Dissent in Wars - The revolutionary war




Despite the quotation from General Marshall, the United States did manage to fight and survive a "Seven Years' War" at the very outset of national existence, the revolutionary war. It is possible that the revolutionary war was exceptional because it was so directly and unequivocally a war for national survival, with independence itself at stake. Modern nationalism is such a strong force that its survival may transcend ordinary rules concerning the depth of democratic support for war. It is at least as likely, however, that the safe emergence of the United States from the Revolution was largely a matter of fortunate historical accident.

Among British and Loyalist leaders there had developed a widespread impression by 1780, which lasted until October 1781, that for them the War of the American Revolution was almost won. In the southern colonies, 1780 witnessed the virtual completion of the reconquest of Georgia and South Carolina, and the following year Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis pursued the remnant of the revolutionary forces in the area all the way northward across North Carolina and planted the royal standard in that province. The remaining resistance south of Virginia, although highly and perplexingly troublesome, was mainly of the irregular sort that later generations would call guerrilla warfare. Farther north, at British headquarters in New York, General Henry Clinton received consistently optimistic reports from his agents throughout the Middle Colonies. Typical was the conclusion of the prominent New Yorker William Smith that "the Rebels were a minority who governed by the army and that this [the revolutionary army] reduced, the Loyalists would overturn the usurpation." If it was the sole remaining prop supporting rebellion, the rebel army itself appeared well on the way to collapse. There had been a mutiny in the Massachusetts line as early as the beginning of 1780; in the Connecticut line in May 1780; in the large and critical Pennsylvania line at the beginning of 1781; and in the New Jersey line in response to the Pennsylvania mutiny. During this period General George Washington, the commander of the Continental army, repeatedly warned Congress that his army was on the verge of dissolution—from loss of supplies, pay, popular support, and internal morale. If Washington felt obliged to put on a show of pessimism in order to try to wring maximum assistance from a frugal Congress, accounts from other sources inside his army agreed with those of Clinton's informers that his exaggerations were small and that his army might collapse under the slightest British pressure, or simply expire. "Why need I run into the detail," Washington wrote John Laurens on 9 April 1781, "when it may be declared in a word that we are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come."

Deliverance, of course, came. Clinton did not muster the energy or the self-confidence to pursue his opportunities with even the slightest vigor; he was thinking instead of how to woo back to British allegiance the faltering revolutionaries without in the process antagonizing Loyalists who were crying for condign punishment of the rebels as a reward for their own loyalty—that is, the very flagging of the Revolution paradoxically contributed to Clinton's perplexities and thus to his irresolution. Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis, the other principal British military commander in America and Clinton's nominal subordinate in the South, lapsed into the opposite kind of bad generalship—recklessness. Cornwallis presented the revolutionary army with the opportunity to join forces with the French navy in a manner that entrapped him at Yorktown in October 1781. Although Cornwallis's blunders were egregious, Washington and his French allies were able to capitalize upon them on account of a most remarkable run of good fortune in weather and timing, to say nothing of what was to prove the only major French naval success against a British fleet in the whole second Hundred Years' War. The surrender of Cornwallis has no suggestion of inevitability about it but appears rather as historical accident. The United Kingdom in 1781 was no democracy, but the British government was far enough from a despotism and representative enough that it was having its own troubles in sustaining the war. The setback at Yorktown proved sufficient to push Britain into the hands of the peacemakers. Until Yorktown the American revolutionary cause had been in a much more perilous condition than the British cause, and except for the supreme good fortune of Yorktown it was the American cause that had been more likely to founder.

Dissent in the revolutionary war is otherwise difficult to measure on any scale similar to those applicable to later wars, when there was an established American government from which to dissent and more or less established channels of dissent. During the Revolution the prosecutors of the war on the side of the United States were themselves the dissenters from the accustomed American order of politics. The war was more confusedly an American civil war than the later war of 1861–1865, in which the antagonists were more clearly marked off from each other by geographical lines. Just as the revolutionary war was both a war for independence from Great Britain and a revolution seeking social change at home, so both thrusts of the war provoked their own sets of dissenters, with some who otherwise supported independence, for example, dropping out when the struggle set a course toward social revolution. In Pennsylvania, where the revolutionary movement most drastically changed the previous political order with the radically democratic Constitution of 1776, the sense of the revolutionaries that they must use the force of their new system of laws to compel the laggard to fall into their procession became most desperate, and it precipitated the most troublesome controversy in any province over test oaths of loyalty to the new regime. But everywhere, the revolutionary governments felt obliged to curb dissent with legal penalties of confiscation of property and political ostracism. Furthermore, the patterns of dissent were not easily predictable; loyalty oaths excited most controversy in Pennsylvania, where the Revolution became most radical, but dissent against the Revolution took its most ambitious military form—and apart from the incursions of the British army required the nearest approximation of full-blown military campaigns to repress it—in the Carolinas, where the movement toward independence changed little in the previous social and political order. The sources of dissent and its manifestations were at least as varied as the motives that separately guided each colony into statehood.

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