Government for the people’s sake in Colonial America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: constitutions and rights

 

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Why did Americans protest taxation without representation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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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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Revolution Myth #5: America had no chance of winning the war

Posted on June 24, 2009. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Welcome to the last in our Truth v. Myth series on 5 Myths about the American Revolution. Here we re-examine the cherished idea that we were total underdogs in our war of independence. This article was inspired by a re-listening to the insightful Prof. Allen Guelzo’s lecture series “The American Revolution.”

Yes, the British Army was bigger than the Continental Army, and better organized. And most British officers and politicians in the spring of 1775 thought the war could be won fairly quickly.

But the British Army was not that big—at least not in America. In 1775, there were about 38,000 men serving in the British Army around the world, and around 18,000 men in the Royal Navy (in 270 ships) also spread around the world. To fight in America, men had to be impressed and mercenaries hired, because Britain did not want to pull its forces from the invaluable sugar islands in the Caribbean, which would be snapped up by France or Holland if left unguarded. Sugar was the oil of the 18th century, to borrow Prof. Robert Bucholz’s inspired phrase, and the sugar islands were far more valuable to Britain than all the colonies in North America. So when 16,000 American men enlisted to fight the British in 1775, they were fairly equal in numbers to the redcoats.

The British Army was well-organized and well-run, far more so than the Continental Army. That did stand in Britain’s favor. British soldiers were under no illusions about having control over how long they served (though there were desertions from the British Army during the war).

As for the British attitude to the war, it was far more complex than we imagine. The British knew that those Americans in rebellion would not go down easily. They knew that they could not hope to conquer the vast territory of the 13 colonies, and that any attempt to conquer land battle-by-battle would result in a hopeless loss of men and drain on money and supplies in a war of attrition. They understood that an occupied people almost always win wars of attrition because they have the motivation and the resources to resist for many, many years.

The British approach was to try to destroy the heart of the rebellion—Boston, Washington’s army, the Congress—and get Loyalists to take over local governments.  The British were hampered by poor communication, infighting between generals, the months it took to get orders from London, lack of support from Loyalists, and often conflicting goals (for instance, Howe was told to at once occupy New York City and to destroy Washington’s army in 1776; the impossibility of doing both at once led to delay and paralysis).

So while the British Army itself was well-organized internally, from the start it had management problems at the level of Parliament and its generals, and it was always low on supplies.

By 1778, opposition to the war was making itself heard in Parliament. We picture a vindictive empire trying to keep America in its clutches to the bitter end, committed to stamping out revolution, but in reality there was strong opposition to the war after three unproductive years. Boston had been occupied, and so had New York, but Washington’s army remained at large, the British had lost an army at Saratoga and an important battle at Trenton. The rebellion remained strong despite the occupation of two major cities, and the Loyalists had yet to rise up. Most important, France had joined the war on America’s side, which meant Britain had to increase its expenditures to supply its army and  navy against a stronger—and now much more important—enemy. The sugar islands were at higher risk, and the sugar planters lobbied Parliament vigorously, threatening to oppose any move to relocate  British soldiers from their islands to America. War with France meant war not only in America but in the Caribbean and India.

In these circumstances, Parliament came close to voting not to send any more soldiers to America at all in 1779, and Lord North’s government actually sent a peace committee to Congress, offering the colonies control over their taxation, no more quartering British soldiers on civilians, and acknowledgement of Congress—in short, everything the colonies wanted but independence. This offer was rejected, but it is significant to realize that by 1779, Britain was looking for a way out of the war. Washington fought his last battle against the British in July 1779, a full two years before the official surrender at Yorktown.

By the time Cornwallis’ disastrous attempts to take the Carolinas and organize Loyalists into an army to defeat Nathaniel Greene and turn the tide of the war were over, in1781, and the British surrendered their army to Washington, Parliament was mostly resigned to the loss, and already turning its attention to India, Africa, and the West Indies. It would hold on to its western territories in America, and try to foment Native American rebellion against the U.S. It would happily engage the U.S. in war in 1812, vengefully burning down our capital. But for Britain, its ever-expanding eastern empire and its wars against France in Europe were more important.

We see, then, that the deck was not totally stacked against us. This is not to say that Washington was not a genius and a powerful leader who kept our fight for liberty alive when the odds of success looked bleak. We could have lost that war. But we had more going for us than we think. Britain knew it faced substantial difficulties, just as America did.  Everyone likes an underdog, but we shouldn’t overdo it.

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Revolutionary Myth #4: All was well before the war

Posted on June 15, 2009. Filed under: 17th century America, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

Part four of our series on 5 Myths about the Revolutionary War dwells on the pre-war period.

In the shorthand version of American history, the colonial period is one of peace and prosperity right up to the 1770s. But especially in New England, the 17th and 18th centuries were strewn with political conflict and open war.

Canada and New England ended up acting out the wars between France and England over and over from 1689 through 1763. In 1689, New Englanders overthrew the Dominion imposed on them by James II. From 1689-1697, New England was a battlefield in King William’s War. Just five years later, word came to New England that they were at war with Canada once again, for in 1702, Queen Anne’s War began. This war lasted until 1711. The War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-42) involved New Englanders recruited to fight in the Caribbean, most notably in the attempt to take Cartagena (in what is today Colombia). 65% of the 4,183 Americans who went to fight for Cartagena died.

In 1745 and 1758, New Englanders went to Louisbourg, the major French fort guarding Canada from the sea, successfully capturing it in 1745 only to have Great Britain return it to France in their peace treaty. Harried by French-sponsored Native American attacks from 1748-58, New Englanders retook the fort at great cost in 1758 (it was destroyed in 1760).

So we see that New England was in a state of almost constant turmoil in its colonial years, turmoil almost always caused by England’s wars with France. England spared few troops for North America, focusing on the naval battles in Europe, and more than once promised to send soldiers to back up New England, then failed to do so. This caused great anger and bewilderment in New England, which felt it was being deliberately endangered by its mother country.

Of course, the last in this series of wars between France and Britain in America was the French and Indian War, 1756-63. The road to revolution was taken the next year, when the Sugar Act was passed.

No wonder New England was the hotbed of revolution against England by 1764. A sense of betrayal and separateness had been forged by all those battles against France that New Englanders fought without British help. It would not be until 1815, when the War of 1812 ended, that New England breathed several decades’ worth of peace.

Next—our final myth!

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The Dominion of New England; or, the Puritan Revolution

Posted on May 19, 2008. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , |

Many claims and counter-claims are made about whether the Puritans of New England can be considered to have dug the foundation for democracy in British America. The more I study it, the more I believe it is true. Let’s look at one important instance, the battle against the Dominion of New England, 1686-1689.

James II became king of England in 1685. James posed a threat to the country, in the eyes of his Protestant subjects, because he was Catholic. People feared he would try to return the kingdom to Catholicism, but James’ first move was not against England but Massachusetts. The Puritans in New England were just as vocal and militant about their designs for an improved England from the distant shores of America as they had been in the heart of London. And, more immediately, they had just sent Increase Mather as their representative to Parliament to try to fend off a new, royal charter that would give the king more power over them. James decided to rid himself of a burr in his saddle.

In 1686 he created the Dominion of New England. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey made up the new domain. Edmund Andros, formerly governor of New York, was appointed by the king to run the Dominion with the help of a council—also appointed by the king. Andros took to his new role, exerting his power dictatorially.

The impact on Puritan colonists was fundamental:

—The popularly elected assemblies were dismissed.

—Puritan judges and military officers were replaced by Anglicans.
Puritan clergy could no longer be paid by taxes.

—Land titles issued by Puritan governments before 1686 had to be reissued. Not only did Puritan colonists have to pay new title fees, they would also have to pay quitrents, an annual land tax.

—A new court was set up in Boston to enforce the Navigation Acts. It had no jury. In 1686 the court found at least six merchant ships guilty of violating the Acts and seized the ships. Merchants started avoiding the port of Boston, depressing the new England economy.

 

The list sounds very familiar to any student of the “Intolerable Acts” of 1774.

Puritan citizens of the colonies formerly known as New England were angry and despairing. They had little power to represent themselves to Parliament, and no hope of subverting the Dominion. Little did they know that the young, healthy new king who had enslaved them would soon be overthrown.

James had made his desire to return the country to Catholicism more and more open; thus, when his queen gave birth to a son and potential Catholic heir in 1688, his government didn’t wait for James to act. It invited Protestant Holland’s leader William of Orange to invade England and force James off the throne. William was conveniently married to Mary Stuart, James’ own daughter.

The plan worked. William was welcomed in London, and James II fled to France.

When the Puritans in the Dominion first heard about this Glorious Revolution in 1689, there was a moment of suspense. It was impossible to know if James was really permanently overthrown, and the long wait for news from England was agonizing. Once the good news came, Puritans from Maine to Connecticut rose up against Governor Andros’ officials, who were arrested and imprisoned. Massachusetts, Plymouth, Rhode Island, and Connecticut restored their original governments, complete with elected assemblies.

In New York City, rebels led by Jacob Leisler took over the colony. Leisler became governor.

The Puritans celebrated their successful rebellion. The colonies of New England remained royal colonies, rather than privately owned colonies, but they had preserved their independence. Their lawmakers were popularly elected. Their courts were local. Their laws were valid. And it was specifically to maintain those vital components of representative government that the Puritans fought.

Thus I think we can look back to the overthrow of the Dominion as a valid instance of Puritan Americans putting their independent and representative government ahead of all other considerations, and the events of 1689 were indeed fresh in the memories of men and women—grandchildren of rebels—who fought the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, born in 1705, just 16 years after the Dominion was overthrown, would have heard the stories from people who took part in the rebellion. And thousands of New Englanders must have had their ancestors in mind when they agreed in 1776 that a government which does not have the consent of the people is legitimately overthrown.

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The French and Indian War and the American Revolution

Posted on May 18, 2008. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , |

I had finished taking some friends from England through a historical house in my town that saw action on the first day of the Revolutionary War (April 19, 1775) when one of them asked, in all sincerity, “What started that war? I mean, what really was the cause?”

Immediate answers came to mind, sort of starting with the last straws and moving backward: the “Intolerable Acts” (see a fantastic post on why we could stop using this term at Boston 1775), the refusal of Parliament to seat American members, Stamp Tax, Sugar Act—all the tax acts—the tireless activism of Samuel Adams and his mechanics… all the way back to the English Civil War itself and its effects on American-English relations (as covered in What caused the Revolutionary War?). But rather than go into all that back story with my friends, who wanted to hear something about history on American soil, I pulled out the French and Indian War.

All those tensions between England and America described in “What caused the Revolutionary War?” created a constant atmosphere of difference and distance between America and England.  But if I had to set a date for when that tension Americans felt shifted to demands for outright separation from England, I’d say the aftermath of the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

Americans had supported the war. In fact, they had basically demanded that England remove the perceived French threat to the western frontier. So long as they didn’t have to pay for it, Americans wanted the war to be fought, and took part on a strictly voluntary basis. 

With each shared victory, Americans celebrated heartily. And at the practical end of the war—the capture of Montreal—the Pennsylvania Gazette put it this way on September 11, 1760: “We now have the Pleasure to congratulate our Countrymen upon the most important Event, as we apprehend, that has ever happened in Favour of the British Nation . . . the War in Canada is at an End: The Governor, has surrendered the Country to the British General Amherst without Bloodshed. The Subjects of France are to be sent Home, all that remain of the French are to swear Allegiance to His Majesty, and retain their Possessions.”

“Our Countrymen.” We still felt that way about the British in 1760. But when the war was officially over, and Britain’s taxpayers were reeling under the expense, the British moved that Americans should share the burden of that expensive war fought for their benefit at their request. And that’s when all hell broke loose.

A lot of maybes come into play at that point. Maybe if the British had invited American representatives to discuss the taxes there would have been no protests in America. Maybe if the British had required the Americans to share the burden of expenses during the war (even just feeding and quartering soldiers) there would have been no heavy taxes after the war.

As it is, the taxes went through without American input and the people of Boston in particular were hit hard. The people of Boston protested most forcibly and, in the end, led the charge to revolution.

It was a little awkward for me to privately think, as I spoke to those English friends, that in 1775 the people of Boston were just about the only ones ready to fight.  That it would take a long time to get other Americans on board. That the other colonies were very content to watch and wait and let Massachusetts fight.

So I just answered their question with my on-the-spot response: It was the French and Indian War that pulled the trigger on the Revolutionary War. All the little irritations of being in a colonial relationship were enlarged and rendered insufferable by the taxes that came due to pay for that war. All the statues of King George III that Massachusetts colonists had erected in 1763 to celebrate the victory over the French were pulled down by the same colonists and melted into bullets in 1775.

After that point, it was just a matter of framing the arguments for war, which took many years. But the ball was rolling, and the French and Indian War was what sent it downhill.

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The Revolution did not begin at Lexington or Concord

Posted on April 19, 2008. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

It’s April 19th! The first day of the American Revolution was April 19, 1775. And it started in Arlington, Massachusetts.

Of course, it was known as Menotomy back then. Lexington and Concord? They were a sideshow.

Here’s the story. Menotomy, the northwest precinct of the town of Cambridge, was about midway between Boston and Concord, where the Provincial Congress had fled when outlawed in Boston. The Committee of Safety, run by Samuel Adams, was camped out at the Black Horse tavern in Menotomy, watching for movement of British soldiers on the main road from Boston to Concord (called Concord Way back then, and known as Massachusetts Avenue today).

An advance party of British soldiers came through Menotomy, alerting the Committee, which sent word back to Boston to keep an eye out for the go signal there. By the time the full British force marched through Menotomy, at about 3 AM on April 19, everyone in the village knew what was happening.

So the British get to Lexington, they get to Concord. That part of the story is well-known, simply because the first shots were fired there. But the fighting took place in Menotomy.

As the British retreated through Lexington, they were harried by sniper fire and did no damage to the town. But at the border of Lexington and Menotomy, they were met by reinforcements, and basically decided to do their worst. In Menotomy, and only there, they burned and pillaged houses on the main road.

Word of this reached militia men who were in Menotomy on their way to join the battle at Concord. Realizing the action was now in Menotomy, they hunkered down around the large farmhouse of Jason Russell. Facing the main road, waiting for the soldiers to appear, they were unaware that the British sent flankers around the back. They were encircled and trapped at Jason Russell’s house.

Russell went out to parlay with the British leader, Lord Percy. But he was killed pretty much on the spot. Then the fighting began, and more people were killed at Russell’s house in Menotomy that day than in Lexington, Concord, and the retreat combined. Eleven Americans and two Britons lost their lives, and British casualties were 120. In comparison, total British casualties in L&C and the retreat were 34.

When the British returned at last to Boston, it was the fighting at Menotomy that convinced them this was a war and not an isolated incident.

So why don’t we know the name Menotomy like we know Lexington and Concord?

Well, Menotomy changed its name a few times, to West Cambridge and then to Arlington. And even in colonial days, Menotomy was a spelling challenge. Some British soldiers recorded the hot fighting at “Anatomy.” And after all, Lexington and Concord were the sites of the first fighting, and history loves firsts.

But take a moment today to pay tribute to Jason Russell and the eleven men who died with him on the first day of the Revolution.

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