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 process was obviously slow and uneven. There is no question, however, that the driving force behind Anglicization was the expansion of the market economy. As the decades passed, Americans grew more dependent upon British manufactures—cloth, metal goods, ceramics, paper, glass; imported items that one generation had regarded as luxuries were quickly transformed into necessities.
As the colonists were drawn ever more tightly into the network of British commerce, a system of sophisticated finance and cumbersome bureaucracy, they found themselves confronted with similar economic and political problems. In other words, as they became Anglicized, they also became more fully aware of each other; their horizons extended for the first time beyond the communities of their birth. Such trends appeared even in religion. During the 1740s, for example, the great English evangelist George Whitefield—himself something of a cultural import—preached to thousands of anxious colonists in towns from Boston to Savannah, and in doing so he and others like him helped to erode American localism.
In the process of Anglicization, the contribution of war has generally been overlooked. Only recently have historians of early America begun to appreciate its effect upon the transformation of eighteenth-century culture. One wonders why they took so long. After all, the colonists participated in England’s imperial wars almost continuously from 1689 to 1760. Some battles were no more than frontier skirmishes, but others required large armies and assaults upon well-defended fortifications. And as time passed the scale of conflict escalated. These campaigns not only brought many colonists into contact for the first time with British soldiers and administrators, it also made them more aware of each other. It is not surprising that delegates to the Albany Congress of 1754, a meeting originally called to discuss common security problems, put forward the first plans for an American union. In an effort to promote this scheme, Benjamin Franklin designed the famous severed rattlesnake cartoon bearing the caption, “JOIN, or DIE.” Only later would the image be appropriated to the cause of the Revolution.
Fred Anderson’s excellent study deals with many of these themes. He concentrates on the experiences of New Englanders during the Seven Years’ War (which the colonists called the Old French War) and documents the extraordinary sacrifices that the people of this region made during the final confrontation with the French in Canada. New Englanders raised over 20,000 troops for the provincial army. A third or more of the eligible men in Massachusetts took up arms. And even though William Pitt, England’s energetic wartime minister, promised to reimburse the colonists for the expenses caused by the war, parliamentary subsidies actually paid for only about 40 percent of the total cost. The rest of the money came from local taxes. The government of Massachusetts went deeply into debt, briefly confronted bankruptcy, and did not manage to pay off the deficit until 1770, a decade after British forces had captured Quebec.3
Anderson is not particularly concerned with legislative affairs. Nor, for that matter, is he interested in reconstructing the details of specific battles.4 His perspective is that of the social historian. Like John Keegan, whose The Face of Battle (1976) he greatly admires, Anderson wants to know more about the men who actually did the fighting. What sort of soldiers served in the provincial army during the Seven Years’ War? Why did they volunteer? How did the experience of camp life, of fighting together, of living in close quarters with British regulars affect the way they interpreted their world?
A People’s Army presents strikingly original answers to these questions. Historians have previously described the provincial recruits as the dregs of colonial society, vagrants and impoverished men, hirelings and criminals—in other words, the type of person that one would imagine might have been coerced into joining the army. But, as Anderson persuasively demonstrates, this was not the case. Ninety percent of the provincial soldiers were volunteers, and most of these were sons of moderately prosperous farm families, the kind of hearty, independent yeomen celebrated in English and American history. They were generally old enough to be able to work as agricultural laborers, but too young to have accumulated enough money to purchase land of their own. And without property they could not realistically contemplate marriage.
These men found themselves in an awkward position; biologically adult, they were still dependent upon their fathers. Ordinarily, the sons would have been forced to wait for their inheritance or until such time as their savings allowed them to purchase a few acres. For the young yeomen, war provided a marvelous escape. Though the bounties offered to new recruits were not sufficient to buy a farm, they represented substantially more money than a man could hope to earn by working in the fields. And since the typical provincial soldier enlisted with local friends or relatives, military service must in some respects have seemed an extension of a familiar agrarian society as well as a liberating personal adventure.
The provincial recruits were in for a surprise. The march from their homes to the army began what Anderson calls “the greatest educational experience of their lives.” They joined their regiments in camps that often contained thousands of soldiers, colonists, and regulars existing as best they could in makeshift, overcrowded housing that barely protected them from the elements. The population of the camps—some occupied less than thirty acres—rivaled that of America’s largest cities. Indeed, the New England volunteers found themselves living in a kind of rural slum, confronted all the time with noxious smells and the sounds of sick and wounded men. Death was commonplace.
A remarkably large number of colonists recorded their impressions of these experiences. Anderson analyzes their diaries and letters with great sensitivity. Like most soldiers New Englanders complained about army food and wet weather. But they also carefully observed their British counterparts. The colonists were not impressed. Though the regulars performed bravely in battle, they swore profusely, ignored the sabbath, and engaged in petty crime. The officers were worse. They routinely expressed disdain for the provincials; their professionalism struck the Americans as arrogance. But most unsettling for the young New Englanders was the casual brutality that seemed an integral part of regular army life. It was not unusual for a court-martial to order several hundred, even a thousand, lashes for an act that appeared to the Americans a relatively minor offense.
Even as the New Englanders discovered how different they were from the British regulars, they learned something important about themselves. They found that farm boys who came from other colonial villages had the same values. For one thing, these independent yeomen believed that by volunteering for the army they had entered into a contractual relationship with a specific American officer. As one colonial official explained to an uncomprehending British administrator, the colonial “privates universally hold it as one part of the terms on which they enlisted that they were to be commanded by their own officers; and this is a principle so strongly imbibed that it is not in the power of man to remove it.” They agreed to serve their chosen superior under certain conditions that all parties clearly understood. Beyond that, colonists would not budge. A regular who asked the provincials to serve a day longer than their time or who ordered them to march where they had not contracted to go risked mutiny. In fact, junior officers in the provincial army who thought that their men had been mistreated sometimes led mass desertions.
The British understandably had no use for such behavior. As Anderson explains, “The New England provincials of the Seven Years’ War subscribed to notions about military service and warfare that were wholly incompatible with the professional ideals and assumptions of their British regular army allies.” Regular officers believed that orders were orders, not invitations to negotiate. It is no wonder that in 1756 Lord Loudoun, commander of the British forces in America, complained that the colonial soldiers “have assumed to themselves what they call rights and privileges, totally unknown in the mother country.” Loudoun and his fellow officers concluded from their experience in America that these truculent yeomen would never make good soldiers. In 1775, this turned out to be a fatal mistake.
These conflicting impressions—those of the Americans as well as the British—created the basis for a monumental misunderstanding that led eventually to revolution. The provincial soldiers were convinced that they had been indispensable in defeating the French. Unlike colonists living in other parts of America, New Englanders had generously supplied the mother country with men and money, and were justifiably proud of their contribution. Congregational preachers throughout the region described the expulsion of the French from North America in millennial language. According to local ministers, the colonists had not only defended British constitutional liberties against Gallic despotism, they had also turned back the forces of the Antichrist. There is no question that the successful conclusion of the Seven Years’ War drew the New Englanders closer to the mother country than they had been at any other time during the entire colonial period.
In little more than a decade, of course, the unthinkable became thinkable. The provincials who had so recently fought alongside the British turned their weapons against them at Lexington and Concord. General Thomas Gage was at a loss to explain why they were so good. As he watched his manhandled troops straggle back from Bunker Hill, Gage observed, “In all their Wars against the French, they [the colonists] never Shewed so much Conduct, Attention, and Perseverance as they do now.” Like countless other British officials, Gage had misread the Americans. He assumed that yeoman farmers who defined military service in contractual terms could never make good soldiers. And because most of the colonial governments had dragged their feet during the French and Indian War, waiting for subsidies before providing funds of their own, Britain’s rulers decided to get tough with all Americans. They could not have devised a less appropriate policy. In just a few years, George III and the leaders of Parliament managed to turn the empire’s most loyal mainland colony into a center of radical protest.
Anderson reminds us that military service in itself did not transform Americans into revolutionaries. But by bringing such large numbers of men together, by expanding their personal horizons, by making them aware of a larger provincial culture of which they were a part, the British inadvertently provided the colonists with a shared sense of identity. “Public criticism of the British,” Anderson writes,
couched in the terms of republican rhetoric, found a ready confirmation in the veterans’ personal experiences. The provincials who matured in the 1770s were not ideologues, bent on making a revolution; nor were they driven to revolutionary action by the operation of inexorable economic forces. They were merely men who found themselves agreeing that they and their way of life were being threatened by other men; not by the abstract forces of corruption and power, but by flesh-and-blood men, whom they personally knew to be capable of behaving in disturbing, threatening ways.
In a curious way, Parkman was correct: without a common set of wartime experiences, national independence might have been long delayed.
E. Wayne Carp’s book, To Starve the Army at Pleasure, deals with the Revolutionary War itself, and he too views military service as experience from which much was learned. Like Anderson, he is not concerned with battlefield heroics, but concentrates instead on the men who supplied Washington’s army with food, clothing, and medicine, the unsung staff officers and overworked members of the Continental Congress who found themselves confronted in 1776 with a logistical challenge so immense that it is a wonder that they managed to keep Continental troops in the field, let alone defeat the British. During its unhappy stay at Valley Forge, for example, the army consumed 2,225,000 pounds of beef, 2,297,000 pounds of flour, and 500,000 gills of rum and whiskey. And this was for a tiny, desperate band of survivors. A large, mobile force would have presented the Quartermaster Department with even greater problems. During one twelve-month period, the army’s horses alone gobbled up more than 2,500,000 tons of hay.
According to Carp, state and national officials whom one might have expected to cooperate in the supply effort actually obstructed the work of the Quartermaster Department. Local leaders frequently viewed the army with suspicion, as if its very existence somehow threatened their autonomy. These men sometimes directed scarce resources to state militias and literally let the Continental Army fend for itself. The members of the congress were little better. They worked at a frustratingly slow pace, reviewing specific accounts and discussing the details of seemingly minor contracts while the troops suffered for want of adequate food and clothing. The congress’s apparent indifference to the plight of the army troubled the line officers deeply. Often Washington himself had to intervene in order to get the congress to act, and, even then, the results were usually disappointing.
Carp contends that the problem was largely ideological. The congress feared the very military force that it had created to achieve independence. American patriots associated standing armies with oppression, particularly with British tyranny, and they could never quite comprehend that a republican army might behave differently from one directed by George III. As Carp explains,
The conflict between the goals of the Revolution—preservation of property, liberty, and independence—and the means by which those goals would be realized—a standing army, confiscation of property, and centralizing political power—is one of the striking ironies of the period. That Americans so often seemed willing to lose the war rather than sacrifice their principles is great testimony to the strength of ideas in history and to the strength of that American culture as it had evolved over 150 years of settlement.
Well, maybe. Some congressmen may have been stubborn republican ideologues, but others sounded like hardnosed businessmen who doggedly sniffed out graft masking itself as patriotism. As Carp’s evidence clearly reveals, a good many dishonest merchants did in fact adulterate foodstuffs, greedy teamsters helped themselves to military supplies, and corrupt contractors lined their pockets at the public’s expense. All this has a peculiarly modern ring. Congress cut the budgetary request of the Hospital Department in half because, among other things, “It was alledged that great quantities of Stores were charged for Geese, ducks, chickens, etc., etc., etc., etc.,—that the wine was all drank by the well, and not by the sick.”
Whether the congressmen were narrow ideologues or not is not particularly germane to Carp’s central point. The challenge of organizing the war effort was an instructive experience, albeit a negative one, for the group of men whom historians have labeled nationalists. Their leaders—Alexander Hamilton and Robert Morris, for example—chafed at the impotence of the central government. They admired the army and held the states accountable for the hardships that Washington’s troops had endured. As Carp observes—and it is a point that has been made by many other historians—the actual experience of waging war changed the attitudes of at least some patriots “toward two institutions they had strongly opposed before the conflict with England: professional armies and strong central government.”
These two books—both carefully composed and thoroughly researched—provide historians of late eighteenth-century America with a particularly timely challenge. For several decades scholars influenced by the writings of Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J.G.A. Pocock have described the Revolution almost solely as an ideological event. We now know more about the subtleties of republican thought than did most of the founding fathers. But surely something is missing. To be sure, the heads of the patriots were full of ideas they had acquired through reading the likes of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, radical English pamphleteers whose writings achieved broad popularity in colonial America. What is not clear is why these particular ideas struck such a responsive chord among ordinary people on this side of the Atlantic. By paying such close attention to the ideas themselves, we have lost sight of the social and cultural situations in which these republican concepts seem to have flourished. It is the great virtue of these two studies that they remind us that before the young men of Massachusetts could become republicans, they had first to share a common experience of waging war against the French; before the nationalists could move the American people toward constitutional reform, they had first to experience the problems of waging war against the British.
December 5, 1985
Notable exceptions to this characterization are John Shy’s Toward Lexington: The Role of the British Army in the Coming of the American Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1965) and Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and the American Character, 1775–1783 (University of North Carolina Press, 1979). ↩
John M. Murrin provides an excellent discussion of this literature in “The French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Counterfactual Hypothesis: Reflections on Lawrence Henry Gipson and John Shy,” Reviews in American History, vol. 1 (1973), pp. 307–318. ↩
The political strains created by this mounting financial burden are discussed in William Pencak’s important recent book War, Politics, and Revolution in Provincial Massachusetts (Northeastern University Press, 1981). ↩
Readers curious about specific campaigns or the development of military strategy should turn to Lawrence Henry Gipson’s monumental The British Empire Before the American Revolution (Knopf, 1936–1970). ↩