Friday, July 4, 2014

July 4 Reflections on the Revolution

Today Americans celebrate Independence Day but, of course, as is usual with such cases, the ideas that are celebrated are more myth than reality. That independence was achieved is certainly a fact but it is also a fact that what is commonly known as the Revolutionary War or the American Revolution was a war of secession rather than a true revolution. The rebel colonists were not fighting to overthrow King George III of Great Britain and Ireland but to seize control of British North America and break it away from the British Empire. This is highlighted by the fact that independence was not really the ultimate issue of the conflict as, in the course of the war, the British were prepared to concede independence so long as the colonies remained within the British Empire as self-governing dominions. This offer was made in 1778 by the commission led by the Earl of Carlisle which dealt with the Continental Congress and offered them self-rule and representation in the British Parliament. This was rejected by the counter-demand that Britain recognize the total independence of the colonies and withdraw all Crown forces before any agreement was made, which of course was the same as asking the British to surrender before talking peace. Most agree that, had such an offer been made earlier, it likely would have been accepted. However, coming at a time when British forces were withdrawing from Philadelphia, it was seen as a sign of British weakness and the rebel forces let their ambitions run wild.

That there was considerable ambition on display and not simply a desire for the colonies to govern themselves as they were is not disputed but, most often, simply not talked about. The rebel leaders envisioned their new country including not only the thirteen colonies and their territorial claims but the whole of British North America and the West Indies. This was made perfectly evident with the invasion of Canada early in the conflict in 1775 and efforts to seize the Bahamas in 1776 and 1782 by American naval forces. It is also a fact, not often discussed, that one of the acts the Americans most objected to before the war was the 1763 act recognizing the right of Native Americans (Indians) to the land they held which the colonists wanted for themselves. Anger in Puritan New England over the Crown granting civil rights to Catholics in Canada is also not often discussed as it tends to appear quite hypocritical in light of later American claims of being driven by a desire for freedom of religion (which there already was more of in North America than in Great Britain and certainly Ireland). This is one reason why, when the war came to Canada, the Catholic bishops there threatened excommunication for anyone who joined with the rebel colonists.

When the facts are looked at dispassionately, it seems quite odd that anyone in America would have wished to rebel at all. The colonies were not suffering under British rule; quite the contrary, they tended to be better off than the motherland itself. The American standard of living was higher, the social ladder was easier to climb, land was easier to own, the people were even physically larger because they were healthier and had a better diet than most people in Britain. They paid almost nothing in taxes, unlike their fellow subjects in the British Isles and, on the whole, already enjoyed more freedom and prosperity than almost anyone in the whole continent of Europe while under the protection of the British Crown. There were no bread riots, no hordes of starving masses only petulant fits by well-fed people over how much the luxury items they enjoyed would cost them. Even when the British Parliament passed acts they did not approve of, they were almost invariably repealed or never enforced. Likewise, without exception, the most prominent leaders of the War for Independence were the wealthiest men in the whole of North America, men who owned vast estates and hundreds of slaves. The people of America were not suffering and when one ignores the political “spin” of most histories, what the rebel colonists most protested against seems most often unsavory if not illegitimate.

The Boston Tea Party
The colonists could not complain about laws limiting manufacturing in the colonies to protect the jobs of British workers. After all, these laws were regularly circumvented. Smuggling was easy to do and officials were often easy to bribe. In 1764 Parliament passed the Sugar Act but it was never enforced. In 1765 it passed the Stamp Act but Crown officials were assaulted and intimidated into ignoring it and it was repealed the following year amid cries from America that “taxation without representation is tyranny”. That, of course, was a pretty phrase for propaganda purposes but nothing more as is made clear by the fact that when Benjamin Franklin was sent to London as a sort of envoy for the American colonies, he was given strict instructions not to accept any deal that gave the colonies representation in the House of Commons because they knew full well that, if they had such representation, with their much smaller population they would be easily outvoted. So, they would be doomed to democratic defeat while also losing a valuable propaganda tool. In 1763 the act was passed to limit the American colonies to the land east of the Appalachian mountains with that to the west being reserved for the Indians. It hardly seems draconian considering how sparsely populated the colonies were but it angered the land speculators who wanted to take the land from the Indians to obtain an immense fortune for themselves. The Navigation Acts were widely ignored and never fully enforced, the Quartering Act was resented but it makes American rebels seem anything but patriotic to protest so heavily against providing shelter for troops stationed in America to protect them from French and Spanish encroachment. Likewise, the Townshend Acts were quickly repealed, save for the duty on tea which, as we know, led to the famous “Boston Tea Party”.

Nothing better illustrates how ridiculously overblown the fomented outrage of the colonial rebels had become. Consider the fact that, even while paying the miniscule tax on British tea, the American colonists would still have been paying less than they did for Dutch tea smuggled into the colonies illegally. They had become so entrenched in their idealism that they were actually acting illegally, destroying private property in protest to paying *less* for an item than they normally paid. It obviously does not take much intelligence to see that these people were not being driven by practical reality, they were not being oppressed and they were not suffering under the ‘authoritarian’ rule of King George III. If anything, the colonies had done extraordinarily well under the benign neglect of the British government. It was only after they acted out so, again, in order to pay more for foreign tea as opposed to paying less for British tea, that Parliament passed acts intended to punish the port of Boston and force the rebel leaders to pay for the private property they had destroyed in their little tea party. This resulted in the calling of the first Continental Congress which voted to boycott all British goods and which saw Patrick Henry declare, “give me liberty or give me death!” He might have said, “give me liberty and more expensive tea or give me death” but that wouldn’t have sounded so stirring. If more people were able to look at this period dispassionately they might recognize the absurdity of someone boasting of his willingness to sacrifice his own life rather than buy tea at a cheaper price or to make restitution for vandalism.

Battle of Bunker Hill
The result of all this was the passing of the Restraining Act and finally the outbreak of war in 1775 with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. It does make one wonder how a country could ever come to be such an economic powerhouse that started out by demanding the freedom to overcharged. Then again, it is also rather amazing that the United States was to become the premier military power of the world when the military record of the colonists in the War for Independence left so much to be desired. They were defeated at Bunker Hill in the first major battle, invaded Canada but were totally defeated at Quebec. They managed to bluff the British into evacuating Boston but when the British army returned for the major campaign, British troops under General Howe bested Washington and his Continental Army time and time again, driving them across Long Island, capturing New York City, then White Plains and then Fort Washington. Only at the end of the year and the beginning of 1777 did Washington manage to win any victories with two skirmishes against small detachments of British troops at Trenton and Princeton, retreating quickly in the aftermath.

The British won the battle of Brandywine, captured the rebel capitol of Philadelphia and then defeated Washington again at Germantown. The only bright spot was the American victory at the battle of Saratoga. British General Burgoyne had gambled and lost but, even then, the Americans credited the wrong man with the victory. Benedict Arnold had been the real hero but all praise was given to General Horatio Gates who, in time, proved beyond all question that he was as cowardly as he was incompetent. In 1778, after intense preparations, the best Washington could manage was a stalemate at Monmouth and at the end of the year the British captured Savannah. 1779 passed with no major, decisive actions though Spain did join in by declaring war on Britain, as France had done in 1778. In 1780 the rebels suffered a major defeat with the British victory at Charleston, South Carolina which was followed in the summer by another stunning British victory against a larger rebel army under General Gates at Camden. The rebel forces were totally routed and ran from the field so fast that the British dubbed the fight the “Camden Races”. There were minor rebel victories, again over small detachments at Kings Mountain and Cowpens but the advance of Cornwallis was not hindered by this. At the battle of Guilford Court House the British under Cornwallis were again victorious, though the victory was a costly one and then there was the siege of Yorktown which ended in victory for Washington only because of the timely arrival of the French and the victory of the French navy at sea.

Ben Franklin before King Louis XVI
In short, there is simply no way to attribute the American victory to any sort of military brilliance on the part of Washington and his subordinate commanders. At best they were able to occasionally capitalize on British mistakes when up against small, isolated detachments but when it came to major battles they were defeated time and time again by forces often smaller than their own. It was only the timely arrival of the French, the widening of the war and British weariness and the drain of blood and treasure that finally compelled Parliament to practically force the King to come to terms and recognize American independence. Also not often pointed out is the fact that this was rather shameful itself on the part of the Americans. They were fighting in alliance with France, Spain and the Netherlands but when the opportunity came to end the war, the American rebels abandoned their allies and made a separate peace, leaving Britain free to concentrate on these European rivals who were deemed the greater threat. Indeed, in the wider war that grew out of the American Revolution, it was Britain that won and Spain and France that lost. Still, it can be amusing sometimes to see how some proud, Yankee-Doodle historians can make George Washington sound like an absolute military genius by describing how brilliantly and cleverly he retreated.

2014 is, of course, the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War (as we have been covering) and it is perhaps not something most would wish to dwell on but is nonetheless true that King Louis XVI of France greatly endangered and overextended himself to aid the Americans in their quest for independence from Great Britain yet these same Americans were nowhere to be found when the unfortunate Bourbon monarch was in his hour of need. Yet, when it was the latest of the many failed French republics that was in danger in 1917 and 1918 the United States came to lend a helping hand, invoking the Revolution by saying, “Lafayette, we are here!” That is something that those in the Old World should consider before giving in to the anti-Americanism that is so popular these days. The United States was an American power and confined itself to American matters for the majority of its history, wanting nothing to do with Europe. In fact, the USA would not exist at all were it not for European assistance. Later, the rise of the USA could have been stopped or at least slowed considerably if the Old World had shown more solidarity. When the USA finally stepped on to the world stage as a major power in World War I it was after considerable pleading and cajoling by European powers that she do so.

Most Americans did not enjoy the experience but many politicians did and soon enough Europe was calling for help a second time and, having tasted a bit of power on the global scale, the government helped change the public mood to get into the war and the USA has been a superpower ever since. Many today are inclined to view America negatively but few are willing to recognize the part played by their own countries in bringing America to this point. By getting involved in the War for Independence and not getting involved on other occasions, the great powers of Europe played a part in the rise of America from the very beginning. As republics go, it has been one of the better ones, partly by simple good fortune, partly by an uncanny ability to believe things they want to be true and partly because, despite claims of being “revolutionary” the American republic bore a very striking resemblance to the British constitutional monarchy they had just broken away from. In any event, today the patriots will prance and preen while those of us of the Tory persuasion will grumble and roll our eyes but, while I cannot resist pointing out the oddities listed in the paragraphs above, I will not be giving any sweeping condemnations of those celebrating the Fourth of July today. It is, after all, only natural for people to do this. They have to believe that the colonists were being oppressed and they have to believe that King George was a tyrant or they cannot justify the existence of their country and to make such a leap is asking too much of most people, regardless of the facts. Instead, as I have done before, I will simply say that while they celebrate their independence day, they should spare a word of thanks and praise for absolute monarchs who made their democratic republic possible; His Catholic Majesty King Carlos III of Spain and His Most Christian Majesty King Louis XVI of France. Without them, the United States would not be here now.

For past reflections on the Fourth of July and a look at numerous events and people of the Revolutionary War, click here.

9 comments:

  1. That independence was achieved is certainly a fact but it is also a fact that what is commonly known as the Revolutionary War or the American Revolution was a war of secession rather than a true revolution.

    I must respectfully disagree here. While they might not have marched into London to overthrow the British Monarch, they did overthrow their legitimate authorities and the foundation of their governments up to that point. Also The United States was the first government built on Enlightenment ideals. There are certain senses in which the American Revolution was not as bad as other revolutions, mostly because I think a good chunk of the rebels were simply manipulated into believing that there were legitimate threats to traditional English law coming from the Crown. Now, that simply wasn't true, but it does allow some level of conservative thought to exist in the framework of an American Republic, even if it is ultimately doomed to perpetual failure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A revolution is one side trying to seize power from another side in a country. The English Civil War could be more accurately called a revolution. The colonies already had their own leaders, militia and even governments. They didn't depose the King, they just reduced his territory nor did they change the way the British Empire was governed.

      As for the Enlightenment, sure, some at the very top were fans but by no means the majority and most of the radical ones were weeded out during the war. Like the famous phrase says "We admire Jefferson's America but we live in Hamilton's America". The social order that existed was maintained, religion did not come under attack, there were no efforts to re-write the rules of economics or create a "New Man", there really wasn't even much democracy at the beginning, it was, again, comparable to Britain where only the wealthy landowners could vote.

      Delete
    2. after living in Canada for many years it was most telling to discover that a great many Loyalist did leave the Colonies as the result of the American Secession from the rule of the Monarchy...
      The Monarchy was never in jeopardy, the Loyalists were handsomely rewarded with Land Grants and protection from the Crown......ditto for the Loyalist who went to the Bahamas.
      ....respectfully, Observer Jules

      Delete
  2. Many thanks for this, MM. I must say my heart is actually not as low as it usually is on Independence Day. Maybe it's just I have more comrades than I used to when I started out, but more and more people seem Tory and against Americanism than ever before; perfectly non-traitorous citizens desiring their country be honest about its history and strive to be better and improve themselves. As I tell people who give up on America entirely, even Rome started as a somewhat poor republic. As far as age goes we're nearing the age about when Rome threw off the Republic. There's time still yet for us to do better.

    But back on point, more and more people are starting to wake up and no longer believe the spin elected officials and other biased individuals put on our history and practices, and they want America to admit their past and change its ways so they can be a better nation truly worthy of the position of a world power. But they're not going to fascism, unlike Europe; many are hopping straight to monarchism! This is a positive development and I can't help but think it's your hard work and the work of others who are to be credited for this.

    So I tip my hat to you, sir. Thank you for making the internet a little more Tory.

    God Rest the Soul of the King!

    ReplyDelete
  3. America owes the Royal House of Bourbon a great debt - one that we have certainly been remiss in addressing (the Spanish branch, in particular).

    May God preserve Felipe VI on his throne, and may He swiftly restore the rightful successor of the Martyr-King: Louis XX, the eldest descendant of the Sun King, and may they both abound in eternal friendship with America.

    Vive le roi!
    Viva el rey!

    ReplyDelete
  4. America has a King. He sits in Glory at the right hand of God, and we will have no other. Being a descendent of the strongest warlord conveys no special power or right to rule.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The only one who sits at the right hand of God is Jesus Christ, who was the "descendent of the strongest warlord", King David, and who is the King of Kings, showing not only His own kingship but that other kings reign below Him. Of course, saying so is probably a waste of time, as that all comes from the Bible which you obviously do not submit to since it says, numerous times, that we are to be loyal to our kings, and not only the good and the gentle but also the harsh.

      Delete
  5. The revolution 1775-83 was all a stupid waste of lives and money. for no good reasons. America would have come to independence in the mid 19th century anyway .(as did Canada) It had to for Britain''s sake , because if it remained linked closely to Britain it would have become more important than Britain (the capital moved to New London i.e Washington) , and run the British Empire. ! That''s the irony of the so called revolution.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have always argued the America never really won the battle for independence. The British/loyalists actually won 70% of the major 100 battles, When the British took it seriously after Bunker Hill they sent a 400 warship force to New Yortk. Three times bigger than the Spanish Armada. New Yorkers said "" my goodness all London is here." The rebels could never really defeat this and all the troops it carried - Hessian and British. After Yorktown, the rebels were not strong enough to capture New York, the British stronghold, which the British/loyalists only left after the Paris peace treaty. But they did win the negotiations.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...