Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Weapons of the Weak against the Strong: How the Americans Won the War of Independence by Not Losing

In my IPSA paper, as I have on this blog, I have argued that the naturally evolved human tendency to resist domination  and demand government by consent of the governed shows how might makes right.  The obvious objection to this claim is that this is ridiculous in denying the evidence of history that the rule of the stronger over the weaker means government by force of the rulers rather than government by consent of the ruled.

My response to this objection is to point out how the American war of independence demonstrates that the weaker can prevail against the domination of the stronger when the weaker use the weapons of defensive resistance to defeat the stronger

The British military was so invincible that the Americans could never win militarily. But for the British to prevail, they had to win; while for the Americans to prevail, they only had to avoid losing.  Once the Americans learned this lesson in 1776, they saw that a resolute defensive resistance could deprive the British of a military victory.  And in this way, the weaker would prevail over the stronger.  (In my thinking here, I have been much influenced by Joseph Ellis's Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence [2013].)

In the fall of 1775, George III proclaimed the Americans to be in rebellion and so no longer under his protection.  He announced the assembly of a massive force that would crush the Americans in one blow.  In addition to British regulars, he ordered the recruitment of 10,000 mercenaries from either Russia or the German principalities where professional soldiers were trained in the tradition of Frederick the Great.

On February 13, 1776, John Adams was a member of the Continental Congress, who was arguing for American independence from Great Britain; and he wrote to John Trumbull:  "By Intelligence hourly arriving from abroad, we are more and more confirmed that a Kind of  Confederation will be formed among the Crowned Skulls, and Numbskulls of Europe, against Human Nature."

On March 4, Adams wrote in his diary:
"Injustice, wrong, injury excites the feeling of resentment, as naturally and necessarily as frost and ice excite the feeling of cold, as fire excites heat, and as both excite pain.  A man may have the faculty of concealing his resentment, or suppressing it, but he must and ought to feel it. Nay he ought to indulge it, to cultivate it.  It is a duty. His person, his property, his liberty, his reputation are not safe without it.  He ought, for his own security and honor, and for the public good, to punish those who injure him. . . . It is the same with communities.  They ought to resent and to punish."
In arguing for a war of independence, therefore, Adams assumed that all the military might of Great Britain could not defeat the human nature of the American resentment of domination and desire to punish those who injured them.  By the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress agreed to this in signing the Declaration of Independence.

This was a remarkable claim given the forces assembled by the British. At great cost, the British had recruited over 18,000 mercenaries from German principalities.  The British sent 427 ships (almost half the British fleet) with 1,200 cannons with 32,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors--an attack force larger than the entire population of Philadelphia, which was the biggest city in America.

Their objective was to defeat the Continental Army in New York City, and take total control of New York so as to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, and thus so demoralize the Americas that they would surrender and the rebellion would end.

Since Manhattan is surrounded by water, the British ships could easily surround and bombard George Washington's troops.  Although some Americans recognized that New York was indefensible, Washington thought that the Continental Army would be dishonored by retreat.  But as his casualties mounted, he realized that he had made a big blunder.  He did finally manage to lead his troops in a retreat from Manhattan, because General Richard Howe, the British commander, delayed in closing off Washington's retreat.

Many of Washington's troops deserted, and those who remained were undisciplined and inexperienced.  American political leaders would not support the establishment of a professional standing army, which they regarded as a violation of the Republican principles of liberty that were better represented by citizen militias.  Washington recognized, however, that unprofessional militia soldiers could never defeat the professional military forces of the British.

The British could have destroyed the Continental Army on Manhattan.  But once it escaped, the British never had another chance to do this, because Washington saw that he needed to fight a defensive war, never allowing the British to meet the Continental Army head on.

As the chair of the Board of War and Ordinance, John Adams acted as the secretary of war.  From his study of Thucydides's history of the Peloponnesian War, Adams decided that the Americans needed  to adopt the defensive strategy of Thebes--seeing that they could not defeat the Spartan army, the Thebans avoided any open battles with Sparta, and instead relied on harassing skirmishes.  The Americans could do the same, which would prolong the war until the British saw that they could never win as long as the Americans refused to surrender while also refusing to allow the British to destroy their army in open battle.  It also helped the Americans when the French intervened on their side in 1778.

The British signed the Treaty of Peace in 1783.  After suffering 40,000 casualties and spending 50 million pounds, the British had failed to win the war, because the Americans had managed not to lose.  There is a remarkable similarity to the failure of the United States to win the Vietnam War, although the U.S. military force was far stronger than the insurgent forces.

This outcome seemed to vindicate the British opponents of the war in America--Edmund Burke, Charles Fox, and William Pitt--who said that the war was unnecessary and unwinnable because of the resoluteness of the Americans in fighting for their liberty, and therefore the war should have been avoided by giving the Americans what they wanted--the right to consent to their own governments--so that sovereignty would be divided between the colonial legislatures and Parliament.

Some British historians have blamed Richard Howe for the blunder of not destroying the Continental Army in Manhattan when he had the chance to do so.  But other historians have argued that even if the Continental Army had been demolished in 1776, and Washington had been either killed or captured, the Americans could have continued the war with a new army, and the outcome would have been the same.

There is no way to answer this historical "what if" question.  It all depends on the resoluteness of the American commitment--"our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor"--to a war of independence among the Continental Congress and ordinary Americans.  In the spring of 1779, Richard Howe had called for a special inquiry in the House of Commons on the conduct of the war so that Howe could defend himself against his critics.  Those defending Howe claimed that British forces could never defeat the Americans because the Americans were almost unanimous in their hostility to British rule.  Howe's opponents, however, claimed that only one fourth to one third of the Americans were committed rebels, and that many were loyalists.  Today, some historians estimate that the Loyalists were about 20 per cent of the populace.

In any case, it is clear that the success of the American rebellion did not require anything close to unanimity in support of independence.  There were many Loyalists.  Many Americans welcomed the British and even joined their army.  But there were enough Americans showing the evolved natural resistance to dominance in their hostility to British rule to deny victory to the otherwise invincible British military.

"Human Nature" prevailed against "the Crowned Skulls and Numbskulls of Europe."

This illustrates Friedrich Nietzsche's point about how the power of the weak to inflict damage on the strong creates a kind of equalization of power that supports the idea of equal rights--and thus that Spinoza was right about natural right being proportional to power.   This is the Darwinian liberalism of Nietzsche in his middle writings, who explained Darwinian natural right as rooted in animal morality. I wrote about this in a previous post (here).

1 comment:

CJColucci said...

Unless you have the power, will, and -- in any decent society -- a sufficient justification to annihilate your enemy, a war is over only when the loser says it is. Our country having been born because we didn't give up and the British couldn't make us quit a cost acceptable to them, it's odd that so many of us haven't learned not to start wars where the stakes for us don't justify what it would take to make the other side give up a struggle over stakes that matter far more to them.