America’s Revolutionary War is still with us

I’ve finished reading two books on the Revolutionary War. To me the most revolutionary insight from reading them is that 250 years ago Americans were fighting the same stuff we are today. And no, I don’t mean the British. I mean us.

The first book, The War for American Independence by Samuel B. Griffith II, was something of a tome, but I really wanted a comprehensive history of the war, similar to Bruce Canton’s books on the Civil War. The second book, The Cause by Joseph J. Ellis covered much of the same material, but delved into the motivations for the war, particularly among Americans. While there were insights in both books, in general they overlapped pretty well. Neither is white-washed history and most of the major characters don’t come across well.

In The Cause though I learned that even before the Boston Tea Party, almost no one expected a United States would result from the war. It’s not that Americans expected to lose the war, but that the term United States (or sometimes United Colonies) was simply a marketing banner. Most of those who fought in it expected that after the war each state would be its own country. The colonies were united in getting rid of Great Britain, and that was about it. After the war, the states spent a lot of time trying to avoid becoming a real United States.

The Continental Army was barely a thing. A congress of the states in Philadelphia declared the United States in its Declaration of Independence, but the document was largely a product of Thomas Jefferson’s influence. The Continental Army, run of course by General George Washington, consisted largely of state militias. It had little cohesion because members of these militias were coming and going constantly, often at inconvenient times, like harvest season.

Washington had to practically threaten to resign to get the Continental Congress to provide a non-militia base to the army. It was needed just to give it some continuance and to ensure standards could be enforced. Even so, it would be generous to say that the Continental Congress was niggardly in appropriating money for the army.

Most states fundamentally disagreed with even the idea of a Continental Army. As a result it was constantly on the brink of breaking apart, chronically underfunded and most of its soldiers were literally shoeless and under-clothed, even in the winter. During the army’s wintering at Valley Forge, soldiers died of starvation and smallpox in droves because Congress was happy to see it starve. That it survived at all was not due to Congress’s largess, but due to the army’s foraging among the farms of Pennsylvania, which won them no favors.

One of the most amazing things about the Revolutionary War is that we managed to win it at all. This was in part because the British could never really win the war, as America was too vast and disjointed to hold by force of arms. Merely waiting the British out was the key to our eventual victory. Also, we got really lucky. Our victory in Yorktown was largely a French victory and a result of major mistakes by the British. The French provided most of the troops and its ships bollixed up the Brits inside the Chesapeake Bay. That our troops made it to Yorktown at all was not due to the Continental Congress appropriating money, but due to Robert Morris, the sort of Bill Gates of his time, and his fronting the costs to move the army down there.

Not many Americans come across as looking good in these books. One of the few was George Washington, a man of impeccable credentials. Today it’s kind of hard to appreciate Washington because we look at him using contemporary standards, and Washington owned a lot of slaves, as did many of our founding fathers. It’s clear though that Washington felt discomfort owning slaves. This came in part from a number of black soldiers that served in the Continental Army, including a major contingent from Rhode Island. Also, Washington had his personal servant and slave Billy Lee who faithfully attended to him throughout the war. Lee was freed on Washington’s death. All of Washington’s slaves were eventually freed through his will, but only after his wife Martha died. That’s more than you can say of Jefferson’s slaves.

Aside from that, Washington was a truly amazing man. These days Abraham Lincoln generally gets top billing as our best president. I haven’t read a history of Washington’s presidency yet but his time as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, persevering despite hellacious circumstances, and the integrity and respect he inspired was truly amazing, even if he often despaired in private. Unlike virtually all politicians, Washington was never drawn to power and was happy to relinquish it when the war was over. When King George III learned of Washington’s resignation he said if true “he will become the greatest man in the world.” It was simply unthinkable that someone with his gravitas would give up power when he could have kept it.

Washington wanted a robust and empowered national government. He wanted a real United States, not the loose confederation of states he actually got. He was in a distinct minority of Americans at the time, most who could not see much past their villages where most Americans lived their lives. He was a federalist. Those who wanted to minimize the scope of the federal government were anti-federalists. They wanted power to rest principally in the states, and stay there.

This fundamental conflict is still with us today. Two hundred fifty years later, the Democrats are the Federalists, and the Republicans are the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists distrusted national governments, fearing it would bring about the sort of repression and noble class the war was fought to avoid. The Federalists saw it as inevitable, especially since as a result of the War the United States acquired all land east of the Mississippi River. Letting the states literally fight it out for possession of these lands would have brought on a real civil war long before it arrived.

After the war, it was popular to lampoon the Continental Army. The prevailing opinion was that it was state militias that won the war, and the Continental Army was ancillary at best. Most agreed that Washington was a brilliant leader and tactician but most Americans did not know what the term “American” meant. They were Georgians, or New Yorkers, or Virginians. That was the scope of their worlds.

Of course slavery was as divisive an issue back then as it would be during the Civil War. But there simply wasn’t the will for our loose confederation of independent states to tackle the issue. No one could reconcile American’s intense desire for freedom and liberty when it wasn’t granted to slaves. It caused a lot of cognitive dissonance which was tacitly not talked about.

If you know about American history, you know that the original Articles of Confederation, which gave any state veto power over all the others when it came to national decisions, ultimately had to be abandoned. It turned out to be wholly unworkable and with the vast wealth in the west still to be acquired, there were pragmatic reasons to form a national government after all. It required a new constitution, which was quite brilliant in its time for setting up a system of checks and balances, which allayed a lot of the concerns of the Anti-federalists that a federal government would get out of control.

In 2022, it’s clear that our new Anti-Federalists, the Republican Party, no longer likes these checks and balances because demographics are turning against them. This time instead of accommodating the Federalists, they want to disempower them altogether, and permanently.

From reading these books on the Revolutionary War, it’s clear we are fighting the same arguments we fought back then. It’s not through a constitutional process this time, but through raw power. We need a new George Washington, but it’s hard to see any figure that can unite both sides.

The news from Newport News

My blogging has been delayed by an overdue family reunion. Months in the planning, all but one of my siblings and most of our spouses met in southern Virginia, our first get together since my father’s funeral in 2016.

We chose what turned out to be a beautiful but eclectic rental house on the James River near Spring Grove, Virginia. This manor house was built in 1885 and is part of a larger Baptist Edge Christian Camp. Most of us were not aware of its rules, which included no alcohol with the threat of immediate eviction if we imbibed on the campus. It didn’t stop us from drinking several bottles of wine while we were there, but we were discreet enough to put the empty bottles in our cars for disposal off campus. The alcohol prohibition seemed quite odd, as if these Christians were unaware that Jesus drank wine at the Last Supper. Also, we found wine glasses in the cupboard.

Manor House at Edge Christian Camp
Manor House at Edge Christian Camp

The house itself was in need of a lot of maintenance but was certainly functional and included a large kitchen, dining room, parlor and a large enclosed deck with lots of tables for playing cards. It was a mini Tara and scratched whatever itch I had to live on a plantation for a while. It stands on a bluff overlooking the James River and was so far off the beaten path that Hooterville would have been a major metropolis. The closest town of Surry was a 20 minute drive away. You had to drive many a poorly marked back road that turned into an unpaved stretch, then take a “road” around a tree to get on the campus.

James River
James River

The Tidewater area of Virginia is pretty amazing. It sits at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The James River is just one of three major rivers that flow into the area. (These include the York and Rappahannock rivers.) Most rivers tend to be pretty narrow, but it’s hard to find a stretch of these rivers less than a mile across. So if you are a boater, it’s an ideal location to live as there are waterways everywhere as well as access to the Atlantic Ocean if you want to go that far. It’s also likely to be severely impacted by climate change. Sea levels are already rising, making my sister’s house in Poquoson a likely future casualty. Fortunately, she expects to move from the area within a few years to higher ground.

Jamestown - Scotland Ferry
Jamestown – Scotland Ferry

There’s a lot of history to be found in the area. One of the first places we visited was Jamestown, right across the river from us, accessed by the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry which runs every half hour. Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. Settled by venture capitalists in England, it was never financially successful. Early colonists died of hunger, disease and malnutrition. But it endured, which makes it historically significant. Technically though the first European settlement in North America happened in St. Augustine, Florida. It just took a couple of hundred years for the title to pass from the Spanish to Great Britain and then to the United States.

Jamestown
Jamestown

One of the areas downsides is its traffic. It took us more than an hour to get to any site from our house. The dearth of bridges across the James and York rivers make traveling tedious, as did the frequent traffic congestion. Williamsburg, Newport News, Yorktown and Hampton are all on a peninsula between the York and James Rivers, further limiting mobility. The Colonial Parkway at least makes for a scenic road to get between places. After Jamestown, we took it to tour Yorktown.

As you should recall, the Revolutionary War ended at Yorktown. A French fleet bollixed up the British fleet by keeping it from getting out of the Chesapeake Bay. A combination of our soldiers and French soldiers laid siege to Cornwallis’s forces there, who eventually surrendered. I came back two days later to tour the actual battlefields, where the earthen berms created by our forces still exist.

Yorktown battlefield
Yorktown battlefield

With just three full days and many family obligations, plus the long commutes to and from our house, touring was limited. But we did manage a tour of the Norfolk shipyards, which documents the huge size of the U.S. Navy. The area though is rife with other government institutions, including Army and Air Force bases, and a NASA research facility at Langley Air Force Base where my sister leads a team of spaceflight researchers. We also took in the Virginia Air and Space Science Center, and was given a guided tour by my brother in law. He has excellent credentials as he used to be the manager for the International Space Station.

Apollo 12 command module
Apollo 12 command module

So it was a great albeit somewhat short reunion, made longer by the hour-plus hour drives each way from our home in Massachusetts and the usual traffic woes between them. A “bomb cyclone” that hit New England even affected us as its winds whipped up the waters, making for a loud night of gale force winds locally that kept us from getting much sleep.

The Hampton Roads area though is worth more extended visits. It’s one of these areas of the country that should be visited much more than it is and would be quite an interesting and exciting area to live.

A truer understanding of the meaning of the Second Amendment

This Washington Post OpEd by Dennis Barron (who is an English and linguistics professor out of the University of Illinois) really intrigued me. He takes the late Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia to task for his reading of the Second Amendment. It’s this amendment that grants us gun rights. To refresh your memory, here is the Second Amendment in full:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Specifically he takes Scalia to task for his interpretation of “bear Arms”. Scalia said that it undoubtedly meant that it protected the right to use guns for self-defense. According to Barron, at the time it was only used in a military context. It meant the use of arms for “war, soldiering or organized, armed action” according to Barron.

As I pointed out years back, the court’s 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller in which Scalia voted with the majority essentially turned the Second Amendment into:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Perhaps some future true-constructionist court will rediscover the true meaning of the amendment. (Scalia thought of himself as a true-constructionist, i.e. someone who interprets the law as it was originally intended to be interpreted.) If Barron is right, then it’s quite clear the right to bear arms is derived only from the state’s need to have a well-regulated militia. Your right to bear arms is not because you like to shoot squirrels, target practice or even to protect your home. And it’s not like this is a mystery: it’s written in plain English.

If militias were actually necessary in 2018, given the number of firearms in circulation you would think there would be militias all over the place. If you were thinking our army is a militia, you would be quite wrong. Dictionary.com gives these definitions in order of most frequent use:

  1. A body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies.
  2. A body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers.
  3. All able-bodied males considered by law eligible for military service.
  4. A body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Today, the Reserve and National Guard would qualify under the first definition, but not our standing army. They are very well regulated too. So clearly if you are a member of either of these, your right could not be infringed, at least as long as you remain a member. In practice though the state probably won’t tell you to keep your guns at home, particularly not those military grade guns. They’ll have you drive to your local armory to pick them up and truck you somewhere in uniform with a bunch of other soldiers.

The second definition is rather murky. A soldier presumably has had military training so perhaps this also covers the Reserve and the Guard. It’s unlikely that shooting at rabbits qualifies you as a soldier. If you haven’t been trained to maim and kill people with firearms under a chain of command using actual military-grade guns, you can’t credibly call yourself a soldier.

The third definition is pretty sexist in 2018 so presumably can be ignored. It should include women but presumably does not include the feeble. So grandma would probably not qualify to keep a gun in her nightstand.

The fourth definition perhaps cover unofficial militias. There are these militias out there today, but they have no legal sanction and are ephemeral organizations at best. Since they have no official sanction, they can’t be considered “well regulated” so presumably they don’t qualify at all. Around the time of our founding though, these militias were all we had. Given that, it’s probably not surprising the founding fathers said, “Hey, we need to ensure we keep our militias or the Indians might overrun us. So we need to make sure that citizens can bear arms.” There was nothing that can credibly be called a standing American army during the Revolutionary War. To the extent it was the “Continental Army” they were the ragtag militias that showed up to fight the war that George Washington did his best to train (with little in the way of funding from the Continental Congress, by the way). Our military of militias proved pretty ineffective. If France hadn’t helped us, particularly at Yorktown, it’s unlikely we would have won the war outright. Anyhow, it is murky at best whether a group of ad-hoc people calling themselves a militia are actually a militia, and would not be in a 1790s sense. To stretch the definition of militia though, perhaps these people have the right to bear arms because they meet the definition of militia.

Even if you say a citizen has the right to bear arms though, the wording of the amendment with a proper interpretation of its predicate “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” suggests to me that if Congress declared that a well regulated militia was no longer necessary to the security of a free state, then your right to bear arms could be infringed and no constitutional amendment would be needed. If at some future time Congress decided, “Hey, we need a militia again” then that right could return.

In any event that clause was not added as an afterthought. Rather, it’s a predicate. Its wording though is quite odd. In more modern English, it should be read as: “Only because a militia is needed for our country to survive, citizens have the right to own guns.”

It’s laughable to assert this right is unlimited because the Supreme Court has stated many times it is not an unlimited right. Inmates can’t own firearms. In many states, being mentally ill can disqualify you. You can’t own bazookas. States are free to regulate firearms providing they don’t take away the right altogether.

So it’s fine if one state decides that “arms” mean nothing bigger than a handgun and another an AR-15. It’s fine if one state says that minors cannot own guns and another state allows it. The Second Amendment is no more absolute than any other right in the Bill of Rights. And if properly framed in the context of the 1790s, it would be hard to argue that anyone has a right to bear arms for any reason other that to maintain a free state’s right to exist using a militia.

Maybe someday we’ll get there, but it’s now obvious that our interpretation of the Second Amendment is just dishonest.

Book Review: The First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912 – 1989), a noteworthy historian and author, churned out eleven histories in her career. I have read a couple of them over the years. Some, like A Distant Mirror can be challenging reads but all are flawlessly researched and illuminate periods of history that generally need illumination. Her last book, The First Salute is ostensibly about the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution feels sort of shortchanged in this 347-page book published a year before her death. It’s still interesting reading, but it’s just not what you expect from the subtitle: “A View of the American Revolution”.

And a view it is, principally from the Dutch perspective. I certainly had no idea that the Dutch had anything to do with our revolution. So I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for in learning about the American Revolution. Many battles of that war are at best alluded to, such as the Battle of Brandywine, rather than covered. Only the last year or so of the war is covered in any real details. You do get a new perspective of the war. The book’s main contribution is to illuminate who funded our Revolutionary War, and that turned out to be not just the French but also indirectly the Dutch.

To cast light on this part of our history, Tuchman takes us deep into the Dutch empire at the start of the Revolutionary War. You might think the Revolutionary War revolved around Lexington, Concord and Yorktown but much of the action actually happened out of country. Tuchman’s tale takes us frequently to St. Eustatius, a tiny island of just eight square miles in the Dutch West Indies, on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It was at St. Eustatius that the Dutch became the first government to salute a U.S. Navy vessel, thanks to its free-market governor. It was an act that effectively thumbed the Dutch nose at the British government. The Dutch were notorious free traders and St. Eustatius was the principle trading point for vessels of all sorts, mostly going between Europe and the Americas, and hence a strategic location that knitted together its empire. If you know anything about the Revolutionary War, you probably learned that colonists were upset by the British government’s taxation policies. It required that colonists buy British imported goods only. Living in the colonies was expensive, but doubly so when you had to pay usury rates for goods from the British East India Company. Americans involved in commerce quickly used their wide geographical disparity to run around these rules, mostly through smuggling as I noted in 2005 in a review of To Rule the Waves.

Since the Dutch didn’t like the British, but tried not to go to war with them, American vessels found it convenient to trade goods at St. Eustatius, often under the watch of British ships. The British tolerated St. Eustatius for many years but it eventually became too much for them. Sir George Rodney, a British admiral, eventually was given the task of invading St. Eustatius and other Dutch islands in the area, principally to help cripple this illicit trading with the United States. These acts though started a war between the Netherlands and Great Britain, a war Great Britain thought it could win but simply proved to show how overextended its empire had become as it fought wars with many great powers simultaneously.

Great Britain was at least empowered by the weak Dutch government and which had off and on again wars with Spain, which claimed territory nearby. Still, trade was the lifeblood of the Netherlands. Having its trade with America reduced made them angry and caused their economy to tank. The British were liberal boarding its vessels looking for contraband, and these actions too caused a lot of resentment.

Eventually the French allied with America but the Revolutionary War nearly sputtered to a halt simply from lack of funds to feed it. Funds bought what the Colonial Army really needed: basics like guns and gunpowder. Pay for troops was sporadic at best. The American public itself was divided on the war, roughly half supporting those wanting a new nation and half wanting America to remain a colony, but few willing to risk life and limb to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to learn just how precarious our army was, which was mostly a ragtag group of militias and volunteers frequently hungry and impoverished.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the second half, which finally takes us mostly into America and follows George Washington as he tries to maneuver his troops intelligently across the colonies. This was a time that preceded the railroads. Moving troops by sea was usually not an option due to the British blockade, so troops had to walk, often surreptitiously around British strongholds like New York City. With often little more than cattle tracks between cities, movement of troops took a lot of time. Lots of volunteers found it too much and simply went home. Intelligence was spotty at best. It took a lot of British bungling, good fortune and Washington’s strategic thinking to bring the war to its end in Virginia with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. It also took the French, and French General Lafayette’s help to neatly box the British inside the Chesapeake Bay, to end the war and start a new nation. It’s curious how few of us know that the French army and navy helped win our independence.

Tuchman’s major accomplishment is this backstory, particularly how important the Dutch turned out to be in our revolution. It was not through much in the way of overt aid but in how the British discovered that bloodying the Dutch proved counterproductive, and engaged other macro forces that found it to their advantage to support America. George Washington and his colonial troops (plus troops supplied by Lafayette at the end of the war) certainly won the war in the United States, but it’s unlikely it would have succeeded had not engagement with the Dutch kicked off all sorts of events elsewhere in the world. This would move so many pieces on the chessboard that these actions far from America’s shores would prove pivotal in our eventual victory.

A Nation Built on Smuggling

It can be dangerous to read history books. You learn things you don’t necessarily want to know. I am currently reading To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman. It is the story of how the British Royal Navy shaped what we now know as our modern world. It’s an excellent read and hard to put down. As you read it you feel the mistiness of centuries past recede and you discern the often crude realities of those times. They were times that were certainly harsher than most of us can now imagine. While it often seems that today we are still a bunch of savages, reading a book like one this can make you realize we’ve still come a long way.

You learn that very famous people were not necessarily very nice people. Take for example Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the world. Clearly it was an incredible accomplishment but Drake was no humanitarian. Humanitarians were few and far between in the 1500s. Life was hard and brutish. But in addition Drake was no gentleman. He sailed with his good friend Thomas Doughty. But it wasn’t long after his ships passed the equator that their relationship broke down. Drake would tolerate no dissent. He interpreted some of Doughty’s words to be mutinous. On the coast of South America he convicted him for mutiny in a show trial and then had him beheaded him on the deck of his ship. Glad I wasn’t there.

I also learned that most of our founding fathers were, to put it bluntly, smugglers. Herman writes, “Virtually every wealthy American merchant involved in the rum trade, the wine trade, or even the tea trade, was to one degree or another, a smuggler. For decades, fast-running New England schooners, sleek two-masted fishing boats with fore-and-aft sails for quick handling, allowed the lawless Americans to thumb their noses at an overextended Customs Service.”

After Great Britain’s war with France, the overwhelming presence and numbers of Royal Navy ships off our coasts made it possible to effectively enforce trade laws in their colonies for the first time. Needless to say this seriously disrupted the lifestyles and incomes of the colonists. It turned out that smuggling in untaxed sugar from South America and the West Indies for other commodities like codfish and timber, and trading with countries with whom Great Britain was technically at war with, was much more profitable than trying to clear land and earn a living by farming. Much of the anger that fed the Revolutionary War was a direct result of the difficulty Americans were having maintaining our fine smuggling tradition. In short many of our forefathers were lawbreakers. And their standard of living was in jeopardy.

Naturally they did not see themselves this way. As we know the cry was about “taxation without representation”, a feeling that would doubtless be familiar to the citizens in our modern colonies like Washington D.C. But it matters not. If judged by the standards of our current administration our forefathers would be scummy lawbreakers. They would be unprincipled men for whom the ends justified the means and simply unwilling to abide by the law of the time. That Great Britain ultimately failed and that the United States won its war of independence was mostly due to the British Empire being vastly overextended. With no friendly ports on the east coast supplies for a war with America had to be imported from Great Britain itself, a ruinously expensive endeavor.

New England in particularly excelled at turning sugar from the Caribbean into high quality rum. In 1763 Massachusetts alone had 63 distilleries. Arguably rum profits were the primary source of colonial wealth, and those profits allowed a textile trade to begin in America. But Great Britain needed the money imposed on the colonies as a result of the Stamp Act to pay its massive war debts. However the Americans wanted nothing to do with paying for the costs of Great Britain’s wars, although they enjoyed the benefits of its protection.

This “have my cake and eat it too” spirit is clearly alive and well in America today. We still find taxes to be evil. We still want the benefits of free trade without any of the costs. Of course we think it is fine for us to impose tariffs on foreign goods when it is in our interests, but not okay for other countries to do the same to our products.

Maybe I was being naïve, but I was hoping that our founding fathers had higher ethical standards. But they must not have been complete scallywags. While they knew how to be pragmatic when it came to business, they were also deeply in touch with the base reality of human nature. As a result our constitution, instead of assuming the best from human beings, assumes the worst. “Trust no one” seems to be its guiding philosophy. We have branches of government continually checking and balancing the other branches. When one branch gets too much power it is usually in the vested interest of the others to figuratively whack the uppity branch on its head and tow it back into line.

Our forefathers may have been white-collar criminals and scallywags. But at least they were proud members of the reality-based community.