Donald Rumsfeld Was More Right than Wrong About the American Revolution and Its Aftermath





Mr. Fleming is the author of Liberty! The American Revolution and many other books on the War for Independence. He is a member of the board of directors of History News Network.

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Click here for a response by Mary Beth Norton.

In the July 19 New York Times Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton scathingly rebuked Donald Rumsfeld for comparing unrest in Iraq with unrest in United States at the close of the American Revolution. She sneered at his claim that "roving loyalists" still resisted the new government, and looting and burning roiled the nation. I have long been an admirer of Ms. Norton's work. She is the foremost authority on woman's history in the colonial and Revolutionary era. Her recent revisionist book on the Salem Witch Trials consigns to history's dumpster previous versions of that tragedy. But I disagree with her attempt to paint the Defense Secretary as a complete ignoramus. Although Rumsfeld overstated the case -- he was making an offhand remark, not teaching American History 101-- the American Revolution was a war with a turbulent postscript.

Early in 1783, some six months before the peace treaty was ratified, the officers of the American Army, infuriated by Congress's refusal to honor its promise to give them half pay for life, circulated a series of incendiary appeals throughout their Newburgh, N.Y. winter camp, urging a march on the American capital, Philadelphia, to get their just deserts. Only desperate pleas by George Washington and a hasty compromise by Congress prevented an upheaval that would have unraveled the Revolution.

In June of that same victorious year, Congress fled Philadelphia for the quieter precincts of Princeton, New Jersey, when angry soldiers surrounded Independence Hall and demanded back pay or else. Imagine how contemporary Americans would react, if today's Congress ingloriously retreated before this show of force. Wouldn't most people think the federal government had collapsed?

A year earlier, in 1782, mutinous American troops in South Carolina conspired to seize General Nathanael Greene, commander of the Southern army, and hand him over to the British. The plot was discovered just in time and the ringleader executed. This huggermugger took place a year after the decisive American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, which effectively ended the military side of the struggle.

If we go back to 1780-81, the fourth and fifth years of independence, when one might assume that the American government had won the loyalty of its soldiers and citizens, we find even more unrest. In May 1781, the Pennsylvania brigade, ordered to Virginia to resist a British invasion, mutinied. They had previously mutinied in January but negotiations had resolved that crisis without bloodshed. This time their commander, General Anthony Wayne, hauled the ringleaders out of the ranks, condemned them in a drumhead court-martial, and executed six of them on the spot, with the firing squad standing at point blank range. Blood and brains were scattered over the landscape. Wayne paraded the rest of the brigade past the mutilated corpses and the march to Virginia and the climactic victory at Yorktown began.

Earlier in 1781, the New Jersey brigade also mutinied. George Washington reacted with similar severity. Loyal troops were rushed to the encampment, three ringleaders were seized, tried and condemned to death on the spot. Two were executed by a firing squad, a third pardoned.

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In September 1781, on the very eve of Yorktown, loyalist guerilla leader David Fanning and 950 followers descended on Hillsboro, N.C. and captured the state's governor, his council, and two hundred other prisoners, with the loss of only one man wounded. Pursued by 400 American regulars, Fanning turned and routed them in a pitched battle. When a prominent North Carolina rebel publicly condemned Fanning, the guerilla leader killed him and looted and burned his plantation.

In June of 1780, 31 men of the 1st New York Regiment tried to march home without leave from Fort Stanwix in New York's Mohawk Valley. A lieutenant pursued them with a band of Oneida Indians who supported the American cause. They shot 13 of the mutineers dead and captured the rest. It was the only time in the history of the American army that an officer used Indians to kill American soldiers.

American commanders were dealing with an army disillusioned by a government that failed to pay its soldiers or provide them with adequate food and clothing.

By 1786, three years after the treaty of peace, the fecklessness of the federal Congress had increased exponentially. No one had any respect for it. Often the mediocre politicians the states sent to represent them failed to show up and Congress did not have enough delegates to constitute a quorum. Meanwhile, a postwar depression paralyzed the national economy, which had taken a fearful beating from the British blockade during the war. In this atmosphere, angry farmers in western Massachusetts and Connecticut, led by a Revolutionary War veteran named Daniel Shays, launched a poor man's revolution.

Ms. Norton pooh-poohs this upheaval but it was not a minor matter to the Americans of the time. Similar poor vs. rich unrest simmered in the western counties of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The feckless federal government could not even muster a company of soldiers to resist Shays's mob, which was dispersed by an army financed by wealthy men in eastern Massachusetts.

No wonder virtually every delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention was convinced the nation was in a state of alarming crisis and imminent dissolution.

Even after a new more powerful federal government began functioning in 1789, with George Washington as its president, there were serious challenges to its authority. In 1794 the farmers of western Pennsylvania rebelled against a tax on whiskey, assaulted federal officials, and talked about setting up an independent government. Washington personally took charge of a swiftly raised army that crushed the rebels with a minimum of bloodshed. On the frontier, Indians financed and armed by the British in Canada routed an American army in 1791 and spread havoc among western settlers until they were decisively defeated by another army led by the redoubtable Anthony Wayne in 1794.

All in all, Secretary Rumsfeld's description of a restless, violent Revolutionary era America is not as farfetched as Mary Beth Norton maintains. Revolutionary situations tend to spawn such disorder in any time or place, especially when people sense a government is malfunctioning or defunct, as in Iraq.

Let me add that I share Ms. Norton's dislike of Donald Rumsfeld; he tends to be arrogant and needlessly flippant. But the secretary's personal failings should not deter us from supporting the strategy that America is pursuing in Iraq. In essence, it seeks to confront the enemy in his bailiwick, rather than wait passively for him to attack us on our soil. This "forward" strategy won the Cold War. It is basic to our war on terrorism. If we abandon the initiative and allow the hostile remnant of a discredited regime to intimidate us in Iraq, we are on the road to disaster.

Response by Mary Beth Norton

I stand by my op ed essay. The original draft did contain a sentence (removed for space reasons by the Times editors) about how Shays's Rebellion frightened the nation's leaders into drafting and then supporting the Constitution. I do not dispute Tom Fleming's "facts"--although I would point out that both Secretary Rumsfeld's remarks and therefore my essay explicitly referred to events during the postwar era (that is, post-1783). By contrast, most of Fleming's examples of chaos come from the period before independence was won, as he himself admits. Thus they are at least partly irrelevant to the case I was making, although of course people in the 1780s would have remembered those incidents. Further, he does not defend Mr. Rumsfeld's own "historical" examples, because they are in fact indefensible. "Roving loyalists" opposing the new government? (There were none, and in my doctoral dissertation in 1969 I explored precisely why there were none.) A postwar crime wave of theft and looting? Both are chimerical.

I would also point out that Secretary Rumsfeld did not make a single "offhand remark" about this analogy, as Fleming suggests. Instead, repeatedly and in a number of different settings (including his regular press briefings), starting in late May in a meeting with the Blackstone group, he developed his thesis at considerable length. Indeed, one reporter--George Edmonson of Cox News Service--observed in a story datelined Washington, July 2, that "As Donald Rumsfeld began to expound recently on the situation in Iraq, he seemed to change from defense secretary to history teacher." As I said in the op ed essay, as someone who has written and taught about this period for more than three decades, I felt compelled to comment on the validity of the "history lesson" Mr. Rumsfeld was offering.

As I observed in the essay, my point was not that the Confederation government was "perfect or even adequate." Tom Fleming is right that the national government was something of a mess. But I will insert here another sentence from my original draft excised for space reasons by the Times editors: "It's important not to overlook the great accomplishment of the Confederation government--the organization of the United States's first empire, its so-called Northwest Territory (now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin), which established the principle under which later territories entered the union on an equal basis with earlier states." A completely non-functioning government (of the kind Fleming describes) could not have adopted such a far-reaching measure, one the nation continued to follow for many years thereafter.

The point of my essay was that the analogy does not work at its most fundamental level, and nothing in Fleming's response convinces me otherwise. Indeed, he does not even address my basic argument.

To repeat: Iraq lost. The revolutionary states won. Does Tom Fleming really think that makes no difference to the postwar era? If so, he should argue that point.

There was no American nation before the Revolution; the war created the nation. The states continued to function (though not always well) throughout the wartime and postwar periods. Iraq's highly centralized, existing national regime has now collapsed. There were no local or regional authorities in Iraq that continue to function. That makes no difference in the postwar era? I'd like Tom Fleming to tell me why.

The U.S. in 1783 had a long tradition of civil society. Under Saddam, civil society in Iraq has been ruthlessly suppressed for decades. Again: is Tom Fleming seriously contending that that makes no difference in the postwar era?

I rest my case, but cannot resist adding one more observation. The response to the op ed piece has been extraordinarily positive. I have been amazed, in fact, that I have had close to 80 email messages or phone calls about it, a number from other historians of the era. Of all those people, just one previously offered even a minor criticism. That doesn't mean my friend Tom Fleming has to agree with me, of course. But many others--at least those who have gone to the trouble of contacting me--seem to do so.


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Dave Thomas - 8/9/2003

The Continental congress was so ineffective and our confederation so weak that the Prime Minister of Great Britain welcomed the defeat in the Revolution. The PM now felt Britain could enjoy greater economic dominance of the colonies without having to bear the expense of ruler them or protecting them.

When George Washington hosted a gathering at Mount Vernon that called for the Annaopolis convention he thought his efforts in the Revolution were all for naught.

It is so depressing to read so many uninformed comments motivated by political opinion and ignorant of the historical record.

No matter how convenient or inconvenient it is for contemporary politics.

Mr. Fleming does an excellent job of pointing out historical facts that Mz. Norton's own excellent argument omitted.


Dave Thomas - 8/9/2003

The Continental congress was so ineffective and our confederation so weak that the Prime Minister of Great Britain welcomed the defeat in the Revolution. The PM now felt Britain could enjoy greater economic dominance of the colonies without having to bear the expense of ruler them or protecting them.

When George Washington hosted a gathering at Mount Vernon that called for the Annaopolis convention he thought his efforts in the Revolution were all for naught.

It is so depressing to read so many uninformed comments motivated by political opinion and ignorant of the historical record.

No matter how convenient or inconvenient it is for contemporary politics.

Mr. Fleming does an excellent job of pointing out historical facts that Mz. Norton's own excellent argument omitted.


Dave Thomas - 8/9/2003

He simply states his political opinion and adds little to the historical debate.


Will J. Richardson - 8/6/2003

Dear Mr. Moner,

Iraq is clearly a forward strategy in the world war on terrorists. The two main supporters of terrorist organizations are on the East and West borders of Iraq within easy striking distance of several divisions of U.S. troops supported by substantial and forward deployed air power. At the very least the projection of this military power to the very borders of Iran and Syria tends to deter their anti-U.S. actions and ambitions.


Homeydogg - 8/4/2003

Editor: THIS COMMENT HAS BEEN REMOVED. IT DOES NOT MEET HNN'S STANDARDS OF CIVIL DEBATE AS OUTLINED HERE:

http://hnn.us/articles/982.html#civil


Mike Riley - 8/1/2003

I appreciate the discussion of motive and comparison. I would like to see some further discussion of potential historical comparisons regarding WMD. Obviously any link between bin Lauden and Saddam is exceedingly weak, but without 9/11 would we have ever attacked Iraq? Certainly you could argue that Bush 43 always had it in the back of his mind. What if Saddam had disclosed all of the information required by the UN mandates but we had more solid proof of nuclear weapons?
If the economy improves and Bush's re-election looks secure, does he become more aggressive with North Korea and Iran, and do they recognize this as a risk? Would a terrorist attack intended to de-stabilize our recovering economy make them safer? Are there any historical comparisons? The so-called Japanese moderates in the 1930's don't seem to be a fair comparison when WMD is added to the equation.


Ronald Dale Karr - 8/1/2003

My point was that Hitler roughly had technological parity with the leading powers of the world in 1939 and some areas superiority. Saddam's military technology was at least 30-40 years behind that of the U.S. (Even the A-bomb is nearly 60 years old!).

Had he played his cards differently Hitler might have "won" WWII; Saddam was always doomed to defeat once the bombs started falling. The level of threat from the two was in no ways comparable.

"Saddam is responsilbe for a large number of deaths. It is true he is a piker compared to Hitler, Stalin Or Mao but we talking about quantity not quality. A muderous thug is a muderous thug whether it is one, ten , a thousand or a million people which he has killed."


On the contrary, I'd argue size does matter. To me, there's a big difference between someone who kills, say, 10 persons and one who kills 10 million. At least one hopes our foreign policy whould recognize the difference, unless we really do want to become the cops of the world, taking on every tin-horn dictator.

There may have been valid reasons for attacking Iraq, but they had nothing to do with far-fetched comparisons with Hitler. The world is a very, very different place than it was in 1939 or 1941.

And, by the way, Israel, not Iraq, has been the leading military power in the Middle East since at least 1967.


Gus Moner - 8/1/2003

"But the secretary's personal failings should not deter us from supporting the strategy that America is pursuing in Iraq. In essence, it seeks to confront the enemy in his bailiwick, rather than wait passively for him to attack us on our soil. This "forward" strategy won the Cold War. It is basic to our war on terrorism. If we abandon the initiative and allow the hostile remnant of a discredited regime to intimidate us in Iraq, we are on the road to disaster".

Mr. Fleming has cited many factual examples of random violence, revolt and some chaos during the War of Independence. Like Ms. Norton, I find the comparison rather short of the mark for the Iraqi situation, not least because most occurred during the war, as she noted. There was nothing comparable to Iraq in the 1780's and 1790's. In my class Messrs. Rumsfeld and Fleming get failing marks for their fanciful comparison.

Separately, I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Fleming’s parting comment, which caught my attention. In Iraq we are not confronting ‘the enemy in his bailiwick’. The enemy is al Qaeda, as I was led to believe after 9-11. At least it was till the US, led by Judeo-Christian fanatics, went and invaded Iraq.

Moreover, the ‘forward’ strategy he refers to in the Cold War was not that at all; rather, it was on the divisionary line, right on ours and the ‘enemy’ border, which, due to results from WWII, was Germany. There was no ‘forward’ strategy as such; we were merely defending established and recognised boundaries. It would be like defending the Rio Grande and calling that a forward strategy. Sorry Mr Fleming. It doesn't stick.

Woebegone and forgotten Afghanistan is the only forward strategy we really have going now against terrorism. In my opinion, Iraq was not our enemy but we made it such. We created a new front in a new war of conquest, occupation and regime change that is only now becoming clear, under the hysteria whipped up about WMD and phantasmagorical terrorist connections.

Iraq is totally unrelated to the war on terrorists. Moreover, we may have made many more enemies in that neighbourhood due to our flagrant violation of international law in attacking Iraq, and the subsequent increased suffering of the innocent Iraqi population, which had already borne the wicked Iraqi dictatorship for a quarter century.

Unfortunately for us all, the last sentence of his parting comment is true. If we “allow the hostile remnant of a discredited regime to intimidate us in Iraq, we are on the road to disaster”. Thus, the people of the USA and their armed forces are in the hot seat, by their government’s own doing, in Iraq.


Bob Greene - 8/1/2003

Of course there are differences between Hitler and Saddam. However the ones you sited were either irrelevent or inaccurate.
It is true the Germans were a year or so ahead of the British and much futher ahead of anyone else in jets. The HE-178 was the first jet to fly, it did so in 1939. The Brits followed in 1941. The first operational jet was the ME-262 which entered service in July of 1944. The British Meteor entered service in December of 1944. The Arado AR-234B , the worlds first jet bomber also entered service in late 1944. About 300 262's and a much smaller number of Arados and Meteors ever saw action. The main point is none of them had any effect on the war. While the 262s were initially very troublesom to the allies, new tactics,e.g. attacking them on takeoff where they were very vulnerable, offset their advantage. 120 of the 300 262s deployed were destroyed by the allies.
The Germans never had any serius Atomic bomb program. Heisenberg vastly miscalculated the size of a critical mass an atomic required and the program never went beyond the basic research level.
Saddam is responsilbe for a large number of deaths. It is true he is a piker compared to Hitler, Stalin Or Mao but we talking about quantity not quality. A muderous thug is a muderous thug whether it is one, ten , a thousand or a million people which he has killed. When that thug is the leader of a nation and when that nation is the most powerful in a region and when that thug displays a willingness to attack his neighbors then the world has a problem.
Maybe we should have called him a Hitler wannabe or a Hitler lite. The point is he was a problem that needed to be taken care of. We did so and I think history will judge us kindly on what we did


Ronald Dale Karr - 7/31/2003

Why is Saddam different from Hitler? Hitler was cruel, unstable, and totalitatian. So was Saddam. So where's the difference?

Hitler commanded one the world's greatest military machines, fully capable of taking on several of the world's other great powers simultanously. Saddam was at worst a regional threat. Hitler developed jet aircraft ahead of the U.S., Britain, and Russia; Saddam pinned his hopes on balsa-wood drones. Saddam dreamed of nuclear weapons; Hitler was well on his way to building one before the rest of the world had even heard of the idea. Saddam gassed a few thousand Kurds; Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews.

It took the U.s. and the U.K less than 6 weeks to smash Saddam; it took more than 6 years to defeat Hitler. Something like 250,000 Americans died in WWII, comared to less than 250 in Iraq.

In the end comparing Saddam to Hitler is like comparing a firecracker to a MOAB.

Now can you see the difference?


Joan Gundersen - 7/31/2003

If anything Norton did not point out ENOUGH of the problems with the Rumsfield analogy and Fleming defense. Fleming is equating mutinies among American troops with enemy guerilla activity. In fact, Fleming seems to conflate all forms of violence and protest before and after the Revolutionary War with enemy activity. There is a difference; the correct parallel to the mutinies of the Pennsylvania militia, etc. in Iraq would be if U.S. troops began to refuse orders and demand to be sent home. Fleming also underestimates the continuity of governance and law provided by functioning state governments. Not only does this provide a stability in the post-independence and post-war periods for the new American nation that is lacking in Iraq (where local and regional goverment also collapsed), but these governments included many who had been active in the pre-war period. Shay's rebellion was directed at actions by the Massachusetts state legislature, (not the whole new nation, although aimed at measures designed to pay off the Massachusetts debt incurred in fighting the war) and much of what the Shaysites did was to close down state courts and prevent forclosures. Again, the protests were relatively low in violence - more like mass demonstrations and actions of civil disobedience than with the bombings and sniper attacks of Iraq. Perhaps the problem here is that Rumsfeld doesn't see any difference between civil disobedience and guerrilla war. The frontier was chaotic and would remain so because Native peoples had their own agenda and did not stop fighting. Sure, British agents encouraged them, but the Indians had their own reasons for fighting and the frontier raids reflected those issues. Norton clearly has the best argument, and could have made it even stronger.

I also agree that much of what passes on HNN for "discussion" is personal invective and demonstrates a complete lack of logic. It is why I seldom read any of the comments.

Joan R. Gundersen


Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2003

I agree with everything except your conclusion.....

As you say, in any revolutionary situation (or military conquest, for that matter) there are "mopping up" operations of some sort: exceptions -- cases of absolute total victory -- are very rare.

Given that, the comparison Rumsfeld (and Fleming) made is a very, very weak one. You could just as well compare the Iraq situation to Ethiopia after the Italian invasion, or post-independence India, or Japan after the Meiji Restoration.

Given how weak a choice it is, Rumsfeld is making the comparison as a propoganda tool, to suggest that the situation in Iraq is basically a good one and headed in a good direction. But the only effective comparative arguments are ones with strong parallels, which is clearly lacking here.


Richard Dyke - 7/30/2003

It appears to me that Tom Fleming and Mary Beth Norton are not discussing quite the same subject. Fleming emphasizes the civil unrest of the Revolutionary period in general and Norton is more concerned about the "roving loyalists" argument in particular. With no evidence to the contrary, she appears to be right on the loyalists. On balance, however, I think Fleming edges out Norton. There IS a basic historical thread or commonality here, about the general unrest that seesms to follow any revolutionary situation, i.e., the overturning of an existing and long-established government. It is irrelevant who wins--there is going to be a military "mopping up" operation and/or governmental show of force until the opposing party (that lost) is profoundly defeated. With the American Revolution, this unrest is marked by citizen uprisings against authority that is not completely established, notwithstanding the accidental good works of the Confederation Congress. In Iraq, there are "roving bands of loyalists" who do not yet "get it" that Saddam is gone forever, and also, some new groups who are using American-sanctioned modes of mass protest as we have also witnessed. In both of these instances, we have a revolutionary situation, followed by a period of profound unrest. Norton appears to miss this linkage when she argues there was no nation before the Revolution as opposed to a centralized authority in Iraq. But the situation is actually more similar than dissimilar--there was English authority, and it was displaced, just as the long-established authority of the Iraqi regime was displaced.


Stan P - 7/30/2003

Several Questions:
Why is Saddam not like Hitler. What are the differences between the SS and Republican Guard ?? What is the difference between the Fedayeen and the Volksturm or even the Werewolves ?? Other than the fact that it failed, how was the assault on Iran different than the attack on Poland ?? Since it momentarily succeded, how was the assault on Kuwait different than the assault on Crete or an invasion of North Africa? Examine the higher command structure and define the difference. Compare and contrast Quasay and Uday with Himmler and Goebels. Consider the use of gas against countrymen. Think of the vacuuous statuary. Think on the repeatedly filmed visits "to the people". Maybe I'm wrong. Please provide some differences to support your conclusion that that Saddam was different and should not be compared to Hitler, rather that suggesting that it is wrong to do so. Oh, how about violating internationally agreed to treaties... see Versailles and UN resolutions too numerous to mention.....


Chuck Heisler - 7/29/2003

Please Bernard, we are in a "War on Terrorism" and if Rumsfeld tends to take that seriously, all the better. That this war is unconventional has been highlighted many times by the President and Rumsfeld and I am always amazed by the number of people out there that seem to have forgotten both 9/11 and the wide ranging challenge that Bush highlighted following the attack.
So, like him or not, Rumsfeld is waging a world war and if much of that strategy needs to be secret, so be it.
I take 9/11 seriously and I think the majority of Americans do as well. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity following the conflict for historians to sort out all the matters concerning secrets and personalities!
Please find some solace in the fact that Bush, unlike another more "progressive" former American president did not call for the internment of Arab Americans following the sneak attack--isn't that a satisfactory lesson learned from history?


Michael Green - 7/29/2003

Amen to Mr. Weisberger, on several grounds. One is that Mr. Rumsfeld speaks for an administration that compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, which is an insult to anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge. Now for Rumsfeld to compare postwar Iraq with post-Revolutionary America is almost equally insulting. Another reason to say amen is that Mr. Weisberger notes a problem with this site, albeit not directly. Yes, many of the responses have grown nastier. Perhaps if we were not regularly subjected to Ronald Radosh's and Daniel Pipes's assaults on history, we would feel better about the History News Network.


Bernard A. Weisberger - 7/29/2003

Having sincerely and publicly admired Tom Fleming's essay on LaFollette in last week's HNN, I hope I have established the fact that there is nothing personal in my strenuous disagreement with him on this issue. But Tom Fleming is a good enough historian to know that superficial historical resemblances are shaky grounds for finding parallels between vastly different periods, cultures and entities such as Iraq in 2003 and the British colonies of North America in the 1780s. Let me make a comparable matchup. Donald Rumsfeld is, as Fleming acknowledges, arrogant, and more than that, a bully who sneers at dissent, brands all opponents as disloyal, and refuses to concede to the public any right to information other than what he, as representative of the government, chooses to provide. The rationale is, of course, our ongoing, endless, undefined "war on terror." We called people like that fascists in 1939. Likewise and under the same umbrella, the so-called "forward strategy" defended by Fleming would empower the United States (or more likely its president alone,) without specific provocation, to attack and overthrow the government of any nation that it believed (on secret and untested evidence) to have hostile intentions or to be promoting a very broadly defined "terrorism." We called the Axis powers who did that in 1939 aggressive dictatorships. Using Rumsfeldian logic, I'm inclined to see a lot of similarity. I'll leave the rebuttal and final word to Tom if he chooses--I'm a little weary of endless, progressively nastier attacks and counter-attacks in HNN's correspondence columns.

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