Tag Archives: International Significance of the Declaration of Independence

A Review of “George Washington’s Westchester Gamble” by Richard Borkow

George Washington's Westchester GambleFrontCoverGeorge Washington was a gambling man.  Although the Father of Our Country once called gambling “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief,” that did not stop him from testing the odds in all manner of pursuits such card playing and lotteries.  His willingness to take risks, however, did not end at the card table. As a general, Washington used feints, intelligence networks, and strategic deception whenever he could to eke out an advantage over his enemy the British, then the most potent military power in the world. Little wonder that one of the phrases he wrote to a disheartened fellow officer during the American Revolution was, “Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” 

One of Washington’s greatest gambles resulted in ultimate victory over British forces — in fact, some historians suggest it was the most important decision he ever made as a military man. In 1781, General Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau led French troops that joined with the Continental Army during its summer encampment on the Hudson River near the town of Dobbs Ferry, New York.  The French believed the American army was running out of time as it lost men and the ability to remain adequately supplied in a war that could not continue much longer.  An attack on Manhattan and the British forces there was the more feasible and logical target for the combined armies. But, it was also where the British expected the blow to fall. A long-shot, but a long-shot worth taking, was the strategy of marching the combined armies out of New York and then head for Virginia where Washington and Rochambeau could trap General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington’s joint armed forces would be supported by the French Navy under Admiral Francois de Grasse, whose armada would take possession of Chesapeake Bay and leave Cornwallis with no escape.  The result was “the world turned upside down” American victory familiar to any school kid who paid attention in his U.S. History class.  Cornwallis surrendered, the British were in shock, and George III’s government began negotiations that led to the end of the war and recognition of American independence.

Richard Borkow, a pediatrician who is also the village historian of Dobbs Ferry, in his book George Washington’s Westchester Gamble: The Encampment on the Hudson & the Trapping of Cornwallis (The History Press, 2011) admirably explains how Washington fooled the British with a campaign that defied long military odds yet won the American Revolution.  On the face of things, some would argue that the Battle of Yorktown is familiar territory well-examined by historians with little new to tell.  Borkow’s book, though, is written in an episodic fashion that explains the events that led to the “Westchester gamble” including decisions and actions from the very beginning of the armed conflict between American Patriots and the British army that had more far-reaching effects than the main players of the time realized.  The strength of Borkow’s examination is the way the author reminds us that Washington’s career as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was fraught with disasters and near defeat.  Despite his unquestionable bravery and superb leadership, Washington faced mutinies, a Continental Congress that vacillated between praise of achievements and open discussion of replacing him with a better general, French allies who (rightly) saw that the American cause constantly teetered on the edge of annihilation, and even serious discussion whether the war should be about securing a United States comprised of only the New England and Middle Atlantic states, a plan that would abandon General Washington’s native Virginia and the rest of the South. No wonder Washington wrote after the war in 1783 of challenges he blandly called “distressing circumstances” that might make it hard to believe a rag-tag army of former colonials defeated a global superpower during eight years of terrible war.

Although Borkow’s book is brief and readable, it is an impressive work of depth and insight by a writer who is really an amateur historian. He clearly explains the importance of key events in the American Revolution that had direct bearing on Washington’s decision. The book is particularly strong in its description of the importance of the French alliance, why the French decided to back the Americans in the fight against the British, the military goals of French forces, and the constant stream of French reports on the outlook for American forces during the war. (The tone of those reports can be summed up in one word: grim.) One fascinating section of the book also relates how George Washington dealt with mutiny in the ranks of the New Jersey and Pennsylvania contingents of the Continental Army. Congress wanted to negotiate with the mutineers; Washington knew that mutiny would spread and destroy the American cause, so he had the offenders confronted and the unrepentant ringleaders executed. As Washington once wrote, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”

 Occasionally, the detailed background sections detract from the main story in the book but a thematic outline at the beginning will help the reader keep track of Borkow’s narrative.  On the whole, it is an excellent account of what was more than the march of American and French troops to Virginia for what we today might mistakenly think was inevitable victory, but was actually one of the greatest rolls of the dice in American military history.

UPDATE: In a video interview, Borkow discussed what could be the most the important decision George Washington ever made during the Revolutionary War with David Hackett Fischer, Earl Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Washington’s Crossing. The video is here

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France and the United States: A Revolutionary Friendship Based on Revenge And Commerce

The Comte de Vergennes, French architect of the Franco-American Alliance during the Revolutionary War

The Comte de Vergennes, French architect of the Franco-American Alliance during the Revolutionary War

February 6 marks the anniversary of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance between the United States and France in 1778. The treaty was a significant commercial and foreign policy coup for the young nation. Formal recognition meant trade and legitimacy for an impoverished republic that had declared only two years before that the United States assumed “among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Mind you, France was not in love with the radical notion of democratic revolutions. The Bourbon monarchy of France was as dedicated to ancien regime as any royal house in Europe.  But as one historian once quipped, the French invented diplomacy, because what other realm could successfully exercise the gentle art of persuading a hostile nation to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Trade and world power prompted French support of the American Revolution, combined with the hope of redressing its imperial losses in North America. What the French government desired was a situation that produced large numbers of dead British soldiers and restored control of Caribbean sugar. What the United States gained was a formidable military and economic ally who arguably was the leading foreign power backing American military operations with funds, troops, and supplies.

The French, ever-astute observers of the geopolitical world of the 18th century, were among the first to predict an American Revolution. They recognized how Britain had gained more power because of the expansion of its commercial empire and the economic bounty that created for the mother country, yet also created a situation where Americans would realize they no longer needed the maternal care of the mother country. The humiliating defeat of France in the Seven Years’ Wars (1757-1763) resulted in the near-total loss of the France’s mainland possessions in North America and the economic advantages that came with unrestricted access to Indian tribes and the Caribbean. Some French ministers predicted that Americans would realize that if the British government maintained a standing army in the colonies after the war the move would be perceived as both threatening to their liberties and unnecessary for their safety. In fact, any British garrison could be seen as a threat to the very lives of Americans, who first began to use that name widely for themselves in the 1760s because of the sense of colonial unity the war engendered. The French had left Canada, so no longer was there the threat of a Catholic, absolutist foreign power to the north of America to check any colonist’s desire to question British authority or policy. Sure enough, even after the end of the French and Indian Wars (as the American theater of operations was called) the British maintained a forward deployed force of roughly 10,000 soldiers. This decision inflamed many Americans who already were showing their Whig resentment of standing armies. That aversion makes an appearance in the Declaration of Independence:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

However, the military might of both Great Britain and France remained realities in the world at the time of the American Revolution. Britain’s navy was the largest in the world, comprised of more than 100 ships of the line and the manpower necessary to man them. Her army was no paltry force, either. Because of the commercial power and geographic sweep of the British Empire, Britain was able to recruit or hire considerable forces to augment a standing army of 27,000 men at the time of the American Revolution. Colonial trade made Great Britain the wealthiest, richest, and most economically developed nation on the planet at the time, a considerable achievement for a country that had one-third the population of its archrival France. It also enabled Britain to support a global military effort when necessary. As for France, although her status as a great power was diminished after the disaster of the Seven Years’ War, the French still possessed the largest population of any European nation (about 24 million subjects), a commercial empire that provide trade and revenue in amounts comparable to the British, and an army of at least 170,000 soldiers. Along with this military might was an extremely complicated system of alliances that balanced the forces of other European powers against the enemies of both Great Britain and France. In the midst of this was America, where many in that country were conscious that both the war and the peace settlement had decided that the fate of North America also left the continent the makeweight of the European balance of power. North America’s wealth and it place as the focus of so much blood and treasure by the two greatest European powers would ensure that a Declaration of Independence would create global interest, even if it was the manifesto of citizens struggling to secure independent nation.

Although the French were at first reluctant to support the American Revolution, one man was astute enough to consider the opportunities that would drive the infant United States in the waiting arms of a former enemy. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes (1717-1787), secretary of state and chief foreign minister to Louis XVI and one of the architects of the alliance between the new United States and France during the American Revolution, actually predicted the Americans break from Great Britain 12 years before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. “The consequences of the entire cession of Canada are obvious,” Vergennes told an English visitor in 1763, not long after the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War were announced. “I am persuaded that England will ere long repent of having removed the only check that could keep the colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection; she will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her; and they will answer by striking off all dependence.” This comment seems clairvoyant in hindsight.  It also serves to remind us that Vergennes, a Frenchmen who possibly did more than any other Frenchman except Lafayette to secure political independence for the United States, simply realized that Americans who once feared and even hated the French (who had once been the allies of bloodthirsty Indians who had slaughtered American settlers just a generation earlier at French urging) would now turn to France out of the need for allies – the inevitable outcome of balance-of-power thinking. Because of this fact, the Declaration of Independence has a clear connection to a strategy for international relations recognizing that “a separate and equal station” would allow the United States to jockey for position among the foreign powers that would have a deep interest in the outcome of the revolution. No wonder the Patriots of the Second Continental Congress prefaced their statement of American independence and liberty with an introduction that included the statement “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Until independence, the Americans were legally nothing but the rebels George III labeled them. Vergennes had no great admiration for many of the Americans who approached him such as Silas Deane, the emissary from the Continental Congress sent to France in 1776 to negotiate under what we would call today “commercial cover,” who presented himself as a trade representative but was in reality a secret agent attempting to negotiate French aid. However,Vergennes’s calculating assessment of the revolution included the realization that Congress’ promises of boatloads of American goods and access to American ports, as well as the fact that trade with the United States would siphon away trade with Great Britain, could redress the consequences of French defeat in 1763 and perhaps even destroy the British Empire by stripping of its most prized economic possession, the jewel of its maritime empire. Congress, which practically dictated the exact words Deane offered to Vergennes, would never have made the offer if they did not think that master of European power politics lacked interest in dealing with an independent state that could make good on its promises.

“…Independence, confederation, and negotiations with foreign powers, particularly France, ought to go hand in hand, and be adopted all together … . Foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us till we had acknowledged ourselves, and taken our station among them as a sovereign power and independent nation,” wrote John Adams, lawyer, future diplomat, and one of the members of the Committee of Five, in a later autobiography. As radical as the American Revolution was, Thomas Jefferson still held on to very Old World ideas in the Declaration. As Jefferson wrote pragmatically in a lesser-known document, “We cannot too distinctly detach ourselves from the European system, which is essentially belligerent, nor too sedulously cultivate an American system, essentially pacific.”  This nation has always needed good relations with other nations not only to survive but also thrive politically and economically, and those relations are often forged by accomodating less-than-lofty motivations, objectives, and  policy goals. Realpolitik internationalism is an overlooked factor that prompted the democratic republic called the United States to make one of the oldest international friendships in its history with a nation once ruled by kings.

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Secession without Aggression? Acts Speak Louder Than Words When It Comes To Independence

A fascinating post-election phenomena is developing in dozens of U.S. states.  Using a White House Web site established to acknowledge citizen petitions, proponents for peaceful secession from the United States have collected tens of thousands of signatures backing their call for an exit from the United States of America. According to the White House’s own rules regarding Internet petitions at the “We The People” site, as soon as a petition acquires 25,000 signatures the executive branch must assign staff from the Obama administration to look into the matter. So far, Texas is the first state to gain more than the required 25,000 signatures. (At this writing, the number of petitioners topped 45,000. Yesterday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a statement saying that Texas will not secede from the Union.) Other states include Oregon, Montana, New Jersey, New York and the Dakotas. Support is running strong for petitions in states of the American South, as well.

Two ideas unite these secession petitions.  First, the writers are convinced that the re-election of President Barack Obama heralds the end of constitutional government because of his presumed agenda of pushing forward with the massive healthcare program that will emerge from the Affordable Healthcare Act and other examples of “big government” policies that will continue to expand the scope and power of the federal government. Secondly, the language of the petitions frequently contains rationale based on the language and the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, including the Lockean idea of just resistance and revolution and the implied natural law theory that positive action (the ability to do something independent of authority) are some of the hallmarks of liberty. Whether the proponents of seccession are students of the Declaration, sore losers  after a contentious presidential election season, or dangerous radicals will no doubt be judged more by the eye of the beholder than through cool analysis.

But I will offer an effort at dispassionate analysis out of sheer fascination with what is unfolding. Whatever one thinks of the proponents’ politics (be they Tea Party, libertarian, or simply individuals who despise President Obama) the volume of support for the petitions is astounding. Perhaps it takes as much political thought to sign an Internet petition as it does to “friend” someone on Facebook, but the fact remains nearly half a million Americans as of this writing have signed a petition calling for the dissolution of the United States through peaceful secession. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was successful in its efforts with fewer supporters in Tsarist Russia. Actual secession is probably not the goal so much as the effort to turn the tables on the administration in an embarrassing fashion and use their own program against them. Also, so far the White House has not assigned staff to examine even the Texas petition despite the stated policy that the executive branch will address an issue once the threshold of 25,000 signatures is reached.

However, what is also obvious is something that has marked the 21st Century’s “radical Republicans” and consternated conservatives: They know their American civics and political history, including the contents of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.  For example, the odious fact the Confederacy was a slave-holding republic does not negate the fact that many Southerners used the language of the Declaration to justify secession and resistance against the North. The Declaration is quite clear: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” What constitutes abuses and usurpations might be in the eye of the beholder, but the arbitrary use of power against a people’s liberty is a clear justification to “throw off” a government that allows or practices that kind of power.

Furthermore, the proponents also know something that the Founders also claimed. It is one thing to declare your independence, defined as the right to pursue liberty, which is the ability to do all things within the law without permission of a higher authority. It is quite another to act on your liberty, and positive action – even secession – is proof of real liberty. It might not be an advisable action, but it is an independent action.  At the time of the Declaration, the United States had to prove it was thriving, viable state, not simply a rebellion, not the 18th-century equivalent of Somalia, the Sudan, or some other failed state wracked by civil war or insurgency. Actions do speak louder than words.

At the time the Declaration was written, the world was full of independent states (though they were almost all monarchies), there was thriving international trade, recognition of the importance of state sovereignty (the power of a nation to govern its own affairs independently, free of interference from outside powers) was universal in the trans-Atlantic world, and there was a system of alliances and treaties that reflected both the European balance of power and global commercial interests. Fundamental to any new nation’s ability to engage in these activities was the power to defend its citizens and seek relationships in the national interest. Self-protection was essential to this ability, and a struggle for independence to create a state with good government was justifiable under the laws of nature and nations.  All of these positive actions marked independence in a way that the current petitioners of secession would probably accept as goals for, say, an independent Republic of Oregon or Republic of New Jersey. (Please keep the snickering to a minimum.)

The writings of Emerich de Vattel (1714-1767), a Swiss lawyer and political philosopher whose Droit des gens; ou, Principes de la loi naturelle appliqués à la conduite et aux affaires des nations et des souverains (The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns, 1758) became the standard work on international law that  helped shape the Founders’ concepts of statehood and international law. It provided a working definition of the powers of an independent state used by the drafters of the Declaration of Independence.  Vattel was widely read both in the original French and in English translation by members of the Continental Congress: Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Charles W.F. Dumas (December 9, 1775) wrote, “I am much obliged by the kind present you have made us of your edition of Vattel. It came to us in good season, when the circumstances of a rising state make it necessary frequently to consult the law of nations. Accordingly, that copy which I kept, (after depositing one in our own public library here, and sending the other to the College of Massachusetts Bay, as you directed,) has been continually in the hands of the members of our Congress.” As one 18th -century translator rendered Vattel’s definition of a sovereign nation, “Every nation that governs itself, under what form soever, without dependence on any foreign power, is a Sovereign State. Its rights are naturally the same as those of any other state. Such are the moral persons who live together in a natural society, subject to the law of nations. To give a nation a right to make an immediate figure in this grand society, it is sufficient that it be really sovereign and independent, that is, that it govern itself by its own authority and laws.”   Vattel also argued that the geographical size or power of a nation (such as one made of 13 constituent states) did not eliminate or dilute the sovereign nation’s right to defend the interests of its people. “Since men are naturally equal,” he wrote, “and a perfect equality prevails in their rights and obligations, as equally proceeding from nature, nations composed of men, and considered as so many free persons living together in a state of nature, are naturally equal, and inherit from nature the same obligations and rights. Power or weakness does not in this respect produce any difference. A dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” What does this have to do with a burgeoning secession movement, real or tongue-in-cheek? One of the great truths of the Declaration is a small group of citizens — or one man or one woman — has the same inherent rights to government by consent as large populations. Size does not make one more important than another when it comes to rights.  Size only matters in politics.  There is a distinct difference between the two.

Although subjects of a sovereign owed him their allegiance and needed to maintain the “political association” even during the worst times to avoid internal and international chaos (“It is, then, an essential and necessary condition of the political society, that the subjects remain united to their prince as far as in their power”) Vattel argued that international law recognized the right of subjects to break away if they have been abandoned by their prince. “If, therefore, the state or the prince refuses or neglects to succour a body of people who are exposed to imminent danger, the latter, being thus abandoned, become perfectly free to provide for their own safety and preservation in whatever manner they find most convenient, without paying the least regard to those who, by abandoning them, have been the first to fail in their duty” – a maxim Vattel justifies with examples of his fellow Swiss breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century because it had never protected them in an emergency. Obviously, the Continental Congress would have heartily concurred with a legal justification for independence that accepted abandonment by their prince. Today’s petition filers no doubt want to determine if they have been abandoned by their “prince,” i.e. the chief executive.  I am not sniping at President Obama with that comparison, simply point out that the minority in this last president election, though smaller than the winning side, might be asking if losing means abandonment — in other words, you lost and what you care about does not matter. Such are the reasons why the Declaration makes it clear “alter or abolish” are legitimate courses of action. Abolition of the United States isn’t exactly advisable. However, the Declaration gives a people permission to seek disunity if unity means they no longer count.

The current proponents of secession almost certainly have no familiarity with Vattel or his writings. They do, through the filter of the Declaration, understand his ideas. Probably the most prevalent question successful secessionists would ask is “What now?”  But by acting, the proponents are showing their independence within the sphere of liberty. I doubt that secession will happen. But President Obama’s political opponents are promising him four years of action, couched in the language of a document that justified revolution against established power.

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Haiti’s Founding Document, Inspired By the Declaration of Independence, Found in London

A recent discovery by an inquisitive graduate student is a major contribution to both the history of Haiti and the study of the international significance of the Declaration of Independence of the United States.

            A story in the March 31, 2010 edition of the New York Times reports that Julia Gaffield, a Duke University graduate history student, discovered the only surviving copy of  Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of  Independence. Gaffield made the discovery in February while examining early nineteenth-century correspondence collected in Great Britain’s National Archives in London. The eight-page pamphlet is the only known surviving copy of the Haitian Declaration distributed by the newly independent government to other countries as an official announcement of the island’s separation from France. The original final draft vanished for unknown reasons not long after the founding of the Republic of Haiti on January 1, 1804. 

            Not surprisingly, there is keen interest in Haiti to bring the copy home. “It is a very important document for our country,” said Wilfrid Bertrand, director-general of Haiti’s National Archives, in an interview with the Associated Press. “It has every bit the same importance as the American Declaration of Independence.”

            For obvious reasons, the find also is considered a ray of hope and a much-needed source of pride for Haiti, a long-suffering nation before the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed about 230,000 Haitians on January 12.  Poverty, political turmoil, and governmental corruption have plagued the nation for decades, leading most to forget (if they ever knew) that Haiti has the distinction of being the first independent black republic in the world.

            Furthermore, Haiti’s declaration is one of many declarations inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence. David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, writes that the first draft of the declaration was written by an admirer of Jefferson familiar with the American state paper. However, the principal reviser of the Haitian declaration thought Jeffersonian language too bloodless and insipid to capture the sentiments of former slaves declaring their freedom.

Louis Boisrond Tonnerre, as portrayed on a 1954 Haitian postage stamp.

“All that which has been formulated is not in accordance with our true feelings; to draw up the Act of Independence, we need the skin of a white man for parchment, his skull for a writing desk, his blood for ink, and a bayonet for pen,” said Louis Félix Mathurin Boisrond Tonnerre, who served as a secretary to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, leader of the Haitian Revolution.  Not surprisingly, the American reaction to the Haitian Revolution was to equate it with slave revolt, leading Thomas Jefferson to refuse official recognition of the republic out of fear that such a move would inspire slave uprisings in the United States. (However, Jefferson had ordered the shipment of arms and supplies to the Haitian rebels because he feared a French foothold too close to the U.S. mainland.) In 1862, Abraham Lincoln finally offered formal recognition to Haiti, a year after the shots were first fired in a war he would later proclaim was fought to secure “a new birth of freedom” in the hemisphere’s leading slave-holding republic.

          Ironies abound in the history of Haiti’s struggle for freedom and its links to American concepts of freedom and liberty. However, Jefferson’s refusal to extend recognition to an island nation seeking independence is not the only chapter in the story of the Declaration of Independence and its influence on revolutions such as Haiti’s. Like the United States, the authors of the Haitian declaration cast their arguments in terms of overthrowing despotism and tyranny in the name of liberty and human rights; like the United States, their declaration was a statement of exiting an empire, in this case the French empire of Napoleon I, an entity that is the astounding aftermath and abrogation of much of the French Revolution.  The United States and Haiti are one of many revolutions in the Age of Revolutions, events that tolled the end of monarchies during one of the major geopolitical changes of the last 200 years. We have moved from a world of empires to a world of sovereign states – no small accomplishment when you consider how entrenched monarchy is in world history. As Jefferson wrote in 1795, “this ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe.” It is good that the good people of Haiti, so wracked by national crisis and by natural disaster, have an important reminder of their global significance to look to once again.

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