Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Glorious Cause

Unlike other volumes in the Oxford History of America series I've discussed here (including Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 and What Hath God Wrought: the transformation of America 1815-1848) Robert Middelkauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 is not a social history. Rather its descriptions of how people lived and their political evolution during this period seem almost tacked on to a detailed military history of the war of colonial liberation. As it happens I find this war's battles interesting because of having had a mother who liked to drag her child to visit them, but if that sort of thing is not your interest, this is probably not for you.

What I took away from this was, however, a far better sense of how European 18th century armies were organized -- and of what rebelling colonials had to achieve to create their Continental Army.

In most respects, the British army was a conventional eighteenth century European force trained to fight in the accepted style of the century. In the eighteenth century, before the French Revolution brought its immense changes, war was the preserve of the dynastic state, fought on a small scale for limited purposes. Ordinarily, two groups in society did the fighting -- the aristocracy who provided the officers, and an under class, peasants, vagrants, the dregs who filled the ranks. … The composition of the army required that it be highly trained and harshly disciplined. Vagrants, ignorant peasants, and in many cases foreigners who were dragooned or hired felt neither moral commitment to their rulers nor loyalty to their nation which, in a modem sense, did not exist.

These highly disciplined forces, impressed or mercenary, fired from highly disciplined close order ranks and did their greatest damage to enemies in hand to hand bayonet charges. Colonials came to the struggle unprepared for this kind of warfare. Middlekauff describes General George Washington's task when Congress asked him to lead:

… George Washington admired European military doctrine. … in 1775 he had to find a way to convert what he considered to be the rabble around Boston into an army. …

This was a long struggle. Congress had allowed state militias to sign up men for 90-day periods; many "soldiers" simply wandered in and out of camp. Though colonials were hardy men, they had no training in combat. Two years into the war Washington gratefully accepted the assistance of a German soldier who pretended to a title, the "Baron" Steuben. Steuben proved adept at whipping the disheveled troops encamped at Valley Forge through a terrible winter into some sort of military order, explaining to a European friend:

"In the first place, the genius of this nation is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he doeth it, but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that; and he does it'"

Middlekauff continues:

The corollary to this conclusion is that the American soldiers knew what they were fighting for. They had a sense of the "glorious cause." …

In his conclusion, Middlekauff touches on a theme I would have wished were more central to this book:

Men who have more than their lives to lose make one sort of revolution, and those who have only their lives to lose make another. The Virginians, like almost all Americans, were of the first sort. Had they had nothing to lose, they might not have stopped with the disestablishment of the church, they might have destroyed it. They might not have freed access to the land; they might have abolished private property or they might have destroyed small owners. They might have encouraged the slave trade and made slavery even more barbarous. They might have toughened an already tough criminal code. They might not have simply rejected the British constitution, they might have converted constitutionalism into authoritarianism. Nowhere in America were there many men who felt they had nothing to lose; and nowhere did such men seize power.

The sort of questions the history of the American Revolution raises for me are caught in that; this is perhaps the true "American exceptionalism" --the moderation or incompleteness of our founding "revolution," depending on your point of view. These questions deserve more attention than they get in this volume.

This post was queued up before I left for Bhutan.

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