The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

October 24, 2000

Was There ‘Revolution’ in the American Revolution?


While Mel Gibson’s recent film still remains in the public mind, it might be good to look at a few issues it raises. The first is the "kids with guns!" problem so dear to a number of reviewers. All I can say to this is that young men probably matured earlier in the 1770s than they do now and that they matured as members of intact, rather law-abiding Anglo-Saxon communities. (Those who object to "Anglo-Saxon" are welcome to substitute some equivalent term.) "Kids" in colonial South Carolina seem to have never taken guns to school to settle trivial quarrels or to resolve their psychological conflicts, and I think we can safely leave this matter to one side.

Next comes the matter of atrocities in the war. Many of these were the work of Tories, that is American colonials on the British side. These worthies undertook things which British officers either condemned or countenanced, depending on the commander. If noticing this serves to excuse the British high command, however slightly, so be it; they have enough to answer for on other accounts, such as countenancing the methods of their Indian allies, as famously noted by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.


This brings us to perhaps the most important question raised by ‘The Patriot,’ that is, the role of irregular, partisan forces in winning the war. There are two schools of thought on this matter. One school holds that credit for American independence goes without question to the Certified Great Men who organized and commanded the regular continental army. Case closed. Taking every complaint from every regular army officer from George Washington on down about the liabilities and lack of discipline of the militia, these writers give partisan warfare little or no credit for American victory.


The second school sees irregulars as the decisive, secret weapon of the American Revolution. From the British standpoint, the American militia were "the sand in the gears of the pacification machine."1 Washington himself – against his instincts and training and despite his constant complaints about the irregulars – perforce adopted tactics which conformed to the logic of people’s war. As historian William F. Marina puts it, despite successes in pitched battles, "the British were never anywhere near ‘victory’ in the American Revolution."2

Edmund Burke, a member of the parliamentary Whig faction grouped around the Duke of Rockingham, had this to say in his ‘Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol,’ April 3, 1777: "Indeed, our affairs are in a bad condition.... But America is not subdued. Not one unattacked village which was originally adverse throughout that vast continent has yet submitted from love or terror. You have the ground you encamp on, and you have no more. The cantonments of your troops and your dominions are exactly of the same extent. You spread devastation, but you do not enlarge the sphere of authority."

Burke had begun to see that the colonists were waging what later theorists named "people’s war." In such wars, holding territory for its own sake is not the point. The point is to harass the enemy, wear him down, cut his supply lines, and never allow him a moment’s relief. The main body of revolutionary forces, if such there be, can be kept intact by avoiding unequal, pitched battles, until the time when it becomes feasible to launch battles of annihilation against the weary, overextended foe. The fact that there are one or two decisive battles at the end of the struggle may allow the regular army to take all credit for victory, but that is a minor problem. At least it was a minor problem until Mr. Garry Wills and Professor Michael Bellesiles lately came forth to tell us that irregular forces – militias, guerrillas, whatever one wants to call them – contributed next to nothing to the outcome of the war, save perhaps to "keep order" in a few localities.

This anti-militia reading of the Revolution rests on a complete neglect of the guerrilla aspects of the war. But to continue with Edmund Burke: "I can well conceive a country completely overrun, and miserably wasted, without approaching in the least to settlement." Further: "The whole of those maxims upon which we have made and continued this war must be abandoned."3

As the war dragged on and public opinion in England hardened, the anti-war criticisms of the Rockingham Whigs became more muted. But Burke had spotted the main outlines of the imperial dilemma. From the American side, the irrepressible Thomas Paine sketched out the logic of people’s war in The Crisis Papers. He compared the war to "a game of draughts" and although he never ceased to call for the creation of an effective army, he realized that the loss of any particular piece of real estate such as Philadelphia or Charleston was not decisive in a revolutionary war. What mattered was that local forces stay in the fight, exploiting their natural advantages against an external invader, until a large army could be formed for a decisive final battle. Thus: "It is not the conquest of towns, nor the accidental capture of garrisons, that can reduce a country so extensive as this. The sufferings of one part can ever be relieved by the exertions of another, and there is no situation the enemy can be in, that does not afford to us the same advantages that she seeks herself."4

The Bergen County, New Jersey, militia was made up of Dutch-American partisans. Its members rotated duties, so as to permit farming and other normal activities to go on, kept order locally, and made a very important contribution to the war in their sector. As "sand in the gears" they were very good indeed. They will have to stand in for other cases, as they are one of the few such partisan units which has been studied in detail.5


To start with, these matters have some bearing on the meaning of the Second Amendment, but that is a debate we need not get into today. The possible role of decentralized military units in the genuine defence of a post-imperial America is not without interest in our times. Strangely, former Senator Gary Hart has written a book on the matter, but I have yet to study it fully.

Suffice it to say that the "lessons" of the American Revolution, if we can ever agree on what they are, might suggest some advantages of decentralized defence. Equally important, there may be a lesson or two from the imperial standpoint. Decentralized, flexible opponents can be very troublesome for imperialists. True, a sufficiently ruthless imperial power can crush guerrilla opponents, as in the second Anglo-Boer War, but it does so at a significantly higher material and moral cost.

There is also the small matter of the impact of imperial policy, successful or unsuccessful, on the domestic life of the imperialist nation. This is something we dwell on around here. As Burke put it, "Contending for an imaginary power, we begin to acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of honest equality. The principles of our forefathers become suspected to us, because we see them animating the present opposition of our children.... All dread of a standing military force is looked upon as superstitious panic. All shame of calling in foreigners and savages in a civil contest is worn off. We grow indifferent to the consequences to ourselves from the plan of ruling half the empire by mercenary sword.... Many things have been long operating towards a gradual change in our principles; but this American war has done more in a very few years than all the other causes could have effected in a century."6

A final thought: it is a hallmark of the anti-militia reading of the Revolution that ideology is neglected. Yet, John Adams wrote that the change of the American mind about our relation to the Crown was the Revolution. The "American synthesis" – as Robert Shalhope calls it – was a perhaps imprecise fusion of republican theory, Lockean liberalism, English law, and Protestantism. Exact or not, it was the ideology which made the Revolution possible and, then, necessary, and which over time made the Revolution more radical. The ideological dimension goes far in explaining the persistence of colonial partisans in the face of discouragement and "free-riders" and further shows in what sense the Revolution was indeed a people’s war.


  1. John Shy quoted in William F. Marina, "Revolution and Social Change: The American Revolution as a People’s War," Literature of Liberty, 1, 2 (April/June 1978), p. 26.
  2. William F. Marina, "The Dutch-American Guerrillas of the American Revolution" in Morgan Norval, ed., The Militia in 20th-Century America (Falls Church, Va.: Gun Owners Association, 1985), p. 103 (his emphasis).
  3. Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches, ed., Peter J. Stanlis (New York: Anchor Books, 1963), pp. 194-196
  4. Thomas Paine, Common Sense and the Crisis (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1973 [1776, 1792], p. 193.
  5. See Adrian Leiby, The American Revolutionary War in the Hackensack Valley (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1963); Leiby’s findings are summarized by Marina in "Dutch-American Guerrillas," pp. 104-125.
  6. Edmund Burke, p. 208 (my emphasis).

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