58. Could We Have Lost the Revolution?

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The answer to the question posed above is “no.” At least according to historian Page Smith, writing in his magisterial work, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution (McGraw-Hill 1976). Smith’s analysis, in the final chapter of his second and concluding volume, echoes the thought expressed by John Adams many years after American independence was achieved: “But what do We mean by the American Revolution? Do We mean the American War? The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People.” (Letter to Hezekiah Niles, February 13, 1818)

Here then is Mr. Smith (pp. 1823-1826):

Historians are great ‘if-ers,’ and the revolution offers them a field day…. One consequence of the work of the ‘if-ers’ is that the Revolution has commonly been treated as a ‘war’ rather than as a ‘revolution.’ This of course was the British mistake as well. In a war, especially in the eighteenth-century variety, when one side has absorbed a sufficient number of defeats, lost a sufficient number of soldiers, and surrendered a sufficient number of towns and cities, it adds up the profits and losses, finds that the debit column far outweighs the gains, and petitions for peace, or, more abjectly, surrenders. But a revolution is a different matter. A revolution is for keeps. A true revolution is not reversible; it cannot be ‘defeated’ in any conventional sense. The people can be decimated, starved, virtually destroyed, and in the right circumstances, by means of utter ruthlessness, the revolution can be suppressed. But ‘suppressed’ is different from ‘defeated.’

There must have been some reason why America was the graveyard of British military reputations; why no British general emerged with his laurels untarnished. After all, these were the same men, or at the very least the same type of men, who had administered a decisive drubbing to the French and Spanish during the Seven Years’ War. They made up the best military and naval force in the world. As we have seen, it never occurred to any but a handful of congenital optimists that they could be defeated by a ragtag citizen army of untrained levies. And properly speaking they weren’t. They ‘won’ almost every major engagement. From the ‘battle’ of Lexington and Concord, which wasn’t, properly speaking, a battle at all, to Yorktown, the British claimed an almost unbroken series of victories….

The American Revolution was, in modern parlance, the first ‘people’s liberation movement.’ In order to make any sense out of the question of whether Great Britain could have ‘won the war,’ we have to rephrase the question in a different form: Could Great Britain, after, let us say, the battle of Bunker Hill, and after, certainly the Declaration of Independence, have reduced the colonies to a ‘proper state of subordination’? Could they, in short, have turned off the revolution? Could they have restored the status quo ante bellum, as the military and diplomatic historians put it? And the answer, of course, is an emphatic no. It is quite literally impossible to imagine [Governor] Thomas Hutchinson returning to Massachusetts to guide its affairs and squabble with his council once again; or William Tryon back in North Carolina or New York [where he had served successively as royal governor], or, indeed, any other governor directing the affairs of this or that colony. In 1779, with the Carlisle Commission, Great Britain went as far as it could have possibly gone short of granting complete independence in meeting the American grievances that had brought on the ‘war’; and while Washington and Congress ‘feared it like the devil,’ it caused hardly a stir among the rank and file of patriots. No peace movement developed in the states to barter for a return to the parental fold, which had once appeared such a haven of security. It was indeed as Washington had said of the people crowding around him on the march from New York to Virginia [en route to Yorktown in 1781]: ‘We may be beaten by the English…but here is an army they will never conquer.’

American independence was not a precarious issue, hanging always in the balance, resting on a victory here or there, on this alliance or that, on the preservation of Robert Howe’s army of the Southern Department, or Benjamin Lincoln’s army of the Southern Department, or Horatio Gates’s army of the Southern Department—each of which were successively obliterated—or even on the survival of Nathanael Greene’s army, or the Continental Army of George Washington himself. The Revolution was, quite simply, the first and one of the most powerful expressions of the determination of a people to be free.

Well, there you have it. For those wishing to take issue with any of the above, have at it. As they say, history is an argument without end.

What Now?

Dear Reader,

This feels like a good time for me to hit the “pause” button on creating new posts. After spending more than two and a half years in the blogosphere, I’ve reached a point where it feels more like a chore than an opportunity—and that suggests that, at least for the near future, I need to take a blatant blog break. (Try saying that three times fast.) This pivot won’t necessarily entail a total or permanent abstention from blogging, as I foresee wanting to share information or thoughts on a particular topic at various times or posting a link to something that I hope will be of interest to you (especially if it’s something to which yours truly has been or will be connected). I’ll always enjoy writing, so you can expect me to seek outlets for that impulse, that is, beyond compiling a really long and diversified grocery list.

To anyone who may be disappointed by this news, I offer my regrets and a reminder of the sage advice commonly attributed to P.T. Barnum: “Always leave them wanting more.” And to those who feel otherwise, I’m pleased to do you this favor.

Thank you very much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. We’ll see where it goes from here. As Yogi Berra allegedly opined, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Best wishes,