War gaming the American War for Independence

I have to admit a fascination with the period between 1756-1783 in North American History: that is the period that included the Seven Years/French and Indian War and War for American Independence. That’s one of the reasons that I mention liking The American Creation Blog. Although, American creation is much more interested in the topic of America as a Christian Nation. That is one aspect of a very complex set of events that leads to the question Was the American Revolution Inevitable?

The Introduction to the BBC’s page on that topic begins:

Writing with the benefit of hindsight in 1818, John Adams, one of the central figures in the American Revolution, recalled that Americans were committed to independence in their hearts long before war broke out in America in 1775. Adams’ comment suggests that American independence was inevitable: this was not the case. In 1763, Americans joyously celebrated the British victory in the Seven Years’ War, revelling in their identity as Britons and jealously guarding their much-celebrated rights which they believed they possessed by virtue of membership in what they saw as the world’s greatest empire.

The simplistic view of the War for American Independence is that it was a battle where the American Colonists threw out the British oppressors. But the War and reasons for the War were far more complex: Economic, Legal, Social, and Personal reasons existed for why the war happened. If Benjamin Franklin or James Otis hadn’t felt slighted by the British, might the Revolution not have happened? As my post “The Greatest Political philosophers of their day” hints at, the founders were hardly chummy and some of them had pretty big egos (e.g., the feud between John Adams and Jefferson). I would also point to this post about Thomas Paine and the Democratic movement by William Hogeland.

A factor which is usually ignored is the role of the Loyalists during the War for Independence. This war was hardly a war against an oppressive foreign power, but one that some historians have called the First American Civil War. The problem is that those Americans who supported the crown, or preferred a peaceful transition to independence, have been eclipsed by the more radical elements. There are also military and civilian aspects of the American Loyalist population.

I realise by adding in a more conservative Independence minded person as a loyalist, that muddies the picture from just using the term to refer to those who were actively loyal to the crown. John Adams is reported to have said that 1/3 of the population favoured independence, 1/3 remained loyal, and another 1/3 were neutral. That would mean that two thirds of the North American population might have remained a part of Britain. Historians have estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the white population of the colonies were Loyalists. Historian Robert Calhoon wrote in 2000, concerning the proportion of Loyalists to Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies:

Historians’ best estimates put the proportion of adult white male loyalists somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. Approximately half the colonists of European ancestry tried to avoid involvement in the struggle — some of them deliberate pacifists, others recent immigrants, and many more simple apolitical folk. The patriots received active support from perhaps 40 to 45 percent of the white populace, and at most no more than a bare majority.

The problem with estimating the number of Loyalists is that vast majority of the white Loyalists (450-500,000) remained where they lived during and after the war. Approximately 10 to 15% left (about 62,000 white Loyalists, or about 2% of the total US population of 3 million in 1783). Many of these later emigrants were motivated by the desire to take advantage of the British government’s offer of free land, but many also were disillusioned by the continuing hostility to Tories and eventually decided to leave the new Republic.

The departure of many royal officials, rich merchants and landed gentry destroyed the hierarchical networks that had dominated most of the colonies. In New York, the departure of key members of the DeLancy, DePester Walton and Cruger families undercut the interlocking families that largely owned and controlled the Hudson Valley. Likewise in Pennsylvania, the departure of powerful families—Penn, Allen, Chew, Shippen—destroyed the cohesion of the old upper class there. Massachusetts passed an act banishing forty-six Boston merchants in 1778, including members of some of Boston’s wealthiest families: such as the Ervings, Winslows, Clarks, and Lloyds.

The question is how much Loyalist sentiment was bullied into quiet submission by the aggressive actions of the “patriot” movement.

Another issue, is how much of the American War for Independence is mythology. Thanks to William Hogeland for pointing me to the Snopes piece on John Hancock. In fact, I suggest Bill’s blog, Hysteriography, and his posts at NewDeal 2.0 for a refreshing view of the founding of the US. One thing Hogeland points out is:

There’s another group that Bachmann might be surprised to learn suffered exclusion from political participation in founding-era America: Most of the free, white male artisans, laborers, and small farmers. That’s right, an overwhelming majority of the white men in early America would dissent heartily from the idea that they were free to advance themselves, through work and pluck and luck, regardless of who they were and what they owned. Ordinary, working Americans of the period — the very type the Tea Party constantly evokes — were engaged in a ceaseless struggle against the wealthy, well-connected American merchants and landowners who sewed up business and barred the unprivileged from political power.

Yet another factor that would influence which side someone would have taken during this period.

Also, the reason I start this period during the Seven Years/French and Indian War is that had the French won that conflict, it would have had a drastic change on the nature of the British Empire. Had the North American Territories ceded to the French? Did they remain part of the British Empire? Would the British colonies be like a Quebec in a French North America? Undoubtedly, they would have become closer to Britain had they remained a part of the Empire rather than wish to be independent.

The questions that these inquiries raise are interesting since they challenge the popular view of this period.

See also:

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