The Fourth of July and the Martial Spirit

George Washington enters New York on 'Evacuation Day', 25th November 1783.

George Washington enters New York on ‘Evacuation Day’, 25th November 1783.

Civic minded Americans will hopefully pause on the 4th of July to reflect on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and to the nation dedicated, however imperfectly, to the cause of liberty. In regards to the Declaration, all honor to Thomas Jefferson, as Lincoln rightly observed.

While the principles of the Declaration are considered self-evident, it is also true that men can be persuaded to wear chains, as Jefferson once noted. Thus it took the force of arms to win American independence and secure those principles. George Washington and the Continental Army, with a considerable assist from the French military, converted those ideas into reality.

Washington was responsible for one of the first public readings of the Declaration. At the prompting of the Continental Congress, the General ordered the Declaration read to his army which had gathered in lower Manhattan on July 9th, 1776:

The Honorable the Continental Congress, impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the Connection which subsisted between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent STATES: The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at six OClock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds & reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.

Less than two months later, on August 27th – 30th, George Washington’s entire army was almost destroyed at the Battle of Long Island, an event which would have marked an abrupt end to the Glorious Cause, and likely have left Washington dangling from a rope. Thomas Jefferson may have also suffered the same fate, with the added indignity of having his Declaration relegated to an historical footnote. Thankfully, Washington’s army, and the cause it represented, was saved by a providentially timed fog and hesitant British leadership.

There are those who believe, both then and now, that independence and liberty can be secured without resort to the traditional modes of defense adopted by nation-states, including the establishment of a professional military and an intelligence capability. This is a fantasy. The citizen militias, celebrated in American memory, did not win the American Revolution; they in fact performed poorly at the Battle of Long Island and elsewhere. Washington, himself a former militia officer, grew to hold the militias in contempt: “I am wearied to death all day with a variety of perplexing circumstances, disturbed at the conduct of the militia, whose behavior and want of discipline has done great injury to the other troops,” he wrote his nephew shortly after the disaster at Long Island.

The Continental Army, aided and abetted by a professional French army and navy, eventually became a disciplined, semi-professional fighting force, and won the war. Tales of virtuous citizen-soldiers makes for feel-good republican mythmaking, but militias proved unreliable, at best, in the face of a professional military. The War of 1812 settled that question once and for all.

As a professional military was essential for the preservation of liberty, so to was an intelligence service. Secrecy and an aversion to transparency during warfare are as American as George Washington. With all due respect to Parson Weems, the father of our country knew how to tell a lie, and was ruthless in the pursuit of intelligence. The General urged his agents to “leave no stone unturned” in acquiring secrets, a practice his “Culper Spy Ring” adopted in New York City after the disaster at Long Island. Later in the war, Washington launched a campaign of deception directed at both his fellow citizens and the enemy, allowing him to trap Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown. At Washington’s request, the first American Congress convened after the adoption of the Constitution created a secret service fund and placed it under the control of the president.

All of the American founders, including the Declaration’s principal author, held that the Byzantine world of international relations was an arena of deception, discord, and war. Jefferson understood that there would be occasions when necessity demanded that the American government employ both covert and overt methods to defend American independence. While Jefferson maintained a lifelong hostility to a standing professional military, he sought other means to protect the “empire of liberty.” Clandestine operations were one of these means, and although those operations can be abused, and have been, the power to do good, as the old maxim says, is always the power to do evil. This is why it is critical that persons of high character and prudential temperament be chosen for public office.

Myths help bind a nation, but they can also serve to distort the truth and prevent nations from adopting policies such as those embraced by our founding generation of clear-eyed realists. They saw the world as it was and recognized that liberty was “never more than one generation away from extinction,” as an American president later observed. We would do well to remember on this Fourth of July that the survival of liberty and American independence rests on those who devote their lives and sacred honor to its defense.

Reader Discussion

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on July 03, 2017 at 11:43:36 am

Excellent essay!

"This is why it is critical that persons of high character and prudential temperament be chosen for public office"

Oddly enough, the very same thoughts struck me this morning. Your essay reinforces the notion that our founders provided us with all the tools needed to foster and sustain a republican form of government. (No need to list them for our readers).

However, the one tool they were incapable of providing was "high character and prudential temperament" (I would add "honor" to that list) to both the citizenry and public officeholders. This was not an oversight on their part and numerous of them made observations attesting to the importance of such attributes while also offering some cultural / moral prescriptions and / or practices that would / could induce such attributes in American culture and politics.

Sadly, this hope for the continuance of such "virtue" has proven overly optimistic and we are now lead by the very type of Legislative contingent that caused the Colonies to rebel in the first place - vain, self-serving, avaricious and lacking even a smidgen of honor and virtue.

Simply put: Would you prefer a John McCain or an Alexander Hamilton?

Now I will go and unfurl my wind blown flag on the front porch, thinking only what would be were we to have such men of honor as did our ancestors?

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on July 03, 2017 at 14:03:28 pm

How dreary, another historically illiterate piece in praise of a professional (standing) army and on the eve of the 4th of July, no less.

The basic structure of the US's armed forces was unchanged from 1636 to 1972. Its ur-source was the Elizabethan militia, where companies were organized by towns and regiments by county. This system was modified by the experience of the English Civil War in which town and county militia formations were "new modeled" "pro hac vice" into a quasi professional army that relied on volunteers for the duration supplemented by pressed men (draftees) from the locally controlled trained bands (organized militia) and unorganized militia for replacements and rapid expansion.

The War of 1812 is a perfect example of the value of this system. That war was the product of New York's and the Western states' belief that those parts of Canada about the Great Lakes could be easily peeled off from Great Britain while Britain was involved in the War of the 6th Coalition against Napoleon. New England knew better and simply refused to support the endeavor - although adding Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to the Union had been the fondest dream of New Englanders since at least 1660. The New Englanders were right. The US Army repeatedly got its butt kicked by Canadian militia and allied Indian formations that were also organized along the lines of the Elizabethan militia.

Washington's Continental Army was not a professional army in any sense of the word. The states were assigned quotas and the states, in turn, levied assessments for men on the towns. In turn, the towns offered enlistment bonuses, canvassed the organized militia for volunteers and then drafted men from the unorganized militia to fill their quotas. The enlistments varied from a few weeks to a few months to a year to three years. The enlisted personnel were always citizen soldiers raised by their respective states and Washington's foolish attempt to make a national officer cast of the commissioned veterans of the Continental Army was soundly rejected.

The armies raised for the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, WWI, WW II, Korea and Vietnam all followed this model. Although after WWI the role played by the states became obscured by the consequences of the Militia Act of 1903 (the Dick Act) and by evolving custom.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.