Tag Archives: Revolutions

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.



[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.

Obligated to Intervene

In 1820, the Congress of Troppau was convened. The great powers of the day determined that they held the right to intervene in the revolutionary conflicts of neighboring states. Maintaining the status quo and preventing the spread of nationalism and revolution was viewed as vital in the quest to quell the type of conflict that had erupted in Europe during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. While the beginning of the century had been fraught with what some called the first worldwide war, the remainder of the century saw only regional conflicts, most that were harshly quelled before they could spread outside their borders. However the policy of intervention did not quell nationalism. During the twentieth century nationalism would be at the heart of many conflicts, and the notion that great nations had the right to intervene to protect the status quo would be at the center of international policy for many nations including the United States.

In the case of the United States, intervention became a tool to either protect or disrupt the status quo in a region depending on which was most beneficial to interests of the United States. Intervention often placed the nation at odds with its own revolutionary history and patriotic rhetoric. Despite seeming hypocritical in nature, the United States was not forging new diplomatic patterns but rather following the patterns established by the great powers of the past. The U.S. Founding Fathers may have wanted to distance themselves from the politics and practices of Europe, but their decedents embraced the policies as the United States rose to international supremacy during the twentieth century.

During the rise to superpower status, the United States benefited economically and politically. The right to intervene allowed the United States to protect economic markets, and in some cases add new markets and resources to its growing stock pile. While the nation doggedly denied that it was an empire, by the end of the twentieth century the problems associated with empires began to plague the nation. Most prominently, it could be argued, the United States faced the growing international expectation that it would intervene when conflict threatened a region’s status quo. After a century of gaining prominence and wealth through international intervention, often with the sole goal of protecting resources and markets, the United States found that the right to intervene had transformed into an obligation to intervene.

Power and Chaos

Prior to the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, three great powers balanced the Western World: Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Far East and the Americas were still peripheral, with only the United States disrupting the colonial empire system in any fundamental way during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the three great empires faced ever-growing challenges as nationalistic zeal spread worldwide. In response to the chaos created by the both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the great powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia chose to form an alliance that they hoped would prevent a repeat of the decades of war. They also redoubled their efforts to contain and control their own territories. The great threat to political stability came from two entities: empire seekers and nationalistic zealots. Control and contain both, and it was believed that chaos could be avoided. Yet as well conceived as the Concert of Europe was for the age, there was an inherent flaw in the concert system. The very nature of forming alliances to prevent imperial expansion or nationalistic revolution also entangled the great nations, and would, in the early twentieth century, lead them into another great international conflict. Fear became the demon; fear of what would happen if a nation chose not to honor the treaties and pacts.

The twentieth century saw the rupture of empires and the colonial system that had made the empires great. While the rupture was often bloody and chaotic, there remained a level of control because as the great empires of the past declined, two even greater empires replaced them. Historians and political scientists argue over whether these two great nations ever became empires in the true sense, or if they were only empires of influence during the second half of the twentieth century. They do, however, agree that the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War suppressed a great deal of the chaos that might have erupted as colonial shackles were lifted and fledgling states emerged as independent nations. As fifty years of Cold War ended, and ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly, the world faced a daunting task of answering the ultimate question. What would come next?

One political scientist suggested an answer to the question. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[1] Unlike the independence movements that plagued international stability in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century, the twenty-first century has seen a greater surge of culturally driven conflicts, some contained to rhetorical mudslinging, and some violent, bloody, and devastating to the peoples who get in the way of power seeking individuals who achieve dominance through the spread of chaos. The rise in cultural conflict has grown during the last decade and it threatens both stable and week nations alike. It is not limited to the traditionally war-torn regions of the world, and it will take cooperation to counter it. Like the great nations that faced the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of today must find a way to combat this growing crisis; a way that recognizes that the chaos is the goal of the enemy and not simply a byproduct.



Further Reading

Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).


End Notes

[1] Gideon Rose,  ed. The Clash at 20, E-book (Foreign Affairs, 2013), Foreignaffairs.com.


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.




[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.

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.

A Defining Moment in History: Appomattox Court House

One hundred and fifty years ago General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, thereby signaling the end of a long and bloody war which had been fought over the question of whether a political state had a right to leave a union it had voluntarily joined. History books enumerate the varied and difficult sociopolitical causes that led to the rupture of the United States and the devastating effects the rupture had on the people and the nation. At the heart of the rupture was a central question, was the United States a federation or a confederation? Modern attempts to clarify the difference between the two types of union focus on a key difference between otherwise similar political institutions – voluntary entry and the notion that a sovereign state that enters voluntarily should in turn be able to freely exit if it chooses. In the nineteenth century, the American Civil War seemed to have determined that the United States had become a federation upon the signing of the U.S. Constitution and the dissolution of the union would not be tolerated. In the twentieth century, other confederations would seek dissolution with varied levels of success. Arguing that they had never agreed to become a federation but had only agreed to a loose confederation, political states like Slovenia managed to declare and achieve independence. Not all attempts by small political states belonging to larger political unions succeeded in achieving both independence and international recognition without first engaging in prolonged civil wars. During the American Civil War and the many civil wars of the twentieth century, the international community, particularly the great powers, felt the need to intervene usually, but not always, on the side which sought to protect the status quo. Interestingly, as important as maintaining the status quo and suppressing war might have been to the great powers, occasionally they would see value in the breakup of large unions regardless of whether the unions were federations, confederations, or empires.  In the end, it seemed to matter little how a union was defined, rather what mattered was how the other great nations could best benefit economically, politically, and socially. In the case of the American Civil War, the great powers decided that intervention would be too costly. Keeping peace in Europe was enough of a problem without throwing support behind a bunch of rebel states wishing to form a separate, more loosely bound union. Prior to April 9, 1865, there had been a debate as to whether the United States was a confederation of states voluntarily joined and with the right to freely exit. With the defeat of the South, the debate should have ended. However, despite the fact that the events at Appomattox Court House comprised a defining moment in U.S. history, the distinction between federation and confederation did not seem to solidify, at least not when secessionist rhetoric finds a foothold.

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.