- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Copyright © 2001 Robert Harvey.
All rights reserved.
On the night of 19 April 1775, as the sun set beneath a horizon darkened with thunderclouds, hundreds of soberly attired men, and women in bustles and petticoats, were crowded along the wooden waterfront of Boston harbour, facing away from the open sea, gazing across the calm waters of the Charles estuary. Crimson flashes illuminated the dusk and the underbellies of the approaching storm clouds, but they were not lightning, nor were the detonations thunder. Then the flashes stopped and the rain came, followed by nature's own display of violence.
For three hours, until ten o'clock at night, the staid townspeople waited curiously and gravely for their first glimpse of men battered by their own kind. Altogether, around 2,000 were ferried over from the teardrop peninsula of Charlestown, just north of Boston itself. Many were horribly wounded, all were soaked to the skin, and most were suffering from the traumatized exhaustion of soldiers who had been fighting for their lives for eight long hours.
As the men were brought ashore to the inadequate attentions of eighteenth-century army doctors, and as the townspeople slowly dispersed to the warmth of their lodgings that crisp April night, few can have realized that they were witnessing the birth pains of the most powerful nation the globe has ever known, the beginning of the most enduring revolution in history — indeed the defining event in the shaping of the world as we now know it. Some may, however, have foreseen that they were witnessing the start of a vicious, long war, which was to exact a terrible death toll.
But surely the question on the lips of the British recruits, wretched and shivering with cold and shock as the boats pulled them across to safety, was, Why? Why had the colonists — their own kin, enjoying virtual self-government, British maritime protection and the commercial advantages of belonging to the greatest trade grouping on earth — chosen to unleash a war of attrition against the country of their common origin? Why were humble British boys killing and being killed by their American cousins? The answer was far more complex than is generally assumed.
Outside newly acquired Canada, British America in 1764, on the eve of the Revolution, consisted essentially of a long coastal strip penetrating at most some 300 miles inland, with a series of ports or cities as focal points. Only 21 million acres — 8 per cent of the occupied area — was cultivated. There was New Hampshire in the north, a long strip sandwiched between Massachusetts and its remote dependency of Maine. New Hampshire depended upon the former's port of Boston for its exports to the outside world. Prosperous, underpopulated, and a prime source of naval masts and timber, it was dominated by one Benning Wentworth as a personal fiefdom; his family and friends occupied most sinecures and were awarded the cream of grants of land and contracts, while the New Hampshire council ate out of his hand.
Next-door Massachusetts itself radiated from Boston — run down, economically depressed, a hotbed of political intrigue, whose factions strove for dominance under the usually helpless eye of the British-appointed governor. Further south was the small enclave of Rhode Island, with a reputation for contraband, quirkiness and eccentricity, and with a genuinely popularly elected legislature which dominated the state's few chafing 'Tory' grandees.
In neighbouring Connecticut religious factions held sway, while to the west the state of New York encompassed one of America's biggest ports and, along the Hudson valley, a vast backcountry of immensely prosperous landowners who presided over large numbers of tenants, of whom some were well off, most less so. The port of New York itself ran the state's politics, and was riven by arguments between quarrelling factions.
The great state of Pennsylvania was dominated by the descendants of William Penn, the Quaker leader, who were so incompetent and argumentative that in 1746 even Benjamin Franklin had petitioned the Crown to rule the state directly. Pennsylvania also provided a home to a large German settler population and an astonishing variety of their Churches. Maryland, Massachusetts and Delaware were also held by royal charter; Connecticut, like Rhode Island, actually elected its own government; and the rest of the states were Crown colonies with their government chosen in London.
Religion played a major role in more peaceful New Jersey's politics. Delaware was smaller and sleepier. Maryland, with its important port of Baltimore, was a country of great landowners and impoverished tenants. Virginia, the tobacco state, distinguished and wealthy, enjoyed tranquil politics centred around its staid House of Burgesses. Its greatest landowner, Lord Fairfax, presided over an estate millions of acres in extent. North and South Carolina, and below that the little settlement of Georgia, with their ports of Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah and their slave-plantation societies, also home to great territorial magnates, enjoyed largely peaceful political existences.
Each state was parochial and independent of the others; although there were considerable cross-border commercial links, the states looked primarily to Britain for trade. Their political arrangements suited both sides. A British-appointed governor — usually a soldier or ex-soldier — presided over a locally chosen executive council and over the squabbling factions and interests in the local assembly to which — on a property qualification — representatives were elected by a considerable part of the male population (from as much as one half to as little as one-sixth in different places). The governor's appointment was often given to a local man of prominence and, provided that the colony paid lip service to the Crown, Britain barely interfered in how it was run. The colonies were distinct, yet surprisingly uniform in style of government and social patterns. They were quasi-independent.
To the mother country they were relatively insignificant. Far more important than Virginia's tobacco producers were the West Indian islands to the south, supplying the insatiable European demand for sugar and the global thirst for rum, distilled from molasses. Capital investment in the West Indian sugar industry was some £60 million in 1750 — around six times the total English stake in the North American colonies. By the 1770s there were reckoned to be some seventy MPs for the Caribbean plantation interest in the House of Commons, representing an absurdly backward and inefficient system of slash-and-burn production, worked by slaves on huge plantations draining the soil of its fertility. The sugar was grown for export, and then only through England.
The British sugar producers came increasingly under challenge from their French neighbours, who favoured more efficient smallholdings worked in rotation with different types of crop. John Dickinson, the prominent English-trained American lawyer, remarked ironically, 'By a very singular disposition of affairs, the colonies of an absolute monarchy [France] are settled on a republican principle; while those of a kingdom in many respects resembling a commonwealth [England] are cantoned out among a few lords vested with despotic power over myriads of vassals and supported in the pomp of Baggas by their slavery.'
For Britain, with this colossal trade in the West Indies under challenge from the French, with the hostile Spanish Empire to the south, and engaged in continuing Continental power struggles and expansionary commitments in India and the East, the North American colonies were something of a backwater.
Yet the thirteen colonies were changing fast. Nine-tenths of all Americans lived in the countryside — hence the political power of the rural magnates — and most were smallholders, tenants, or settlers. However, the towns exercised disproportionate influence in an overall population which had exploded from just 250,000 in 1700 to around 2,500,000 three-quarters of a century later — a rate of 3 per cent a year or roughly a third every decade. There was plenty of room: the country supported around three persons per square mile in 1775. Yet poor agricultural practices meant that average farms had diminished in size — for example, in New England, to around 100 acres in extent.
Modest little towns had become small cities during the thirty years before the Revolution: Philadelphia's population increased from 13,000 to 40,000, New York from 11,000 to 25,000, Charleston from about 7,000 to 12,000, Newport from 6,000 to 11,000. Boston had stagnated at about 16,000, losing its pre-eminence to Philadelphia and New York. Even so, compared with England, most American urban centres remained stiflingly provincial: for example, London had more than a million inhabitants, and more than fifty cities in England could boast a population of 10,000 or more.
The rapid growth in the American population was caused both by high birth rates and by immigration: most new arrivals were no longer high-minded zealots, some from gentrified backgrounds, but poor people driven in search of a better life. Two-thirds of non-native Americans were of British descent. The biggest non-British population consisted, of course, of black slaves: around 500,000, a fifth of the total population, had arrived by 1775. Although they were to play a far from negligible role in political events after that year, they were excluded politically, with no vote or voice, functioning only as labour to fuel the southern economy, occasionally inspiring the fear of revolt in their white overlords.
Another huge influx had come from Northern Ireland: tough-minded Scots-Irish Presbyterians bearing a grudge against the English for enticing them to move to Ireland and then discriminating against their produce and local religion there. The Scots-Irish settled the western frontier along the Connecticut river, southern New Hampshire, Maine and Worcester, then down towards the Delaware and the Susquehanna, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.
Some 100,000 Germans formed another major group. Mostly fleeing religious persecution, they were pious and hard-working, excelled as farmers, and settled in the Susquehanna valley and Pennsylvania, where they made up a third of the population. A smaller Lowland Scottish migration of 25,000, as well as several thousand Highlanders, came in search of a better life around 1750. Other nationalities to settle in significant numbers were the Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Welsh, Irish and French. In addition some 1,400 British convicts were transported to America every year.
These people had no loyalty to Britain; indeed, some were deeply hostile. The Scots, Welsh and Irish had no affection for the throne of Hanover, and the first had recently risen in rebellion against it. Yet their influence can be overstated. Comprising only around 15 per cent of the population they were divided and most were politically passive.
The Indian population in touch with the whites may have numbered as many as 250,000, with 150,000 being distributed within the states themselves, the rest along the western frontier. Around 50,000 whites lived west of the Appalachians. Mohawks and Delawares lived in the same villages as different white nationalities, while Catholic Indians with French names were common along the border. The relationship between Indians and whites was often close, but also complex and competitive, as a fine passage by Colin Calloway shows:
Colonists from Europe, where hunting was a gentleman's sport, learned from Indians how to hunt for a living. Colonial hunters who operated in Indian country pulled on Indian leggings, breechclouts, and moccasins, dressed their long hair with bear grease, and sometimes donned war paint. Anglican preacher Charles Woodmason denounced settlers in the Carolina backcountry as being 'hardly one degree removed' from their Indian neighbours. General Thomas Gage reckoned backcountry settlers on the Ohio River 'differ little from the Indians in their manner of life'. Missionary David McClure said that backcountry Virginians were 'generally white savages, and subsist by hunting, and live like the Indians'.
Whereas Indians in Canada took to wearing jackets and waistcoats like their French neighbours, Frenchmen travelling in Indian country 'generally dressed like the natives', exchanging their trousers for leggings and loincloths. Young men in backcountry Virginia were proud of their 'Indian-like dress', and even wore leggings and breechclouts to church, which apparently sparked the interest of young women in the congregation. When George Rogers Clark and his Virginians arrived at Kaskaskia in 1778, they were dressed Indian style, 'in hunting shirt and breech cloth'. Their appearance surprised the Spanish governor of Saint Louis but was not unusual for men accustomed to life in Indian country.
In the Mohawk Valley in the 1760s, Peter Warren Johnson met Europeans who tattooed their faces and chests like their Indian neighbours, 'which is done by pricking the skin with pins, till the blood comes, and then applying gunpowder to it, which will remain for ever'. French fur traders in Canada likewise tattooed their bodies. Cultural boundaries between Indians and Europeans, and between Indians and Africans (as between Indians and other Indians), were often fuzzy and porous.
The mixing of peoples and cultures did not erase differences or eradicate conflict. Surveying the inventory of things colonists borrowed from Indians, James Axtell reminds us that 'their goal was not to become Indian, nor did their selective and piecemeal adaptations of native techniques and technology make them so'. The same can be said of Indians who borrowed from European culture: they did not intend to, nor did they; become Europeans. In fact, conflict between Indian and European cultures was increasing steadily by the eve of the Revolution, as growing pressure on Indian lands eroded previous patterns of coexistence.
The significance of religion among the American settlers can be exaggerated. At first most of the colonies were dominated by the established Anglican Church — the unzealous agent of everything that was most orthodox about the religious establishment of the mother country. In New England, Protestantism continued to play as large a part as it always had in politics, divided though it was between the various reformed churches of the Congregationalists who formed the social Establishment. Anglicans, Baptists and Quakers were divided within themselves — the Baptists between 'separate' and 'royalist' branches, the New Lights, supporters of the fundamentalist 'Great Awakening' theory of possession by the Spirit, and the Old Lights, who opposed them. In the middle colonies, the Quakers, who had helped to found Pennsylvania, had a disproportionate influence, as did the Presbyterians, split between the 'New Side' based in New York and the 'Old Side' based in Philadelphia. The German Reformed and Lutheran churches — the Mennonites, Dunkers and Moravians — fought between themselves for the allegiance of the remote farming communities of Pennsylvania, although many of these communities were not especially religious and lacked any place of worship.
It is hard to point to any organized religious opposition to British rule as such. The new Puritan churches were too divided and inward-looking. Rather, the various branches of Protestantism were marked by a dependency on secular devotion, a suspicion of the well-heeled Anglican religious establishment (which in America was far less respected than in Britain), and a devotion to the ethics of hard work and self-reliance that viewed government, religious establishments and impositions from abroad, or even outside their local communities, with equally deep suspicion.
Perhaps the Protestant churches' most important role was as informal natural rallying points for the disaffected against the sedate social order in the colonies. If the Anglican churches were seen as pillars of the sometimes hugely wealthy Establishment, and even the Congregationalists became so in New England, the new Puritan churches became magnets for poorer immigrants such as the Scots-Irish who had no more love for the local territorial magnates and prosperous merchants than their equivalents in Britain. To attract the support of the poor, Baptists and Presbyterians moved into the stagnant southern colonies, where the Anglican churches held sway.
Excerpted from "A FEW BLOODY NOSES" by Robert Harvey. Copyright © 2001 by Robert Harvey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part 1||A Fire in America|
|3.||Stamp of Authority||45|
|5.||Sowing the Teeth||88|
|6.||Storm in a Teacup||108|
|Part 2||George v. George|
|8.||Gauntlet of Fire||137|
|10.||The Commander in Chief||168|
|11.||We Hold These Truths||190|
|12.||Escape from New York||203|
|13.||Across the Delaware||214|
|Part 3||The Eagle and the Lion|
|14.||The Reason Why||227|
|16.||Someone had Blundered||265|
|Part 4||The South|
|20.||The Turntail and the Turncoat||336|
|21.||The Frontier War||349|
|23.||American Revival: King's Mountain and Cowpens||369|
|24.||The British Strike Back: Guilford Court House||381|
|28.||The Diplomatic War||418|
|Part 5||Revolution and Counter-Revolution|
|29.||The Revolution Gathers Speed||431|