Category Archives: American Revolution

Rumors and Rhetoric

In 1783 at the army camp located in Newburgh, New York rumors of revolt were quelled when General George Washington addressed his men. The rhetoric, which had grown from frustration with Congress over back pay, was effectively countered when Washington spoke, “…let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained…”[1] Scholars have argued over whether the crisis in Newburgh was one of rhetoric only, or if an actual conspiracy existed which threatened the stability and future of the United States.[2] Regardless, the Newburgh Affair highlights how political rhetoric can lead to crisis, and how calm leadership rather than dramatic action can be the solution.

Conspiracy theorists and politically motivated historians have inferred that orchestrated nationalist machinations were the cause of the rumors and implied threats that swirled around Newburgh in the fall and winter of 1782-83. Others argue that frustration at the lack of pay, and the worry of a post-conflict future, organically inspired the rhetoric Washington felt needed addressed on March 15, 1783. Pamphlets, newspapers, public meetings, and personal correspondence were the main vehicles for the spreading of news and the airing of grievances prior to the technological age. The years leading up to the outbreak of war proved that these were effective tools in rousing public opinion in order to force change. It stood to reason then that these same tools would be used when Congress ground to a standstill on the issue of military pay and veteran benefits.

Even in the days before technology transformed the ways in which the world communicated, rumors once started were difficult to suppress. Enflamed rhetoric was even harder to manage for often it was printed and preserved for posterity. Fortunately for the young republic, General Washington was a man who had learned that brash language and rash actions were counter-productive to stability and prosperity. While he understood the frustration[3] of his men, he also understood that a liberty so newly achieved could not withstand civil discord.[4] A nation built from the fire of revolution would have to learn how to handle and even embrace civil discord.; however, Washington was wise in objecting to discord created by “insidious design” and spread by rumor and extreme rhetoric.

 

Endnotes

[1] George Washington, George Washington: Writings, vol. 91, Library of America (New York: Library of America, 1997), 499.

[2] Edward C. Skeen, and Richard H. Kohn, “The Newburgh Conspiracy Reconsidered,” The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1974): 273–298.

[3] Mary Stockwell, “Newburgh Address,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/newburgh-address/.

[4] Washington, 500.

Liberty: A Cost of War

During war, even a war fought in far flung lands, the civilian public is not guaranteed the comforts of peacetime. Rationing of food and clothing can be expected as a nation directs its energy and material goods toward the war effort. Additionally, one can expect taxation to increase as the nation’s war debt mounts. However, when one’s liberty becomes a cost of war, the nation faces a crisis that is much more difficult to overcome with patriotic slogans. Fear, spread through propaganda campaigns and doom-inspiring rhetoric, becomes the tool that convinces a nation that the loss of constitutionally protected liberty is price worth paying for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the cost of war was hugely felt in the form of taxation. Colonial Americans were opposed to the new taxes despite the fact that they helped pay for the military support the colonists benefited from each time a frontier war erupted. Their argument, in simple terms, was that if they were to be taxed like regular English subjects, then they should have all the rights and privileges afforded to regular English subjects. Particularly, they should have the right to political representation. When their demands for equality were not heeded, the colonists decided that rebellion was the solution. War weariness and the costs of war played a large role in the final outcome. Endless war was not a good national policy, and even the powerful British Empire had a difficult time arguing against that truth.

During the American Revolution, the colonists who supported rebellion and sought independence were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their cause, but that dedication was challenged when the new nation found itself sacrificing economic prosperity due to the Embargo Act of 1807. In an ill-conceived attempt to force France and Great Britain into dealing with the United States with greater respect, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed an embargo that resulted in great hardship for the New England merchants. Fortunately, the War of 1812 concluded just as the anger in New England was reaching a boiling point, and President James Madison was not faced with the daunting task of suppressing a homeland rebellion.

When homeland rebellion did finally erupt years later as the national argument concerning the issue of slavery boiled over, President Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate suspending certain constitutionally guaranteed rights in an effort to settle the conflict more quickly. His justification was that those who were trying to separate from the union and those who were a direct threat to the union were not necessarily protected by the constitution. He was not alone in his evaluation that during war certain liberties might need to be curtailed. The remnants of Congress agreed, and passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863.

Economic hardship and the forfeiture of liberty seemed justifiable when the nation was at war; especially if the forfeiture of liberty was directed at those who seemed set on disrupting the nation’s ability to fight the war. It should not come to a surprise that when the nation went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, those who seemed too closely tied to the enemy would find themselves stripped of their constitutionally protected liberty. It mattered little that their ties were familial in nature as opposed to political. The nation had to be protected in order for the United States to prevail. In the end, the war only last a few short years. The rights and liberty of the interned were restored, everyone went on their merry way, and the nation flourished as it helped rebuild the free world. Or so the propagandists proclaimed.

Yet another enemy lurked and another war loomed. Constitutionally protected rights were no longer sacred in the face of an enemy. A nation at war, even a cold one, had to protect itself from enemy sympathizers and subversives. If this meant spying on its own citizens, then that is what the nation would do. When the truth of this violation became publicly known after the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, Congress acted to halt such a travesty, but it was questionable even at the time whether the actions of Congress would hold up during the ongoing Cold War.

War, it seemed, would always be a justification for a temporary loss of freedom and liberty, but as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, war shifted away from the traditional conflicts that often erupted between two political enemies. Instead, war became a conflict with phantoms and ideologies. First there was the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror, both eradicating the protections guaranteed in the constitution, and both without any end in sight. The cost of these wars continues to be great and it seems that rather than causing economic hardship and the sacrifice of personal comfort, these wars demand a greater price – liberty.

Sanitizing the History of War

The study of history can be a wonderful method of instilling patriotism and civic pride into a nation. During the early years of the Cold War, the study of history was viewed as a vital way to instill the notion that the home nation was virtuous and grand, but opposition to a sanitized version of history was growing even as ultra-patriotism became a propaganda tool. Certainly, the sanitization of the history of war did not begin during the Cold War, but during that half century, the sanitized version of history was considered patriotic, and history critical of the homeland was seen by many  as being subversive. Therefore, the shock was profound when footage of war was televised for all to see during the Vietnam War. A generation reared on stories of the noble victories which had defeated tyranny, slavery, totalitarian abuse, and genocide found themselves faced with the horror of war, most for the very first time. Furthermore, war was not noble as they had been told. It was not a clear cut battle between good and evil. It was ambiguous, uncertain, and many times utterly irrational.

The sanitization of history had stripped from collective memory the realities of war. The brutality, the savagery, the rape, and the hunger; all the devastating human suffering had become overshadowed by glorified patriotism. It became easy to believe that the modern rules of war were long rooted in history and only a villainess enemy would commit atrocities against prisoners and civilians. In a sanitized history, it was easy to forget the human suffering of the American Revolution and that such human suffering was generally accepted as part of war.[1] School children had been taught of noble men, of dedicated soldiers who faced frost bite and starvation as they pressed for liberty, and of rag-tagged colonists who changed the world. While it might have been acceptable to sanitize history for the very young, it was problematic to continue with a sanitized version of history for older students. In fact, it led to disillusionment and civil unrest. It also led to backlash against those who tried to rectify the problem and expose the gritty nature of U.S. history.

In 1757, the writings of Maurice de Saxe were published. In his Reveries on the Art of War, he revolutionarily suggested changes to the formation of a modern army. The modern army as we think of it today had not yet been created. Saxe’s writings and the writings of Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini would change the way nations formed and utilized armies, however change was a slow process and not universal. When World War II came to a close, the leaders of the great warring nations desired for a universal set of rules that would govern modern war. Yet, they failed to fully comprehend the difficulty of enforcing such rules. Modern war was not to include the savagery and brutality of previous wars, and while bombing citizens was still being debated as an effective means of ending a war more quickly, citizens were otherwise seen as unacceptable targets in war. Rape of civilians was certainly no longer considered an effective war tactic or even a spoil of war. Part of the early appeal of nuclear weapons was that war by technology seemed more humane, at least for the nation in possession of the technology. It was not just history that was being sanitized, but warfare as well.

Unfortunately while the Cold War dominated the news, bloody, violent, ugly war continued in many parts of the world. War had not been sanitized, human suffering had not been eradicated, and the great powers could do little but suppress the violence of war. Peacekeeping efforts managed to suppress multi-national escalation, but seldom suppressed the human suffering historically associated with war. What was often suppressed was the news coverage the realities of war. When stories emerged of horrendous human rights violations during regional or civil wars, it became easy to condemn the perpetrators as savages, ungoverned by the modern rules of war.

Had the history of war not been so sanitized for the general populace of nations like the United States, these realities of war would have been less shocking. War is and has always been horrifying. Terror has always been a part of war. Sadly, for the children reared on the sanitized history and the patriotic rhetoric used during the Cold War, children who are now adults, war became disassociated from terror and horror. War was too often seen as a solution to regional conflict rather than part of the problem.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), 41.

Further Reading

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. Reprint edition. New York: Vintage, 2006.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 2010.

Jomini, Antoine-Henri, Baron de. The Art of War. Translated by G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2008.

Pape, Robert A. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Saxe, Maurice de. Reveries on the Art of War. Translated by Gen Thomas R. Phillips. Dover Ed. Dover Publications, 2007.

A Return to Normalcy: The Virtuous Woman

In the years following the American Revolution, the role of wife and mother became of great importance. In a new nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, the job of a virtuous woman was to ensure that the men who led the nation remained free from the corrupting influence of power and prestige. Women, virtuous women dedicated to the home and family, were believed to be vital in counteracting the temptations of the world and the dangers of political power. Women like Abigail Adams hoped for an equality that seemed inherent in the rhetoric of the Revolution, but had to settle for “inherent moral superiority” rather than equality for women.[1]

Women had been an integral part of the Revolution, and had provided support in capacities essential for success. After the Revolution came to an end, society wished to return them to their homes, a pattern that would be seen again and again in U.S. history. In some cases, the women of post-revolutionary America had fewer protections and rights than they did prior to the war. Property laws that protected and provided for a widow were not reestablished in the new nation and it would take time for new laws to replace what had been lost. [2]

The virtuous qualities of a woman were praised, but her desire for equality was not. Even women who had served valiantly during the war, found themselves pressured to return to the roles of virtuous wife and mother when the war ended. Those who did not graciously return to the parlor and leave the public life to the men, found life in the new nation a hardship not a blessing.[3] War may have disrupted the social norms, but in a post-war world, a return to normalcy was considered vital to stability and success. That meant women, although valued, were anything but equal.

[1] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York: Vintage, 2006), xii.

[2] http://www.ushistory.org/us/13e.asp;  http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/legal-status-women-1776%E2%80%931830

[3] Berkin, 139.

Ideology, Revolution, and Change: A Slow Process

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed to the people of Philadelphia, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Eleven years later, the Constitution of the United States of America was created, reaffirming the goal to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence(sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” In 1789, the congress defined twelve common rights of U.S. citizens but only 10 of these became amendments to the constitution. The Bill of Rights defined what the Declaration had not; it defined which rights could be agreed upon as the unalienable rights of man. At the heart of these rights was the belief that sanctity of thought and property were key to liberty.

Beginning in the 1760s, arguments were made that government should not impinge upon these basic rights. Property was not to be surrendered unless it was done so willingly or due to the judgement of one’s peers. It was felt that the forfeiture of property was tantamount to the loss of liberty. While the social strata of the colonies was less structured than in the Old World, property was still closely associated to one’s identity and stature. The loss of property, even from taxation, was considered highly serious in nature. Laws impinging on property rights and laws which changed the colonial judicial system led most often to non-violent protestations. In many cases the laws were repealed, but they were followed by new laws equally objectionable to the colonists. During the decade leading up to the American Revolution and throughout the years of warfare, an ideology emerged that defined political representation as a fundamental right of the citizen. This was not a new ideology, but one that became well-articulated during the numerous debates of the revolutionary period. By the time the U.S. Constitution was drafted, the notion of a government “of the people” was becoming firmly planted in the American psyche. The Preamble stated, “We the people” rather than “We the states”. The new nation was formed with the people being the highest political unit rather than the states. In 1863, during a bloody civil war, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in which he reiterated that the nation was a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The American Civil War tested the strength of the constitution and the union it had created. However, it also highlighted that even after more than half century, the ideology that had declared the equality of man and the right to political representation had not become a universal reality in the United States and its territories. It would not be until the twentieth century that all U.S. citizens would gain the right to vote, and the protection to vote without constraint due to the lack of property or social standing.

The American Revolution had not been fought with the intent to change the social dynamics of the people, but the ideology that was established through decades of debate both before and immediately after the Revolution would eventually lead to social change. In the United States this social change was slow, sometimes terribly slow and with human suffering the consequence, but with slow change came stability. While many revolutions would follow in the footsteps of the American Revolution, few of the political entities formed from those revolutions witnessed the longevity and stability of that the United States with its slow and never-ending process of ensuring “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” for its people.

History: Context Matters

King George III of Great Britain and James Otis, Jr. shared more in common than merely being characters in what would develop into the American Revolution.[1] In 1762, Otis argued against the legality of the writs of assistance established by George III.[2] At the time, Otis was a well-respected member of his community, and his words would go on to inspire the very men history books would refer to as the founding fathers of the United States. George III was still new to his reign as the king and, although facing some criticism in London, was not yet showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him later in life. Both men, believing themselves to be rational and empowered to act on behalf of their fellow men through either birth or through education and profession, took differing stands on the issue of the constitutionality of the king’s authority to impose restrictions on the people of the American colonies. In short, the king was certain of his authority and Otis was certain that the king was acting without full understanding of the unconstitutionality of his actions. In 1762 neither man was suffering from mental instability, but that would not be the case a few decades later. If their words and deeds were taken out of the context of the day, with the mental instabilities both suffered later in life being attributed to their earlier actions, the interpretation of those actions would be marred and history would not be served. Context matters in the study of history. Even the most praiseworthy individuals will have said or done something that, when taken out of context, will seem to contradict how history has recorded their character.

Endnotes

[1] Otis (1725-1783), George III (1738-1820).

[2] Writs of Assistance Case

Further Reading

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, More Particularly, in the Last of the General Assembly by James Otis, Jr.

Project Gutenberg version

Scanned copy of the pamphlet (automatic download) from JamesOtis.net (link to document)

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.