Was the American Revolution (and the War of Independence) a popular political movement?
After reading A.J. Langguth’s “Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution”, it sure doesn’t seem to have been. With a total population in the colonies somewhere around 3 million, the patriots were only ever able to field a few thousand (and in total, a few ten thousand) men at arms in most of the major battles and the Congress was apparently not popular enough to convince the colonies to let it raise its own taxes to properly feed and clothe its army. Considering that the right of parliaments to levy taxes to pay for wars was a key aspect of British legal philosophy which had been developing for centuries since the Magna Carta, the inability of the Congress to avoid resistance to the issue of taxation to support the war effort appears to be as strong an indication as any that this was a minority struggle engineered by a crafty competing elite.
Given its lack of popularity, and the fact that many of those who were first agitating for the conflict had become wealthy by circumventing mercantilist trade laws in the colony (what we might crudely call “smuggling contraband”, much like a modern drug trafficker), the even more puzzling question is why they bothered to start it in the first place? Wouldn’t men like John Hancock have been better off collecting the monopoly rents granted to them by the system of restraints on trade in place which they so profitably worked around? Why were new laws like the Stamp Act, which would have only increased the profitability of their operations, the cause for a major escalation in the dispute between colonial citizens, their local (British-approved) magistrates and the Crown and British Parliament itself?
Unfortunately, “Patriots” doesn’t spend much time pondering or attempting to answer questions like that, which to me is a shame because the reason I bought the book was that both the title and the insinuations of many of the reviewers seemed to suggest it had some conspiratorial light to shed on this momentous historical series of events.
My expectations ran high in the initial chapters of the book. Langguth’s chosen motif, if it isn’t obvious, is to highlight a key personality in the chronological narrative in each chapter. He starts with “Otis”, “Adams” and then “Henry”, but quickly ventures off the rails with “Riots”, and “Politics” and eventually “Saratoga” and “Victory.” The first few chapters outlining some key legal and social goings on, centered primarily in Boston, are exciting, detailed and alive with the moment. The author succeeds again and again at painting a neat little portrait of each major player as they enter the stage such that you get a sense of their personality, their motivations and ambitions and some of their personal back story that helps to create a context for why they’re involved at key moments and why they might have acted as they did. He excels in these early parts at providing interesting data, economic, demographic and otherwise, that help the reader to draw inferences about the larger context of each disturbance, one of my favorite being that the British customs service (responsible for enforcing the system of tariffs that bolstered the mercantilist relationship of the mother country to its colonies) cost 8,000 pounds sterling to operate each year but only managed to collect 2,000 pounds sterling in revenues and fines. Considering the public and private corruption the customs service engendered, why bother with such a system if only to operate it at a 6,000 pound loss every year? It is a piece of data that leads one down many puzzling philosophical paths!
But as the conflicts in Boston move from the courthouses and legislatures to the streets and, eventually, the towns and fields of battle, the narrative structure loses its way. It becomes clear that this is a story that is much too complex to fit this “great personalities” framework and the author seems to willingly abandon it but not before introducing a cavalcade of new characters along the way without fanfare or suitable explanation. In one chapter, a teenage Alexander Hamilton pops his head in for a paragraph in the form of hoping for a war in a letter written to a friend in New York but we hear nothing from or about him until almost two hundred pages later and even then he plays a minor role seemingly mentioned only because of the narrative omniscience that he’ll mean more to American history at a later date.
Aside from covering some of the major struggles in Boston, Langguth talks about issues being debated in Virginia in the House of Burgesses. The rest of the colonies (11 out of the 13 total, mind you!) go essentially without mention in terms of their own internal problems with British authority culminating in their decisions to join an armed rebellion. They only pop in here and there when their representatives make some motion in the Congress, or one of their militia bands achieves some glory (or disgrace) on a battlefield somewhere. If you went off of Langguth’s telling alone, Boston was the only intellectual and politically active place in the 13 colonies and it somehow managed to drag all the rest of the population into a conflict that they had nothing to do with.
Equally puzzling is the intense focus on the military campaign in New England, centered around action in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York state. Though references are made several times to the “Southern campaign” and the “Northern army” engaged in key battles at Saratoga, Canada and elsewhere, it is almost as if there wasn’t a brutal, guerrilla war despite the colonial military campaign somehow abruptly concluding with Cornwallis’s entrapment and surrender in the Southern (Virginian) Yorktown. Now how on earth did Yorktown become decisive when the fighting all seemed to take place in New England?
There were a few takeaways that seemed clear to me. War and military combat is horrible and there is nothing glorious about it, not even when fighting (nominally) for political freedom. Descriptions of the bayonet charges, of men having their heads pulverized on impact by cannonballs, of the mutilations and amputations that are left after a major battle all made it clear that war is inhumane. Another takeaway was that war is not carried out by men shooting at each other on battlegrounds alone. Spying and intelligence gathering, bribery and loyalty-negotiation and even market forces are all things a commander needs to contend with. Finally, while I certainly don’t believe it is reasonable to expect men to be “better” than this anytime soon, it was fascinating to see how many of the various “Patriots” were what might be described as traumatized, ego-driven personalities who struggled vainly for glory and treasure and were willing to do violence because of these passions. It really got me thinking about how little conflict the world would be engendered by if it wasn’t populated by men willing to abandon their loving families for years on end to engage in oratorical parlors (Congress) or to carry out war and destruction for a little excitement (Hamilton, Washington, etc.).
One of my biggest frustrations with the book turned out to be the fact that over half of the book followed the military campaigns of the Revolution, but it was difficult and at times impossible for me to parse Langguth’s narrative to understand what, physically, was occurring on the battlefield and why. There are clearly reasons why men with rifles and cannon did what they did to defeat one another in those days, but it was rarely clear to me a.) what it was they were actually doing and b.) why they determined it to be advantageous. I know very little about how war is conducted, in this era or any other, and this author didn’t help resolve my veil of ignorance.