Sunday, June 22, 2008

The American Revolution

Sometimes familiarity blocks the path to understanding. Being a reasonably patriotic country, every child in America has a general concept of the American Revolution as a seminal event in our history. The details might be fuzzy but the concept is familiar. It is the details, however, that allow us to comprehend just how astonishing, unlikely, tragic, unique and wonderful this event ended up being.

At the remove of two hundred and thirty some years, the gloss of inevitability and the patina of respectability fog our understanding. We look at George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and all those other Founding Fathers as heroes. They were, but that is also because they won. Objectively of course, they were the Ché Guevaras and Fidel Castros of the time. They sought to overthrow the natural order of things. They were traitors fighting against their country (England) and revolutionaries seeking to establish a new form of government contrary to all the civilized monarchies. Captured, they would have been executed without a second thought.

Sometimes, though, the fog of familiarity is cut through by the smallest of details. Going back to the documents of the time and looking at a bill of sale that is in pounds, shillings and pence, you suddenly realize that the American colonists did see themselves truly as Englishmen, albeit in a new country. The day-to-day accents and pronunciations were still recognizably from the reaches of the British Isles: East Anglian, Midlands, Scottish, Irish, etc.

In 1776 there were approximately nine million subjects of King George III, three million or so in the North American colonies and approximately six million in the four kingdoms of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). The rebellion in the North American colonies was, therefore, not an inconsequential thing. It represented a fundamental sundering of a long established (one hundred and fifty years) pattern of relations.

While the exact proportions are subject to debate and did vary by colony, it appears that the population of the colonies were somewhat equally divided in their attitudes to the events of their time: about a third were disinterested and tried to stay apart from the fray, about a third were committed to separating from the British crown, and about a third remained loyal to the crown. It is easily overlooked that the British military presence in the colonies was not solely made up of British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries but was substantially complemented by large levies of loyalist troops. Most of us remember that one of the grievances of the time was being taxed to support the British troops in North America (approximately 10,000) stationed here to defend the frontiers from Native Americans as well as the ambitions of other European powers, and another was the obligation to quarter those troops among local households. When you consider that that number of soldiers would represent some 1,000,000 soldiers in terms of today's population you can suddenly grasp the British opinion that it was only right that the colonists ought to bear a greater contribution of support through taxes.

Because the population of the colonies was small at the time, we lose perspective of the horrendous human consequences of this seven year struggle (1775 -1781). If we extrapolate the colonial population of that time (three million) to the population of America today (three hundred million), it suddenly comes into perspective - the eighty thousand loyalist American colonists that ended up migrating to Canada as a consequence of the war equates to our losing eight million refugees today.

Revolutionary War battlefield deaths and mortality are difficult to nail down but it would appear that approximately twenty-five thousand American patriots died in battle, at sea, as prisoners of war, and from disease. While this is a large number, it doesn't at first blush seem overwhelming. But again, extrapolating to our current population, it would be like losing seven and a half million soldiers today - a number that boggles the mind. Roughly one out of every ten men of fighting age died in this conflict.

Another distortion is our understanding of where the war was fought. We think of Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, Trenton, Concord and Lexington - all in the northeast. And yet as a matter of fact, the bulk of the war (four years of the seven) was fought in the South in little remembered battles such as Camden (the single largest loss of battlefield life), King's Mountain, Guilford, Charleston, etc.

There was an interesting twist to some of these battles: many Scottish and Scots-Irish emigrants in the decades leading up to 1776 had settled in the south. As a consequence, in a number of these battles, you had essentially a whole separate, more ancient and ancestral conflict being mirrored in the environment of the New World - the conflict between the Lowland and Highland Scots. The British had a number of regiments in the Americas that had been recruited from the Lowlands of Scotland facing, as in the Battle of Kings Mountain, patriot regiments made up largely of Highland Scots.

The other aspect that we often overlook is just how many wars were being fought simultaneously in the Colonies - it wasn't really just a Revolutionary War though it was that. The conflict was unavoidably a part of the world wide struggle among France, Spain and Britain - America was just one battlefield in the on-going world war. Hence, the critical support we received from the French in the latter part of the war. The French monarch had no native sympathy for a rebellious and upstart republic. It was a simple matter of the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

As mentioned, the war of 1775 - 1781 was also a civil war, that worst and most bitter of all conflicts. Patriot neighbor fought Loyalist neighbor. Families and friendships were torn apart. The long simmering war of colonization, in part a catalyst to the issues which drove some of the grievances leading to the Declaration of Independence, continued with a new dynamic. The Native American tribes, fighting one another and fighting against the rising tide of frontier settlement, now had a whole new array of alliances to strike between the British and the Americans. The raids and sacking of frontier homesteads and settlements continued apace. This was a civil war, a world war, a war of colonial self-defense on top of being a revolutionary war.

All of this is not an effort to overdramatize the tragedy of war. That is the nature of the beast; war tells its own story. Rather this is an effort to put things into perspective - it is not simply lines of blue and red puffing away at each other on sunny battlefields. This was a long, drawn out and titanic conflict on the battlefield and in the realm of governance and philosophy that affected every resident of North America very directly.

It has affected every person worldwide born after that conflict. The successful example of the self-conscious creation of a new democratic republic has affected just about everything since then, starting most directly with the French Revolution which so quickly followed ours. This was the first time a whole diverse people had risen up against one form of government and created an entirely new form of government designed to accommodate that very diversity. There were a couple of forms of democracy around at the time such as in Iceland and Switzerland but these were primarily direct democracies and by far the exception in a world governed by monarchs.

The truly astonishing thing is the sheer abundance of intellect and accomplishment represented by the Founding Fathers. Repeated recitation of the names can blur just how unique a combination of talents was mixed into this revolutionary cauldron: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, are the tip of the iceberg - products of an age of enlightenment and reason. Fully human and with all the potential of human frailties of character but still outstanding individuals for any age.

One other element of the story of the American Revolution frequently gets glossed over - the degree to which the political aspect of the new country was a work in progress. The first rough draft of how we might govern ourselves, the Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781, failed to deliver an effective means of governance and led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and a new Constitution in 1789. The miracle of that Constitution with its branches of government, its checks and balances is a tribute to the depth of knowledge, experience, pragmatism and commitment of all the participants.

We think of our divisions now within the country as being deep but they are nowhere neat the chasms that then existed. There was of course the fundamental issue of large versus small states but there were many other divisions as well: the mercantilists versus the agrarians; the enormous number of religious sects in an age when worship was a much more fundamental part of daily life; the slave owners versus abolitionists; the wealthy (whether planters or merchants) versus the working poor. The interests of all these divisions had to be bridged in some form of compromise. That compromise - the Constitution - turned out to be remarkably robust. We think of the US as a young country and yet it is the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

Born in an environment rich in idealism this form of government is a pragmatic compromise with the realities and interests in place at the time. The issue of slavery was effectively postponed, to be addressed by a future generation. So the Constitution was not a perfect document or a model of governmental efficiency but, rather, the best that could be accomplished under the circumstances with a statement of those ideals to be attained and crucially with the capacity to self-correct, evolve and grow. Our Constitution represented not a model of static perfection but rather a means for future progress.

Below is a list of books that we hope will capture the attention and imagination of your children as they explore a time when tectonic moves were afoot that launched the world in a whole new direction:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.1

1 - Last stanza from Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Picture Books

Samuel's Choice by Richard J. Berleth and illustrated by James Watling Suggested

And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz

Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

Shh! We're Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz and illustrtated by Tomie dePaola Recommendation

This Time, Tempe Wick? by Patricia Lee Gauch and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

The Boston Tea Party by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Peter M. Fiore Suggested

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand Recommended

Katie's Trunk by Ann Turner and illustrated by Ronald Himler Suggested

Independent Readers

The Fighting Ground by Avi Recommended

Toliver's Secret by Esther Wood Brady and illustrated by Richard Cuffari and Esther Wood-Brady Suggested

The Arrow over the Door by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by James Watling Suggested

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier Suggested

War Comes to Willy Freeman by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier Suggested

April Morning by Howard Fast Suggested

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

The Founders by Dennis B. Fradin and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

The Signers by Dennis B. Fradin and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

Early Thunder by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended

Hope's Crossing by Joan Elizabeth Goodman

The Riddle of Penncroft Farm by Dorothea Jensen Suggested

Moon of Two Dark Horses by Sally M. Keehn Suggested

Lexington and Concord by Deborah Kent Suggested

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson Recommended

Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson Suggested

The Secret Soldier by Ann McGovern and illustrated by Harold Goodwin and Katherine Thompson Suggested

Emma's Journal by Marissa Moss Suggested

The Keeping Room by Anna Myers Suggested

Sarah Bishop by Scott O'Dell Recommended

Guns For General Washington by Seymour Reit Suggested

Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rindaldi Suggested

The Secret of Sarah Revere by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

Finishing Becca by Ann Rindaldi Suggested

Time Enough for Drums by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

A Ride into Morning by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

George Washington's Socks by Elvira Woodruff Suggested

Young Adults

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis Suggested

American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis Suggested

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis Recommended

The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay Highly Recommended

Redcoats and Rebels by Christopher Hibbert Recommended

John Adams by David McCullough Recommended

1776 by David McCullough Suggested

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts Recommended

John Paul Jones by Evan Thomas Recommended

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