The Spirit Of ’76

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Yet the Americans could draw on many strengths. They were fighting for a just cause on their own ground, in defense of homes and families. Moreover, the British had to conquer; the Americans needed only to survive. They were a deeply religious people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity, and the free male population was among the most literate in the world. They also had higher incomes per capita than European populations; British and Hessian troops were amazed at the affluence they found in the New World. Finally, Americans were accustomed to governing themselves. The United States was barely six months old, but Americans had been running their own affairs for six generations.

IN THE DESPERATE DAYS OF 1776 , Americans reached deep into this reservoir of strength and improvised a new way of managing a war. Much of this innovation flowed from one fundamental fact: Civil and military leaders were accountable to a free people through their representatives, and America’s leaders had to respond to a new force that their generation was the first to call “popular opinion.”

To that end generals gave much of their time to working with the members of Congress and keeping in touch with popular opinion. George Washington set the example. From the start of the war, he worked hard to establish the principle of civil control over military affairs, and he always respected it. But there was a problem: Congress intervened actively in military affairs, telling the generals how to run the war and even attempting to make tactical decisions in the defense of New York. John Adams, who had no experience of war, declared that he knew more about military affairs than any American general except Charles Lee. John Hancock believed that he should have been commander of the Continental Army, and he addressed Washington in the imperative, as if the Continental Congress were the House of Hancock and generals were his employees. Washington was remarkably forbearing with these men, but the system was not working well in late 1776. It was increasingly evident that Congress could not operate efficiently in an Executive role and was ill qualified to manage the war.

And it was evident to members of Congress too. Congressmen began to make changes in early December 1776, and on the twenty-sixth, the same day as the first Battle of Trenton but before the event was known, Congress granted Washington full authority to direct the war.

Critics complained that Congress had betrayed the Revolution and made Washington “dictator.” But it wasn’t so. Congress and the army had hammered out a typically American compromise, and all the parties understood what it meant. Congress was firmly in charge, but Washington and his generals were running the war. Always there would be conflicts, mainly over money and appointments. John Adams continued to believe that he knew more about war than George Washington could ever learn, and John Hancock remained as arrogant as ever. But Congress treated Washington with growing respect, and military leaders were very careful to acknowledge the principle of civil supremacy. This improvised solution to an urgent problem became a permanent part of the American system. It strongly affirmed the principle of civilian control over the military and established the practice that military men should direct military affairs, subject to oversight by civil leaders. After the War of Independence, similar ideas spread to many American institutions, including business corporations, colleges, Protestant churches, and public organizations of various kinds, all with their civil boards and professional managers. It became a model for the separation of powers and the rule of law.

THE CRITICAL MOMENT IN THIS American development was the December crisis of 1776. The victories at Princeton and Trenton came just in time to add legitimacy when most needed and helped a fragile invention grow into a strong American tradition.

At the same time, American military leaders also improvised a new way of war fighting, which was also a cultural expression of the nation they served. Free Americans in 1776 were a restless, striving entrepreneurial people, who routinely assumed risk for the sake of profit. They were a practical people who judged actions by results, and when they went to war, they carried this culture with them. Europe’s feudal and aristocratic elites thought of war as a nobleman’s vocation and a pursuit of honor; Americans tended to think of it as something that had to be done from time to time, for a particular purpose or goal. They fought not for the sake of fighting but for the sake of winning. From the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to our own time Americans have fought at least one major war in every generation-sixteen generations altogether. War has been a continuing part of their experience, but they have always thought of it as an interruption, something to get done quickly so they could go home and get on with the ordinary business of life.