Was the American Revolution a People’s War?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Marina is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, CA, and Professor Emeritus in History at Florida Atlantic University.

This is the second of two articles by Mr. Marina concerning the question of legitimacy in the American Revolution. Click here to read his first article.

Today traditional military power is measured in terms of the vast technology of weaponry. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has functioned as a hegemonic power urged on by neoconservatives and some others to act formally as an empire.

Iraq, like Vietnam earlier, has reminded us that a people, numerous, and widely armed even with small weapons, can pose problems. Even for well equipped armies, confrontation inevitably means killing many among the civilian population that sustains these unconventional forces.

As we recognize the falsehood of the Minority Myth of the American Revolution based upon a misreading of a letter of John Adams, we can begin to appreciate that it was one of history’s great examples of a people’s war.

The first rule of counterinsurgency is to separate the guerrilla or irregular forces from the general population. This implies the occupiers have control, in some sense, of the entire country.

The British were unable to achieve this in the American Revolution. They left New England early in the War, and controlled really only New York City for the duration. They evacuated Philadelphia due to American pressure. They lost an army at Saratoga in 1777, and another at Yorktown in 1781, ending the fighting.

While General George Washington maintained an army that increased each spring as the farmers returned to rejoin it, as John Shy noted in A People Numerous and Armed, the American militia, not much admired by the general, were the “sand in the gears of the British war machine.” (Incredibly, Shy repeats the Minority Myth misreading of Adams’s letter.)

Consider the following: The British did not go out at night in less than battalion strength. Apart from running the farms for much of the year, American women helped enormously to win the War. Urged on by German-speaking Americans, 5,000 Hessians, one third of that force, went over the hill to marry Pennsylvania-Dutch girls, and the general heading the Hessians was always writing back to his prince about the tenacious Americans fighting for their liberty -- probably another closet republican like the brothers, General/Admiral Howe.

In Bergen County, New Jersey the militia became formidable enough to curtail British foraging there, and it was paid, not in increasingly worthless paper script like the regular army, but in gold obtained from selling to the British in New York City.

The real problem in the American Revolution grew out of divisions within the Revolutionary coalition itself, just as it does today in Iraq among Sunni, Shia and Kurd.

Even in England before the War representing several colonies, Ben Franklin had begun to refer to the colonies as “this rising Empire.” He, and other land speculators like Washington dreamed of an American mercantile nation embracing Canada and Florida. Thus, after the victory at Saratoga and the French Alliance, this wing of the coalition was confident enough to reject the overtures of the Peace Commission headed by Lord Carlisle.

The British responded with a “pacification” program much as the U.S. sponsored later in Vietnam. The bloodiest three years of the War were to follow. Earlier the English had also attempted to spread out into the countryside with something on the order of “strategic hamlets,” but Washington had smashed the first one at Trenton.

The final crisis occurred in 1780-81, with the British invasion into the south, and the loss of a 5,000 man American army in Charleston, SC.
Washington finally released his best general, Nathaniel Greene, to lead the forces as the British swung into the Carolinas.

After a series of pitched battles beyond Charlotte, NC, which the soldiers called, “the hornets’ nest,” the British began a retreat that ended at Yorktown, in some cases barely getting across rivers in the face of the often young American teenagers on horseback who harassed them. I disagree with those historians who believe the French Alliance was essential to victory, although it might have meant a longer War.

What is significant is that Washington was determined even in this crisis to send LaFayette to speak to the Green Mountain Boys about launching another effort to take Canada. By this time the militia at the other end of the continuum of the coalition, wanted only to be left alone in a free republic. They understood what would later be termed, “the Great Game,” and demanded “double pay, double rations, and plunder.” When the Frenchman said he was unauthorized to accept such terms, Ethan Allen’s militiamen returned home.

What we can conclude is that the American Revolution was a great republican inspired people’s war for Independence, but that the revolutionary coalition was divided across a spectrum from those pressing a rising mercantile empire on the one hand, to those desiring a republic of small government states on the other.

That struggle over America’s destiny is with us still, and the Empire Question will probably remain the great issue facing this nation in the 21st century.

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William Marina - 7/6/2004

I very much agree. A large number wanted government with the locus at the State level, and not an activist, mercantile one at that.
Bill Marina

Oscar Chamberlain - 7/5/2004

This interpretation of the coalition is confirmed by the divisions over the form of the new state governments. In Pennsylvania and Vermont, the early constitutions differed strikingly from the three-branch hierarchical model that triumphed elsewhere. The people who tried to create the state of Franklin likewise wanted something distinctly different.

There's a minority at Kentucky's 1792 constitutional convention that also wanted a more democratic consitution. To some extent they forced a measure of compromise, as that consitution is one of the first without property requirements.

I suspect there was a large "swing group" (as we would say today) that either out of deference or praticality leaned toward accepting the "mercantile empire" state but that also made clear there were sharp limits to what they would tolerate in the name of that empire.