Their resolve fortified by the sturdy civic virtue of Cato and Brutus, and their idea of republican self-government indebted to Greco-Roman models, the founders of American independence deferred to the authority of the ancients, even as they embarked on a revolutionary political experiment. George Washington, for example, identified himself with Cato of Utica, whom the 18th-century British knew best through the medium of Addison’s popular tragedy Cato (1713). Lines from the play found their way into Washington’s letters and speeches, and, in defiance of Congressional resolutions against the attendance of public officials at plays, he had Cato performed at Valley Forge to inspire his troops. By inclination a foxhunting man, he was the least bookish of the leading founders, many of whom were much more deeply immersed in the classics. The selfless Cincinnatus, the reforming Solon, Cicero in his defence of the republican constitution – these were the cynosures of virtuous conduct for the founding generation.
Over two centuries later, today’s Americans display a similar reverence for the founding era itself. The generation of 1776-87 provides an unattainable benchmark for public virtue, political wisdom, statesmanship and heroism. Politicians and intellectuals – especially on the right – appear to regard Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and John Adams as the American equivalents of Plato, Aristotle, Cato and Brutus, while the wider culture acknowledges the near-superhuman qualities of the men of 1776. The founders in their periwigs, breeches and frockcoats hold a secure place in the popular iconography of American freedom, alongside comic-book heroes in capes and tights. David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, a federalist president who failed to secure re-election, has sold two million copies since it was published in 2001.
For all its sentimental and antiquarian dimensions, the cult of the founders has damaging political consequences. In particular, abject deference to the constitutional machinery devised in 1787, whose murky compromises are underacknowledged, tends to thwart the popular will and to stymie reformist impulses. Democrats proper, who have woken up in recent years to the dangers inherent in the electoral college, the equal representation of states – whether populous or empty – in the Senate and the judicial review of federal and state legislation, see little possibility of amending a venerated constitution. However, a few bold voices have questioned the infantile subservience of 21st-century citizens to 18th-century political solutions, foremost among them Robert Dahl in his devastating audit of the American political system, How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2002).
Dahl’s attempt to stir Americans from their cultic attachment to the founders is more than matched, however, by the efforts of conservatives to pickle the 18th century. The Federalist Society, named in honour of the Federalist Papers (1787-88) published by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, is a conservative law society dedicated to upholding with unswerving rigidity the original intent of the constitution’s founders. By 1998, the Society had around five thousand student members at 145 law schools, as well as fifteen thousand practising lawyers in local chapters across the country, including the independent prosecutor in the Whitewater-Lewinsky affair, Ken Starr, who was a member of the elite James Madison Club for major donors to the Society. When Hillary Clinton ‘imagined’ a vast right-wing conspiracy, the Federalist Society can’t have been far from her thoughts.
Nor is it lawyers alone who sustain the cult. In his Bancroft Prize-winning book, Arming America (2000), Michael Bellesiles, a historian at Emory University in Georgia, dared to challenge the view that the widespread possession of firearms in the mid-18th century had underpinned the success of the movement for independence, and found members of the National Rifle Association – as well as sceptical scholars – checking the accuracy of each of his footnotes. Bellesiles’s researches into early inventories could not withstand such intense scrutiny, and he eventually lost both his post at Emory and the Bancroft Prize after a rigorous inquiry by a committee of three historians, though it was held at the promptings of a firearms lobby wedded to the belief that the founders had inhabited a gun culture. Clearly, there is a darker side to the worship of the founders, and one can only speculate on the attraction of these dead white anglophone Protestant males – among them Virginian slaveholders – for parts of the South and the heartland.
The national obsession also manifests itself in healthier ways, not least in an avid public interest in the history of the second half of the 18th century. David McCullough’s 1776: America and Britain at War is designed both to cash in on the cult of the founding era and to act as a mild corrective to its excesses and misrepresentations. To be fair to McCullough, the book’s subtitle sits somewhat uneasily with a thesis that emphasises internal divisions within both Britain and the 13 colonies, which in itself provides a persuasive reminder of the commercial constraints under which an independent historian such as McCullough operates. Academic historians have enjoyed more freedom – the fate of Bellesiles notwithstanding – to puncture complacent myths of the founding era. Jon Butler’s Becoming America (2000), for instance, argues that by 1776 the colonies constituted a ‘multi-hued, multi-voiced’ society of English, Scots, Scots Irish, French Huguenots, Germans and Africans far removed from the historical fantasy of a pure Anglo-Saxon America conjured up by the racist right, while Tim Breen’s recent work on the American Revolution portrays the mid-18th century not as a lost age of heroes but as a consumer society with the same kind of mundane vitality as our own.
McCullough is much less daring. Indeed, he exemplifies best practice in a very traditional idiom. His narrative focuses primarily on the military events of 1776 and on the characters of the main participants. But, whereas many academic historians find it difficult to manage the elusive transmutation of raw archival material into compelling stories peopled by vivid, realistic personalities, McCullough has the imaginative capacity to reconstitute the inner lives of the long dead. Patient research, it’s true, feeds the historical imagination, and he has consulted more than seventy contemporary diaries in 25 major collections. The book is structured around three set-piece encounters: the patriots’ landward siege of Boston, from which the British eventually withdrew by sea in March 1776; the successful British campaign to take the city of New York in the late summer of 1776; and Washington’s stunning makeshift assault on the British across the River Delaware in the depths of the winter of 1776-77.
However conventional the storytelling, McCullough has a sophisticated – and quietly subversive – approach to narrative. Today’s America assumes the inevitability of victory in the War of Independence: in the long run, America was destined to become the lone global superpower, and the British Empire, given the effete gentility of its leaders, was fated to decline. In particular, 1776 – the year of the Declaration of Independence – is popularly misunderstood as the moment when independence was won. McCullough avoids the distortions inherent in broad time-frames, and presents instead the events of an iconic but frustratingly indecisive year in the history of the conflict between the rebel colonists and the British state. For participants in the patriot cause, he argues, 1776 did not mark the winning of independence, but was rather ‘a year of all too few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement and fear’. In the context of a war in which Britain held the stronger hand, the Declaration of Independence of 4 July was, as Americans are prone to forget, ‘no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth’.
McCullough displays a marked generosity in erasing the persistent caricature of America’s Hanoverian loyalists as a Tory elite who considered themselves the social betters of the democratic herd who supported the American cause. The loyalist community, he notes, included farmers, mechanics and ordinary tradesmen. Social status did not define the choice between loyalty to Britain or participation in the Revolution. Moreover, he understands that many loyalists saw themselves as the ‘true American patriots’. Indeed, the British relief of New York from patriot occupation is depicted the way many contemporary New Yorkers saw it, as a ‘liberation’.
Loyal American subjects of the Crown were genuinely mystified by the turn of events in 1775-76. McCullough gives space to the voices of British Americans disillusioned with the so-called patriot cause. Dr Sylvester Gardiner, for instance, in a letter to his son-in-law, contrasted the benign governance of the colonies under British rule with the mob rule he encountered in Boston: ‘I don’t believe there ever was a people in any age or part of the world that enjoyed so much liberty as the people of America did under the mild indulgent government (God bless it) of England and never was people under a worser state of tyranny than we are at present.’ With crab-like indirectness, McCullough leaves his readers to ponder the legitimacy of the American cause. Americans have a tendency to equate imperialism with subjugation, to think in terms of evil empires. But just how oppressive was the British Empire of the mid-18th century? Were its fiscal policies horrendous enough to warrant the shedding of so much blood? By the end of the conflict, about 25,000 Americans had lost their lives: was it really worth the sacrifice? George III was not the tyrant of popular mythology, but a dutiful and plain-living constitutional monarch. Besides, as McCullough reminds us, while later generations of Americans would, it’s true, become even richer, ‘the Americans of 1776 enjoyed a higher standard of living than any people in the world.’
Independence was not Washington’s initial objective. Rather, as he informed the New York Provincial Congress in June 1775, his aim was ‘the re-establishment of peace and harmony between the mother country and the colonies’. McCullough reckons that most of the officers and men of Washington’s army, if asked as late as the fall of 1775 why they had taken up arms, would have said that they were defending their rightful liberties as freeborn Englishmen against invaders who just happened to be the British army. Although many patriots soon foresaw that independence was their only viable option, American identity remained tentative and uncertain. McCullough records various early formulations of an anticipated nationhood, including the ‘United Provinces of North America’ and the ‘Grand Republic of the American United Colonies’.
Today’s America regards its 18th-century liberators as clean-cut and virtuous. McCullough muddies this image. Washington’s was a ragamuffin army; according to one eyewitness, the patriot troops ‘would rather let their clothes rot upon their backs than be at the trouble of cleaning ’em themselves’. No wonder the army was rife with camp fever. While women accompanied the British army to do the washing, the New England men of the patriot army wallowed in ‘infectious filth’. Washington’s estimation of his own troops emphasised this squalor, moral as well as physical. During the siege of Boston of 1775-76, the xenophobic Washington confessed to a correspondent back in his native Virginia that the New Englanders under his command were ‘exceedingly dirty and nasty’. There was ‘an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people’ which even affected their officers.
Since the pioneering work of Bernard Bailyn in the 1960s, American historians have been aware that the dominant political language of Revolutionary America was a strain of classical republicanism which stressed that a population’s enjoyment of liberty depended on its public virtue. Commitments to the common good took priority over private interests. Classical republican ideology also warned of the dangers of standing armies – the vehicle on which Caesars and Cromwells rode to power, transforming republics into dictatorships. Citizen militias provided a safer option for freedom-loving republican states. However, there was an ironic disjunction between the values enshrined in the discourse of the Revolution and the practicalities of military recruitment. The claims of public virtue were insufficient to sustain Washington’s army. McCullough explores the persistent problems of desertion and defection, quoting reports that regimental surgeons took bribes to validate illnesses or injuries that would qualify for discharges. Securing re-enlistment was a problem which the Congress solved only by way of financial inducements. On 27 December 1776, it authorised Washington to ‘use every endeavour’, including bounties, to keep his disintegrating army together. Indeed, as McCullough argues, for a period of six months the Congress had made Washington ‘a virtual dictator’.
Politically astute, Washington used his extraordinary powers wisely. Yet, in other respects, his judgment was flawed. Initially, he excluded blacks from the army, but was forced to change his mind, a pressing need for troops overcoming his racial squeamishness. McCullough also recounts Washington’s many tactical and strategic errors as a commander, noting that his generals griped among themselves about their commander-in-chief: ‘Entre nous, a certain great man is damnable deficient.’ Time and again, however, Washington was prepared to consult with his subordinates, to take advice which ran contrary to his own plans, and to learn from his earlier mistakes. Thus, while McCullough cuts Washington down to size, the general’s story remains heroic, recast as an epic of perseverance and stamina.
For all his honesty and even-handedness, McCullough provides only a partial antidote to the unquestioning cult of the founders. His muckraking in the archives never verges on irreverence. In addition, there remains a curious and unexplained absence in this otherwise persuasive account of the progress of the war throughout 1776. In general, McCullough is alert to the role of public opinion in the conflict. He shows, for example, that Washington’s achievements at the very end of the year, especially the victory at Trenton, significantly boosted the morale of the country. Within a few days, newspapers were recounting details of Washington’s intrepid crossing of the Delaware and his successful surprise attack on the British. On the other hand, Tom Paine’s bestselling pamphlet Common Sense is a marginal presence in McCullough’s interpretation.
After an unsuccessful career in Britain as, among several other occupations, a corset-maker and excise officer, Paine arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774 and soon became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. Published on 10 January 1776, Paine’s outspoken republican tract sold well over 100,000 copies in its first year and went through as many as 25 editions in different parts of America, at a time when most pamphlets and newspapers sold only a few thousand copies. McCullough records Washington’s observation that Common Sense was working ‘a powerful change . . . in the minds of many men’; but otherwise he says nothing about the impact of the pamphlet on public morale and its role as a catalyst for separation from the motherland.
Paine’s service to the Revolution was not only ideological. In July 1776 he joined the Continental Army, serving as an aide to General Nathanael Greene, though he also continued to write on behalf of the cause. Yet Paine’s radicalism has earned his exclusion from the sacred canon. This process of ostracism began in his lifetime, in the course of his topsy-turvy interlude in Revolutionary France. In particular, the publication of The Age of Reason (1794), with its denunciation of biblical religion as a ‘pious fraud’, pushed him beyond the pale of acceptable opinion. When Paine returned to America in 1802 he was denounced as an enemy of Christianity, and he lived out his days as a non-person in the country whose independence he did so much to obtain. He remains the forgotten founding father in the attic.
Although McCullough satisfies the curiosity of his readership for knowledge of the characters, the battles and the way of life of the founding era, he shies away from the big question: was the patriot cause a conservative movement committed to the preservation of the existing structures of colonial society, or a radical revolution? The founders did, after all, belong to an American Enlightenment which nurtured religious heterodoxy of the same deistic stamp as Paine’s – though many Americans, I suspect, don’t want to know that their beloved Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ. I’m torn in my own answer to the question which McCullough declines to ask; but I believe firmly that, as soon as you subtract political and religious ideas from your analysis, it becomes very difficult to understand why the founders – not least as they are represented in the popular memory – ever took up arms against Britain’s liberal parliamentary empire. Many readers will no doubt find what they are looking for in 1776 – clear-cut moral choices and statesmanship of the highest calibre. But American history could just as easily have followed the trajectory of Canada’s. Deprived of a wider context, how does one tell the difference between a noble war of independence and a reckless and irrational insurgency?