Sunday, August 20, 2006

Rebels & Redcoats

I recently read David McCollough's popular 1776 and Don Cook's less popular, but more thorough, The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760-1785. They both left me with the question, "What were the British thinking?" I.e., what did the British decision-makers believe, know, intend, plan, and expect? How did they get it so horribly wrong?

Via a British friend, I got a recommendation for a British perspective from his university's Reader in American History. Hugh Bicheno's Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War is "the best general history ... of a far higher standard than McCullough, but still lively and accessible to a general audience."

Rebels & Redcoats was certainly eye-opening in some respects, including its view of the Founding Fathers as a reprehensible bunch who dragged their mostly-unwilling countrymen into an unnecessary war. It is incessant in its attacks on "the Foundation Myth" (on which, of course, I was raised).

Depending on taste, this is either the most deliciously vicious, or the most consistently mean-spirited, book of historical non-fiction that I can recall. The only major figure (American or British) to emerge relatively unscathed is Benedict Arnold--possibly because his reputation has already been ruined. On topics where Bicheno agrees with the conventional view, he says little or nothing, and he presents little concrete evidence for many of his most sweeping character judgments.

To my mind, much of the book reeks of what I call "Simon Schama-ism": The use of a book ostensibly directed to the general reader to attack other historians' positions, without the encumbering impedimenta of scholarly publication. Bicheno often assumes that the reader already knows the history he is commenting on, rather than troubling to present it. Had I not already read the other books, I would have been mystified by a number of Bicheno's discursions, and would have lacked the background to connect many of the book's parts to its whole.

Three allegations in the book have the potential to significantly alter my view of important aspects of the Revolution:
  1. The supply of arms and military stores cached in Concord in April 1775 included three 24-pounder cannon. "These were 5600-pound monsters requiring eight to ten men to serve them and a team of six horses to pull them... They were siege guns, not field artillery pieces, and how they came to be buried in the courtyard of the Concord jail is a mystery... The conspirators were desperate to provoke some bloody event to polarize opinion, and the French would have regarded a brace and a half of 24-pounders as seed corn... The existence of such powerful weapons at such a place and time of itself is one of those ugly facts so harmful to beautiful theories, in this case the myth of peace-loving farmers spontaneously rising up against unprovoked aggression."
  2. "Myth has it these were either personal weapons or stocks siezed from poorly guarded depots, but even if we are to suppose that every colony gave up every weapon it captured in 1775-76, more cannon were lost by the Rebels during the New York campaign than the British Army had ever felt it necessary to store in the colonies. It is impossible to reconcile the spontaneous uprising thesis with this proof of serious long-term planning and preparation."
  3. Jefferson's first manuscript draft of the Declaration of Independence contained the following passage accusing George III of foisting the slave trade on the colonies:
    "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare the opprobium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold he has prostituted his negative for supressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."
Since Bicheno does not specify the sources on which he bases these allegations, it is difficult for me to decide how much credence to give them.

Bicheno is not overly concerned with consistency, being willing to assert a proposition to skewer one character, and then a contradictory proposition to eviscerate another. I'm not talking about minor points, but major ones, like whether or not the Tea Act precipitated the conflict, or whether the terms on which the war was settled in 1782 were significantly different from the ones offered by Britain in 1778.

A few sample quotes:

It often crossed my mind that the standard accounts of the Anglo-American civil war of 1775-83 are the most outstanding example of propaganda not merely triumphing over historical substance, but virtually obliterating it.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence ... denounced measures taken for the common defence, the preservation of public order and the value of the currency, which most would regard as minimum obligations of any government.

It is also absurd to enumerate atrocities as though they constitute a scorecard of righteousness in war, when it consists largely of acts that would give pause to a moderately fastidious hyena. But for those wishing to do so it should be self-evident that the Rebels, intent on simultaneously crushing Native and African American autonomy ... committed the most offences against peacetime standards of decent behaviour.

Only the most devoted hagiographers have been able to stomach the personalities of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the partnership that made the war happen.

Franklin was a pot-stirrer quite on a par with Samuel Adams, like him carefully tailoring his message to whatever audience he was addressing... Franklin's ... apparent moderation was simply a smokescreen.

But as all politicians know, the executive truth is what people can be persuaded to believe long enough to commit them to a course from which there is no easy retreat.

What British politicians did not do was provoke a peaceful people to revolt... Few pugilists would argue in favor of thrusting your face into your opponent's fist. Yet as we shall see next, this was what the flower of the British officer corps decided was the best way to start round one of the contest for America.

The Scots slaver and pirate John Paul alias Jones ... defeated the frigate HMS Serapis... His later career included service in the navy of the freedom-loving Catherine the Great of Russia, finally fleeing St Petersburg to evade an allegedly fabricated accusation of rape. What may have been his remains were exhumed from a built-over Paris cemetery in 1905 and escorted across the Atlantic by the US fleet for deposit in a magnificent crypt at the Annapolis Naval Academy. Not many other career criminals have been similarly honored.

After centuries in which the House of Lords, on occasion alone, resisted relentless centralization, the British are now to find out whether it will be an improvement to have an upper house packed with government placepersons possessing all the attributes of petty criminals save the minimum courage required to rob the helpless openly.

The watershed was not the French alliance, but the means it provided to a small group of men, wedded to conspiracy, to exploit the situation for their own advantage. That some went on to falsify the record may indicate a vestigial sense of shame, but more likely reflects a sober awareness of what their fellow citizens would do if the truth emerged. Even so, like the wretchedly treated soldiers of the Continental Army but with far more reason, the members of the wartime Congress were generally regarded with contempt by their contemporaries.

Vermont is still a maverick state, while despite a political history of almost unparalleled corruption and judicial malfeasance, Massachusetts remains the preferred domicile of the tiresomely self-righteous... Philadelphia treasures the cracked Liberty Bell, which perfectly symbolizes Pennsylvania's commitment to the cause of independence.

This book did not satisfy my particular curiosity about what the British decision-makers believed, knew, intended, planned and expected. In fact, it gave remarkably little space to either decisions in Britain or by the British command in America. But it was a very interesting read.

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