“Like most ‘wars of liberation’ the American War of Independence was a bitter civil war too. One contemporary guess divided the people into three: the patriots, one-third, the Tory loyalists, one-third, and the remainder prepared to go along with either party. It is likely, however, that those who declined to take an active part were fully half the nation, the militants being almost equally divided, though the Tories, by their very nature, lacked leaders and the extremism which drove the liberators. They looked to leadership from England and were poorly served.” — Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, 1997, page 171.
WHAT can a random quote from a history book on any subject teach us? Isn’t this an exercise in futility? Don’t we need more information?
WE do need more information, but let’s use this exercise as a memory building tool. When developing your historical memory, and yes, memory function comes pre-installed in our brains when we leave the production center (other wise known as ‘birth’), you need to retrieve the current stock of what’s stored up there. Find out what you know, and then fit in the new information presented in a quote like the one above.
So what do we know?
Let’s start with the quote itself…what era, or period of events connected in historical continuity, is the quote referencing?
Okay, let’s assume first that we are Americans reading this quote. If we have spent any time in a US school we’ll have some idea that the “American War of Independence” is also known as the Revolutionary War (note, the author is British, so he is using the academic title from across the Atlantic for that colonial disturbance centering around 1775). We know that the events surrounding that era had to do with a break with the British government, which had in various ways originally and until that time considered the 13 colonies of the eastern shore of the now United States to be British territory. There were strong, vocal colonial opponents of British oppression, excess taxation and lack of Parliamentary representation, and these we, as Americans, know as “Founding Fathers.” George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, Sam Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, among many others. They were extremely influential in the early years of the United States and all the constitutional and legal documents written then.
As the quote shows us, there were also opponents of the rebellion who were called “Tories”. They desired to remain loyal to Britain, wherein many of their business interests were entwined. They were fighting for a “status quo”, which is a difficult position to fight from, and particularly, as the quote implies, without solid recognition and support from their motherland, England. Indeed, may of the Tory families were treated with nearly as much contempt as rebel families by the British Army when it arrived in the colonies and was installed in the homes of the colonists. It was difficult to remain loyal to a country that didn’t seem to want them.
An additional fact that we can add to our historical memory is that, as the quote explains, there was another group of people who simply wanted to live their lives, without interference from either side of the battle. Perhaps they were unsure of the outcome, or unsure where their true loyalties rested, or maybe it took a bit of convincing through the brutal realities of British occupation that they eventually had to stand for something. Who knows, but it does tell us one thing, that despite the noises of the “militants” and “activists” in any nation, and any cause, there will always be those who simply want to grow their crops in peace, make a life for themselves and their children. These are the people who eventually struggle on when the voices of the extremes have faded and, sadly, these are usually the people who get trampled by both sides in their quest for supremacy.
Am I saying the Revolutionary War was an aimless quest? Not at all, Britain and America were on a course for separation, and the tendrils of financial investment and history between the two made it almost impossible for a separation to come without bloodshed. Is this the best way for people to reconfigure their alliances? No. Is it the way of humanity? Yes. Is there another way? Yes, but not without help from a power greater than the finest of our human minds. A subject for another time.
SO, AS OUR EXERCISE comes to a close take a moment to realize all that you already had in your historical memory about the Revolutionary War. Are other details coming to you that you may have picked up from articles, books, or even movies? The way people ate, fought, dressed, scenes reenacted of the battles and atrocities wrought on some colonists (I’m thinking of The Patriot here)?
We’ll do this again sometime, using a quote as a gateway into history. You’ll be amazed at what you know already and can learn!
Keep thinking history!
– Amanda Stiver