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.