Friday, December 21, 2007

Thoughts on Reading 1776

I just finished reading the book 1776 by David McCullough and discussing it within a book club. The book follows events in the American revolutionary war during the title year, including debates in the British Parliament and resolutions in the Congressional Congress, but mostly the military affairs. Thus the book follows the troops through the siege of Boston by the Americans, the siege of New York by the British, and the subsequent events of the year in New Jersey.

The book is short, interesting and easy to read.

I have not thought much about the revolutionary war since I became an adult, and it is really quite difficult to look back at that time as it must have been, rather than as the antecedent to what has happened since. But that was what I tried to do with this reading and discussion.

The 13 colonies were very thinly populated. Fewer people lived in the entire region than now live in the greater Washington metropolitan area (in which I now live). The cities, what we now would think of as relatively small towns, were few and far between -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Most people lived in the country, and most were involved in agriculture. People on the average lived better in the colonies than in Europe, but we would see most of them as very poor. Washington and other plantation owners, the very rich of their time, were very few indeed. Americans were almost universally unschooled or very poorly schooled, living in a world of sparse and slow communication.

Of course, the 13 colonies were not a country. Indeed, independence was so controversial that a third of the population left rather than live in the new confederacy. The colonies had very different economic and social structures, with slavery in the south and not in the north. The religious differences that had resulted in the founding of the different colonies must still have held sway over the colonies to a degree which we can barely understand. The people knew that being governed by people far away was decidedly uncomfortable, and did not trust each other to govern them well. Indeed, even among the few who really sought independence from England there was no agreement on how the colonies should be governed.

For the English, facing war in Europe, sending troops and a part of the navy thousands of miles away to fight the colonists must have been a huge burden. The French support of the rebels contributed to the bankruptcy of the French government, which in turn contributed to the later French revolution.

The rebels usually had no uniforms, and were armed with a variety of weapons, but largely lacked heavy weapons (canons). There was no system of tax collections in the colonies that could support an army adequately, and indeed no government that could manage such an effort. There were few experienced military leaders, especially at the level of leading even the small armies of the time.

The leaders who started the war could not have understood that they were beginning a multi-year effort that would result in one percent of the population being killed. Indeed, the British apparently initially thought that they would fight one or two major battles, take one or two colonial capitals and the rebels would capitulate. Of course, this was the first war of independence, and neither side had models that they could draw upon to understand what was at stake or how to conduct the war successfully.

In fact there were few battles in 1776, and the war was one of maneuver. The battles didn't kill many people, and those who were killed were more often killed by bayonet than by musket. The guns were inaccurate, and could only be fired slowly, especially by poorly trained troops. On the other hand, health conditions were terrible, and large portions of the army were to sick to fight when they were needed. The conditions under which rebel prisoners were kept (the soldiers, not the officers) were much more lethal than the battles. I wonder whether Washington and his generals understood that they could decimate the enemy merely by keeping them in the field year after year in those execrable hygienic conditions, while the rebel forces could be renewed with militias serving short tours of duty.

I was struck by how badly the British handled the insurgency. They outraged not only the colonists but also a significant British constituency by hiring foreign mercenaries to fight against people considered British citizens. They destroyed a lot of Boston during the siege, and cholera and other disease were epidemic in the city under their rule. A quarter of New York burned down soon after they took the city, and the troops were not mobilized to fight the fires. They laid waste to the countryside in the New Jersey campaign, raping and pillaging as they went. They could not send enough troops to hold and control all the land that they took, nor could they protect their shipping from the privateers chartered by the rebels.

The Declaration of Independence seems to have been a masterstroke of policy. Prior to the Declaration, there had been the possibility of a reconciliation with an amnesty for most rebels. The Declaration was a statement that (at least the for the rebel leaders) reconciliation was not possible. Indeed, the effort to forge enough popular support to maintain the rebellion and man the army must have been the key to the success of the revolution. (Of course there was also the problem of raising the resources to support the revolution).

Washington is a fascinating figure. Martha burned his correspondence after his death, and he maintained a distance from his subordinates as commander of the army (and later as the president) so perhaps it is not surprising that his figure is opaque after centuries. He clearly was not equipped by training nor experience to win battles against the professional British and German troops. He was personally brave, and he was there, fighting on and on for year after year. He apparently vascillated often, but prudently avoided battle again and again in order to preserve and protect his weak army. Perhaps he realized that if the rebellion could be preserved long enough, it could gain support from the continent of Europe, and the English would get tired of the drain on their military and their purses. But his willingness to abandon power, and return to civilian life is especially difficult to understand, at least given the lust for power of our current leaders. Washington was apparently motivated by a sense of civic responsibility, and a belief in democracy! How fortunate the nation was in his choice as leader of the revolutionary forces and later as the first president.

In looking back, it is almost equally hard to see how the rebellion could have succeeded, or how the English could have suppressed it even had they better understood the nature of insurgency.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

I loved 1776. McCollough is a master storyteller. To me, Truman was his masterpiece....The rebels of that time sound somewhat similar to some aspects of rebel insurgencies today. Surely insurgents in Vietnam, Afghanistan (Soviet period) and Irag are partly taking a "wait em out" strategy. Also the British mistakes with respect to hurting the population sounds very much like most of the history of the current Iraq war, with the exception of the last months, since Petraeus took over.....We Americans need to read more history. Especially our Presidents and leaders. Truman was very well read in history, despite his lack of a world class education from the best universities. In hindsight, Truman managed things pretty well. Knowledge of history is one antedote for arrogance, an unfortunate characteristic that we see in many of our leaders today. Another problem with today's leaders is that almost without exception they lack the personal bravery and courage of leaders like Washington.