The Private Citizen / "Successful insurgents"
Published 1:04 am, Friday, July 2, 2010
Our older son recently observed that our country was founded by successful insurgents. At the time, he was taking a post-OCS course in counter-insurgency. (He is now, in the quaint parlance of my father's generation, "overseas.") I can think of no better time to view the event we are about to commemorate through that lens.
By July 1776, the insurgency had been underway for over a year, and was experiencing moderate success. The siege of Boston -- marked by Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill -- had ended when the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga was brought overland by way of Vermont, and the British were forced to evacuate the city. Washington and his troops marched to New York, to await the arrival of the British there by sea.
Politically, the insurgency enjoyed a measure of popular support, and was able to govern significant parts of the country with apparent legitimacy. John Adams wrote that he thought a third of the people supported the revolution, a third opposed it and a third were indifferent; when I came across that in David McCullough's book, I looked in vain for hard evidence to back it up. There were no polls, so how did he know? All I could conclude was that neither side had a palpable majority. The colonists, however, did have a body that called itself a Congress and was able to remain in operation throughout the revolution, despite the presumed efforts of the British to suppress it, and here in Connecticut, the revolutionists had control of the legitimate government itself. Governor Trumbull, the former royal governor, continued in office while sending troops and provisions to Washington's army. Before he went to Paris, Thomas Jefferson served as governor of Virginia. Only in the places the British army actually occupied did the royal writ still run.
Such was the state of the insurgency when the delegates met in Philadelphia. In language whose eloquence Congress has never again equaled, they set out the truths of natural law that they held to be self-evident. Then, though, in the longest section of the Declaration, they itemized the "long train of abuses and usurpations" that made it their right and duty to throw off the existing government. The list ends with a catalogue of the counter-insurgency practices of the day: "He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
One of the differences between counter-insurgency and classical warfare is that firepower can be effective against an army, but it is counter-productive against a population. The best-known contemporary examples are the London Blitz in 1940, and Sept. 11: the bombings did not intimidate the populations, they stiffened their resolve. By waging war against his subjects, the king had made them his enemies. Independence was not the first choice of all the delegates, even after a year of fighting, and they knew that when they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, the pledge was quite likely to be called. But there was no turning back -- declaring independence meant there would be no reconciliation.
The rest is a tale quickly told. The Declaration was read aloud, as intended, to the troops in New York, from which they were forced to retreat when the British arrived in overwhelming force later that month. Unlike Lee fourscore and seven years later, however, Washington did not need a knockout: against the greatest military power in the world, all he needed was a stalemate. Fairfield was burned to the ground in 1779, a fact that is not always even a footnote in the larger narrative of the revolution, but one that changed the history of this community forever. Washington was able to keep his army in being, winning few battles except the final one at Yorktown, but it was enough. The insurgents had succeeded.
Our custom, since our children were small, has been to read the Declaration aloud on the Fourth of July. The Times publishes a facsimile copy that day, but I recommend printing out a more conventional text, as both easier to read and easier to pass around among a relay of readers. It may be combined with adult refreshments, if available, but if you are outdoors for the fireworks, I also recommend reading while there is still daylight.
It is, after all, the essence of the day.
James H. Lee's column appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen.