America’s move from resistance to independence
Books | A historical overview of the beginnings of a free nation
by Thomas S. Kidd
Posted 4/25/20, 12:34 pm
I enjoy pointing WORLD readers to three good choices we now have in overall American history books. Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States and Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story both offer coherent narratives that recognize American exceptionalism and do not bow to liberal pressure groups that demand identity politics. My gold medal goes to Thomas S. Kidd’s American History. Baylor University history professor Kidd, who was WORLD’s religion correspondent from 2012 to 2014, recognizes the Christian base of the American experience but doesn’t pretend to have more knowledge than we have regarding God’s providential action. Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of B&H Academic. American History shared the top spot as WORLD’s 2019 Book of the Year in the History category. —Marvin Olasky
Even for those who had concluded that a major war was at hand, declaring independence remained a fearsome prospect. Although the colonies were more diverse than Britain, white colonists largely considered themselves to be British. Most spoke English and understood history, politics, religion, and literature from a British perspective. Particularly outside of New England, great numbers of Americans had received baptism in the Church of England and associated their rituals of birth, marriage, and death with that denomination. Anglicans prayed for the king as part of their regular Sunday services. Regardless of the troubles over taxes, many merchants’ and politicians’ fortunes were tied directly to Britain. It was not easy culturally, politically, or financially to consider severing that tie with the home country.
The turning point in shifting America’s discussion from resistance to independence was the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in early 1776. This best-selling pamphlet became arguably the most important political essay in American history. Few publications have ever so deeply influenced the course of debate on such a momentous issue as independence. In gripping prose, Paine made the case for rejecting King George III and launching a new nation. Few had ever dared to speak contemptuously of the king in this deferential society, but Paine called him the “Royal Brute of Great Britain.” Paine would later become known as the most notorious anti-Christian skeptic in America, but Common Sense hinged on the idea that monarchy had never been God’s will. Paine directed colonists to 1 Samuel 8, where God had tried to convince unruly Israel that they did not really want a king, for a king would abuse them. Paine concluded that monarchy was a kind of political original sin. Now Americans had a chance to “begin the world over again.” George Washington noted in April 1776 that, based on correspondence he was receiving from Virginia, “Common Sense is working a powerful change” in the minds of many.
Across America, dozens of towns and entire colonies began declaring themselves independent from Britain in the spring and summer of 1776. In June the Continental Congress formally took up the question of independence themselves. Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee moved that the “United Colonies” declare themselves to be “free and independent states.” But Congress still needed another month to deliberate this epochal move. Finally, on July 2, they approved Lee’s motion. It was fifteen months since the battles of Lexington and Concord had happened, showing just how hard it had been for colonists to part ways with the mother country. Fighting against the fearsome British military was one thing; independence was another.
John Adams thought July 2 should be remembered as America’s national day of independence. Instead, we remember July 4, the day Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was the lead author of the Declaration, working with a committee that included Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The Congress also edited the Declaration, deleting an awkward section in which Jefferson blamed the British government for forcing slavery in the colonies and for vetoing colonial efforts to limit the slave trade. The Declaration still made an oblique reference to slavery, in its complaint that the king had “excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” This was a reference to an offer made in late 1775 by Virginia’s royal governor, who promised freedom to any slave or indentured servant who agreed to serve in the British army against the patriots. Nothing the British could have done in the South would have upset colonial slave owners more than this proclamation. The anger it generated was a critical step toward independence, even before Paine published Common Sense.
The Declaration of Independence came from a classic American combination of sources: “Enlightenment” rationalism, John Locke’s political ideas, classical republicanism, and the proposition that our rights come from God. The critical passage began in the second paragraph, which asserted the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here we see the action of God in creating people and endowing them with basic rights. No government or ruler could rightly deprive people of those rights because of our equal standing before God. Locke had identified life, liberty, and property as the basic rights government was meant to protect, but “pursuit of happiness” seemed to include more than just the acquisition of property. If there was any doubt about the British administration’s intentions in the tax programs, the Declaration asserted (in a line illustrating classical republicanism’s fear of the loss of liberty) that they evinced “a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism.”
Jefferson then included a lengthy list of the king’s violations of the colonists’ rights. Among them were depriving the colonists of their right to make laws for themselves, keeping a standing army and forcing the colonists to house British soldiers, and “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” Expressing bitterness over the British alliance with many Indians, the Declaration lamented that the king had “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The Declaration concluded by committing to “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” and mutually pledging to one another “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The idea that “all men are created equal” has echoed down through American history, functioning as an American creed. Yet from the day Congress adopted the Declaration, people have questioned what it means and what “equality” requires. Soldier and pastor Lemuel Haynes and other African Americans were among the first to question how America could accept slavery if all men were created equal. (Most people would have agreed that this notion of equality by creation applied to all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, since most accepted the idea of a single origin point of humanity, typically the creation of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.) Women also began to wonder if they did not somehow fit into this equation, since God had created both male and female in his image. But there were no easy answers to these questions since chattel slavery and the legal advantages of men over women were deeply rooted in American society. Yet the Declaration of Independence had set a clear standard for human equality, based on our common creation by God. Americans would spend much of their subsequent history fleshing out the implications of equality by creation. In the short term, however, they had a war against Britain to fight and a new nation to form.
The American Revolution and the Constitution
Declaring independence hardly answered the question of how Americans would fight a war against arguably the most powerful military on earth. A zeal for liberty fired many patriots to make great sacrifices. But as the war wore on, much of the zeal faded in the face of interminable conflict. It was a story common to many wars: regular soldiers ended up carrying the burden handed them by legislators and an exuberant populace. George Washington begged Congress repeatedly to provide the kinds of supplies and munitions required by the Continental Army. But Congress had created a national government that intentionally reserved most powers to the states, including the power to tax. Thus, all Congress could do was request more funding from the states. Such support was not usually forthcoming from the cash-strapped state legislatures.
Writing from the army’s infamous winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in December 1777, Washington bluntly informed Congress that the army had only three options left, given their meager supplies. They could starve, dissolve, or disperse. Many did starve, desert, and die of disease that winter. Many regarded the winter encampment of 1779–1780 at Morristown, New Jersey, as even worse than Valley Forge, though. One soldier there recalled being reduced to eating birch bark from a tree as his only solid “food” for four days. Some of the men cooked and ate their shoes. Some of the officers did the same to a pet dog. Well-meaning patriotism was not enough to get the men through this war. Washington and key aides such as Alexander Hamilton would remember those awful winters when they joined the Philadelphia assembly considering a new, more powerful constitution in 1787.
Fighting the Revolution
British leaders went into the war assuming they could defeat the patriots with relative ease. The numbers going into the war suggested they were right. Britain had a much larger population and manufacturing base and a seasoned army and navy on which to draw. But the British failed to account for distinctive factors involved with fighting the war in America. One was the distance across the Atlantic and the vastness of eastern North America. America’s size and its distance from Britain caused innumerable logistical problems for the British army in communications and the movement of troops and supplies. Second, and most critically, was that America had no “vital center” that George Washington could not afford to lose. Boston was already occupied at the start of the war, and during the revolution most major East Coast cities, including New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia; Charleston; and Savannah, Georgia, fell to the British. When the British captured a major city, the patriot army would retreat or move elsewhere, making it difficult for the British to achieve a definitive victory.
America was not England (with London) or France (with Paris). Over time Washington realized that the survival of the Continental Army should be his top goal and the formula for winning the war. All those seaboard cities fell in America, yet the Continental Army carried on, often by moving into backcountry areas that proved impossible for the British to control. Ninety percent of Americans lived in the backcountry, not in urban areas. In the backcountry South the British would ultimately lose the Revolutionary War. The British always hoped large numbers of colonists would remain loyal to the empire, with increasing numbers coming to their side in the wake of patriot defeats. Some 20 percent of the active American population did remain Loyalists, but their numbers were never as great as British officials had believed might come to their aid.
For his part Washington battled throughout the revolution to create and sustain a professional army. Most Americans’ military experience came from serving in the British army itself in earlier wars or, more commonly, serving in the ragtag state militias. Washington struggled to enlist enough men in the Continental Army and to retain them for multiple terms of service. He barked at governors who offered to give him more militiamen, whom Washington regarded as poorly trained and ungovernable. The militias had a reputation for running away when the shooting started. All soldiers who served for any length of time were likely to encounter supply problems or epidemic disease such as smallpox. Washington, who had survived a case of smallpox as a teenager, wrote that he had more to dread from that disease “than from the sword of the enemy.” He mandated inoculation against the disease. In a few cases inoculation caused full-blown bouts of smallpox, but overall Washington’s campaign against the disease seems to have been a great help to the American cause.
African Americans, on balance, had more sympathy for the British side of the war. This was partly because of the impression, fostered by the royal Virginia governor’s offer of freedom in 1775, that the British were friendlier to the plight of slaves. Some slaves relished running away from their patriot masters and taking up arms against them. But like the minister and soldier Lemuel Haynes, a number of African Americans, especially in New England, did enlist on the American side of the war. Massachusetts and Rhode Island both created all-black units to serve in the Continental Army. Altogether some 5,000 African Americans worked as soldiers on the American side of the war. Twice that many free blacks and slaves, mostly from the South, served on the British side.
The war touched many reluctant Native Americans as well, many of whom aspired to stay out of the conflict at its outset. But the British and patriots both recruited Native Americans to fight on their side. Most Indians who entered the war such as the formidable Cherokees in the South allied with the British. Some groups, like the Iroquois League, fractured over the conflict, with the Senecas, Mohawks, and Cayugas supporting the British, and the Oneidas and Tuscaroras supporting the patriots. The Onondagas tried to maintain neutrality. But when word spread that the Onondagas might strike an alliance with the British, Washington sent General John Sullivan on a scorched-earth expedition in New York. Washington told Sullivan that the goal was the “total destruction and devastation” of hostile Iroquois villages. The patriot forces destroyed forty Onondaga and Seneca villages, burning crops and food stores and cutting down fruit trees. The war only accelerated the cycle of destruction for Native Americans, many of whom had allied with the French in the Seven Years’ War, and now with the British in the American Revolution. They had good reasons to do so, but the failed choices boded ill for their future in an independent United States.
Thomas S. Kidd
Thomas is a distinguished professor of history and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is a former WORLD religion correspondent.