HomeOpinionGuest Columns‘Murica … That Revolution was Different from What We Think

‘Murica … That Revolution was Different from What We Think

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Editor’s Note: Americans like to romanticize those halcyon days when America was in its infancy, when Patriots fought for freedom and when bigger-than-life Founders made our laws and governed peacefully and in harmony . . . except, they didn’t. Except, a lot of what we think we know is mythology. Historian Hubert van Tuyll explains what the early days of America were really like and what was really happening at the time Americans gained their independence.

Today, we’re celebrating 245 years of independence. OK, not really independence, but declaring independence. On July 4, 1776, Congress announced the famous text of the Declaration, most of it reflecting Jefferson’s penmanship.

Whoops … hold it right there … even that has a couple of fun footnotes. The Declaration was actually voted on two days earlier, which may explain the fireworks on my street this past Friday.

The Declaration of Independence, signed July 2, 1776. The Declaration
took two days to be printed, so it was not presented to citizens until
July 4, 1776, the day we celebrate American independence from Great Britain.

Also, you know that great scene where everybody comes forward to sign the Declaration? What a beautiful image … but it didn’t happen. A bunch of people signed it right away, and others signed it individually over the next few weeks and months; the last signature was not added until October 1776. A few folks voted for the Declaration and then left town, having no desire to have their names showing on such a seditious document.

I’ve often wondered if it would have passed had Congress known what was coming next. You see, just a few months earlier, the British had abandoned Boston, leading many Revolutionary leaders to conclude that the British might not be all that serious about trying to hang on to the 13 colonies. Talk about a miscalculation. British Gen. William Howe was on the way to New York with THIRTY THOUSAND troops – an unprecedented number of soldiers to deploy in the colonies. Howe nearly destroyed the American Revolution; only Washington’s successful Christmas counterattack in New Jersey saved Colonial morale.

More from Hubert van Tuyll: D-Day Remembered

Washington managed to trick the British commander on the field, Gen. Charles Cornwallis. Washington captured the town of Trenton, and when the British approached, he kept a skeleton crew at Trenton to make lots of noise and keep campfires going, while he slipped away and occupied Princeton, in Cornwallis’ rear. The trick worked so well, that Washington did it again! In 1781, he fooled the British commander in New York, Gen. Henry Clinton, by using a more sophisticated version of the same trick, while Washington and his French-American army marched south and trapped Cornwallis at Yorktown. Think about it; had Cornwallis been in New York and Clinton in Yorktown, the trick would never have worked.

A painting depicting the surrender of Cornwallis. Painting by John Trumbull.

Cornwallis was in no way at fault in being forced to surrender in October of 1781, and fortunately his government recognized that. But surrendering was still hideously painful. So, he tried to surrender to Washington’s French subordinate, who refused; so, he sent his second in command, Major-Gen. Charles O’Hara, to surrender. Washington sent his second in command, Benjamin Lincoln, to accept the surrender. Talk about sweet revenge … only a year before, Lincoln had been forced to surrender Charleston to Cornwallis. Poor O’Hara! In his career, he had to surrender to both the Americans and later, the French.

One irony: Cornwallis had considerable sympathy for the American colonists’ complaints against the British government, although he drew the line at armed resistance. This may explain why the post-surrender period was fairly cordial. One night Washington, responding to an invitation from the Brit, rode into Yorktown and dine and drank with his former opponent. Alas! Neither recorded what they talked about.

Maybe they talked about the challenges they had faced. For Washington, that had obviously been creating an army that could effectively fight the British. It took about three years from the war’s outbreak to accomplish that. The Continental Army, as the U.S. Army was called back then, suffered greatly from inexperience, except, oddly enough, at the top – just about every American general had fought in the French & Indian War (1754-63), so the situation was not hopeless.

But it wasn’t easy. You can forget all about the stories of Americans winning by shooting with precision from behind rocks and trees and everywhere. The war broke out when the British marched out of Boston to capture weapons and rebels at Lexington and Concord, but this failed, and they were under constant fire during the return march. The Massachusetts militia killed about 75 British soldiers and wounded around 175–figures vary–but it has been calculated that the militiamen fired about 250,000 shots at the British column. Nor did American soldiers want the more accurate “rifles.” They preferred the smooth-bore muskets, which were much less accurate but could be loaded four times as fast. When you’re standing in a line and getting shot at, this matters.

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The war was fought all over the colonies, including down here in the South. It was our first civil war, really; the further south you went in the colonies, the more people you would find who were “Loyalist”–loyal to the British crown. In Georgia and South Carolina, Patriots and Loyalists were about equal in number. (That reminds me; if you have a copy of the movie The Patriot, throw it in the trash immediately. It’s just plain wrong.) Just a short trip from Augusta is the Kettle Creek battlefield, where every soldier and officer on both sides was a local colonist.

Of course., you don’t have to look very far to see the influence of the American Revolution. Richmond County is named after a British nobleman who endorsed the rebels. Burke County is named after a famous British philosopher and politician who endorsed the revolution’s aims. Our city is named after a princess, and our state is named after a king.

A copy of the Star-Spangled Banner printed in 1815.
Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Finally, one of the most unusual things about July 4 and other patriotic holidays is what we sing. Our national anthem is unusual. First of all, it celebrates a war that itself is all but forgotten, in which both our motives and our military performance were nothing to write home about. The words by Francis Scott Key celebrate the failure of the British bombardment of our fort at Baltimore – but although that was a good things for the United States, it hardly ranks as a historically great military event. Further, the vocal range of our national anthem is far outside that of most people, but that can be explained: the tune came from a popular English drinking song, Anacreon in Heaven (click on the link to hear “Anacreon in Heaven”). When you’re singing in a bar, you’re not too worried about the accuracy of the high notes. And while Key’s poetry is remarkable, he nevertheless gave away his profession in the text. Key was a lawyer, and I don’t believe there is another anthem in the whole world that contains the words, “Gave Proof.”

Last but not least is the matter of national unity and tranquility. That just did not happen when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were in the same room. Both men served in Washington’s administration, and meetings that included the two must have left our valorous first president with a splitting headache, given the political distance between his secretary of state and his vice president. Adams, the Federalist, believed in big government to govern citizen behavior. Jefferson, a Republican, wanted small government and maximum freedom for citizens. Their arguments would climax when they ran against one another for president in 1796 and again in 1800. The 1800 election was particularly nasty–the rhetoric makes today’s political bickering look mealy mouthed by contrast.

Just to give you a head start on today’s fireworks, check out the video at this URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3DAET89ypM. Both ads are based on writings and speeches by the two candidates during the presidential campaign in 1800. Happy Independence Day!

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6 COMMENTS

  1. As Mr. van Tuyll states, Hollywood, Broadway, and TV rarely present history in a realistic light. My high school American history book, “Rise of the American Nation”, accurately describes the July 2, 1776 adoption of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, its revision, the July 4th adoption by Congress, and an official reading and proclamation on July 8th, 1776. The book’s descriptions of the Continental Army’s strategies, British mistakes, and the French assistance that precipitated Cornwallis’ surrender agree with this article. Learning American history by watching movies and videos is like learning how to safely handle and shoot firearms by watching John Wicke movies.

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