Real, Pretended or Imaginary Dangers

James Madison
James Madison; drawing by David Levine


The American republic was founded amid the misfortunes of two European empires. The failure of the British in the American war of independence demonstrated the limits of military power in an extended and discontented empire. The failures of the French empire demonstrated a more insidious condition, the political costs of imperial power, particularly in the Napoleonic period. Both spectacles were of intense interest to the American statesmen of the time, and they are of continuing interest, two centuries later, in a republican America which is apparently ever more preoccupied with its own imperial destiny.

The British Navy was in the 1770s by far the most imposing military force in the world. The words of the naval anthem “Heart of Oak,” which was adapted as a “Song for American Freedom,” by the early revolutionary John Dickinson, were uncompromising:

We’ll still make them fear, and we’ll still make them flee,
And drub ’em on shore, as we’ve drubb’d ’em at sea.

But naval power proved to be quite unhelpful at several stages in the nearly decade-long war of American independence. The British possessed what Admiral A.T. Mahan described as the “powers to injure an enemy from a great distance,” which are “common to the sailing vessel and the steamer.”1 But these powers, in a civil war within a distant part of empire, turned out to be only intermittently usable.

One reason was that the American provincials, the British Navy’s “enemy,” were able to change the terms of the military conflict, so that power was less unequally divided. They were able, in particular, to move the conflict inland in the American continent; to fight neither on sea nor on shore. General John Burgoyne’s journey to Fort Ticonderoga in 1777, with a baggage train over three miles long, and at a speed of sometimes not more than one mile per day, is a vivid illustration.2 So is the Americans’ use of information. The British had the power to injure at a great distance, but their power to understand was diminished by distance. As Burgoyne himself wrote, “we are destitute…of the most important of all circumstances in war or negotiation—intelligence. We are ignorant not only of what passes in congresses, but want spies for the hill half a mile off.”3

The British failure was associated, above all, with the multiplicity of their objectives. They were constantly threatening to use terrifying force. “I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction,” Burgoyne proclaimed in June 1777, and “devastation, famine, and every concomitant horror” will await the king’s enemies. But they were concerned, at the same time, with the world after the war. They were interested, as Gordon Wood has suggested, in the eventual restoration of political relations and imperial harmony. They had objectives of military security and other objectives of economic reconciliation. The war was far more unpopular…

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