Tw: Contains mention of sexual assault
Public memory of the American Revolution, along with a significant degree of historiography, upholds a highly ideological perspective of the conflict. In the election campaign of June 2008, Senator Barack Obama hailed a group of citizens who took up arms against an Empire “on behalf of a larger idea: the idea of liberty, the idea of God-given, inalienable rights”. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 musical Hamilton, the titular lead tells the audience that the Revolution is coming because King George III “ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free.” The idea of an ideological and principled fight for independence permeates the American political and cultural landscape and provides a legacy for the future. However, it is a narrative that excludes much of the lived experience of the conflict. For many of the 2.5 million inhabitants of the 13 colonies in 1776 who abruptly found that war had come to their doors, ideology and principle were but minor considerations. Far more significant was the violence that characterised the period. For the majority, allegiances were flexible, and self-preservation was a far more significant motivator.
The violence of the Revolutionary War is often underplayed, whether in service of an ideological narrative or in comparison to revolutions in Haiti and France of the same century. Allan Kulikoff is particularly critical of this historiography and public memory, writing that “unless we understand the revolution as a war – a violent and protracted conflict – we shall not understand it at all”. Rural devastation was significant, especially in contested and tactical areas like Westchester County, New York. Violent and indiscriminate plunder was widespread which exacerbated manpower and food shortages at a time when almost half of the free white military-aged men fought for one side of the conflict. Around 30,000 Hessian soldiers, contracted from Germany to fight on the side of the British, gained a particular reputation for brutality, however in reality, all parties practiced similar methods. Nonetheless, the reputation of German soldiers as brutal was employed by the Patriot press to encourage support, and destruction of property provoked significant resentments.
This experience of indiscriminate violence occurred alongside highly discriminate and political violence which pushed many colonists to adopt loyalties. Vocal ideological minorities like the so-called ‘Committees of Safety’ founded as early as 1775, utilised violent acts such as kidnappings of prominent Whigs. Sexual violence was also leveraged for political ends. In 1776, a British soldier justified the rape of New York resident Elizabeth Johnson because “She was a Yankee whore or a Yankee bitch, and it was no great matter.” The rape was viewed by its perpetrator as a political punishment while standing as a warning to others of the perils of not conforming politically. Soldiers that committed such attacks did so explicitly as soldiers and political actors rather than individual aggressors. In this context, threats of violence within communities or simply proximity to any military force lead a majority of Americans to adopt political views out of necessity.
Loyalties in the Revolutionary War were calculated and flexible for many groups involved and stemmed from a context of fear and violence. Paradoxically, however, this enabled moments of cooperation during the conflict. The nature of conditional allegiances meant that families and communities found themselves split, and in many cases, these pre-existing relationships were not subordinate to wartime loyalty. In 1777, Patriots took the opportunity to visit Loyalist friends and family during a raid of Cow Bay, Long Island, even sharing a meal. Webs of communication and support were established across military lines, often to the end of aiding refugees who received little support from governments on either side. This could be seen in New York, for example, in which the City stood as Loyalist safe haven surrounded by a broadly Patriot periphery for much of the war. Here, the role of women was essential. Due to expectations about their lack of participation or agency in the political sphere, they were often given greater freedom to cross war lines to visit relatives. This movement was indeed used both formally and informally as part of military information networks, but for the most part, women transported social news or smuggled supplies to suffering relations who found themselves on the opposing side of the conflict. Even as the press on both sides acted to calcify allegiances through stories of atrocities and violence, at the individual level personal relationships often remained more significant.
These moments of communication and cooperation enabled a degree of reconciliation once the fighting was ceased. While an estimated 80,000 Loyalists left the 13 colonies in ‘exile’ following independence, around 400,000 (of varying degrees of commitment) chose to stay. This posed less of a challenge in terms of creating a united, coherent, and legitimate nation than might be expected. Judith Van Buskirk argues that in 1783, New Yorkers “did not have to begin building bridges to one another; those bridges had never been destroyed during the war.” In the aftermath of Cornwallis’ surrender, many were able to justify their wartime loyalism out of concerns for personal safety or economic prosperity. Others invoked family connections to Patriots. Similarly, 70 per cent of those charged with Loyalism in South Carolina, one of the most violent areas of conflict, were able to petition for partial or full clemency. This suggests a degree of understanding about the conditional nature of wartime allegiance, as well as the simple necessity to move forward as an independent nation. In both cases, the violent and opportunistic nature of the Revolutionary War paradoxically enabled a more united United States following the conflict.
Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, remains the seminal work for many students first approaching the period. However, this ideological perspective is coming under recent fire. In 2019, the New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’ places much greater emphasis on the desire of American elites to protect the institution of slavery, for example. However, both of these perspectives fail to address the everyday reality for many colonists who simply tried to live through a conflict as best they could. They were pushed into political positions, sometimes several over the course of the war, and faced significant violence. This is the context in which the independent United States emerged and began to define itself, and it be must understood as such.
Written by Jess Womack
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Elizabeth Heineman (ed). Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Rebecca Brannon, From Revolution to Revolution: The Re-integration of South Carolina’s Loyalists. Colombia: South Carolina Press, 2016.
Allan Kulikoff. ‘Revolutionary Violence and the Origins of American Democracy.’ Journal of the Historical Society 2, no 2 (2003).
Barack Obama. 2008. Accessed 29 October 2020 www.nytimes.com/2008/06/30/us/politics/30text-obama.html
Judith L. Van Buskirk. Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.