Notes on “The True History of the American Revolution”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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If, like me, you’ve always had a hard time squaring the narrative of the American Revolution with the requirements of common sense, you might get something out of Sydney George Fisher’s “The True History of the American Revolution.” Writing around 1900 (i.e. before the establishment of the American Imperium), Fisher tackles the conflict by going back to the original sources, and divesting himself of the bullshit. In Fisher’s telling, the Revolution was an extension into the New World of Whig-Tory political jockeying, one which allowed the Patriot colonists to opportunistically impose their will on their countrymen. In this version of the Revolution the Patriots come off not as noble idealists, but as proto-SJWs. They can’t be appeased, because they don’t want to be appeased, and all of their spoutings about the Rights of Man are resorts to the most self-serving kind of sophistry. Fisher:

Before I discovered the omissions of our standard histories I always felt as though I were reading about something that had never happened, and that was contrary to the ordinary experience of human nature. I could not understand how a movement which was supposed to have been such a deep uprooting of settled thought and custom – a movement which is supposed to have been one of the great epochs of history – could have happened like an occurrence in a fairy-tale.

Some notes, quotes, and observations:

  • According to Fisher, the Revolution wasn’t a response to the imposition of draconian policies; it was a response to an attempt by the Tory government in England to — finally — treat the colonies as colonies. For years the colonies had been treated as protectorates; they contributed some money to the Crown, but to a great extent they acted as they chose to act. This liberal state affairs existed largely because the French presence in North America prevented Parliament from imposing protection laws, levying taxes, and so forth. But once the French were out of the way, it was decided that the colonies should be required to obey British law. The conduct of the French and Indian War had entailed huge expenditures, and it was seen as just that the colonists contribute, through the paying of minimal taxes, to the replenishment of national funds.
  • “The more we consider the conditions at that time, the more it becomes evident that the English-speaking communities in America were not colonies in the modern acceptance of the term. England had never fully reduced them to possession, had never really established her sovereignty among them. She had encouraged them in the beginning with liberal grants for the sake of persuading them to occupy the country, and after that she was unable to repress their steady and aggressive increase of privileges so long as France hung as a menace in the snow-bound north. The lucky colonists were ridden with a loose rein and given their heads until a large section of them began to believe that their heads were their own.”
  • So liberal were the charters of Connecticut and Rhode Island that those colonies elected their own governors. Massachusetts had a governor appointed by the Crown, but mostly did as she wished. In Pennsylvania, the legislature was elected by the colonists, but the governor was imposed by Parliament. This resulted in a weird system of public bribery: The legislature would refuse to pay the governor’s salary, until he did what the colonists wanted him to do. This would appear to be an extension of the Whig idea that public leaders ought to be beholden to their constituents. Suffice it to say that Parliament expected the governor to rule as Parliament saw fit.
  • “To-day there is no colony of the British empire that has so much freedom as Connecticut and Rhode Island always had, or as Massachusetts had down to 1685. Connecticut and Rhode Island elected their own legislatures and governors, and did not even have to send their laws to England for approval.”
  • “The British government, only too glad to be rid of rebellious Puritans, Quakers, and Roman Catholics, willingly gave them liberal charters. This explains that freedom in many of the old charters which has surprised so many students of our colonial history.”
  • “Some thirty years before that time Massachusetts had obtained a liberal charter. It was possibly intended that the governing body under this charter should remain in England; but the Puritans who had obtained it moved the whole governing body out to Massachusetts, elected their own legislature and governor, and did not submit their laws to England for approval. They assumed several of the attributes of sovereignty. They coined their own money, and issued the famous pine-tree shilling. They established by law a form of religion, sometimes called Congregationalism, which was not recognized by the laws of England. They ceased to issue writs in the king’s name. They dropped the English oath of allegiance and adopted a new oath in which public officers and the people swore allegiance, not to England, but to Massachusetts.”
  • In the shipping colonies of New England, English protection laws were rarely obeyed. England saw the colonies as existing to benefit the Empire. Therefore, she expected commerce with the colonies to benefit England rather than Holland or some other state. The colonists — adopting an early form of the American doctrine of free trade — traded with whomever they wished. Indeed, Americans had come to see this as their right. But from a British perspective, American trade during the period was one huge resort to smuggling. It was common practice to dupe British consuls about the nature and destination of shipped goods. So prevalent was smuggling that the Brits had to try smuggling cases in admiralty court, as it was well established that juries comprised of colonists would refuse to convict a man of smuggling.
  • “The desire to share profits with ‘dear old England’ was not very ardent. In 1676 Edward Randolph was sent out to Massachusetts as an agent to look into its condition. He reported the navigation laws unexecuted and smuggling so universal that commerce was free; and the governor of Massachusetts, he said, ‘would make the world believe they were a free state.'”
  • “It is hardly worth while to discuss what has sometimes been called the excessive restraint or tyranny of these trade laws, because the American colonists promptly disposed of any element of severity there was in them, by disobeying them.”
  • Though the colonists cried “no taxation without representation!” they never pushed for representation (which may have been granted), because to do so would ruin their argument for freedom from taxes. In other words — at least in Fisher’s view — “no taxation without representation” was an empty slogan, a political talking point. There seems to have been no intention on the part of the colonists to be represented in Parliament. It was the American Loyalist faction that wanted representation in Parliament. Such representation would tend to making America more British. That was the last thing the Patriots wanted.
  • The taxes imposed on the colonists were quite minimal. People in England paid 25 shillings a head in taxes; Americans were asked to pay six pence per head. Also, many commoners in Great Britain didn’t have direct Parliamentary representation, so the colonists weren’t disadvantaged in any particular way.
  • “In the year 1765 scarcely any of the great towns in England had representatives in Parliament and yet they were taxed. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Halifax paid their taxes every year, and sent not a single member to Parliament. In fact, out of the eight million people in England there were not above three hundred thousand represented.”
  • The absurdity of the colonists’ argument regarding taxation becomes clear when one considers that Parliament had the authority to impose the death penalty on a colonist for breaking the law, but — according to the radical colonists — no authority to levy taxes.
  • In the end, the Patriots claimed that Parliament could not “internally regulate” the colonies. Yet Parliament regulated and paid for the colonial Post Office, of which Ben Franklin was the head. So on the one hand Franklin heads a body regulated and funded (through a kind of taxation) by Parliament, and on the other hand he is agitating against internal regulation by Parliament.
  • In response to the Stamp Act, hugely effective boycotts of English goods were organized by the Patriot colonists. Non-radicals who weren’t down with the boycott — possibly the majority of colonists — were threatened with violence. In Boston (the cradle of the Revolution), the stamp distributors were hung in effigy, and the house of the Lieutenant Governor was sacked. The colonists simply refused to abide by the Act.
  • “It would be difficult to find in all history another instance of such complete and thorough disobedience of a well-considered law which one of the most powerful nations of the world had made elaborate preparations to enforce.”
  • “Boston seemed to be the worst place in America. It had always been so. It needed curbing. Massachusetts was the only colony which had persistently, from her foundation, shown a disloyal spirit to the English government and the English church. Her people seemed to be naturally riotous.”
  • “It certainly amazed Englishmen to read that the mob in Boston, not content with hanging in effigy the proposed stamp distributers, levelled the office of one of them to the ground and smashed the windows and furniture of his private house; that they destroyed the papers and records of the court of admiralty, sacked the house of the comptroller of customs, and drank themselves drunk with his wines; and, finally, actually proceeded to the house of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, who was compelled to flee to save his life. They completely gutted his house, stamped upon the chairs and mahogany tables until they were wrecked, smashed the large, gilt- framed pictures, and tore up all the fruit-trees in his garden. Governor Hutchinson was a native of the province, was its historian, and with his library perished many invaluable historical manuscripts which he had been thirty years collecting. The mob cut open the beds and let the feathers out, which they scattered with his clothes, linen, smashed furniture, and pictures in the street.”
  • When Parliament finally caved in and repealed the Stamp Act, the action proved to the colonists that they were right in being inflexible assholes.
  • Because the colonists had argued — successfully, it seems — that only internal taxation of the colonies was prohibited, Parliament imposed taxes on external goods, like glass and paper. The colonists now argued that all taxes were inappropriate absent representation. This is where the argument concerning natural rights came in. Realizing the weakness of the internal-external distinction, the colonists claimed that some natural right existed, and was inherent in the British Constitution, which prevented taxation without representation. However, they still didn’t push for actual representation.
  • “The colonists were being driven crazy, it was reported, by certain books about the rights of man, books written by men called Burlamaqui, Beccaria, Montesquieu, Grotius, and Puffendorf, which told them that all men were politically equal and entitled to self-government; and the Englishman, John Locke, who was exiled and driven from Great Britain, had written a mad book to the same effect.”
  • “The English who came out to America were largely of one of these parties, which has been successively called roundhead, whig, or liberal. They have at times claimed as part of the British Constitution doctrines which were advocated by liberals in England, and which Americans also thought ought to be part of the British Constitution, but which were never fully accepted or adopted.”
  • “The consequences [of the perceived right to pursue happiness] have certainly been vast, – vaster far than [anyone] dreamed of. Millions of people now live their daily life under the shadow of this doctrine. Millions have fled to us from Europe to seek its protection. Not only the whole American system of laws, but whole philosophies and codes of conduct have grown up under it. The abolitionists appealed to it, and freed six millions of slaves. The transcendental philosophy of New England, that extreme and beautiful attempt to develop conscience, nobility, and character from within; that call of the great writers like Lowell to every humble individual to stand by his own personality, fear it not, advance it by its own lines; even our education, the elective system of our colleges, – all these things have followed under that ‘pursuit of happiness’ which the rebel colonists seized upon so gladly in 1765 and enshrined in their Declaration of Independence in 1776.”
  • Parliament again relented, and didn’t enforce the glass and paper taxes. The infamous tea tax was the one tax they left in place. So, to recap: The colonists refused internal taxation (e.g. the Stamp Act) on the basis that only external regulation was allowed. So Parliament gave in and levied a few external taxes. The colonists then refused all taxation on the basis of some nebulous natural right. Parliament then gave in and got rid of all external taxation aside from a modest one concerning tea. The colonists’ stand doesn’t sound very heroic, doesn’t it?
  • The British stationed soldiers in Boston because they were necessary to protect the lives of their customs officials, who were trying to obtain control over the smuggling operations of Boston merchants. The customs officials were threatened constantly by mob violence.
  • The British government had been so conciliatory that, around the time of the Boston Tea Party, the colonies were run pretty much as they had been before the war with the French. In other words, there was nothing to complain about.
  • The tea tax was countered by a boycott of English tea. Therefore, the law resulting in the tax was seen as a dead letter, a non-issue. However, the radicals in Boston endeavored to use the tax as leverage to start a war. Though the shipments of tea to New York and Philadelphia were peaceably refused, the Boston SJWs illegally boarded British vessels and destroyed the tea. In Fisher’s view, radicals like Sam Adams and Paul Revere wanted a war. War was their goal.
  • “Samuel Adams was not a merchant, was seldom well dressed, was not at all proud, and never rich. He was always poor. He failed in his malting business, was unthrifty and careless with money, and had, in fact, no liking for, or ability in, any business except politics. He lived with his family in a dilapidated house on Purchase Street, and when in 1774 he was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, his admirers had to furnish the money to make him look respectable.”
  • With war imminent, the crackdown on Loyalists began. In 1774 Patriots in New England began a program of disarming Loyalists. Additionally, Loyalists were routinely tarred and feathered, tied to trees, and imprisoned without trial. Freedom of the press was squelched, and Loyalist writers were threatened with violence until they recanted. (This was the origin of American Lynch Law.) As always seems to be the case, this revolution ostensibly aimed at protecting the Rights of Man resulted in severely limiting the rights of men.
  • At the Continental Congress a group of conservative representatives proposed a branch of Parliament in Philadelphia to represent the colonies. This solution, if adopted, would have solved most of the supposed problems. However, the Patriots denied it, and then moved to erase all suggestion of it from the record.
  • Though the Continental Congress had no legislative power, it demanded that the colonies boycott British goods, and determined that individuals who did not follow this instruction be ostracized and punished without trial. Committees of Patriots in various localities were authorized by the Congress to enforce these rules, making the colonies something like a police state run by a self-appointed gestapo. The Patriot action in this instance might be seen as an early expression of Americans’ sacred right to punch Nazis.
  • Though the Continental Congress objected to the use of British admiralty courts on the grounds that they amounted to tyranny, it had no problem authorizing mob tribunals. Though it objected to taxation on the grounds that it amounted to theft, it authorized the taking of private property when that property happened to be a shipment of English goods. Loyalists who drew attention to these inconsistencies risked being tarred and feathered.
  • Fisher estimates that some 25,000 Loyalists enlisted in the British army. They appear to outnumber by a fair margin the Americans that Washington had in his army.
  • So disliked were the radicals by normal Americans that, when Washington’s army was starving at Valley Forge, the locals refused to give them food, preferring to give it to the British instead.
  • The New England troops were obsessed with “leveling,” i.e. the obliteration of social distinctions. This disgusted the Patriots from the South, who were natural aristocrats. It also bothered the Southerners that Northerners allowed blacks in the army.
  • “The New Englanders of that time, and more especially the lower classes, were full of what the colonists farther south called ‘the levelling spirit.’ Their horrible manners are described by Mrs. Knight in her diary of 1704, and at a much later date in Mrs. Grant’s ‘Memoirs of an American Lady.’ The rank, crude, and unpleasant side of democracy seems to have had its first foothold in New England. Mrs. Grant describes the disgust of the New Yorkers when they were first invaded by the Yankees, whose insolent and brutal abuse of rank and titles was as revolting as their nasal, drawling voices and their uncouth phrases and slang. They would fasten themselves upon you, pressing you with their drawling questions about your most private affairs, railing in the mean time against aristocrats and orating on liberty and the ‘eternal rights of man.’ They were the beginning of a class which, becoming inflated by the success of independence, spread over the country to the horror of all well- educated people and in fulfilment of loyalist prophecies. They gave Grant the material for his famous speech in Parliament, and many years afterwards they furnished the stock material for Dickens and other Englishmen who found profit in ridiculing the Americans.”
  • John Paul Jones was so disgusted by the Gadsden Flag that he refused to fly it on his ship. It was seen by many as an undignified, crude flag.
  • “A flag for the patriot cause had been designed about this time, and was used soon afterwards. It had on it a pinetree and a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the motto? ‘Don’t tread on me.’ It was a good enough pirate’s or smuggler’s flag, the loyalists said; a very proper red rag of rebellion, undignified, crude, with the snake as the emblem of low cunning, ingratitude, and treachery. Paul Jones was so disgusted with it that he was hardly willing to hoist it on his ship.”
  • The Brits’ Commander-in-Chief during the early part of the war, Lord Howe, was a Whig MP who supported the Patriot cause. (Fisher refers to him as something less than an Englishman.) Cornwallis was another. If you’ve always been confused by the British strategy during the war, don’t feel ashamed: Washington didn’t understand it either. Judging by Howe’s conduct of the war, one can make one of three conclusions about him: 1) That he was incompetent, 2) That he took it easy on the colonists as part of a strategy for brokering peace, or 3) That he conspired with his party to lose the war, because a loss in the war would benefit the Whigs politically.
  • “[Howe] allowed his enemy’s force to be disbanded under his eyes and sent to their homes while others came to take their places. Washington was amazed. ‘Search the volumes of history through and I much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found, – namely, to maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months together, without – , and then to have one army disbanded and another to be raised within the same distance of a reinforced enemy.’ – Ford, Writings of Washington,” vol. iii. p. 318.”
  • “Both [Howe] and his brother, the admiral, were so extremely liberal in their views that they could scarcely be called Englishmen. Had they been consistent they would have emigrated to America, for they belonged to the party that had largely peopled America.”
  • “When asked why he did not commission loyalist privateers to destroy American merchantmen, the admiral is said to have replied, ‘Will you never have done oppressing these poor people? Will you never give them an opportunity of seeing their error?’ He was a most ardent believer in conciliation.”
  • “At the close of the letter Howe and his brother, the admiral, are directed to make such an attack upon the New England coast as will destroy the rebel privateers and incapacitate the people from fitting out others. This expedition against New England Howe declined to make, giving as his reason that it was too hazardous, because of the fogs, ‘flatness of the coast,’ together with other very peculiar excuses.”
  • After the peace settlement there was a hearing in Parliament (then under a Whig administration) regarding the conduct of the war. Cornwallis made the vague statement that Howe had conducted the war as he did for “political reasons.” He declined to expand on this comment. Howe and prominent Loyalist engaged in public arguments, via pamphlets, regarding Howe’s apparently terrible strategy. Cornwallis and Clinton engaged in a similar argument. I haven’t read this, but it seems interesting.
  • While fighting in America Howe mostly engaged in limited actions, refusing to follow up on obvious victories, and then retreated to colonial cities to enjoy the winters in luxury while his men got rich on running things. (Apparently, in the 18th century, militarily occupying a city amounted to quite a racket. Maybe it still does.) While Washington was at Valley Forge, Howe’s forces were a mere 20 miles away, yet no attempt at engagement was made. Howe’s failure to move north from New York to join Burgoyne is hard to figure. (Certainly, it was hard for Burgoyne to figure.) I’m not sure the conflict during this period deserves to be called a war, to be honest.
  • “Cornwallis, who was a Whig member of Parliament and Howe’s most trusted and confidential officer, had been sent into New Jersey with 5000 men, apparently to capture Washington. But although Washington moved slowly Cornwallis never came up with him. A Hessian officer entered in his diary that Cornwallis had been instructed to follow until the patriots should make a stand, and then not to molest them. Cornwallis admitted before the committee of inquiry that Howe had instructed him to stop at New Brunswick. He could, he said, have disregarded this order; but saw no opportunity to pursue, and his troops were too tired. They must have been very tired, for, reaching New Brunswick December 1, they did not reach Trenton until December 7. They rested seventeen hours in Princeton, and took seven hours to march the twelve miles from there to Trenton, where Washington crossed the river just ahead of them, taking all the boats.”
  • “Many people believed that the whole question [of the war] depended on the patriots holding out long enough to let the Whigs get into power, and that if the Whigs were successful for only a few months the whole difficulty would be settled.”
  • “The situation expressed in figures is the most extraordinary one ever recorded, – a victorious army of 34,000 declining to end a rebellion represented by only 3300 wandering, half-armed guerillas. No great nation, no general representing a great nation, has ever before or since accomplished such a feat as that.”
  • “When we think of the measures of relentless severity and slaughter, the persistent and steady hunting down of the men, the concentration camps for the gradual destruction of the women and children, which we have known England use in our time to destroy all hope of independence, the extraordinary conduct of Howe is difficult to explain except by the method which his loyalist critics adopted.”
  • Fisher presents Washington as a noble but somewhat overrated figure. Honestly, he doesn’t do a whole lot until the end of the war, when he shows his tactical brilliance in the Yorktown campaign.
  • Once the French came into the war, the whole thing changed, as the Brits were obligated to spread their forces over a larger area. Howe was removed from command, and his replacement, Clinton (not a Whig), opened up a large can of whoop-ass. But it was largely too late. Cornwallis’ defeat in the South — which Clinton suspected was purposeful, and done for political reasons — was the final nail in the coffin.
  • As soon as the Whigs regained power, they ended the war, and acted as though the British loss was proof that the Whigs had always been right in believing the rebellion was justified and the war against the colonies unwinnable. That view became official history.

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About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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5 Responses to Notes on “The True History of the American Revolution”

  1. Will S. says:

    Reblogged this on Patriactionary and commented:
    Sounds like a worthwhile read. As a reactionary Canadian, and therefore a partisan of the Redcoats and the United Empire Loyalists, this sounds a lot more balanced than the usual hagiography from American historians about the American Revolution.

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  2. Dave says:

    This aversion to any sort of taxation continued after the war in e.g. Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion. Now we let government tax us to the point where government spending is half of GDP. What happened? When did we become such obedient sheep? (A: When women were given the right to vote. Instead of marrying men, they could levy taxes on men and spend the money on women.)

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    • tenneby says:

      The Whigs wanted to collect the taxes, not pay them. Once they had the whip in their hand, they had no second thoughts about using it and using it harshly and often. Taxes quickly became punitive and any rebellions were beaten down harshly by the Whigs. Their spirit lives on in their descendants, both literal descendants and spiritual descendants.

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    • Pretty good answer, Dave. For a man…

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  3. tenneby says:

    Also, instead of giving Jeff Bezos even more of your money and enhancing his monopoly, you can get the book for free from archive.org along with many other out of copyright books and materials. You can even make a donation to archive.org if you wish to help ensure that books like this will remain available in the future. There are other sources of materials like this besides archive.org that you can search for on your own that do not involve Jeff Bezos.

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