- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
War is at the root of the differences between American republic and British monarchy. The British state, for centuries the most centralized in the world, was made by conquest. The English, in a warlike continent, became an exceedingly bellicose people who would not rest until they had incorporated the rest of their archipelago—Wales, Scotland, Ireland—into their polity. While the interior of the home islands was decastellated, British forts were springing up in the islands of the West Indies, on the coasts of the New World, in Africa and India and the Mediterranean. Fortifications bristled along British coasts also; a people who had chosen to take the world as its empire could not afford to leave their best harbors unguard ed when the fleet was sent to roam great waters.
A people numerically weak who challenge the world bind themselves with heavy chains: oppressive taxation, protectionist and costly tariffs, the cruelties of the press gang, fierce treason laws. They bind themselves thereby to relentless political continuities. A war-making people cannot afford revolution. English monarchy survived and became British monarchy because it served British purposes, as a focus of popular loyalties but also as a vessel of the national will. The British may bob their heads and bite their tongues, but through the symbolism of crown and scepter they ground away century after century at carrying the ethic of conquest that had constructed their state to half the world. India, Arabia, the East Indies, the South Seas, Africa from Cairo to the Cape—even in my boyhood that was where the flag flew. British ships, British cannon, British castellation commanded half the globe. The British crown was the symbol of all these outposts; British power was the substance.
To me the pattern of fortification that human settlement has left over the past four hundred and fifty years is a key to the American mystery.
America was the exception in the pattern, the blank space on the map where British forts did not stand. We all know why. The Americans had escaped from the engirdlement of British power. They had no desire, moreover, to engirdle others. Jefferson, at his inauguration as President in 1801, had set out the national ethic, utterly at odds with that which had made Britain a power to be reckoned with wherever ships could carry cannon. “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none… .” Not only did the young United States eschew all idea of overseas involvement, but its first act of major public expenditure, already undertaken before Jefferson’s election, was to wall itself in against the outside world. The government was raising money to build huge coastal fortresses at the mouths of the Chesapeake and the Hudson and off the Gulf Coast, whose purpose was to proclaim that the United States was a land apart. Jefferson’s successors were to ram the message home through the extension of a chain of fortifications around the whole periphery of the United States, from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi to San Francisco Bay; Alcatraz, before becoming home to America’s most dangerous federal criminals, was a link in the Republic’s Third System of coastal defenses. Within the enceinte the United States was intended to go its untroubled way, taking its laws from elected representatives, submitting their interpretation to an independent judiciary, and accepting leadership from a head of state whose least responsibility was to declare or conduct foreign wars. A greater difference between its national philosophy and that of the belligerent transatlantic monarchy with which it had severed the umbilical tie in 1783 cannot be imagined. Britain, retiring to lick the wound of the loss of its first empire, would shortly embark on the conquest of a second; within a century it would add the emperorship of India to the titles of its crown. The United States, kingless, lawful, peace-loving, would retire inside its continental frontiers to construct a new sort of civilization.
But though the Founding Fathers may have wanted to wall off their American world from the rest of the globe, Americans could only begin to make the interior of the continent their own by repeating within it exactly the same process of step-by-step fortification of key points through which Britain had made an empire around the oceans of the world. The interior of America might, in one sense, be seen as an ocean in its own right, an ocean of forest, of grass, of desert, through which navigable ways had to be found and, once found, secured and fortified. Many of those ways had been found before the Declaration of Independence, and many forts built. By the end of the French and Indian War of 1756-63, North America was one of the most fortified regions of the world, and the number of forts was added to by the British and Americans in the revolutionary war that followed. The young United States built forts in the Old Northwest, the country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi and the Tennessee; it built forts along the Mississippi and up the Missouri; by mid-century it was building forts along the Platte and the Kansas rivers, in the Rocky Mountains, in the desert, and on the Pacific coast.