On this special edition I speak with Joseph Ellis, historian and author of Founding Brothers which won a Pulitzer Prize for history, American Sphinx, which is a biography of Thomas Jefferson and which won the national book award and His Excellency, George Washington, which was a New York Times bestseller.
Joseph Ellis (JE) It's a pleasure to be here, Michael.
JE: People asked me that question over time, because I have focused on what I call the American founding - the last quarter century of the 18th century. The American Revolution, as we call it, they called it the cause, is the first portion of that period. And so, without knowing that I was doing, I was writing the history of the American founding backwards. And I don't get to the start, which is this book until the end. For those who say, Well, why are you so fascinated with the American founding, the late 18th century? And I given my Willie Sutton answer. Willie was a bank robber who kept robbing banks and kept getting caught. And the police eventually, or the lawyers said, Willie, why do you keep robbing banks? And having to pay the price in jail? He said, because that's where they keep the money. It's not money, but it's the ideas and values on which the American Republic continues to be based, we hope continues. And so it's the mother lode, if you will. It's the big bang in the history of the American political universe. And we can never know enough about it, it seems to me. So my motives are presentistic in the sense that I think that Americans need to know how we got to be who we are.
MJT: Your book is called The Cause. What, to you, exactly is the cause, and did it change over time?
JE: The term exactly is difficult to apply, because the strength of the clause as the cause is its ambiguity and its ability to expand or contract over time. It's a kind of verbal canopy within which different sections of the American colonies and then states can come together. In apparent agreement.
Initially, the term was the common cause. And that was a term used to describe all the other 12 colonies who come together to support Massachusetts in 1775, after the Boston Tea Party, and after the Coercive Acts are passed, which allowed Great Britain to impose military rule over Massachusetts, and especially Boston. So initially, the common cause means coming together, a Continental Congress is called to oppose British invasion, if you will.
Over time, they dropped common and it becomes the cause. And in fact, if you want to be historically correct, nobody calls it the American Revolution during the time it's going on. It comes into existence later, in order to differentiate it from the French Revolution. But they simply call it the cause. The British call it the American rebellion. And in my treatment, here, it becomes this, as I say, verbal canopy in which people gather.
They don't agree on what they're for. But they agree on what they're against: the attempt by Great Britain to impose their own will on the American colonies, without the colonists' consent, initially to tax them, then to legislate for them in all ways. And finally, to bring a military definition to the problem by occupying Boston and attempting to impose a military rule over that most intransigent of all the colonies.
MJT: The founders themselves probably would have disagreed on an exact definition of the cause themselves, especially at the beginning of the war. A lot of them were in it for very different reasons. And quite frankly, I don't think any of them were exactly sure where it was going.
There's a moderate faction. In my interpretation, it creates the framework for what is a prudent revolution. And those two terms would normally not be associated. But it's a group of people who are extremely reluctant to break with Great Britain. And so the phrase that Jefferson coins or uses in the famous document, the Declaration is prudence dictates that governments long established should not be abandoned for light and transient causes, unlike the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution afterwards, the leaders of what we call the American Revolution, didn't want to be revolutionaries. They weren't all just intellectuals and philosophers. They were experienced statesmen and lawyers. They came at this decision much more apprehensively, much more cautiously, than what you think of as normal revolutionaries.
MJT: George Washington famously wrote at the First Continental Congress that no thinking man in America could be supporting independence. It really wasn't in a lot of people's minds at that time.
I think you're right, you see three different factions, you have the John Adams faction, who really has kind of gotten fed up with the British and all the horrible things they've been doing. You've got the John Dickinson faction that's kind of in the middle that really wants to do something about this, but it's not quite sure that full independence is the right way to go. And then you have the conservative faction that also attended the Congress. Men like Joseph Galloway, who were upset about British policy, but there was no way they were going to go against the king.
JE: Right, right. That's a good set of distinctions, I think Michael. People like Galloway are the ones and Hutchinson in Massachusetts, the ones who end up was loyalists.
Adams is the man who believes that the moderates are waiting for a Messiah who will never come. They're waiting for George the Third to rescue the British government from the kind of blunder that Parliament has made in committing itself to some kind of military action in the colonies.
In my interpretation here, and some British historians don't like this. I'm saying that the decision to militarize this conflict from a constitutional political conflict to a war is perhaps the greatest blunder in the history of British statecraft. This need not have happened, American history need not have taken the course it did. Eventually, not just Parliament, but George the Third himself, steps across the line.
So think of it this way and see if this doesn't sound eerily familiar. A newly arrived world power brimming over with confidence, sure of its own military and economic supremacy, having just acquired a third of a continent in North America during the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years War, as they called, it, steps into a quagmire. And once they do, they're in a war, which they really can't win.
My assessment is at odds with some of the views that say, it was a miracle that the Americans won the war. And Washington himself lends credibility to that interpretation. When at the end of the war, he says, anybody who writes a real history of this war will be accused of writing fiction because nobody would believe we could win against the greatest army and navy in the world. And if you think about it, you know, here's a question, Michael, how many wars did Great Britain lose between 1750 and 1950? And the correct answer is one. So in some sense, looking back from that perspective, it's a miracle we win the war.
But if you begin to understand what problems the British face in this war, and I try to help the reader understand that, it's going to be almost impossible for the British to win. Though, it is possible for the Americans to lose it. And they almost do. It's a roller coaster ride for seven and a half years from 75 to 83, or 81. depending if you want to make your count the end of the war.
Franklin thought that this shouldn't have happened. The proper direction of the British Empire should have been to accept America's terms, allow the colonial assemblies some measure of sovereignty, especially with regard to taxation, but keep them in the empire, bound together with the navigation acts, but let them have a good deal of political independence and continue to be part of the empire in what we now call the British Commonwealth.
It doesn't go in that direction. Later on. That's the way Canada, Australia and New Zealand getting closed within the British Commonwealth. But the United States goes in a different direction. And so we have this 25-30 year compressed period of time, when the institutions and values of what comes to be the largest nation sized republic in the world is created.
MJT: I think places like Canada and Australia have some thanks to us, because Britain learned its lesson in America,
JE: The Canadians don't think of it that way. Because, you know, the War of 1812 puts them in a different frame of mind, I think, but it's true, we give the British a lesson which they learn into the next century, and therefore apply their definition of imperialism, more, at least in certain areas. Notice that they tend to apply it only in those places where the people are white and English-speaking. They don't apply it in the Middle East. They don't apply it in Africa, and they don’t apply it in India. But in the places we've mentioned it, you're welcome into the British Empire.
MJT: A lot of people will blame King George, individually, for this leading to revolution and independence. It was his speech in 1775, where he basically said, the colonies will either be in complete submission or independence, there's really no middle ground, that drove most Americans to independence.
In some ways, the king was trying to be a good leader based on his precedents, which were, say the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, where the king broke with Parliament and was trying to work against Parliament. And in this case, he was backing Parliament, backing Parliament's authority, backing Parliament as the premier power of British Empire. And of course, that was no longer going to work for the colonies.
JE: That's a good point and one that needs to get made. But to reverse it, in a way it's that he is enhancing his own monarchical power by claiming to be representing the interests of Parliament. It's a tricky thing that he's doing and no monarch after George the Third ever exercises the degree of royal power that he does. They limit him after this. And the other variable here is he comes to power himself, right after the British acquired this huge third of a continent.
This should sound familiar to Americans, too. It's an early version of the domino theory. If we allow the Americans to secede or to be independent, what happens to Canada? What happens to Jamaica? What happens to Malta? What happens to India? In other words, He's fearful that any weakness and any willingness to compromise with the Americans will lead to the loss of the entire British Empire. And again, that should have a familiar ring to Americans.
MJT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think it's true. Every King stays in power, because he knows when to share power appropriately. And when to take power away appropriately. If you share too much, you end up descending into chaos and with almost nothing yourself, and if you try to take too much you end up getting overthrown. I think here are King George thought he was going one direction when in perhaps he should have gone the other.
JE: Later on, in some of his private correspondence. This is before it begins to lose his senses. He acknowledges that this was a mistake. And to some extent, the British Ministry by 1778, once the war has not gone as well, as they thought to put it mildly. They essentially offer the American colonies a deal. That's everything that the colonists said they wanted in 1775. We won't tax you will let your own legislatures do that. We'll even let you have a continental congress, for gosh sakes. As long as you stay with us in the empire, with the Navigation Acts and with trade going back and forth between the two parties.
If they had made that offer in 75, we wouldn't have had a war, but it's too late. By then too many people have been killed. Too many women have been raped. Too many towns have been destroyed by the British Navy. And so it's just too late.
MJT: I think that's right that you're talking about the 1778 Carlisle Commission, which gave us everything we wanted. But by that time, the Americans just didn't trust Britain. I think they were worried that yes, you promise this now. But 10 years from now, when France isn't in a war with you and things are different. You're going to come back in and try to claw back power from us.
JE: It doesn't have to get to that if you've experienced the war directly. In the town of now-Portland, it was called Falmouth then, is burned to the ground by the British Navy firing early versions of cannons that were sort of like napalm into the town. 3000 people live there. At Bunker Hill all the American Soldiers who have been wounded and lying on the ground are banned netted to death by the British soldiers coming up with so frustrated because their own losses were so high in that battle. If you lived in the countryside in New Jersey, and you owned a farm, and the British came through, especially if it was a Hessian or a loyalist unit, which were most cruel and barbaric. They raped all the women and hung the men and burned your house down. And so it wasn't because you sat down and read the Declaration of Independence about liberty. Your experience itself during this war is what shapes your convictions and Washington's the spokesperson for that, at least at a national level.
One of the points of the book is to recover the rather barbaric character of the war itself, that most of our images of the war are shaped by artists like Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stewart and it's a kind of romanticized iconic view of the war as a kind of etiquette that we and the soldiers nicely lined up in prim uniforms. The war was much more savage than that it was face to face combat at the end with bayonets. In terms of casualty rates. More Americans died per capita in this war than in any war in American history, save the Civil War. If we had a Goya, instead of a Trumbull, if we had, what's the name of the photographer for the Civil War?
MJT: Matthew Brady
JE: Matthew Brady, if we had a Matthew Brady, for this one, we would think of it and envision it quite differently. For those who experienced it directly, especially at the level of the Continental Army, it was a survival test.
MJT: One of the big changes I saw in the cause was at the point of the Declaration of Independence. Before that you hear most of the leadership talking about their rights as Englishmen, and that they're trying to preserve their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration of Independence, and before that, you see with I guess, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, but the spirit of 76 is that comes out, turns away from the rights of Englishmen and talks about universal rights, inalienable rights, right of all men natural rights given by God, which is a little bit different, and it opens their...
JE: I'll say, it’s a truly a more expansive definition of rights. I mean, there are some Americans like Dickinson who retain, the lesser, that this is a violation of British law, the American argument initially, and Dickinson more than anybody else is one who makes it most clearly in ways that people read: that we're the conservatives. The British are the radicals. The British are violating the rules of the British Empire as established under law, under the Glorious Revolution, and that we're the ones who are insisting that we have rights as Englishmen. And the argument the colonists make at that stage are that there is a plot afoot to enslave us.
Now on the face of it, that's pretty hyperbolic. And it is. In fact, what Britain is saying, we have a plan afoot to consolidate our control over our North American empire. And that requires that you recognize that you're second-rate British citizens, i.e. colonists. The Americans characterize that as slavery. Because once they surrender control to Parliament, there's no guarantee as to what their rights are going to be after that. And in that sense, slavery is, is it well, an exaggeration, it's not totally crazy.
Once you move from British rights to natural rights, you've expanded the political universe enormously. That's the reason why the term American Revolution isn't totally wrong. This is a war for colonial independence with a revolutionary agenda. Namely, that any form of government that is coercive rather than consensual is wrong. And all individuals possess rights as individuals that cannot be violated.
Adams is sitting in the Second Continental Congress and starting to get letters, including from Abigail, saying, by the way, the implications of our argument, the argument you're hurling at George the Third and Parliament are pretty interesting. Like, what about the property qualification to vote? What about the rights of women? What about slavery? And all of those huge things are implied in the agenda that we are creating in 76.
It's the reason why, throughout American history, prominent figures like say, Lincoln it Gettysburg, you know, four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth in this continent a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Oh my goodness, think about the racial implications of that. And when Martin Luther King appears on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of, what is it 68? . And says, I've come to collect on a promissory note written by Thomas Jefferson. So that this is the big bang in the American political universe. And it occurs exactly the way you said, Michael. It's a shift from our rights as Englishmen to our rights as human beings. And boy, that is a huge, huge change.
MJT: I think that's right. And I think that's one of the points that's often overlooked by people that look at the revolution. They criticize the founders for not ending slavery, not giving women the right to vote, all those things. But the founders are the people who first raise the bar to make that the goal at least I think, if you look in the 1740s, or 1750s, even Quakers owned slaves at that time. It just wasn't that controversial. And these notions of universal rights and natural rights to all is what opened up the argument for ending slavery, for giving women the right to vote, for all these things that came decades, sometimes generations later.
JE: Right. You and I are on the same page here. But let me assure you that there is a group of people and some of the professional historians who don't agree with us on this. I think that this is a prudent revolution. And if you believe that justice delayed is justice denied, then you're going to be frustrated with this revolution. Because, unlike the French Revolution, which attempts to embrace and adopt its full agenda immediately and therefore self-destructs and produces a monarch, or a dictator, Napoleon, the American Revolution is a cautious revolution, a prudent revolution.
And if you say, well, they should have attempted to end slavery immediately. Any attempt to do that would have destroyed the unity necessary to win the war. Because the deep southern states, especially the Carolinas, and Georgia would not have participated. Same thing's going to happen at the Constitutional Convention.
And if you say, well, they should have just called their bluff. Well, let me assure you, they weren't bluffing. They weren't bluffing in 1861. either. You're getting to the to the heart of a contemporary political controversy. All straight lines in nature, are you look again, and all straight lines, looking back to the past, when you see a direct connection between what you want to happen and what really did happen, question yourself again.
The American Revolution creates the liberal agenda. But it differs its enactment for a long time. But when the women gather at Seneca Falls in 1848, they say, We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men and women are created equal. There is a strong strong connection here between every liberal achievement over the next two centuries, and the values created at that moment in '76.
MJT: I think that's exactly right. People kind of assume that because they use the term United States in the Declaration of Independence that there being a union of states was kind of a given. And it really, really wasn't even until after the passage of the Constitution, it was not a given that the states would remain united.
JE: That's right in the late 18th century. Again, your listeners need to know this. The term United States was a plural noun. They didn't say the United States is this in the United States are. Pluribus was dominant over Unum. There's a deep reason for that they didn't read political treatises, well some of them did to come to this conclusion. But the average ordinary American, was born living out his or her live and died within a three day horse ride. The perception of ordinary citizens was local, not continental or national.
Hamilton wrote this series called the Continentalist - said, we need to think continentally. If you served in the Continental Army, this was natural for you. If you served in the Continental Congress, this was natural, because you were looking at the broader picture. But that wasn't true for the vast majority of the American citizenry. And this holds true just as you said, Michael, through the Constitution, and even through Washington's presidency.
One of the reasons at Washington, when the first things he does is that I'm going to visit all the states personally, because they don't think of themselves as part of a union. They think of themselves as residents of a town or a county, or at most a state. So we're reading back and nationalism that didn't exist at that time. In that sense, the achievement of especially Washington over time as the symbol of United America, Washington's achievement is even greater than we realize because Washington created the nation, the union that Lincoln saved, and it didn't exist before him.
MJT: Right and it didn't even exist for him earlier in his life, he grew into it as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. You look back to the French and Indian War, Washington considered himself a Virginian. And he was almost apoplectic when the British decided to give Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania rather than Virginia. He was very much the provincialist and that way, you see it even in 1775, when it comes up to New England, the way he speaks of the New Englanders, at least in private letters is not exactly...
JE: He gets himself into trouble with the press there. And because he talks about the New Englanders, as ruffians and New England militia are sort of pissing in the water, literally and shooting their guns in the air. And so his comments are inappropriate.
Though, one of the reasons he's chosen to be head of the Continental Army is that he's a Virginian and they need Virginia in the conflict. Adams said that we picked him to be the commander in chief because he was the tallest man in the room. That's a bit of a joke.
The war for Washington is an educational experience. He traveled beyond Virginia only once in his life. As a young man, he went to Barbados with his brother when his brother was ill.
MJT: He got smallpox as thanks.
JE: Smallpox, right. He caught smallpox there, and therefore he's immune for the rest of his life. It's an educational experience in multiple senses. I say, Jefferson went to William & Mary, Adams went to Harvard, Washington went to war, both in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.
Prior to that, as you were saying earlier, you read his letters on slavery, he just talks about blacks and slaves as if they're animals, as if they're part of you know, his cows and his sheep. And he has no moral sense of that whatsoever. That changes dramatically during the war. When he goes north, he experiences different points of view. But in addition, at any given point, between 5% and 15% of the Continental Army, is African American. His manservant, Billy Lee is with him throughout the war, and with him every day of the week. He's listening to Hamilton to Lafayette to another man that ought to be better. And everything, John Laurens, who's telling them that this war is based on principles, which are incompatible with slavery, and you got to face up to this, and we should begin to do it during the war by recruiting more black troops. They do recruit in the Rhode Island regiment, which is almost entirely African American, what becomes the elite combat unit in the Continental Army.
So he sees black people doing things that before he couldn't imagine. You want him to be completely educated, you want him to take the right action, before he dies. And he doesn't, just looking strictly at Washington, and I written a biography of Washington, twenty years ago. It's an educational process that stops just short of complete commitment to the view that.. Although he does say to Jefferson at one point, if this is after the war, during the 1790s, if the sectional split between North and South leads to war, I will be siding with the North, which is interesting. He's the only Virginian that I know of it says that.
MJT: He did really become a national leader at a time when there really weren't any of them. I always felt like the Revolution really did give birth to the abolition movement, that it's not something that really pre-existed the Revolution other than a real few oddballs, talking about it.
JE: Well, they weren't oddballs. They were Quakers mostly. And then the Evangelicals of their day. Interestingly, the Methodists and Baptists, they initially take the strong position, not against slavery, per se, but against the slave trade, especially Benezet whose starting in the 1740s and 50s. From their point of view, it's a totally moral question. These are all God's children, etc, etc.
But it is the Revolution that creates the more much more expansive agenda. The first abolitionist society in the world is created in Philadelphia in 1776. And so you're right, the abolitionist movement begins with the war and with the values of the Revolution, and then instead of condemning them for failing to go all the way at that moment, I think we should go back and recognize that they begin the discussion and the argument that we're continuing to have as a people
MJT: I've read, as late as the 1750s, of a Quaker being kicked out of his meeting for talking about abolition. He was in favor of abolition and they kicked him out. So even as late as that, and I think it wasn't until the early 1770s, that Quakers finally made it. You couldn't be a Quaker and have slaves.
JE: That's right. Different Quaker meetings, made decisions at different times. But by the time you get to '76, if you're a Quaker, you can no longer have slaves or else you're, you're alienated from the meeting. Washington later on is told by a lot of his Quaker friends or people residing in Virginia: you need to free your slaves, you need to free your slaves. But watching this, where were you when I needed you, because the Quakers sit out the war as their pacifists. It's not just Washington, but the Quakers are spokesmen for an abolitionist agenda. And they're dismissed by a lot of American statesmen at the time, because their failure to commit to the cause at the time that it was in most peril.
MJT: Sure, they were not only pacifists, they were they believed in the divine right of kings that could never be questioned as a matter of religion.
MJT: But I mean, that just goes to show how uncontroversial even slavery was before the Revolution. It wasn't even a matter of serious debate. We've cut sometimes forget that slavery existed in all 13 colonies, and that half of them ended slavery shortly after the war.
JE: At the very end of the war, Vermont, where I'm currently located, is the first in 1777. It's not even a state yet. They won't let us in at that time. It ends slavery. And of course, there's like five slaves in the entire state. Throughout the other northern states over the next 10 years, gradual emancipation plans are established.
But only 10% of the African American population lives north of the Chesapeake. And so 90% lives further, South. Virginia has the largest slave population at 300,000. South Carolina, as a percentage is the largest- 60% of South Carolina is African American.
As long as the issue is slavery, there's a consensus that it has to end. It's incompatible with the cause. But if the question then becomes what happens to the freed slaves, you've got real problems, because in the north, all the states create segregated communities. You can't vote if you're African American. You can't serve in militia or in juries. And in the southern states, because the numbers are so large, it becomes impossible to imagine a free black population. Let's say Tidewater, Virginia, Virginia is 40%, African American. In Tidewater, it's 80%. And that's where Washington and Jefferson are.
The discussion there is really revealing because it is very difficult for people in the late 18th century to imagine a truly biracial or multiracial society. They can imagine a nation-sized Republic. They can imagine a secular state that has no religious establishment. Those are huge imaginative leaps. They have a very difficult time. Now some of them can. Among the leaders, Washington eventually can I think Hamilton can. But for the ordinary American populace, it is unimaginable to have a genuinely multiracial society. And I would say that it's like 80% to 90% of the white population at the end after the war, can it 80% to 90% believes that African Americans must be separated. And in some cases, Jefferson would say they have to be moved elsewhere. The word he uses expatriation.
I think, again, this is a very rough guess that if you tried to poll people in the 21st century, American whites, there's still a significant minority - but significant minority of the white Americans who do not believe that Martin Luther King's dream is anything but a nightmare. So that the racism legacy comes out of the founding. And we're still dealing with it in a profound way.
MJT: I always felt that, in some ways, it wasn't racism that led to slavery. It was slavery that led to racism, in that we see a move backwards on the issue in the early 1800s. Where people are trying to rationalize the idea of all men are created equal with the institution of slavery. And you end up with the justifications that people like, Senator Calhoun from the South Carolina
JE: A good Yale boy. Yeah, yeah.
MJT: Called slavery, a positive good.
JE: You don't get that argument in the 18th century. That becomes the antebellum argument of the southern states.
MJT: But that argument comes into existence because they're trying to counter the argument of all men are created here. And their argument then is: well, slaves aren't men.
JE: That's right. The argument that the southern states are going to adopt is that we're in, we endorse the values the American Revolution, we have rights of property, and slaves or property. There's a professor at William and Mary named [Thomas] Dew in the 1840s, who makes this case, very prominently, I'm afraid to say, that, in the Declaration, Jefferson changes the trinity, that is the Lockean trinity: life, liberty, and property. That's John Locke's definition of the human rights that are eternal and omniscient. He changes it from life, liberty, and property, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now he gets that phrase from Mason, George Mason, who's using it in the Virginia constitution. But Mason says life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, at least at a rhetorical level, Jefferson takes the property argument out of the hands of the South. Again, what Pursuit of Happiness means is been argued for the rest of American history. But the Declaration, as Jefferson wrote it, was designed to avoid allowing that kind of argument to be made in Virginia, at least.
There's a great, now deceased, but late, great Yale historian named David Brion Davis, who probably in his time is up until fairly recently was the great historian of slavery worldwide, and America as well. And he coined the phrase, it's an awkward phrase, but one that bears scrutiny and thought. The phrase is, the perishability of revolutionary time.
What he means is that there was a moment starting in the 1770s, into the 1780s, where if you'd experienced the war and experienced the cause, you internalized a set of values, which, as long as they were alive, were going to lead to the end of slavery, and to a larger degree of equality in the society. If you experienced, and it wasn't just you sat down and read the Declaration. You didn't have, you know, if you were a black, you didn't have to read the Declaration of Independence, by the way to think you ought to be free. It creates this airburst, and this moment, this explosion, which you would lived through it, you carried a set of convictions, that once that generation passes, it fades.
For us who are interested in the American Revolution as a groundswell of values. And that's what we both are interested in. Notice that this is, as I've said, at the start the big bang in American political history, and going back to recover that is really important. The antebellum south is going to claim, and the Confederacy is going to claim, in 1861, that they're adopting the values of the American Revolution.
I'm from Virginia, originally. My wife is from Mississippi. They've got plausible claim here, in the sense that the Confederacy in 1860-61 is pretty much the kind of government that we get, after the Revolution, the Articles of Confederation. And they can claim, and do claim, that they're fighting to defend themselves against an invasion by a hostile force. And Lincoln becomes George the Third, and that their issue at stake is really their own right to control their states and states rights.
MJT: I guess rewriting history is nothing new for them either. Because right before the Civil War, they were claiming that the federal government and all the Founding Fathers opposed any ability to control slavery, and Lincoln actually made his political rise in 1860. With the Cooper Union speech where he specifically dispels that myth, he goes through and looks at votes and speeches of all the Founding Fathers and said no, they oppose slavery, in the Northwest Territory.
JE: That's right. And he becomes a historian, really does. He does his own research. I'm thinking of writing about this in the next effort I make. There's a Methodist minister, who is writing against slavery. And he coined this phrase, and this is where Lincoln gets it. In the Cooper Union, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Slavery is a contradiction of the values on which this republic is based. That's what Lincoln argues.
Now notice, Lincoln doesn't say, it gives him the power to end slavery in the Deep South. It only gives him the power to end slavery in the incoming territories. So he's prepared to accept that the founders isolated slavery in the deep south, and hoped it would die a natural death. They didn't foresee the cotton gin. They didn't foresee the cotton kingdom. Jefferson thought it would die a natural death because he believed that slave labor couldn't compete with free labor. They were wrong about that. But Lincoln was right to go back and say the south's claim one of the founders is misguided.
MJT: Getting back to the revolution for a minute, because we're moving way off.
JE: Yeah. That's what the book is really about. Yes.
MJT: But it set the tone for all these future events. The reason the Americans were really able to win was because so many of the common people were committed to the cause, as you call it, right, we see a General Gage and this was a general view of all the British they seem to think that you could take 5000-man army and conquer North America without a problem because trained, regular soldiers can fight a million uncoordinated civilians.
JE: Yeah, one British officer backing up, the officer clubs in London says, Give me 500, not 5000 men and I can walk across America and castrate all the males.
MJT: To be fair, they’d done this in Ireland and Scotland and places like that, where a very small number of regulars really control a much larger population. But New England proved different. I mean, General Gage came over in 1774, ready to enforce the Intolerable Acts. And the people found them intolerable. And they rose up and he remember marched out to break up a town meeting, I think, in 1774, which was against one of the new laws, and was met by militiamen and rifles, a lot larger number of men with muskets, than he had regulars and he had to cut and run. And he ended up basically being trapped in Boston, even before Lexington, because the people just would not stand for it.
JE: Once the British Army moved outside of Boston, who was in it was an enemy territory.
JE: There's one event that I think I enclosed in the book as a General Leslie who's told to go to Salem, and take ammunition out of the ammunition depot there. And so he takes a small regiment of about 800 guys marching out there. And the Minutemen live up to their names, and they are standing at the bridge, there's 4000 of them, okay, 4000. And Leslie comes to the bridge and says he has orders to cross the bridge and take the ammunition out of the ammunition depot there. The militia commander says, You may walk across the bridge, and then simply walk back. But if you attempt to take any of the ammunition, we will kill every one of you. And so Leslie does that he marches up, and then he marches out and through the 4000, back to Boston.
That's a picture of especially in New England, of what impossible situations they face. Like if you're a judge, and you say you're going to continue to be loyal to the King, they come to your house, and they have a noose around the tree in front of your house. And there's 5000 of them - 5000 of them! You are required to sign a pledge that you will not abide by British law. That's New England, and New England is really hostile throughout the war in terms of the territory, the land outside of Boston, and then eventually in Boston itself.
You've raised a question that I hope the book attempts to answer. The reason the British can't win the war, is that they can win every battle and still lose the war. And they almost do that. And one Admiral British Admiral said, it's like a ship going through the ocean and behind the ship, the wake closes over where you've been.
Why is it that the countryside is so staunchly patriotic? It goes like this. In 1775, the Continental Congress creates this organization called the Continental Association. This is a multifaceted thing. Every colony, every town in the colony, every county in the colony, every hamlet in the county is urged to create committees of Safety and Inspection. So there's thousands of these committees. Each of them has five or six or 10. In some cases in Philadelphia, the like 50 people on them.
They come to your house, and initially that you have to sign a pledge to say that you're not going to purchase British goods that are a violation of the importation agreement or non-importation agreement. But then after '76, they come to your house, you're standing at the doorway and a woman comes that you know, is your neighbor, okay? She says, oh, Micheal, we'd like you to sign this commitment to the cause. And we'd be pleased to have you join us in our commitment. And if you say I'm sorry, I'm not sure I can do this, she'll say, Oh, that's okay. Take your time. I'll be back next week. She comes back the next week. You say I'm not sure. And she says, Well, I'm really sorry, Michael, but your name will now be published in the newspaper as person guilty of treason. And you will not be able to go to church you will not be able to buy material goods from into local merchants and not be able to come to the dance next week. And that's the way it's going to be. And then we're going to come back again and say, Is it time for you to change your mind? And if you say, No, it's time for you to move because otherwise you're going to get well they're not going to kill you this is going to burn your house down.
There is a huge loyalist diaspora during an after the war because unlike the French Revolution of the Russian Revolution, they don't kill them. They don't send them to the guillotine. They just banish them. But what that creates is on the ground control. So that once the British Army comes through, everybody is quiet and everything and then when they leave, if you've sided with them, you better go with them. Okay? So like the when they evacuate Philadelphia, there's 3000 loyalists to go with them. When they evacuate later New York, of course, they have to do the same thing. Same thing in Charleston and Savannah, it becomes impossible for Great Britain to control territory.
This is why what you said much earlier, this is not going to be like a war against Scotland or Ireland. This is a continent, okay? This is not just coastal at this stage. They can never win the war. In order to really win the war, they need at least 100,000 troops, and they have to be there permanently. It'd be like a Northern Ireland a hundred times all over again. And eventually they just cut their losses. But it's this local control that creates that political situation.
MJT: It took them a while to understand that I think first they realize, okay, New England's ungovernable, we'll just cut them off and raid the Mid Atlantic colonies and isolate New England. And they, they do the shock and awe and they take over New York and New Jersey. And they realize that yeah, people will give lip service to loyalty. But as soon as Washington crosses the Delaware, it's all over.
JE: The initial British strategy is to isolate New England. That's the seat of the rebellion, they think, the real source. So we're going to invade New York. Howe and his army will come up the Hudson, another British army will come down from Canada, on the Hudson corridor, and they'll seal off New England. Then those two armies together, which by then will be almost 40,000 troops, 35,000 to 40,000 will march across New England from west to east, devastating everything. The navy will be bombarding the coast. And that'll be the end of it.
I think if they had succeeded in that the army would have been annihilated. I think that the New England militia would rally and you would have been in enemy territory for a prolonged period of time. I think the war might have ended earlier. Now that's a hypothesis that I've never heard anybody else make. But if if they had succeeded in doing what they thought they were going to do a New England. Now I'm committed New Englander. New England would have killed them all.
MJT: Yeah, a good analogy might be the Americans in Vietnam, they could march anywhere through the town they wanted, but they were had to watch their back every second that somebody would shoot them.
JE: I'm afraid there's truth in that, yes.
MJT: So they took the Mid Atlantic states, they realized that was uncomfortable. And then they tried strike three, and they invaded the southern colonies and did the same thing there.
JE: The southern strategy, good for a while. But the southern campaign was particularly vicious because the loyalists are really barbaric down there, and they generate, they're terrorists, and they generate, in the patriot side, an equally barbaric response. And so if you live in South Carolina or Georgia, Boy, I tell you, you know, one army comes through and then the other army comes through and foraging things and it's impossible to survive and it creates almost a tribal culture down there. It's almost like the early coming to the Hatfields and McCoys. The southern war is particularly barbaric. But in the end, the same thing happens when the British when it sounds great, except it generates a backlash at the local level and militia recruits increase. When they lose, it's worse. So if they win, they lose. If they lose, they lose.
MJT: In that sense, the war was lost before it was started, as you said at the beginning, because the people were just committed to not being ruled in this way.
But in another sense, the British did hope to win and I think this was their biggest chance of winning, was to let America collapse. In other words, this became a test of wills. The Americans weren't fighting the British at that point. They were fighting starvation and the lack of money to keep an army in existence. And the army almost collapsed several times there were mutinies. There were times when it dwindled down to a few thousand men. Keeping the army in the field was the key to winning the war. And they almost lost it on that basis alone several times.
JE: You are right on target, sir. We need to realize, as the 21st century American, support for the Continental Army started to decline almost immediately after the Declaration of Independence. Washington believed starting at the Boston siege in '75-'76, that we could have, the population of the United States permitted the army of at least 80,000, he says, All I want is 60,000.
He never got more than 12,000 to 15,000, because whereas there was willingness at the local level to serve in the militia, because this was where you lived. That wasn't in a willingness to serve in the Continental Army. And if you did serve, you serve for only one year, so that by the time you learned how to be a soldier, you left.
Washington and Hamilton believed that if they've been given what they asked for and what they needed. They could have won the war in two years. And I think that's, at least in retrospect, true, but they never got it. And in fact, the Continental Army was kept on life support. The tragedies of Valley Forge become the new normal. Every winter, the army declines in size from 10,000 to 12,000, to 3000 to 4000, as the one-year recruits leave, and the new ones haven't arrived.
If Generals Howe or Clinton had violated the sort of custom, namely, you don't fight in the wintertime - 18th century armies don't fight at one time, they take that off - if they had violated that they could have destroyed the Continental Army in any given year. But they don't do that.
In 1778-79, the Continental Congress forwards a request for $8 million to support the army that is pay food, the state's give them $338,000. The Continental Army is the core of the nation, if there is a nation, that's what it represents. But they don't want to support that. They view that as a standing army - as what we're against. And in that sense, that's the reason Washington says it's almost a miracle that we win the war. He calls it a standing miracle. I don't know what a sitting miracle or lying miracle would look like. And the British were correct to say, well, maybe we can't win it, but they'll lose it.
Now lose it after you can't get past the time the French are in the war in '78. If they lost it early in New York, the entire Continental Army captured, they would have sent Washington and all members of the Congress over to London, they would have been in a show trial, they'd all been executed, hung, and their heads cut off and put on spits. If they lose the war later, that wouldn't have happened. They would have simply been folded into what becomes an early version of the British Commonwealth.
But neither things happen. The army doesn't go out of existence. Yorktown is at the end of the war, that crucial battle. And if you want to look at luck, if you want to look at what Washington calls Providence. As I say, in the book, luck is evenly divided into Battle of Yorktown, the Americans in French have all the good, and the British have all the bad. And that's the last major battle in the war.
MJT: That always seemed like an odd campaign to me because the British had essentially decided after 1778 that they weren't going to engage in major offensive operations. They were going to hold a few major cities. They were going to basically cut off the Americans and maybe take some potshots at them from the coast. But they were basically going to sit it out and wait till the Americans just descend into chaos and rot and beg for the British to come back in. But then you have General Cornwallis that does this huge inland march through the Carolinas and Virginia and ends up getting his whole army captured,
JE: Cornwallis is a fascinating figure here. And he goes on. He's the one soldier that comes out of this, British officer, with his reputation intact because they think he's the British Hannibal, and therefore the other ones gets made into scapegoats, especially the Howes, but not Cornwallis. He's he has a great career in India. Now after that, as a British General.
There is this thing that happens in 1779, European powers Austria, Russia, Italy, get together in Austria and they come up with this. They say the entire European economy is being ruined by this ongoing war in the Americas. So let's exert our European power. It's a very Eurocentric view of itself, and establish the rule that this war should end. And as it ends, the country to controls that area gets that area. There's is a doctrine called uti possidetis, which means keep what you control.
So the Brits think, Well, okay, let's get control of Virginia and everything south of it. So that when - and what controlled means is an arguable question here. But if our army can successfully in a southern strategy, destroy the American army and the American militia, the ending is forced upon us, we will be able to claim everything, including Virginia, south of the Chesapeake. Washington knows this, the Americans know this. And that's the reason he sends General Greene south.
I think Greene's tactical war in the south is the most brilliant tactical performance by an American general throughout the war. Greene says I will lose my way to victory, because he understands the name of the game not to win battles, to prevent the British from controlling any of the territory. There is a moment there when it looks like the Continental Army is going to simply go out of existence. It's dissolve. People leave and they're not replaced. And it's at that moment that Yorktown happens. And it's pretty much a French operation.
Later in the 20th century, when the American Expeditionary Force arrives in Paris, the aid to general Pershing, who obviously was a West Point educated military historian says, Let Lafayette know we have arrived. We're paying you back for what you did for us.
MJT: After Yorktown, the British have pretty much given up at that point. The government falls. Lord Rockingham comes in place. And it's really only fighting over terms of the treaty that stretches the war out for another year or so. In the end, the British seem to give up an awful lot - all the western lands, Northwest Territory where they still had people that they're going to pull all their troops out of the major cities that they've occupied for years. They're even giving fishing rights off of Canada. Why did they want to give up so much, or are willing to give up so much just to end this silly war?
JE: Good question, Michael. It is the most lopsided diplomatic achievement in the history of American statecraft. Now, they've got some pretty good people representing them. Benjamin Franklin is, you know, Prometheus, as far as I'm concerned, and they've got John Adams, they've got [John] Jay.
There's this meeting in the Versailles library, where Jay meets with the Spanish diplomat, because France has a treaty with Spain and therefore we have to listen to what the Spanish want. They have a map of North America. Count Aranda is his name, puts his finger on Lake Erie and draws it straight down to what is now the Florida Panhandle. He says everything east of that is yours. Everything west of that is ours. Jay says I don't need to draw a line. And he points to the Mississippi. And he says everything east of that is ours. Everything west of that is yours.
Now he doesn't have cell phones. So he can't call back, because he's under no instructions one way or the other on this matter. But he says that the western third of the North American continent is non negotiable, as is independence.
And your question is why did the Brits agree to this? The short answer is the Americans have incredible leverage. Why? the Americans are willing to continue the war. Okay, you don't agree to this. Let's keep going. The Brits are just not politically willing to do that anymore. The has lost support. The Parliament - no longer does George the third control the Parliament. They've lost 50,000 men. There's no end in sight. Let's cut our losses. I think, I'm probably pushing this further than it can be. But think of us getting out of Afghanistan. It's an endless war. There's no winning in sight. Let's end it.
MJT: We weren't looking for terms. We just left.
JE: That's right, because you can't negotiate those terms when you lose.
MJT: One other thing I liked about your book, at the end of every chapter, you put in a little profile about some interesting person from the war. I thought that was very....It put a new dimension on the things that What made you come up with that?
JE: I thought that there were people who didn't directly influence the direction that history went but whose lives were very much shaped by it and who were interesting. And I wanted to make sure that there was a woman's voice there. I wanted to make sure that there are several women I wanted to make sure there was some African American voices there.
In that case, I chose Billy Lee, who was Washington's manservant throughout the war and probably saved his life more than once. And on the other side, an African American slaves also from Mount Vernon named Harry Washington, who ended up going over with the British and eventually being evacuated to Nova Scotia and eventually returning to Sierra Leone where we had originally been imprisoned. So that these are, in this case, to African Americans. One chooses the American Revolution and the other chooses the British side. Harry's not leading an insurrection. Harry just wants to be free, okay, and the British provide them with that opportunity.
Roughly the same number of black soldiers, African American soldiers served with the British Army to 8000-10,000 as served with the Continental Army, though in the Continental Army, they're combat troops. This war is the last war until Korea that the continent the American army is a genuinely interracial army.
MJT: The men even fought in integrated units,
JE: Integrated units. That's the word I'm looking for. Thank you, Michael. Yes,
MJT: I felt bad for Harry Washington. He takes the British sides and ends up rebelling against the British himself over issues of taxation without representation.
JE: He gets back to Africa, and he helps lead a rebellion against the rich for taxing them without their consent. This is too good to be true. You know, It's unbelievable.
MJT: So now that you finished with this book, and I do urge everyone to go out and get it. Are you working on anything new?
JE: I am, it's always good to sort of know where you're going after you're finished - as you're finishing a project. I've developed a bit but not fully at all the question of could the founders have ended slavery or put it on the road to extinction? I'm thinking of a book entitled American Tragedy: Why the founders failed, because they did fail in the end. And I guess the question I got in my mind, was it a Greek tragedy, Michael? Or was it a Shakespearean tragedy? A Greek tragedy means it was inevitable. The gods had willed it. Or was it a Shakespearean tragedy? With great leadership was it avoidable? Could would could history have taken a different path there? I suspect it's a Shakespearean tragedy.
But I also suspect we're asking a heck of a lot of the founding generation. But we asked a lot, who said they could ever established the first nation sized republic in world history? Who says we could have a genuinely secular society in terms of no religious establishment. Who said we could do away with the definition of sovereignty sort of as divided sovereignty, what we call federalism? There are a lot of things that were impossible to do that they did. How come this, which was also virtually impossible, they failed at? And so I'll be writing about that.
MJT: Sounds fascinating. Yeah. I've always wondered if John Laurens had lived and become a major leader in South Carolina. He was a staunch abolitionist by the end of his life.
JE: Oh yeah, John Laurens is a figure that I don't do a portrait of him or profile because he's in the book a lot. He is a young man who believes that the American Revolution is a war to end slavery. It must be that. And he is the an archetypal idealist, and he keeps risking his life in battles over and over and over again. He's almost got a suicidal impulse. And finally, at the end of the war - Yorktown has happened, but the Treaty of Paris hasn't been signed - in 1782. He leads this this attack on a British foraging unit and runs right into a volley and sit in the heart and dies.
If John Laurens had lived, he would have been another Hamiltonian figure. I mean, he's of that statute, and Hamilton was his best friend and vice versa. But he went down. And there's a lot of leaders that went down in the war because they were leaders. And that's what happens. And that's why Washington says - Washington should have gone down and a lot of times in life - Monongahela, the battle of Manhattan. In order to be successful as a leader you have to survive.
MJT: If you're an officer, you have to put your life on the line every day. If you don't put your life on the line, you're considered a coward. And if you do put your life on the line, you may lose it. Okay, well, we seem to have lost Dr. Ellis. Joseph Ellis, thanks again for appearing on the American Revolution Podcast.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ellis’ connection failed just as we were concluding the interview. So I didn't have a chance to thank him in person for his time and for a very enjoyable conversation.
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- American Dialogue: The Founders and Us (2018)
- The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 (2015)
- Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (2013).
- First Family: Abigail and John Adams (2010)
- American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (2007)
- His Excellency: George Washington (2004)
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000)
- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996)
- Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993)
- After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, 1979.