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The Second End of the War

By (October 1, 2007) One Comment

Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Existence after Yorktown

Thomas Fleming
Smithsonian Books (Harper Collins), 2007

History is a field of study too often obscured by generalizations. A common example is the absolute way in which people tend to view historical events or figures. Perhaps this is the fault of historians, who in their quest to relay as much information as possible to the reader, portray events and personalities as broad strokes in an over-arching equation. But this reduces the study of history to a formulaic series of actions and reactions or monolithic, era-defining conflicts and resolutions. When this happens, the final narrative doesn’t add up to much more then a mere chronology. Then its reproduced either as a textbook on a school desk, producing vacant stares or collecting dust.

Fortunately, history is not black and white, nor does it simply leap-frog from one event to the next without ever touching the middle ground. It unfolds in real time and its course is influenced by innumerable currents. It takes the form of the participants’ opinions, personal or regional interests, or the coin toss of victory in battle. It is a contextually rich and vibrant landscape where character flaws, external pressures and the fallibility of decisions made without the assurances of foreknowledge exert great influence. So when a historian attempts to take a closer look at a critical period that’s too often glossed over because the events that proceeded and followed it fit more neatly on a time line, its worth taking notice.

This is exactly what’s exciting about the premise of Thomas Fleming’s new book Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Existence after Yorktown. The end of the American Revolution is one of those events that exist in a fog. It has long been taken for granted that Cornwallis’ surrender following General Washington’s and French Admiral de Grasse’s 1781 joint action in Virginia ended the war. However, this is only correct in the most general and roundabout way and even then it’s only a small part of the truth. There were, in fact, many obstacles on the long road to a conclusive peace treaty after Yorktown. The process would take almost two full years and would be continuously undermined by the internal weaknesses of the rebellious colonies and by politicking on the world stage between Britain and France.

Fleming does an excellent job describing the precarious strategic position the rebels were in after General Cornwallis and his men turned over their weapons and sailed away in defeat. In the aftermath of that fight, Yorktown is more accurately seen as a set back for the British as opposed to a decisive knock-out blow. The colonies still sat between the hammer and the anvil with British Canada to the north, Georgia and the Carolinas, solidly under Britain’s control, to the south and New York City continuing to serve as General Clinton’s (and shortly later General Carleton’s) headquarters.

Internally, the colonies were saddled with a war-weary populous and a financially debilitated Congress within which a nasty ideological dispute was crystallizing into factions, and crippling good government. At this juncture, American leaders expected another campaign to commence the next spring and yet they had no idea how to pay for it.  

With independence like a mirage on the horizon, Fleming proceeds to explain how geographic distance may have saved the revolution. He provides numerous examples of how the miles of ocean separating the colonies from the mother country combined with the slow pace of eighteenth century communication allowed the financial and political troubles of the Continental Congress (as well as the smoldering discontent of the unpaid Continental Army) to go largely unnoticed by London. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If Parliamentary leaders had been able to obtain this information at the speed we could today, it might have dissuaded them from moving toward a settlement of any kind. In fact, if recognized, this information would have suggested an alternate course of warfare: simply waiting for the rebellion to collapse under its own weight.

The slowness of communication also contributed to contradictory diplomatic gestures by the British as they struggled to coordinate their efforts on two continents. Fleming captures the confusion:

On August 2, 1782…the general [Sir Guy Carleton] called on [Judge William] Smith with news… Carleton had just learned that diplomat Thomas Grenville had gone to Paris with the authority of the Rockingham cabinet behind him and announced to the American peace negotiators that the British were ready to concede the independence of the United States. The news came in a letter from Lord Shelburne. Smith could not believe his ears. All the letters he had received from England had assured him that the vast majority of the populace was determined never to surrender the colonies… Smith thought Grenville’s offer might well trigger a civil war in England…The enraged Carleton paced Smith’s parlor, denouncing the move. There was no necessity for it… Not being a mind reader, especially at a distance of three thousand miles, General Carleton had no idea that Shelburne’s letter was another example of his devious style. He had sent it while he was still colonial secretary, as part of his ongoing scheme to trump Charles James Fox.…

The expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and the buffer it provided had other consequences as well. It is responsible for producing an isolating effect on the modern Americans’ historical understanding of this period and here Fleming does some of his most interesting work. He explores how the disparate interests within the British government and the strategic and economic pressures imposed by the larger war with France encouraged the British to be more generous during the negotiations with the Americans than they might have otherwise been. British interests required they attempt to drive a wedge between the Franco-American alliance so that British merchants could retain good trade relations with their former colonies after the war. A cessation of hostilities in North America would also allow Britain to redeploy its military forces in order to better defend its lucrative colonies in the West Indies, India and strategically important Gibraltar from French attacks. By emphasizing how these events happening far away from the shores of America influenced the fledgling republic’s destiny, Fleming gives the reader a greater appreciation for the scale of the global conflict swirling around the revolution.

  Overall, Thomas Fleming is an experienced and credentialed historian whose new book is factually solid, if not earth-shattering. He is capable of keen observations, especially where he has the opportunity to revel in the irony of a particular situation. His narrative style is steady and although it’s not necessarily invigorating, it doesn’t make “Perils of Peace” a laborious read. Fleming’s use of concise points within short manageable chapters results in a book that provides a great deal of information without requiring a large time commitment from the reader.

Now, having given credit where it is due is not to say I’m without my criticisms of Mr. Fleming’s work. He has studied this topic for many years but, in doing so, he has taken sides. He doesn’t betray an overt bias so much as a subconscious inability to remain objective. Simply put, he believes there was a correct course for the colonies to follow and there was an incorrect one. His choice of heroes and villains and the attributes and faults he assigns to each tells its own story and demarcates his beliefs and positions.

In this excerpt, Fleming requisitions the inner voice of General Nathaniel Greene:

It is easy to see why General Greene, in letters to Robert Morris and others, began deploring “the great blindness” throughout America to what would promote the nation’s happiness. “A rage for the sovereign independence of each state” was at the root of it. He wondered if there was any hope for “national honor or national revenue.”

Throughout the book Fleming unequivocally endorses nationalists, whom he portrays as moderates and practitioners of realpolitik. He speaks highly of Robert Morris’ and Alexander Hamilton’s efforts at achieving federal solvency, but places greater emphasis on the roles played by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, to whom he has assigned the lion’s share of the age’s wisdom. There is no denying these men were the titans of the day and nobody can downplay the importance of the service they rendered during the struggle for independence. However, we do better by posterity if we resist the temptation to canonize them. It is unfortunate that Fleming tries to do just that. Without saying it outright he attempts to give the reader the impression that each man has tapped into a higher consciousness culled from another celestial plane and that only they and their supports are in possession of the “truth.” Armed only with this “truth” and their indomitable wills, they must rescue the revolution from the “heretics” and lead it to a successful conclusion.

This idealization of men and the mythical growth of their reputations is a common trap for American historians. That it was bound to happen to Washington and Franklin must have been fairly obvious even to contemporaries such as John Adams.

Adams, who Fleming unfairly abuses throughout the book and uses as a foil to make Franklin seem greater by contrast, is recorded as saying:

The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod – and thenceforward these two conducted all the policies, negotiations, legislatures, and war.

At the other end of the spectrum, Fleming’s villains are, without fail, state’s rights men. They are supporters of the weak federal system maintained by the Articles of Confederation and suspicious of the French alliance. He derogatorily calls them “purists” who stand on principle and are unwilling to compromise. Fleming sees them as paranoid reactionaries and unremitting ideologues. To him, they are little more than American Jacobins. Among the names he reserves for special scorn are those of Sam Adams and Arthur Lee:

Lee shared with his brother Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams and their followers a conviction that self-interest was incompatible with patriotism. An Adams follower, Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, summed up this radical philosophy by dividing whigs (liberals) into six classes. Only one was worthy of respect: the true whig who had not a smidgen of self interest in his patriotic heart. True whigs were the apostles and guardians of public virtue, which Samuel Adams considered America’s chief asset in the struggle with Great Britain. This was a noble ideal but when it was used to judge individuals, it could easily become a political weapon.

Within the revolutionary government these type of men are portrayed as the largest roadblock in the peace process. They are constantly working to derail the “responsible” revolutionaries attempts to raise money through federal taxes and forge a nation. However Fleming doesn’t seem to find time to temper his criticisms of what he calls the Adams-Lee faction in the Continental Congress with the fact that these were the leading families in calling for separation from Britain and the driving force behind independence, even making the formal motion in Congress in 1776.

What becomes apparent through the ferocity of Fleming’s judgments is the eighteenth century partisanship he has gotten himself caught up in. He has actively aligned himself with the idea that America should emerge from the revolution as a single nation. This certainly explains his antipathy towards the Articles of Confederation and the Adams-Lee faction. This decision on Fleming’s part is one that chooses to ignore the fact that nationhood was not the universal expectation for a great number of rebels.

In this period Virginians referred to their state as their “country,” and similar allegiances apportioned themselves throughout the colonies. Many saw the Continental Congress as a necessary body to oversee and coordinate the war effort but also largely viewed it as limited to that end. They did not see their participation in Congress as an abdication of their state’s sovereignty and a great many may [for ‘might’] have viewed continental cooperation as temporary. Evidence for this can be seen in tensions that quickly developed in the colonies over westward expansion and the polite indifference the states treated the national government with during mid-1780’s (a time period that Fleming does not delve into.)

In the end, Perils of Peace is not a work of great academic significance, but that’s not what it’s meant to be. It’s written for a casual history reader and although it still romanticizes people and events, it does take steps towards shedding light on the truth about how the American Revolution ended. While not a flawless effort, Perils of Peace is interesting and worth picking up as it can help bring about a more complete understanding of a complicated period. It would be beneficial if more general histories moved in this direction so we can increasingly begin to take the founders off the pedestals on which we’ve placed them and realize they were not the unique instruments of providence.

By viewing history in this way we can see that its participants were unsure people in a changing world and, like us, worried about an uncertain future. From this realization, perhaps we may discover that we too are living history and like our predecessors, we are capable of instigating great change in our world.

Thomas J. Daly graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Rowan University in New Jersey. He dreams of one day hosting his own program on the History Channel. These are usually followed by nightmares where nobody is interested.

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