Our Revolution

I am reading a book that is a collection of letters, papers, journal and diary entries written by people who lived and fought during the American Revolution. It is intriguing, since it provides conflicting points of view — both pro-American and pro-English. It is fascinating, for example, to read an account of the battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 first from the American point of view and then from the British. They read like there were two such battles! So much for objective reporting.  Several other things have already struck me about those articles.

To begin with, it is quite clear that the British simply do not understand why the colonists have rebelled. They remain bewildered throughout. They held the colonists in low regard to begin with and thought they would never be foolish enough to take on the British army; when it happened in Lexington and Concord they were dumbstruck. But through it all they simply couldn’t grasp why these “rebels” as they called them did not want the protection of the mighty British army and navy. After all, they had recently fought together to toss out the French from the colonies and why on earth would they not want to remain as loyal citizens of Great Britain?

During the war Britain made several attempts to settle the conflict peaceably, even to the point of promising no taxes whatever! But they never would accept the idea that America was an independent nation. Indeed, they scoffed at the notion. But it was American independence that was the sticking point — together with skepticism about the reliability of the word of the British parliament.

There were innumerable instances of utter brutality on both sides. The Hessians, who fought as allies with the British, along with various Indian tribes, were particularly brutal, raping, pillaging, and burning homes seemingly at will — despite orders form the British to cease and desist. But, on the other hand, there is an entry in a journal written by a colonial soldier who describes the killing of two Indians, who were scalped, and who were then stripped of their flesh from the waist down in order to provide the soldier with a pair of trousers! The entry is written in a casual matter-of-fact style that makes the reader shudder.

We read about the chronic inability of Washington to maintain a fighting force. His frustration with the unpredictable and undisciplined militia is palpable in reading his repeated requests for a standing army. And there were repeated requests for clothes and support as well. The militia was weakened by lack of discipline and short terms of enlistment; desertions were commonplace. When deserters were caught they were summarily shot (as were spies on both sides), but they were seldom caught and Washington’s forces were rarely numerous enough or well enough clothed, fed, and armed to successfully defeat the enemy. Three years into the war the army was exhausted and many, in the South especially, were unwilling to fight. Victories were rare. If the French had not decided to join the colonists the war would have been over fairly quickly and with a completely different outcome.

One entry warmed my heart since it was written by a soldier who fought in one of the rare successes Washington experienced early in the war: the battle of Princeton. The author describes the behavior of one of my ancestors — a Brigadier General who fought with Washington and who died from wounds sustained in that battle — as “courageous.” I was pleased to read that, but there were numerous examples of courage along with examples of awful brutality on both sides and the material provides us with a remarkable glimpse into the way people behave during  times of great upheaval. One reflection written by Thomas Brown to his friend David Ramsay about the war in Georgia in 1781 is worth quoting:

“A civil war being one of the greatest evils incident to human society, the history of every contest presents us with instances of wanton cruelty and barbarity. Men whose passions are inflamed by mutual injuries, exasperated with personal animosity against each other, and eager to gratify revenge, often violate the laws of war and principles of humanity.”

Additionally, we are allowed to glimpse into the lives of those who refused to fight. The Quakers, of course, but also many who remained loyal to England — even to the point of writing letters to local papers satirizing the behavior of the colonists. Many of these Tories, loyal to the King, later joined on the side of the British as the war wore on. But neutrality was itself a battle. We are allowed to see the conflict, even within homes, between those who thought the colonists were warranted in rebelling against Britain and members of the same family who remained loyal to the British throughout. In fact, James Fenimore Cooper write a novel about those very conflicts between two daughters within the home of a wealthy farmer in New York whose house was large and well suited to provide shelter and food for tired and hungry soldiers (usually officers, of course) on both sides of the conflict.

In a word, we rediscover the fact that war brings out the best and the worst in folks, which is not new. But we also come to realize that the issues that brought on that war were never clear to many who participated in it, many did not want to have anything to do with the war, and it may or may not have been worth such widespread death and destruction for so many years.

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Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.

Senate Aristocrats

I have been reading a painstaking analysis of the forming of our Republic. It is very long but fascinating. The period before and just after the American revolution has always been a bit hazy for me and it is a relief to have some of the haze cleared away. The eleven years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution were especially remarkable years. The thirteen colonies were all busy writing their own constitutions (while the war was in progress) and struggling with the issues that would face the united colonies later on. One such issue was the “mixed form” of government.

Some of the more radical colonists like Thomas Paine and the authors of Pennsylvania’s  constitution wanted nothing to do with mixed governments; they wanted  a pure Democracy. A great many others distrusted the “people” and wanted what they regarded as the more solid foundation of an aristocracy of some sort to temper and provide balance to offset the “lower” house. This was Jefferson’s idea behind starting up the University of Virginia — to train young men to become future leaders. He was convinced the people at large would recognize exceptional people and elect them to public office. They would form America’s new aristocracy! Other thinkers were not so sanguine, and eventually Jefferson himself began to have doubts. But nearly all were agreed that two houses were essential — with a governor at the head of each colony’s government whose role would be exclusively that of executor of the legislative will. Each house of government would differ from the other in important respects — the lower house, which was similar to the British House of Commons, and the upper house, which they hoped would resemble in important respects the House of Lords. The problem was how to assure that the upper house (the Senate) was not just a mirror image of the lower house — given that America had no aristocracy?

Jefferson and his peers in other states finally decided that even with electoral colleges designed to elect the folks to the upper house (the people themselves couldn’t be trusted) the Senators in the various colonies began to look very much like the representatives in the lower house. But they were convinced that the House of Lords in England lent ballast to the ship of state and it was essential that the colonies have something like that or subject themselves to the rabble running the show — people at large who had no “public virtue,” a quality they thought essential for the common good. How to guarantee that the Senates would be “the best and wisest” — which was their perception of the British aristocracy — and thus more stable than the lower houses?

In the end since there were no natural aristocrats in America — or unnatural ones, as it happened — the various colonies settled on property ownership as the only criterion that could separate the “wiser” officials in government from the rest of the herd. It was clear that these people did not want a King or any royalty. They pretty much tied the hands of their governors and, later, the President. But they didn’t trust the rabble, either. When they settled on property as the criterion for membership in the Senate they did just that: settled. It was the best they could come up with. They rejected birth and were unable to find any criterion that would satisfy other than property to differentiate the upper house from the lower one.

It would appear that it was during this time — these eleven years — that the Americans came to grips with the question of the place of wealth in government. They distrusted great wealth (as I have noted in a previous blog) but they could come up with nothing better to separate the two houses they regarded as essential to a Republic. They understood power and knew full well how easily it could be abused. But they failed to see that wealth would become the greatest power in this country — though Jefferson was leery, noting that “‘Integrity was not in my experience the characteristic of wealth.” Both “he and Madison were baffled by the apparent inability of the people to perceive the truly talented and were thus compelled reluctantly to endorse property as the best possible source of distinction in the new republics.”

By making property the criterion of membership in the Senates of the various colonies — and giving the Senate pride of place in our Constitution later on (note how much of that document is focused on the operation of the U.S. Senate) they opened the door to excessive power in the Senate  (which Henry Adams complained about loudly a hundred years later)  and the ownership of the government itself by the very rich.

[Quotations are from Gordon S.  Wood’s excellent The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787.]

Foreign Policy

The latest out of Afghanistan is somewhat unsettling. The story begins: KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the United States have reached an agreement to curb night raids on Afghan homes, giving Kabul veto power over the operations despised by most local people and control over treatment of any detainees, Afghan officials said on Sunday.

Let’s think about this. In light of the recent killing of 17 civilians, including children, by an American soldier on his seventh tour of duty in two different war zones, not to mention the burning of the Quran at a NATO base resulting in waves of daily protests that brought about the death of seven people and the injuring of 65 others, we now condescend to turn tactical decisions over to the people who actually live in that country. What do we call this? Largess? Generosity? To state the obvious: this is their country. We don’t belong there. Our only possible reason for going there in the first place was to capture or (as it turned out) kill Osama Bin Laden — who, as I recall, was killed in Pakistan where he was apparently being protected by our “allies.” Once that was accomplished, we should have turned things over to the Afghan people and gotten the hell out.

Our foreign policy needs some serious review. As a country we have a disturbing tendency toward paternalism and a misguided sense of our own superiority that must be galling to people elsewhere in the world. As was clearly the case in Iraq, our presence in Afghanistan is unwelcome. I would imagine the people of that country feel as many Americans did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the British armed forces could be seen everywhere in our colonies and military rule was the order of the day. We are an occupying force in a country that wants us out of there — and has for a number of years. Recent developments have simply made things worse and the flames of discontent burn higher and hotter today than they did yesterday. The claim that we must remain there to contain the Taliban is absurd. We have been unable to deal with them militarily –something like trying to nail Jello to the wall. So dialogue seemed to be the wise option. However, any chance of opening talks with those people went up in flames with the Quran.

The very least we can do is to allow the local government to “call the shots” as we prepare to evacuate the country sooner rather than later and allow the people to deal with their centuries-old problems themselves. They may not live the way we would want them to live, but they may not want to live the way we want them to, either.  To repeat, it’s their country and in their eyes we are the ugly Americans.