- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 30, 2002

By Robert Harvey
Overlook Press, $35,
478 pages, Illus.

The Revolutionary War attracts far less popular and scholarly interest than the Civil War. This in part might be because faces of 1861-1865 are recognizable in a way those of 1775-1783 are not, and the battlefields and monuments of the Civil War are common and conspicuous. The Revolution, the War of Independence, and the remarkable decades of political and social formation that followed, however, are the seed corn of today's mighty republic.
Robert Harvey's "A Few Bloody Noses" George III's rueful comment that thus was how he had intended "just to punish" the rebels, rather than to lose the colonies is a history written from an English perspective. (Mr. Harvey notes a "small family interest" on both sides of the British argument. He is directly descended from both Lord George Grenville and the Marquis of Rockingham, and a collateral descendant of Lord Chatham William Pitt the Elder all greatly prominent in the policies of that turbulent time.) The subtitle of the book trumpets the theme "The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution." This might seem tendentious, but in Mr. Harvey's telling it is not, or not poundingly. The tale is vigorously told and reasonably provocative, if quirky here and there.
Ours is a time intellectually when "demystification" and "demythification" are applauded modes of historical writing. That is to say, a scraping away of the crust of conventional, and therefore suspect, knowledge of the past. That is always the historian's chore, of course, though recently the tendency has been fiercely, even angrily, to denigrate "myths" as no more than insidious thickets of distortion. Most readers are aware that myth can displace a more accurate account of who did what to whom and why. But myth can also validate general themes and events, though it may be superficial or less than precise in its parts. And it has its uses. Myth, especially "founding myths," can enunciate the unities of cohesion in a feverishly diverse society.
Mr. Harvey in his slashing at the mythic underbrush is right that Americans early imbibe a "heroic view" though even in many schools today that patina is scrubbed, where national history is taught at all. Few of us beyond, say, middle-school range, believe that George Washington walked across the Delaware River, or that those in the mobs that tossed the tea overboard in Boston harbor were carrying copies of John Locke's treatises on government in their hip pockets.
Mr. Harvey insists on a "class war" subtext of the American Revolution, a phrase that didn't exist in contemporary signification in the late-18th century and is a tepid (and quirky) echo of Marxian analysis. The author's causal interpretation is, indeed, rather too materialist, as if there were no ideational component to the Revolution.
But Mr. Harvey is correctively accurate in dismissing the "generally believed" notion "that the Americans were being oppressed by a centuries-old British colonial yoke: on the contrary they were self-governing in all but name throughout most of the colonial period. British taxation, cstoms duties and regulations were said to be crushingly oppressive: in fact they were far lighter than in the mother country itself, and almost entirely unenforced, the great bulk of America's trade being contraband." Yes, too, the independence movement was a minority cause; the division reckoned roughly between a third in support, a third loyalist (perhaps 100,000 of whom fled the colonies), the remainder trying mostly to stay out of the way.
A pointed example of deflating a conventional account, for example, is Mr. Harvey's dissection of the American defeat of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777. Not only was the dispiriting result for London due to the hard-fighting colonials, but more to Burgoyne being "foolhardy to the point of idiocy" in his campaign.
Then the Americans blatantly violated the terms of the "Convention" by which Burgoyne's force quit the field it was not a formal "surrender." Under its terms, the British force was to be repatriated. With Washington instigating and Congress acceding to a duplicitous dodge, the return of Burgoyne's men to England was "suspended" and they were held prisoner, during which many deserted. "Shamelessly" as was repudiation, it had a desperate logic for a nation fighting to exist: The Americans believed, no doubt soundly, that King George would simply send these returned troops elsewhere in the empire and replace their numbers in the colonies.
More fundamental to his theme, it is questionable for Mr. Harvey to assert as he repeatedly does that the Revolution was "whipped up by a group of committed political ideologues supported by sympathetic commercial interests." There was a bit more to it than that. And to characterize the irascible Sam Adams as America's "Lenin" is a bridge too far.
Mr. Harvey's assertion that the result of the bitter war was a markedly "conservative" system of governance under a Constitution that was intended to dam the surging demotic tide is at best partial. (It is odd that his bibliography does not list "The Radicalism of the American Revolution" by one of the premier U.S. historians of that period, Gordon W. Woods, which traces the fractious and rapid evolution of republicanism to the most democratic nation on earth.)
Most intriguing about "A Few Bloody Noses" is Mr. Harvey's assertion of the "ironic similarities" between Britain's loss of the colonies and the American experience in Vietnam. Though one is likely to groan initially at having the Southeast Asia war dragged on stage, the author elaborates the parallel with plausibility. It is a dominant insight, though lacking a qualifying nuance or two.
Britain in the 18th century was an "over-extended, over-eager power with a young empire, imbued with its own rightness and the belief that it should extend its protection to the majority of Americans who were believed to embrace its values a belief that also coincided with self-interest. Contrary to the widely held American view, but as with America in Vietnam, its motive for resisting independence for the inhabitants of its colonies were idealistic as well as self-interested."
Britain of course was engaged in a global war, three of the major confrontations of which had been fought in North America, mostly recently the Seven Years War and the defeat of the French. London felt that the colonists should help underwrite that expensive conflict which after all had been fought in defense of the colonists the purpose of the Stamp Act, et al., which were robustly waved as justifying revolt.
In addition, as Mr. Harvey points out, public opinion in Great Britain was divided about the war and while that "public" was relatively small, it could not be disregarded. "As in Vietnam, it was sheer exhaustion, the realization that decisive victory was impossible, and the growing hostility of public opinion to the continuing war, rather than military defeat, that caused the colonial power to withdraw."
On a tactical level, the British could win most set-piece battles, as did the Americans in Vietnam, but faced an enemy that could retreat into a hinterland and regroup, while waging constant and brutal guerrilla warfare. In short, all that was necessary for the British/Americans to lose was that they not win; for the enemy all that was necessary for them to win was that they not lose.
Yet another factor which contributed to raddled British policy was the political conflict over the power of the king. For decades, Britain in effect had been ruled by Whig grandees through Parliament. George intended to reclaim the power of the throne, and the Commons intended that he not. America succeeded to independence not because all our generals were stalwart, nor the British generals dunces. Mr. Harvey points out how more critical to the colonials than often is understood was French assistance supplies from the beginning and later of course naval and land forces.
Mr. Harvey is excellent in his characterizations of the political and military leaders on both sides of the war, major and minor. His history has the unusual virtue of substantial, rather than truncated, quotations from the speeches, writings and pronouncements of the day. These include Lord Chatham's "majestic" 1775 speech, one of his last, in a desperate bid to salvage peace by urging a formula by which the colonies would accept nominal British sovereignty in exchange for virtual independence.
Mr. Harvey hammers at the vestiges of the Parson Weems' image of George Washington. He left the presidency, the author writes, "wounded by criticism … a new George III to his critics" and was soon "reinvented as a saintly incarnation of modesty, rectitude, duty and wisdom … "
But "perhaps it is the real George Washington stubborn, tough, often mean-minded, acutely self-conscious, hot-tempered beneath a reserved exterior, often harsh, ruthless with his competitors, and yes, intensely patriotic, resilient, dutiful and aware of his own failing who best embodies the spirit of America today."
So Mr. Harvey concludes his book, with just a touch of condescension blended in a profile on the human scale.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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