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A Short History of the American Revolution

A Short History of the American Revolution
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The first one-volume survey of the American Revolution that is both objective and comprehensive, this outstanding narrative history traces the growth of a conflict that inexorably set the American colonies on the road to independence. Offering a spirited chronicle of the war itself -- the campaigns and strategies, the leaders on both sides, the problems of fielding and sustaining an army, and of maintaining morale -- Stokesbury also brings the reader to the Peace of Paris in 1783 and into the miltarily exhausted, financially ruined yet victorious United States as it emerged to create a workable national system.

HarperCollins; October 2009
313 pages; ISBN 9780061690051
Download in secure PDF format

Chapter One:

The Causes of War

The smoke of Lexington and Concord had hardly cleared before both sides appealed to public opinion. General Gage immediately sent his dispatches to London, while the Americans, with a well-developed sense of political propaganda, set up investigatory committees and took a series of depositions, all with the aim of discovering who had fired the first shot and proving that it was not they who had done it. As it happened, their reports were sent after Gage's, but went on a faster ship, so the American version of events reached Britain before the official report did.

Though probably more ink has been spilled over it than there was blood shed at Lexington, the question of the first shot was a meaningless one, to which no definitive answer has ever been produced. The actual fact far transcended the details, and the fact was simply the logical culmination of events that had been in train ever since the founding of the colonies two centuries earlier. In the nature of human affairs, the relation between mother country and offspring was bound to change over time; for the later, second, British Empire, that change would be evolutionary, but that was because of the lessons learned in losing the first empire. Barring evolution, there was instead revolution.

Some historians have argued that ultimate separation was almost inherent in the founding of the colonies to begin with, that metropolitan and colonial British were two different peoples within the single society, and that from the earliest stages they viewed themselves as different. Those who left and went abroad saw the stay-at-homes as docile and spineless, willing to put up with injustices or lack of opportunity, or whatever else had driven the emigrants out; they saw themselves as the members of society who were willing to put principle into practice, who had the initiative to seek and make new opportunities, to suffer hardship and privation, all to create better lives for their families and subsequent generations. In this view, as it might be later mythologized, all the colonists were of the Puritan, Pilgrim, or Virginia tidewater aristocracy types, holding a monopoly on truth and virtue.

The opposite view, as it might be held by the metropolitan Briton, was that the colonists represented the exportable surplus of Englishmen, people who could or would not fit into society at home; religious cranks like the Pilgrims; down-atheels gentry such as those who went to Virginia and starved rather than worked; men and women at the extreme end, of whom England might well be rid, such as paupers, indentured servants, and transported criminals. Such views are too overstated to make the argument, but emigration, by its very nature, is an act of rejection of some sort, and however much the colonists might have thought of themselves as British for however many generations, the potential for eventual separation was always there.

By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the British Empire was the chief world power. Great Britain itself was small in population compared to some of the other states of Europe. There were perhaps eleven million people in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, altogether about half of the population of France or the German states. Yet thanks to a largely homogeneous society, and the accidents of history and geography, Britain had built an empire that was the envy of all the other states. The bedrock of that empire, and its ultimate reason for existence, was trade.

The operative economic theory of the period was a set of ideas known as mercantilism, or, after their foremost practitioner, Colbertism. In this view, there was a fixed amount of wealth in the world, represented by gold and silver; it was all allotted: the king of France had a share, the king of England had a share, and so did the Mogul emperor in India or the chief of the Iroquois. If one person or society was to get more, someone else had to have less. Trade therefore became a kind of war, and wealth might be pursued by what we would consider legitimate trade, or by force of arms. Sometimes, especially outside the borders of Europe, it was hard to tell one from the other.

To profit and expand in this scheme of things, a welldeveloped empire needed several components, which could be worked out almost mathematically. First of all, the system must have a strong mother country in Europe, capable of taking and holding the colonies it needed, of providing military and naval support, of producing manufactured goods, and of holding the whole thing together. Then, in lesser order, the empire needed different types of colonies: tropical, to produce the materials not provided by the climate of the home country; African slave stations, to send labor to the tropical colonies where Europeans found it difficult to work and survive; and last of all, temperate colonies, to provide whatever residue of materials the home country could not grow for itself.

All of these elements were held together by the mother country, and the whole was in competition with other empires. The ultimate aim for -any given system was to produce a surplus of goods, which would then be exported to other, less efficient systems, bringing bullion back into one's own empire, making it rich, and powerful, and ultimately impoverishing one's neighbors, rivals, and enemies. The needs and perceptions of the mother country were absolutely paramount, and the growth, development, or perhaps ambitions of any of the lesser component parts had to be subordinated to the central direction.

This was all a theoretical construction, and in practice it never worked out as neatly as the statesmen and imperial administrators in London, or Paris, or Madrid, would have liked it to. Things were always slipping out of balance, and any one empire always had some things that it did not need, and lacked some things it did. In the British Empire, the construction of the edifice had been very informal. The French, beginning in the seventeenth century, had attempted to build an empire on logic, and a whole series of first ministers had sponsored companies, for the Indies, for the fur trade, for India. The Dutch had put together an empire that was a unique blend of private enterprise and state support and direction. But the British Empire had just grown, more or less by happenstance, without a great deal of central control. By good luck as much as by good management, the British had created an empire that conformed roughly to the mercantilist dictates of the day. They had a foothold in India, they had sugar islands in the Caribbean, they had slaving stations along the African coast, and they had the temperate colonies of the North American seaboard.