Your RDA of Irony

Taking Liberties With the American Revolution: Part II

Britannia Rues the Seeds

What America presumed was its Declaration of Independence, Britain saw as a handwritten note saying that she was the worst mother country in the world and that her colonies were running away from home. Judging from that letter and an armed rebellion, the Americans obviously wanted attention; the question was what kind they deserved. In Parliament, the Whigs showed a gleeful sympathy to anyone who embarrassed a Tory government. Embracing the Americans as aggrieved British subjects and prospective Whig voters, the liberals favored giving the colonies whatever they wanted.

The King and the Tories had a less generous reaction to treason, but they were not sure how to punish it. Mass executions and wholesale slaughter, while permissible and frequently enjoyable where other British subjects were concerned, was not what English Protestants did to each other. There was no point in exiling the rebels to some corner of the earth; they were already in America. For lack of more vindictive pleasures, Britain had to be resigned simply to defeating the colonists.

Of course, defeating the colonials was not expected to require military ability; otherwise the Crown would have used the royal navy rather than the army. With its habit of attacking the far larger fleets of Spain and France, the British navy required officers whose talent and heroism matched their arrogance. The British army, however, spared by the Channel from any greater threat than the Scots and Welsh, could afford to delegate the talent and heroism to the sergeants; its officers simply had to look good in uniform and pay obligatory bribes for their commissions.

Gentlemen, who might have paid considerable amounts for the patriotic privilege to loot Hindu temples or ravish French women, unfortunately did not find similar incentives for fighting in America. Those officers willing to serve were more dismal than usual.

Still, if the British army had the handicap of British officers, so did the American army. George Washington, retired colonel of His Majesty’s Virginia militia, would repeatedly show an eagerness to lose that was matched only by a British inability to win. Furthermore, the rebels had an embarrassing inferiority in training, weaponry and tailoring. A British force of fewer than 40,000 men was considered sufficient to coax the loyalty of two million Americans.

Of course, England was not without allies. A number of Indian tribes were enticed by thoughts of Georgian wigwams, Chippendale tomahawks, and having their war paint done by Gainsborough. More importantly, many colonists did not support the rebellion. A conservative one-third still adhered faithfully to the Crown; either they did not believe Britain was a tyranny or they hoped that it was. Even among the revolution’s admirers, support tended to be theoretical and little else; they did not want to temper independence with inconvenience. A stinted rebellion against a powerful and popular government, the American Revolution should have been an obscure footnote in the history of the United Provinces of America.

What determined America’s independence was its dependence on France. Americans, who 20 years earlier had begged England for protection from the French, now begged France for protection from England. The colonists were fickle, but the French were too infatuated to care. With an enthusiasm untainted by knowledge, the French had long idolized the Americans as noble savages of the new world. The colonists were envisioned as the children of nature, rustic sages who spouted eternal truths while riding their buffaloes in the forests of Philadelphia. Popular French novels were even obliged to have presumably American settings; in Manon Lescaut, the heroine manages to die in the deserts of Louisiana.

The French showed the same fervor in their political sympathies as in their romantic fantasies. At the Sorbonne, and in the fashionable salons of Paris, the French espoused the Americans’ National Liberation Front. Even at Versailles, the American Revolution had its admirers; nobles felt that there might be more to life than the minuet and venereal disease. Some of these young courtiers could not confine their idealism to the safety of the salon; they wanted to go to America and fight for liberty. These heroic sentiments were even tolerated by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the fewer liberals at Versailles the better, and the Queen especially loathed that loudmouth Lafayette.

While the Americans were grateful for volunteers, especially rich ones, they needed more from France than sympathy and dilettantes. The colonists wanted weapons, supplies, ships, and money; they had belatedly discovered that one should not war against Britain armed only with Thomas Paine’s pamphlets. Furthermore, the Americans wanted diplomatic recognition. Their demands were exorbitant, and the only collateral they could offer was the prospect of dead Englishmen. Of course, in France, that was irresistible.

France seemed to have a habit of losing wars with Britain. Her fleets were sunk and her colonies conquered with humiliating regularity. The Seven Years War, in particular, had been a world atlas of French defeats: Canada, India, the Caribbean, and the Northwest Territory (which still bears such Gallic names as l’Illinois and Ouisconsin). That war ended in 1763; in 1776, it was time for a rematch. Each lost war was the incentive to start the next one. Now, America was providing France with an opportunity for revenge against England. With a masterly display of cynicism, the French monarchy decided to assist American republicanism. The Americans’ aims were irrelevant, just so long as they were aimed at the British.

France expected to lose this war, too, but hoped to do so discreetly. Covert aid, channeled through ostensibly neutral banks and trading firms, was to prop up the Americans while sparing France embarrassment and casualties. This craven but generous policy quickly had an impact upon the battlefields of New York and New Jersey; without the French aid, the Continental army would have had nothing to abandon while fleeing the British. Fortunately, wasting money was the raison d’etre of the French monarchy; as long as America was willing to fight, France was willing to pay. There was, however, a metaphysical limit to French assistance; it did not include miracles. An American victory required nothing less, but the memory of the Salem witchcraft trials discouraged prospective Joans of Arc. Still, any hopeless cause is entitled to a guardian angel, and, in 1777, the Americans found an unintentional savior in a British general: “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne.

To be continued…

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