A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War
To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783
War has not been well served by American historians. We suffer no lack of biographies of military heroes or accounts of decisive battles, but historians have failed to connect this work—much of it technically impressive—to the larger issues that have traditionally concerned social, cultural, and intellectual historians. The deficiency is particularly glaring for the so-called long eighteenth century, a period running roughly from 1690 to 1815 when Americans were almost constantly engaged in wars against the Indians, the French, the British, and each other.1
One question, however, has consistently inspired curiosity among early American historians. What if the Marquis de Montcalm had somehow managed to defeat the British army at Quebec in 1759 and thus assured a continued French presence in Canada? Would such an event have altered the subsequent course of American history? The most common answer has been that a French victory would have indefinitely postponed American independence. That is surely what Francis Parkman had in mind when he dramatically announced that the Seven Years’ War settled “the most momentous and far-reaching question ever brought to issue on this continent: Shall France remain here, or shall she not?” 2
Such speculation has seemed important because it bears directly on the problem of a distinct American identity on the eve of independence. Most historians who have written about this period have assumed that by the middle of the eighteenth century a wide cultural gulf separated the colonists from England. However one described the Americans—as democratic, individualistic, materialistic, or egalitarian—it seemed clear that their values were no longer those of the English. In fact, by the time the British stormed Quebec, the colonists had grown restless under English economic and political control and, like adolescents, were eager to work out their own independent destiny. So long as the French remained in Canada, however, the Americans depended upon the British army for protection, and, like it or not, they remained part of the empire.
More recently a number of revisionist historians have turned this familiar interpretation on its head. They no longer regard the colonists of the mid-eighteenth century as revolutionaries in the making, or, in other words, as people who found themselves being swept along by democratic forces or an open frontier toward inevitable independence. In fact, the colonists seem to have become closer to the culture of the mother country than their seventeenth-century ancestors would ever have dreamed possible.
Scholars such as John Murrin have called this process Anglicization. They point out that England’s mainland colonies were most “American” at the time of their founding. The early settlements attracted, for the most part, men and women in search of religious perfection or adventurers bedazzled by stories of instant wealth. In either case, once they landed in America they were effectively cut off not only from the other colonies but also from the mother country. The seventeenth century was a period of intense social experimentation. But as colonial society matured, it acquired an increasingly English character. The…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.