English citizens. As part of the British empire and commonwealth, Americans took pride in Britain’s power and its traditions, and saw no reason why America was not like all of the other British colonies—founded by Englishmen, fully entitled to the rights of Englishmen, quite similar in culture to England, and basically just Englishmen separated by an ocean from other Englishmen.

This is not to say that relations with England, and then Britain, had not always and almost continually been rocky. (See Why did America rebel against Britain? for details.) But picture it this way: states fight with the federal government, and many western states are continually at odds with the federal government about water rights, public park land, gun rights, illegal immigration, and endangered species. But the vast majority of citizens in those states would never get to the point where they felt they were not American, and wanted to secede. Even if they did secede, they would do so in the name of “real” Americanness, which they would feel they were protecting. When states oppose federal policies, they almost always see themselves as upholding true American values or principles.

So with the American colonies. Fight as they would with Britain, they never thought they were less English for disagreeing with London. In fact, as usual, most Americans felt they were often lone protectors of English rights and customs. They were more English than the people back in England, who were losing their way.

Thus, when war began in Massachusetts in April 1775, rebel leaders in Boston were isolated in their insistence that America break with Britain. What could the benefits possibly be? America, even if it won the fight, would be forever cut off from British wealth, prestige, power, and trade. And that wasn’t just “British” wealth, etc., but their own; they were British citizens. Revolution was civil war, and even as victors Americans would be family-killers.

Most Americans thought the answer to the real conflicts with Britain was to get American representatives into Parliament. If Americans could represent themselves as English citizens in their Parliament in London, things would even out.

And so the majority of Americans resisted and continued to resist rebellion and revolution, even as the war progressed. Many Americans who supported the war still hoped that once it was won, Britain would have learned a lesson and relations could be restored. Many Americans remained Loyalists. But the bulk of Americans were really neutral. They supported their colony’s militia, as ever more loyal to their locality than their new nation, and wanted to preserve their own colony’s rights and privileges. When battle came to a colony, the natives fought hard. When it left, they sat back to let the colony now under attack defend itself. Whatever the outcome of the war, most Americans were chiefly concerned with getting their colony the best possible deal—whether as victors dealing with a new federal govermnment, or as losers dealing with Britain.

It would not be until the 19th century that pride in creating a new nation and “overthrowing a tyrant” (rather than severing a family tie) would take over as the common feeling in America. Ironically, it was really after George Washington’s death that the new nation looked back with admiration and pride on its accomplishment. From 1775 to 1783, however, Englishmen in America were decidedly cool toward their great revolution.

Next: did America go to war over taxes?

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