Our ignorance of the American Revolution
I thought you might be amused at the towering intellect on display by Newt Gingrich as he talks about Valley Forge:
“Without the sacrifices of these Americans at Valley Forge, there would be no Declaration of Independence, no Constitution.”
And here I thought we were at war with the British because we had declared our independence. Silly me.
And that’s Newt Gingrich, who never stops calling himself a historian. He doesn’t know that the Continental army’s stay at Valley Forge was in the winter and spring of 1777-1778, a year and a half after the Declaration of Independence.
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The desolating fact is that virtually no college educated Americans, let alone high school educated Americans, know the basic facts and chronology of the American Revolution. All they know is that there was the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. As though proving the neocon-ization of the American mind, all they know of the American revolution is the name of a couple of documents, but not the actual events that made the Revolution. The American Revolution is an abstraction to them.
If the American Revolution is to be real to us, we need to have it in our heads as a story, not as a mere list of documents and phrases from those documents.
Here’s a minimalist chronology of the main events, which I have just jotted down from memory:
1765: Britain passes the Stamp Act, leading to protests and riots in the American colonies. Britain withdraws the Stamp Act, but asserts the power to legislate for the colonies’ internal affairs without their consent. Things quiet down for a few years.
December 1773: Protesting a small tax on tea that was passed under the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party dumps tons of tea in the Boston Harbor, a huge act of organized vandalism. The Boston Tea Party leads directly to the American Revolution.
Early 1774: In response to the Boston Tea Party, Britain passes a group of laws which the colonies refer to as the Intolerable Acts, putting Massachusetts under martial law and basically treating the protesting Americans as outside the law.
September 1774: In response to the Intolerable Acts, the First Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia. The delegates take a moderate course, restate their loyalty to the King, and appeal to the King in peaceful terms to withdraw the Intolerable Acts and stop making war on the colonies.
April 18-19 1775: In response to the continued build up of arms caches by protesting colonists in Massachusetts, the British send out armed troops to discover and confiscate the arms. The British fire on and kill several of the colonists at Lexington Green, followed by a battle between the colonists and the British at Concord Bridge, from which the British retreat. The British move slowly back to Boston, being fired at by colonists the whole way. The rag tag Americans troops besiege the Boston army in Boston.
May 1775: The Second Continental Congress meets in Philadelphia. In June it appoints George Washington, a Virginia delegate, as commander in chief of the as yet to be formed Continental Army. Washington travels to Cambridge to take command of the militias surrounding the British in Boston.
The siege of Boston lasts until spring 1776, when the British army departs Boston. Washington moves his army to New York City, to defend it from an expected British invasion there.
Early 1776: Many colonies pass their own statements of Independence from Britain and form independent governments.
Early July 1776: After fifteen months of war between Britsin and the colonies, the Second Continental Congress issues a Resolution of Independence (the last paragraph of the Declaration of Independence), followed by the full Declaration of Independence a day or two later. To repeat the key fact that the great majority of Americans today do not know: the American Revolution did not begin with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; it began with the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.
August 1776 to December 1776: Washington’s army, in a series of near-disastrous defeats and retreats, is driven out of New York City and falls back across New Jersey, crossing the Delaware into Pennsylvania to escape the British Army. This is the low point of the Americans’ fortunes.
Christmas 1776 to New Year’s, 1777: Washington leads two daring surprise raids back across the Delaware, successfully attacking the British army at Trenton and a week later at Princeton. The British retreat back across New Jersey toward the safety of New York.
January 1777: Washington army moves to Morristown, New Jersey, where it spends the winter.
Late 1777 to 1778: Washington’s army, after a series of feints by both armies, moves south to Philadelphia to try to stop the British from conquering that city, and encounters the British unsuccessfully at Brandywine Creek. The British take Philadelphia. Washington moves his army to Valley Forge near Philadelphia for the winter.
Early 1778: During the late winter and the spring of 1778 at Valley Forge, von Steuben, a German military officer, trains Washington’s army in the conventional military tactics and discipline that will allow it to fight the British in set formation.
June 1778: The British army leaves Philadelphia and heads back toward New York, with Washington’s army following. The armies meet in the battle of Monmouth, with the Americans holding their own in a day long battle in intense heat. The British subsequently retreat to New York City. In a complete reversal of fortune from the situation in December 1776, the Continental army now occupies all of New Jersey, the British are holed up in New York City, and the British never venture beyond New York for the rest of the war. The focus of the war shifts to other theaters.
Roger G. writes:
I have a very limited understanding of weapons, but I’ve always wondered why, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, they didn’t fight with longbows instead of muskets. Much faster rate of fire, far longer range and greater accuracy, cheaper ammo. Maybe our resident warrior Mark Jaws can tell us.
The question you should ask is, not why did 18th century armies not use the longbow, but why did armies stop using the longbow centuries earlier?
Spencer Warren writes:
I am no admirer of Gingrich who, ‘conservatives’ like the dummy Sean Hannity seem to forget, was forced out as Speaker by his own caucus just a few years after leading them to their first House majority in four decades. His colleagues, like the second of his three wives, just could not put up with him any longer.
The newsletter quoted in this post has a bigger error. Earlier in the text reference is made to July 4, 1776; I think the line about Valley Forge and the Declaration is sloppy writing. But at the start he states the Republican House gains (about 60-65) are the biggest by any party since 1932. Actually, in 1948 the Democrats won 75 House seats and in 1938 the Republicans won 81(up from only 88 members in the previous House).
Both errors are egregious for a man who holds a Ph.D in history.
JC writes from Houston:
Good summary but you neglected to mention the pivotal Battle of Saratoga (New York) in October, 1777, when American forces under the command of General Benedict Arnold (yes, THAT Benedict Arnold) defeated a British force under General John Burgoyne marching down from Canada in an attempt to split the colonies. The American victory was instrumental in persuading the French to take an active role on our side in the Revolution.
The battle of Saratoga was crucial but Benedict Arnold was not the commander of the American forces there. He had been removed from his field command by the commander, Horatio Gates. Then, in the midst of the battle, Arnold against Gates’s orders entered the fray with his troops and turned the tide against the British, at the cost of very serious wounds to himself.
Arnold, the boldest and most enterprising general on the American side, who then turned traitor, is one of the most interesting figures of American history. I highly recommend, Willard Stern Randall’s fascinating biography of him. There was also a decent made-for-TV movie about Arnold a few years ago, with, of all people (life is full of surprises) Kelsey Grammer doing an excellent job as George Washington, who loved and supported Arnold for his boldness, and whom Arnold then betrayed.
The tragedy of Arnold was that he was treated so badly by the American side that he had every excuse to have retired from the Army and gone home. But instead of doing that, he became a traitor. He had great gifts, but lacked judgment and stability.
Mark Jaws writes:
I think one of the striking aspects of the American Revolution not stressed enough in our history books is the fact the patriots were in the distinct minority compared to the Tories and the fence straddlers. The Revolutionary War teaches us that a determined minority can move mountains. Newt Gingrich has often spoke of this and it is something we Tea Partyers keep in mind.
Bruce B. writes:
After the Napoleon’s defeat, a British General (can’t remember his name) wrote a serious paper recommending the return to the English (Welsh, really) longbow. Superior range, rate-of-fire, and armour penetration. However, it is very hard to train a good longbowman and you must start them very young. Consequently it was easier to field large numbers of Musketeers without the heavy training investment.
I always thought it would be interesting to see how the 14th century English longbowmen of Agincourt would have fared against the composite bow-carrying Mongols of the 13th century. The former had better range, the latter better mobility.
Richard W. writes:
From his Wikipedia bio:
He received a B.A. in history from Emory University in Atlanta in 1965. He received an M.A. in 1968, and then a Ph.D. in modern European history from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1971. His dissertation topic was titled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.”
I find this really funny. He wrote a thesis on a typically liberal, 3rd world, esoteric theme having nothing to do with America, the West or conservatism. Just another way in which he’s a fake.
Buck O. writes:
I think that in this case you’re being a little too hard on Newt. When properly wound up and “on” in the right venue, he can be very good at telling much of America’s story. He’s fickle, scatterbrained and confused when it comes to his politics, and displays a muddled persona, and he’s no role model for a traditional America. But, certainly, Newt Gingrich knows that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 before George Washington and the Continental Army endured that horrible winter at Valley Forge in 1777-1778.
He has to have clumsily intended something nuanced—a rhetorical goof that he’d correct in a heart beat.
Obviously there would be no Constitution. Perhaps he meant that the declaration would have been moot if America’s army couldn’t back it up; or that declaring is one thing, but making it stick is another; or, that we wouldn’t be talking about it or even know about it if had lost our war of independence.
Happy 235th Birthday to the United States Marine Corps.
Jake F. writes:
Like others whose comments you have posted, I have no doubt that Newt knows the Declaration was signed before Valley Forge. It bothers me, though, that he would be this sloppy. Either it was a lousy metaphor meaning, “it would almost be as if the Declaration [and Constitution] had never been written”, or it was a stupid oversight.
Having said that, though, I love the fact that you chose to publish a timeline. I agree that we need to make history tangible and actual in order to understand it. Once not long ago, I took five of my children to Fort Nonsense near Morristown, New Jersey. We parked near the top and one of the kids asked why the Americans had been so high up. So we walked to see as much of the horizon as we could, and then we went to the bottom of the hill. Each of us grabbed a stick, and I told them, “Okay, now pretend you’re a British soldier. Charge up the hill!” As we ran, I yelled about the bullets whizzing around their heads and fellow soldiers dying next to them—my ten-year-old dutifully collapsed and play-acted a sucking chest wound—and finally, exhausted, we made it to the top. (No battle was actually fought at Fort Nonsense, but they understood why someone would choose the location.) It was a silly little thing, but those twenty minutes made a bigger impression on them about what the Revolutionary War meant to those who fought it than anything I’ve done or said since.
Alan Levine writes:
I thought you might have been a little hard on the Newtman, in this case; he may have simply “mispoke.” You have certainly not exaggerated the amount of popular ignorance about the Revolutionary War and the Founding era. I have found that college students are often surprised to learn that the colonies did not fight alone against Britain but were helped by France in what amounted to a world war in which the British were engaged on many fronts. Many also seem astounded to learn that the Constitution was not “about” the Bill of Rights and that the latter were tacked belatedly to appease opponents of ratification.
As for the longbow: the commentator was correct that it took far longer training and practice to make a longbowman than a musketeer, or for that matter a crossbowman, which is why the latter, although inferior to the longbowmen, were far more common in the Middle ages. However, while I myself have frequently heard the claim, and once believed, that muskets were inferior as weapons to bows IN GENERAL, I have become rather skeptical about this. There are too many cases of Amerinds, and others, being extremely anxious to get ahold of firearms as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and going to great lengths to do so.
A reader writes:
Two points in response to your “Ignorance of the American Revolution” post. First, the less important one:
There is a reasonably good children’s animated series that depicts the history of the American Revolution, called Liberty’s Kids. It’s by no means a documentary, and it has some of the usual irritants of contemporary entertainment, but it’s very good on the most important points: It depicts the basic flow of events accurately (from the Tea Party to the promulgation of the Constitution), it shows American heroes as worthy of admiration, and it depicts America as good. And the political correctness is about as minimal as possible these days in mainstream entertainment. True, they exaggerate somewhat the contributions of minorities, but all of their heroes are taken from real life, and most of the movers of the Revolution are depicted as what they were: white men.
The premise of the series is that three children and a freedman are working in Benjamin Franklin’s print shop in Philadelphia. Styling themselves journalists, they contrive to be eyewitnesses to events whenever they get wind of something important. In this way, they observe, and occasionally participate in, all of the important events of the Revolution.
It can be viewed online at Netflix. Those with young children should look into it.
And now the more substantial point:
As everyone knows, February has officially been designated “African American History Month.” The idea recently occurred to me that conservatives counter-designate February to be “American History Month.”
But perhaps we should designate January to be American History Month. Let the liberals have their celebration, and let us not unnecessarily provoke Leviathan.
I have prepared a possible declaration of American History Month, included below. Any suggested improvements will be welcome. Notice that I do not call it “White History Month.” That is its effective meaning, but it sounds to me nobler simply to call it American History Month. That way, we are free to mention minorities who merit inclusion, making this a true American History Month.
Proclamation: American History Month
Whereas the knowledge of and reverence for its history is crucial for the survival and flourishing of any people;
Whereas the knowledge of and reverence for American history is under widespread and effective assault, in large measure so that socialist and so-called progressive revolutionaries will have an easier time achieving their goal of the radical transformation of America;
Whereas this assault consists of two primary parts, one of which is the deliberate and great decrease, compared with past practices, of instruction in the achievements of European-Americans in favor of the deliberate exaggeration of the achievements of Americans of minority background;
Whereas the second part of the assault on American history consists of the implication—or outright statement—that the America of the past is not worthy of being honored on account of her alleged great injustice to minorities;
Whereas one manifestation of this assault is the unseemly practice of government designating certain months to honor the achievements of Americans from minority groups, coupled with the conspicuous failure of our government to designate a month to honor the Americans whose ancestors contributed by far the most to creating America and making her great;
Whereas America was built primarily, but not exclusively, by European-Americans, in which case a proper American History Month would give priority to their achievements;
Whereas we Americans have good reason to be proud of the achievements of our ancestors and to celebrate and honor such persons, objects and events as: Lexington and Yorktown. Antietam and Gettysburg. Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, D-Day. Inchon. Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse. Alexander Graham Bell. The Wright Brothers. Robert Oppenheimer. Richard Feynman. Herman Melville. Mark Twain. Emily Dickenson. Thomas Hart Benton. Georgia O’Keefe. Stephen Foster. John Phillip Sousa. George Gershwin. Benny Goodman. Louis Armstrong. Bill Robinson. Lewis and Clark. John C. Fremont. Kit Carson. John Glenn. Neil Armstrong. The Transcontinental Railroad. The Panama Canal. The Atomic Bomb. The Space Program. The personal computer. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Ulysses S. Grant. Robert E. Lee. Stonewall Jackson. Dwight Eisenhower. Henry Ford. Henry Kaiser. John D. Rockefeller. Etc.
Now, therefore we, the patriotic Americans, by virtue of our awareness of our debt to our ancestors, and our love of our people, do hereby proclaim every January to be American History Month. We call on patriotic Americans everywhere to observe this month by remembering and increasing their knowledge of American history, especially the once-widely-known but now increasingly unknown contributions of European Americans. We also call on Americans to honor American History Month by passing on this knowledge to the young, and encouraging them to honor the achievements of their ancestors. Let us also acknowledge America’s failures and sins, but let us not exaggerate them. And most of all let us not draw from them the false and monstrous conclusion that America is bad and therefore not deserving of honor. On the contrary, America is good, and she is ours.
Mark Jaws writes:
For reasons I cannot quite explain, the scheme of maneuver and big picture in the Revolutionary War have required extra work for me to absorb and understand fully. I have looked at the sequence of events over and over again, and now at age 56, I am finally able to put together the complex web of various events, people, and circumstances. It came to me, oddly, last year after providing an overview of the Revolution for our homeschooling cooperative.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 10, 2010 01:39 PM | Send
Someone referred to me as VFR’s resident warrior. That is not true. Yes, I was a career soldier, and a paratrooper who served in combat units. But I was an intelligence officer, and therefore I never mastered the art of being a warrior. My job was simply to support warriors with the information they needed to find, fix, and fire upon a target. I did so by working closely with warrior planners to ensure we had the right eyes and ears on the right target at the right time. It was at times physically demanding, but always intellectually challenging, rewarding, and fascinating. But most of all, through my work I have had the privilege of serving with America’s finest array of men. And that is no exaggeration.
For those of you who really like military history or have assorted questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I can hook you up to our U.S. Army Intelligence Chat Forum which deals with a wide variety of issues at the unclassified level. The moderator is a good guy and he has let non-Army types participate in the discussions.