My Weekly Reader 23 July 2019.

During and immediately following the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation had provided a framework for governing the country.  That framework proved unsatisfactory.  The current Constitution replaced it.  While the authors of the Constitution were experienced and practical men, it remained a theoretical system.  Would it work any better than had the Articles of Confederation?  Would it be able to foster a strong sense of national identity as well as provide effective government?  Could it overcome the distrust of the many Anti-Federalist who had opposed its adoption?  Carol Berkin has argued that four crises in the 1790s worked in various ways to legitimize the new system.[1]

The Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794).  The new federal government needed revenue, both to operate the government and to pay off the national debt.  Congress passed a tax on distilled spirits.  Farmers living on the then-Western frontier of Pennsylvania and Kentucky often distilled rye and corn into whiskey.  That whiskey could then be traded for goods to merchants who shipped the whiskey east for thirsty consumers.  Both the farmers and the distillers resisted the tax, often violently.  Talking to them didn’t work, so President Washington finally led an army of 13,000 eastern militiamen.  The army cowed the rebels and asserted federal authority (although it didn’t stop moonshining).

The Genet Affair (1793-1794).  The French monarchy had provided vital aid to the American Republic during the War for Independence.  In 1793, the French Republic wanted American aid in its war with Britain and Spain.  Many Americans took sides for or against the French Revolution.  Ambassador Edmond Genet arrived in search of aid.  Before presenting his credentials to the American government and in defiance of a recent Neutrality Proclamation, he commissioned privateers to raid enemy shipping and recruited volunteers for an invasion of Spanish Florida.  Talking to Genet didn’t work.  Washington, supported by both Hamilton and Jefferson, demanded France recall its ambassador.  Which they did, planning to guillotine him.

The XYZ Affair (1797-1798).  Recalling Genet did nothing to solve the growing Franco-American conflict.  President John Adams sent off a delegation to negotiate with the French.  Upon arrival, various French diplomats demanded bribes before negotiations could begin.  Most of the Americans went home in a huff.  The Adams administration then published the reports of the delegation, with the names of French diplomats replaced by the letters X, Y, and Z.  Many Americans became yet more hostile to France and the Adams Administration pushed through more military spending.  A naval “Quasi War” with France began.  However, Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans continued to favor the French Revolution and equated the Federalists with the old order.

The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798-1800).  The very divisive responses to the French Revolution and to relations with France embittered political debate.  The Adams Administration pushed through four Alien and Sedition Acts.  These extended the time to earn citizenship from 5 years to 14 years, allowed the government expel “dangerous” non-citizens, and allowed prosecution of those who made false statements that were critical of the government.  Under the guise of national security, the Federalists used the new laws in overtly political ways by prosecuting Democratic-Republican journalists, and by what amounted to future voter suppression.  (Many immigrants supported Jefferson’s party.)  Democrats attacked the Sedition law by invoking the First Amendment.  The reaction against the Alien and Sedition Acts helped spark the election of Jefferson as President in 1800.

[1] Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: The Crises of the 1790s and the Birth of American Nationalism (2017).

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My Weekly Reader 20 June 2019.

If you don’t like the Donald Trump Presidency, then there are some questions you need to address.  First, is Trump what the Brits call a “one off,” or is he the leading edge of a new wave in American politics?[1]  Second, what led to Trump’s election?  No, it wasn’t the Russians.  No, it wasn’t Hillary Clinton’s incompetence as a politician.  Both are real, but the decisive factors lay elsewhere.  On the one hand, Donald Trump decided to target the grievances of white, working-class men.  On the other hand, Donald Trump decided to run as a Republican, rather than in his natural home as a Democrat.  Like “Bud” White, “he’s not as stupid as he seems.”

The grievances of white working-class men are real.  Once upon a time, they were the mainstays of the “New Deal Coalition” that put Democrats into the White House from 1932 to 1952, from 1960 to 1968, and from 1976 to 1980, along with various majorities in Congress.  Unionized working-class jobs gave blue-collar workers middle-class incomes.  Then they fell by the wayside for complex reasons: mostly mechanization, but also the two successive oil “shocks” of the 1970s, organized labor’s attack on struggling employers in the 1970s, foreign competition, and ideological shifts in the two major parties.  Then, in the 1990s, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) under favorable terms compounded the problems of American industry.

As a result, men’s industrial employment declined, new jobs shifted to other geographic areas;[2] new jobs required “college” rather than “vocational” education; and the social world of the “left behind” disintegrated (single motherhood, alcohol and drug use, general demoralization).[3]

No one in either party had bothered to address those grievances.  The suburban base of the Republicans lives in blue oxford-cloth shirts and Dockers (or the female equivalent).  The Democrats have embraced “identity politics,” which excludes the identity of the white working class.  These are “post-industrial” societies.

As a result Trump’s campaign could drag into the ranks of the Republicans a bunch of normally Democratic voters or non-voters.  The opened the possibility of a Republican presidential victory that must have seemed far-fetched if any of the other munchkins running for the nomination won in the primaries.  Republicans lined up behind Trump and they will do so again in 2020.  They get to pack the federal courts for the lifetime of the appointees.  They get to stall and roll-back the imperial decrees of Barack Obama.

Are we—as a country—better for it?

[1] That’s a disturbing thought.  In twenty years we could be talking about John Carpenter’s “Trump Tower: Power Outage.”  In 2025, radical environmentalists (but I repeat myself) sabotage the federally-mandated coal-fired generating plants that power New York City.  Suddenly, the nightlight of the city-that-never-sleeps go dark.  The elevators (and escalators) and AC and cable-television stop working.  Chaos breaks out in the streets below, but atop Trump Tower a “celebrity roast” of former members of the Trump Administration is underway.  Comments by Jim Mattis, Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Hope Hicks, Sarah Saunders, Jim Comey, Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, etc.  I suppose the deranged killer haunting Trump Tower could wear a Robert Mueller hockey mask.

[2] Try selling your house if you live in Erie, PA.

[3] See: Isabel Sawhill, The Forgotten Americans (2019) and Oren Cass, The Once and Future Worker (2019).  If this is what happened to white Americans, then what are we to make of the impact of “liberal paternalism” on African-Americans since the 1960s?

My Weekly Reader 3 June 2019.

After the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, the Revolutionary War finally ended.  It had been a long war and a hard war.  The weary nation returned to peace.

Actually, that’s not what happened.  After Yorktown, war continued in the South and on the frontier.  The war on the frontier is particularly badly understood.[1]  Now, however, the war in the South can be better understood thanks to John Buchanan.[2]

Buchanan takes up his story well before Yorktown,  Horatio Gates, the “hero of Saratoga,” led the Army in the South to disaster at Camden (August 1780).  George Washington sent Nathaniel Greene[3] to clean up the mess.  He gave him a free hand and the assistance of Daniel Morgan.  Greene and Morgan rallied what troops they could—a core of “Continentals,” a fluctuating number of state militia, and a swarm of irregulars—and began a war of attrition.  Worn down by small defeats and Pyrrhic victories, the British commander Lord Cornwallis made fatal errors.  In April 1781, he divided his forces and led one element north toward Virginia.  The rest stayed in the South to try to hold what the British had won.

Rather than follow Cornwallis northward, Greene targeted the smaller force left behind.  Between May 1781 and December 1782, Greene carried on his earlier approach to fighting the British.  He achieved much the same result.  Small defeats and Pyrrhic victories wore down the British forces.  In the end, their main forces fell back on the heavily fortified ports of Savannah and Charleston.  Here they held out until July and December 1782 respectively.

The Royal Navy had controlled the seas since the beginning of the Revolution, with the sole—catastrophic—exception of the period around the siege at Yorktown.  Had the British won the “Battle of the Capes” against the French (September 1781), then Cornwallis could have been reinforced and re-supplied.  The British would have controlled New York, the Chesapeake, Charleston, and Savannah.  Those positions could not have been taken by siege.  The bargaining for a peace treaty might have been less favorable for the Americans.

With the British confined to coastal enclaves, the main effort of the war in the South became a gory combination of civil war and race war.  Patriots and Tories fought each other with a ferocity not limited to the battlefield.  Pro-British Indians raided the frontier and the Patriots struck back in their accustomed manner by burning villages, storehouses of food, and crops in the field in order to drive their enemy far away.  African-American slaves fled to the British lines, even though savagely punished when captured in flight.  One Patriot commander later recalled the Revolution in the South Carolina Upcountry: “in no part of the South was the war fought with such asperity as in this quarter. It often sank into barbarity.”

None of this was decisive.  Yorktown had led to the opening of peace negotiations.

Over the longer term, the civil war and race war in the South may have contributed to that culture of violence that long marked the South.[4]

[1] Still, see Glenn Williams, The Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois (2006), for a skillful introduction.  See also: “Oliver Wiswell” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/07/27/oliver-wiswell/

[2] John Buchanan, The Road to Charleston (2019).

[3] Greene was a 38 year-old quick-learner.  His political sympathies had led him to abandon Quakerism for war.  Between 1775 and 1777, the British had helped along his learning with a bunch of hard lessons.  He profited greatly from them.

[4] See: Fox Butterfield, All God’s Children (1996).

The Boston Massacre.

In 1768, the British government sent army troops to Boston, Massachusetts, to support the civil authorities in enforcing unpopular new laws.  The troops were equally unpopular as the laws.  On 5 March 1770, a crowd harassed a lone British sentry posted in the street before Boston’s Old State House.  An officer brought other soldiers to his support.  The crowd grew in size and emotional mobilization.  Long story short: the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five.  We remember this tragedy as “The Boston Massacre.”

The bloody events came at a moment of intense political polarization in Massachusetts.  The political middle ground had disappeared as the people of Massachusetts divided into a large majority opposed to the policies of the Crown and a minority who supported those policies.  By the end of March, the British soldiers and four civilian employees of the Customs House—who were alleged to have fired into the crowd from the windows of the building—were indicted for murder.

A pamphlet campaign—part of the larger pamphlet war that preceded the American Revolution—told strikingly different stories about the Boston Massacre.  That media war was full of curiosities.  For example, one of the most inflammatory—and untrue—portrayals of the events came in an illustration by Henry Pelham.  The illustration showed the British officer ordering his men to fire into the crowd and a musket fired from a window.  Paul Revere copied that illustration and presented it as his own.  Pelham himself turned into a Loyalist who left Boston with the British troops and the other Loyalists in March 1776.

John Adams, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and future President of the United States, defended the British soldiers when they were tried for murder.  Adams argued that the soldiers had the right to fight to defend themselves against the mob.  If any of the soldiers were provoked but not actually in danger, then they were guilty of manslaughter.  His argument persuaded the jury.  The officer commanding and six of his men were acquitted; two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter.  They escaped the death penalty by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e. they could read and write, which was enough to escape the gallows in literate-deficient colonial America.)  Instead, they were branded.  On the thumb.

The four civilians who were alleged to have fired from within the building were tried later.  All were acquitted and the man who had testified against them was later convicted of perjury.

In retrospect, Adams concluded that “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers[1] or Witches[2] anciently.”

I butcher History in this fashion because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently analogized his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation to John Adams’ defending the British soldiers.[3]    The related analogies will suggest themselves.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

[3] Katie Benner, “Rosenstein Answers Critics In an Impassioned Speech,” NYT, 27 April 2019.

My Weekly Reader 8 February 2019.

Although Henry Lee III (1756-1818) was connected to a host of great landowners and political leaders of the Virginia Tidewater, read a great deal as a young man, and attended Princeton, he seems to have been about half horse: Lee loved to ride and was a superb horseman.[1]  Naturally, he joined the cavalry of the Continental Army in 1776.  In April 1778, Lee gained command of “Lee’s Legion,” a mixed force of infantry and cavalry employed in harassing British lines of communication and supply in New Jersey and New York.  He won several small-scale victories.  In September 1778, Lee ambushed and annihilated a smaller force of Hessians at the Battle of Edgar’s Lane; in August 1779 he commanded a successful raid on a British fort at Paulus Hook, New Jersey.

When the British shifted their main effort to the Carolinas in 1780, Lee’s Legion rode south.  Here Lee had much greater scope for the cut-and-thrust type of war to which he was so well suited.  The British offensive began well, with the capture of Charleston, South Carolina (and a large force of American forces ordered to hold an indefensible position) in May 1780, and then a crushing defeat of the American army at Camden in August 1780.  The British now hoped to raise a large force of American volunteers from among the Loyalists who had been terrorized into submission for the past two years.  A march by British troops through the Carolinas would show their command of the region.  Large numbers of Loyalists began to be recruited in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina.  Along the way, small forts would guard lines of supply and provide rallying-points for Loyalists.  In February 1781, Lee’s Legion greatly discouraged the Loyalists with a surprise attack on Loyalist militia in North Carolina.[2]  In March 1781, the British won a costly victory over a larger American army at Guilford Court House.  The British commander, Lord Cornwallis, then divided his army.  He led most of them toward Wilmington, North Carolina in search of supplies.  The rest, mostly Loyalist troops, he left in South Carolina under the command of Lord Rawdon.

Rather than follow Cornwallis north, the Americans began to re-conquer South Carolina.  Lee’s Legion played an important part in this campaign.  Although Rawdon won a victory at Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781, he soon found his lines of supply under heavy attack by Lee and by partisans under Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter.  In May 1781 a series of smaller British posts fell to Lee and the others.  Only Ninety-Six, stubbornly defended by Loyalist troops during May and June, defied the Patriot forces.  Rawdon had little choice to fall back to Camden, and then toward the coast.  In September 1781, Lee’s Legion fought with the rest of the American army at Eutaw Springs, where it suffered another defeat at the hands of a smaller British force.  But then news came of the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.

Lee had a fitful postwar political career as a devoted Federalist.  (He’s the one who described Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”)  In contrast, the management of his business affairs failed to command from him the same attention as had his military operations.  He went bankrupt, spent a year in debtors prison, and wandered the Caribbean for a time before returning to die in Virginia.

His son, Robert Edward Lee, commanded the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] There is a new biography by Ryan Cole, Light-Horse Harry Lee (2019).

[2] Commonly known as the “Pyle Massacre.”

My Weekly Reader 6 February 2019.

When the War of the American Revolution began, the rebellious colonies had no real army with which to fight it.  The colonists had long relied up militias made up of part-time soldiers.  For the most part, these militias had been dedicated to local defense against Indian attacks.  The militia units from the frontiers had more experience than did the militias from the eastern territories.  They all lacked training, discipline, equipment, and—often—competent officers.

Still, a bunch of them had “seen the elephant” up close.  George Washington had a couple of experiences in the back-country, then had a memorable experience with General Edward Braddock’s catastrophic attempt to capture Fort Duquesne.  Daniel Morgan (1736-1802) had been a teamster—no very exalted position–on that expedition.[1]  Morgan differed greatly from Washington.  He was a poor-boy immigrant from New Jersey to the Shenandoah Valley.  He arrived with nothing but muscle-power, but there was great need of that on the 18th Century frontier.  He began to accumulate property: first a team of horses, then a farm, and later slaves.  Braddock’s expedition offered him his first taste of war.  It left him unimpressed with British military leadership and also deeply bitter toward British rule after he was severely flogged for smacking one of his officers.  Soon, Morgan became an officer in the Virginia militia and experienced at war with the Indians.

Morgan led a company of Virginia riflemen on Benedict Arnold’s expedition through the wilds of Maine to capture Quebec.[2]  The effort failed and many American soldiers were captured, Morgan among them.  He spent a year in British captivity before being paroled.  Upon his release in early 1777, George Washington promoted Morgan to colonel in the Continental Army and told him to raise a regiment of frontier riflemen.  Morgan led the regiment in the campaign that ended with the surrender of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga (1777).  He and his men passed from this triumph to disaster in the Philadelphia campaign and wintered in Valley Forge (1777-1778).  In 1779, fed up with Congress and ts mismanagement of the army, Morgan stormed off in a huff to retirement.

Then Horatio Gates, who had commanded at Saratoga, took charge in the South.  Morgan initially declined the offer of a command.  When Gates led the army to disaster at Camden (1780), however, Morgan returned to service.  The new commander, Nathaniel Greene, put Morgan in command of a small unit.  His mission was to avoid a battle while harassing the British lines of communication.  In January 1781, Morgan disobeyed the order to avoid battle by setting a trap for a British light force under Banastre Tarleton.  The two forces collided at a pasture called the Cowpens in South Carolina on 17 January 1781.  Morgan’s adept handling of his militia led to a brilliant, small-scale victory.  The American victory had a disproportionate effect because Tarleton’s force—virtually annihilated in the fight—included much of the British light infantry.  This hampered Lord Cornwallis going forward in the Southern campaign.  It also set a pattern for a campaign of attrition that would end at Yorktown.

Plagued with ills, Morgan left the army soon after Cowpens.

[1] Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (1961) is still the best biography.

[2] See Kenneth Roberts, Arundel (1936).

My Weekly Reader 19 December 2018.

What we think of as the British Empire of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries did not yet exist in 1763.  It was aborning, however.  Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years War (1756-1763).  Britain then took possession of French North America between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  British North Americans saw their long-standing hopes of expanding beyond the Appalachian Mountains fulfilled.  These hopes failed at first.  The British Empire’s managers in London saw themselves juggling a diverse American community.   British “America” contained largely Protestants, mostly of Anglo-descent; Canada contained Catholic former French subjects; and in the Wilderness, the Native Americans offered access to the riches of the fur trade.  Containing the British North Americans offered the best path to peace and prosperity, especially after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763) showed how difficult it might be to conquer the Native Americans.

The conflict crystalized in two remarkable figures.[1]  George Croghan (1718-1782), an Irish immigrant fur trader and land speculator, had become the vastly influential deputy to Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  James Smith (1737-1813), a Pennsylvania farmer, had been an Indian fighter and then became  a charismatic figure.  Both had lived among the Indians, and knew their languages and culture.  Their fundamental dispute gave human faces to the essential difference between the Anglo-American colonists and the British government.  Croghan saw the path to prosperity for himself and for the Empire running through peaceful trade with the Indians.  Smith saw the path running through driving away the Indians and expanding farming settlements.

To seal the deal with the Native Americans, in February 1765 the British dispatched a huge column of gifts to a peace treaty ceremony with Pontiac in the Ohio country.  Croghan added in many of his own trade goods from a desire to revive trade after the war and Pontiac’s Rebellion.  The Pennsylvania settlers[2] saw the presents—including rum and gunpowder–as the basest form of appeasement and as likely to provoke another Indian war as to forestall one.

Smith formed many of the settlers into an impromptu militia called “The Black Boys” after their use of bunt cork to disguise their faces.  The “Black Boys” tried to stop the caravans.  The 42nd Highlanders provided the hard core of the British escort, so the rebel settlers tended to steer around them.[3]  For a time, the rebels even blockaded Fort Loudon.  The British, short of supplies, abandoned the fort in November 1765.  Then peace with the Indians came and the “Black Boys Rebellion” died down.

In “Patriot,” Mel Gibson’s character announces that “the [coming] war [with England] will be fought not on the frontier or on some distant battle-field, but here among us…”  In truth, it was fought everywhere.  The wars on the frontier played a vital role in determining the American victory.  However, the frontier fights began well ahead of the formal “Revolution.”

[1] What follows is a part of the story told by Patrick Spero, Frontier Rebels: The Fight for Independence in the American West, 1765-1776 (2018).

[2] Now in central Pennsylvania near Gettysburg, but then the far West.

[3] The 42nd had seen a good deal of service in North America, having fought at the first—disastrous—and second battles of Fort Ticonderoga, in the siege of Montreal, and in the bloody Indian fight at Bushy Run during Pontiac’s Rebellion.