Myths of the American Revolution: A noted historian debunks the conventional wisdom about America’s War of Independence
July 4, 2012
We think we know the Revolutionary War. After all, the American Revolution and the war that accompanied it not only determined the nation we would become but also continue to define who we are. The Declaration of Independence, the Midnight Ride, Valley Forge—the whole glorious chronicle of the colonists’ rebellion against tyranny is in the American DNA. Often it is the Revolution that is a child’s first encounter with history.
Yet much of what we know is not entirely true. Perhaps more than any defining moment in American history, the War of Independence is swathed in beliefs not borne out by the facts. Here, in order to form a more perfect understanding, the most significant myths of the Revolutionary War are reassessed.
I. Great Britain Did Not Know What It Was Getting Into
In the course of England’s long and unsuccessful attempt to crush the American Revolution, the myth arose that its government, under Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North, had acted in haste. Accusations circulating at the time—later to become conventional wisdom—held that the nation’s political leaders had failed to comprehend the gravity of the challenge.
Actually, the British cabinet, made up of nearly a score of ministers, first considered resorting to military might as early as January 1774, when word of the Boston Tea Party reached London. (Recall that on December 16, 1773, protesters had boarded British vessels in Boston Harbor and destroyed cargoes of tea, rather than pay a tax imposed by Parliament.) Contrary to popular belief both then and now, Lord North’s government did not respond impulsively to the news. Throughout early 1774, the prime minister and his cabinet engaged in lengthy debate on whether coercive actions would lead to war. A second question was considered as well: Could Britain win such a war?
By March 1774, North’s government had opted for punitive measures that fell short of declaring war. Parliament enacted the Coercive Acts—or Intolerable Acts, as Americans called them—and applied the legislation to Massachusetts alone, to punish the colony for its provocative act. Britain’s principal action was to close Boston Harbor until the tea had been paid for. England also installed Gen. Thomas Gage, commander of the British Army in America, as governor of the colony. Politicians in London chose to heed the counsel of Gage, who opined that the colonists would “be lyons whilst we are lambs but if we take the resolute part they will be very meek.”
Britain, of course, miscalculated hugely. In September 1774, colonists convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia; the members voted to embargo British commerce until all British taxes and the Coercive Acts were repealed. News of that vote reached London in December. A second round of deliberations within North’s ministry ensued for nearly six weeks.
Throughout its deliberations, North’s government agreed on one point: the Americans would pose little challenge in the event of war. The Americans had neither a standing army nor a navy; few among them were experienced officers. Britain possessed a professional army and the world’s greatest navy. Furthermore, the colonists had virtually no history of cooperating with one another, even in the face of danger. In addition, many in the cabinet were swayed by disparaging assessments of American soldiers leveled by British officers in earlier wars. For instance, during the French and Indian War (1754-63), Brig. Gen. James Wolfe had described America’s soldiers as “cowardly dogs.” Henry Ellis, the royal governor of Georgia, nearly simultaneously asserted that the colonists were a “poor species of fighting men” given to “a want of bravery.”
Still, as debate continued, skeptics—especially within Britain’s army and navy—raised troubling questions. Could the Royal Navy blockade the 1,000-mile-long American coast? Couldn’t two million free colonists muster a force of 100,000 or so citizen-soldiers, nearly four times the size of Britain’s army in 1775? Might not an American army of this size replace its losses more easily than Britain? Was it possible to supply an army operating 3,000 miles from home? Could Britain subdue a rebellion across 13 colonies in an area some six times the size of England? Could the British Army operate deep in America’s interior, far from coastal supply bases? Would a protracted war bankrupt Britain? Would France and Spain, England’s age-old enemies, aid American rebels? Was Britain risking starting a broader war?
After the Continental Congress convened, King George III told his ministers that “blows must decide” whether the Americans “submit or triumph.”
North’s government agreed. To back down, the ministers believed, would be to lose the colonies. Confident of Britain’s overwhelming military superiority and hopeful that colonial resistance would collapse after one or two humiliating defeats, they chose war. The Earl of Dartmouth, who was the American Secretary, ordered General Gage to use “a vigorous Exertion of…Force” to crush the rebellion in Massachusetts. Resistance from the Bay Colony, Dartmouth added, “cannot be very formidable…