Yesterday was the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn Heights, part of the intense effort by Imperial Britain after the Declaration of Independence to squash the American Revolution with a massive amphibious force that would occupy the financial capital of British North America and defeat the Continental Army under the command of George Washington. (Yes, this was the original Occupy Wall Street movement. Really. The Manhattan side of the East River crossing at Wall Street was actually one of Washington’s evacuation routes.) More than 32,000 British troops under the command of Gen. William Howe landed in late July in what was the largest amphibious expeditionary force ever sent by Great Britain until the D-Day invasion. In short, Britain was playing for keeps and in no mood to lose its richest colonial possessions to political radicals seen as somewhat wealthier versions of the Scots and Irish rebels that had plagued the realm’s political and economic interests throughout the 18th century. Accounts on both sides indicate the fighting was ferocious. Badly outgunned and outnumbered, Washington evacuated his troops under cover of fog without loss of life. He always considered both the bloodless retreat and the tactical advantage of concealment by fog evidence of divine Providence blessing the cause of the Patriots. The British were simply stunned that the war continued even though they captured and occupied the de facto capital of the American colonies. On Sunday, some Revolutionary War re-enactors in New York commemorated the battle. The group was a cut above the usual men in wigs, so the link above is worth a visit.
Tag Archives: Great Britain
To some, it might seem naïve or even déclassé to honor the document’s closing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” We are a more secular age, and for many (particularly our opinion makers) patriotism is a suspect idea – many in academe say it smacks of “triumphalism,” an irrational belief in the superiority of the American experience. Much has been said in recent decades regarding the short-comings of the Revolutionary generation; much of it has been enlightening, even brilliant; some of it seems reflective of the anger and cynicism of academics who have in the words of the historian David Hackett Fischer “lost interest in liberty and freedom.” Fischer reminds those who write American history that “to lose touch with liberty and freedom is to condemn themselves to complete irrelevance in American and the world,” an intellectual failure that “severely weakened their own causes and done grave injury to public discourse and civic spirit in the United States.” It is worth remembering that with all their faults, their sometimes faltering steps toward representative democracy, and their contradictions expressed in word and deed, the men and women who trusted in the words of the Declaration of Independence had no idea whether the words it contained would survive to transform their lives in a nation that survived long enough to secure the Declaration’s promises. Some of them risked everything they held dear because of the side they chose. Some of us today might be uncomfortable with traditional admiration for a risky attempt at gaining a nation based on freedom and liberty. The Founders did not have the luxury of hindsight or a long-established nation that would have offered them the privilege to cynically appraise the sincerity of their actions.
In order to secure the claims for the American people promised in the Declaration of Independence, the United States needed to win a war against the greatest imperial power of the times. That imperial power possessed the best-trained equipped army of the time, backed by the best equipped and largest navy in the world. All of this military might was backed by the strongest system of public finance in the world and supported by at least 1/5 of the population of the 13 American colonies. The American Revolution was nothing less than a fight for national survival. Unless the Americans secured through warfare an independent state with the ability to govern themselves under their own authority and under their own laws, the republican philosophy of self-government, political equality, natural rights, and Whig tradition of expanding freedoms summarized in the Declaration would remain what had been in Europe, namely interesting political theory that was much debated, but little practiced. America’s success in this venture hinged on a war fought while facing long odds. We often forget how outlandish the proposition called “The United States of America” appeared in the 1770s to many other Americans and the political class of the 18th-century world. George Washington lost more battles than he ever won; American prisoners of war were often treated with cruelty; American women were often assaulted by British troops; Valley Forge is a by-word in American history for an army that suffered and died. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead. Gage’s forces sent to Lexington and Concord had orders to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, both signers of the Declaration. Internet hagiography regarding the signers and their supposed sufferings abound, but it is a fact signers such as John Hart (a delegate from New Jersey) had his home burnt to the ground in the dead of winter by British forces, killing his children in the flames. Another New Jersey delegate, the Rev. John Witherspoon (then the president of what became Princeton University) had his library purposely destroyed by British soldiers who torched Nassau Hall. He spent most of his income on reconstruction efforts for the college after the war, nearly going broke. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:
Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginiawho said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts“I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
Keeping those facts in mind, it is not hard to imagine how the revolutionary generation placed their lives and fortunes at stake. They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 232 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-centuryAmerica had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer,Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document.
Honor meant much to these men, too. They rejoiced in the title “gentleman,” a word that we today simply place on restroom doors. Good name, reputation, and status mattered because these qualities were the basis of their place in society. Honor mattered because they saw life as a public drama where you could be praised or blamed for your actions that were played out in front of the world, and the wrong choice could mark you for life as someone not worthy of the word “gentleman.” Like any human beings, they had enormous flaws and their lives were often a contradiction of the ideals they followed. Yet, at least they aspired to those ideals, a quality singularly lacking even in recent American presidents, members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities, and sports figures. When they signed the Declaration they jeopardized what the world would think of their character, morality, and integrity. However, they considered it the right thing to do, and they often described how to continue doing the right thing to the younger generation that came in their wake. Thomas Jefferson, writing to his nephew Peter Carr, gave him this advice:
When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these, then, your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.
Honor was also very much part of the literary culture of the English language, the mother tongue that the Founders still adored even if they could no longer love the realm that gave them their cultural and intellectual birth. Among the three men most instrumental in bringing about the Declaration of Independence – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson – many things bound them together, including a shared love of the works of William Shakespeare. Adams quoted him frequently in his writings and letters to his wife Abigail; Franklin ensured that the Philadelphia lending library had adequate copies of the Bard’s complete works; and Jefferson, a lifelong lover of theater, read Shakespeare’s plays his entire life and kept several editions of his complete works in his library at Monticello. Perhaps the three men would have agreed that like Henry V in his namesake play, honor was worth the hazard when the cause was right, even if they and their cause stood in the shadow of overwhelming force and long odds.
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
They did not die in 1776, nor did the revolution they helped bring to the world. It was won only through one ofAmerica’s longest wars, fought against the global superpower of the age, based on political theories that up to the time had only enjoyed intellectual debate rather than practical application. Their honor was intact because they kept their promise: They created a nation where ordinary people could govern themselves because they made liberty and freedom their standard; they offered an asylum to the world searching for freedom and opportunity; and they set an example for all humankind that tolled the end of empires and the beginning of nations.
We should honor them.
Among the 27 grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence is the following accusation leveled at the British king George III:
“He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.”
The document is referring to the nearly 30,000 contract soldiers from various German states who fought with British forces in the American Revolution. Although their fearsome reputation often was built on exaggeration, these so-called “Hessians” were responsible for their share of depredations against American lives and property. If nothing else, many Americans considered the use of mercenaries tantamount to an act of war by a foreign power against their lives and fortunes. Earlier in the century, Great Britain had used similar mercenary forces to suppress rebellions in Ireland and Scotland. Under international law at the time, the Hessians were not really mercenaries (the correct term is“auxiliaries,” subjects of a ruler who assisted another by providing soldiers in return for money), but those fine points didn’t matter. The presence of foreigners with British forces was enough to convince many fence-sitting Americans that their choices were simply fight or submit.
George Washington considered the German mercenaries both a real threat and an opportunity. On August 26, 1776, Washington ordered one of the first psychological warfare operations in the history of the United States military when a baker and Patriot operative named Christopher Ludwick distributed pamphlets urging “Hessians” to desert and aid the Continental Army. “The papers designed for the foreign Troops, have been put into several Channels, in order that they may be conveyed to them, and from the Information I had yesterday, I have reason to believe many have fallen into their Hands,” Washington wrote in a letter to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. Congress established a committee to develop a plan based on propaganda, promises of citizenship, and enticements of free land that might convince Hessians soldiers to switch sides. Despite the propaganda and promises, their efforts produced scant results. In America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army by Charles Patrick Neimeyer, the author notes that only 66 Hessians deserted in 1776, a remarkably low number considering the Patriot’s efforts. Even though 18th century armies normally had high desertion rates, foreign mercenaries fighting in the British Army against the Americans were battling far from home and at time when the war was going well for their side. The Hessians remained an active and formidable component of British forces throughout the American Revolution. (By the way, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration and one of the United State’s first great medical men, wrote an excellent biography of Christopher Ludwick which can be found here courtesy of Google Books.)
However, the presence of the foreign troops unintentionally aided arguments for independence. They were foreign troops who were seen as invaders. No king who claimed to love his people would do such thing. Many Americans concluded that the king did not love Americans – he hated them, and he would use every tool in his imperial arsenal to destroy them. A king who did that was a tyrant and under the doctrine of natural rights no people owed any continued allegiance to a sovereign who treated them in such a miserable way. Thus, the presence of the “Hessians” was one more piece of evidence submitted in the Declaration to a candid world that the American Revolution was not a rebellion, but a legitimate war. One of these foreigners clearly saw what Americans believed when he observed troops in the Continental Army. “With what soldiers in the world could one do what was done by these men, who go about nearly naked and in the greatest privation? Deny the best-disciplined soldiers of Europe what is due them and they will run away in droves, and the general will soon be alone. But from this one can perceive what an enthusiasm – which these poor fellows call ‘liberty’ – can do!” wrote the Hessian officer Johann Von Ewald. Offers of money or land could not purchase that kind of loyalty to a cause, one that declared liberty and independence. No wonder Gen. Washington wanted the Declaration read aloud to his troops.
It was in the middle of August that British civilian and military officials first transmitted news of the Declaration of Independence back to the mother country. I will examine the international significance of the American decision to declare independence in an upcoming post, but for now it’s worth noting a few details regarding how the news got “back home.”
Some of the best reporters of the news of the Declaration and its contents were members of the British military fighting the Patriots in America. For example, Admiral Lord Richard Howe,
commander of the British forces that had invaded New York City the same year as the Declaration was issued, sent one of the first copies that arrived in London. I wonder what went through his mind as he read the document, which he surely did. Howe sympathized with the American cause and had even written a letter to Benjamin Franklin (a friend of Howe’s sister) urging a peace conference. Others dutifully gathered copies for the official record. David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, notes that these British officials were so efficient in reporting the news that the five copies they obtained and sent to be archived among British state papers now comprise “the largest collection of original printings of the document outside of the United States.” (73)
Reaction in England ranged from enthusiastic support for American independence among Irish radicals to outright horror that Congress had crossed a political Rubicon. But many in England who opposed independence could understand the rationale behind the decision. George III,
once a beloved king in America whom colonists truly believed could do no wrong, had stubbornly supported his ministers’ policies that brought war and severe measures against the colonists. His reaction can be gauged from his comments to Parliament on October 31, 1776, his first public statement since news of American independence arrived in Great Britain: the colonists with a “daring and desperate spirit” had “presumed to set up their rebellious confederacies for independent states.” Almost exactly one year earlier, he had said, “Those who have long too successfully laboured to inflame my people in America by gross misrepresentations, and to infuse into their minds a system of opinions, repugnant to the true constitution of the colonies, and to their subordinate relation to Great-Britain, now openly avow their revolt, hostility and rebellion … .” Nothing would change his mind: the colonists were rebels, outside of his protection. Scots and Irish rebels earlier in the century had faced similar regal condemnation and then faced annihilation. What else could the Americans do?
Edmund Burke, one of the staunchest champions of the American cause in Parliament, was no friend of independence. Yet, he summed up the situation well. “For a long time, even amidst the desolations of war, and the insults of hostile laws daily accumulated on one another, the American leaders seem to have had the greatest difficulty in bringing up their people to a declaration of total independence,” he wrote in a 1777 paper called “A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol.” “But the court gazette accomplished what the abettors of independence had attempted in vain.” For many in Great Britain, the news of American independence was no surprise at all.