There are more illusions and myths afloat about the War of Independence than about any other war Americans have fought. Start with “No Taxation Without Representation,” one of the war’s galvanizing slogans. This suggests the embryonic United States of America was a collection of poor pioneers the cruel Brits were determined to separate from their last farthings. Right?
Wrong. Americans of 1776 had the highest per capita income in the world. They were also the least taxed. In 1776 the American economy was two-fifths the size of the British economy and 17 times bigger than it had been in 1700. With a population that doubled every 25 years, the colonists were almost certain to surpass the mother country within a half century.
By 1776 Americans were producing one-seventh of the world’s iron in scores of furnaces and forges from Massachusetts to Virginia. Their premier port, Philadelphia, shipped 57,000 tons of wheat in a single year to a Europe beset with growing populations and poor harvests. Add thousands of tons of salted meat and bar iron from area ironworks, and you have an export trade of $40 million a year (about $800 million in today’s dollars) from one port.
These numbers explain why a heavily indebted England thought it was time to make Americans start paying some of the costs of running the empire. And it explains why Americans thought they were strong enough to tell England to get lost.
No one put it more picturesquely than George Washington, whose annual income was equal to $250,000 in today’s dollars. Parliament had “no more right to put their hands into my pocket,” he told a friend, “than I have to put my hand into yours.”
The distribution of wealth at the outbreak of the Revolution was about the same as it is in America today. There was a thriving middle class, mostly independent farmers who sold two-fifths of their crops for profits.
A portrait artist who regularly traveled between New York and Boston in search of clients remarked he was seldom out of sight of a house. The last moose in Massachusetts was shot in 1707. There was a frontier in present-day Kentucky, Tennessee and western Pennsylvania, but no one went there if they could help it. “The scum of every nation,” Ben Franklin remarked in 1750, “gravitates to the frontier.”
Americans thought their raw numbers would enable them to win a short violent war against Britain in one big battle— “a general action.” In his book Common Sense, agitator Thomas Paine had assured colonists that George III could be overcome with ease, as the British were bankrupt and could not afford to send a big army or fleet to America.
Imagine the shock when a fleet of nearly 300 ships—double the size of the legendary Spanish Armada—sailed into New York Harbor in June 1776 with more than 30,000 troops. The gentlemen in Whitehall knew just how much America was worth, and they were determined to keep it. Starting with Brooklyn, the king’s men thrashed Washington’s outnumbered, semi-trained regulars in battle after battle. The militia, part-time soldiers summoned to help the regulars, ran away in droves. Washington was among the few who kept his head. He told the president of the Continental Congress: “Henceforth, we will never seek a general action. Instead, we will protract the war.” This reversal of strategy, now largely forgotten, became the key to victory.
A few weeks later, Washington added a corollary to his strategy of protracted war: development of a regular, European-style army. As he retreated through New Jersey, he had called out the state’s 17,000 militia. Only 1,000 of them showed up to fight. When a New England general condemned the state’s lack of patriotism, Washington demurred. The militia had failed to turn out “for want of an army to look the enemy in the face.” Washington was talking about a regular army, equipped with artillery and cavalry and trained to maneuver on a battlefield.
Washington’s words deny one of the most enduring Revolution myths— that Americans won their independence because they were adept at fighting a guerilla war. This notion has led to endless erroneous comparisons between the defeat of the British in the Revolution and America’s defeat in Vietnam.
Washington did get an opportunity to fight a guerilla war. In 1778, General Charles Lee, a former British officer who was second in command of the American army, went to Congress and proposed disbanding the regulars and calling out tens of thousands of militia. Lee claimed maintaining a regular army was a waste of time and money, as the Americans could never stand up to British regulars in the open field. Washington ignored Lee’s proposal and made sure Congress did likewise.
Washington was fighting to win more than battles. He was contending for hearts and minds, and he realized that without a regular Continental army, the British would soon intimidate most Americans into reaffirming their loyalty to George III. He had seen this firsthand in New Jersey in 1776. As the British advanced across the state, they sent agents into house after house and persuaded thousands of people to sign a promise to “remain in peaceable obedience to His Majesty” in return for a pardon that guaranteed they would not be prosecuted, or hanged, for their rebel ways.
Guerilla warfare did break out in the southern colonies when the British shifted the struggle to Georgia and the Carolinas in 1779–1780, but at least half the guerillas there were loyalists, fighting for George III. Washington made sure that a regular army, led by his best general, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, was present to take on the British regulars at such battles as Guilford Courthouse.
Washington’s “protracted war” lasted eight exhausting years—another seldom-remembered fact of the Revolutionary War. It was a roller-coaster ride of victories and defeats. The crucial component was Washington’s steadfast determination to prevail. Again and again, he told doubters, “We cannot lose, as long as we stay in the game.” And thanks largely to his leadership and strategic vision, we stayed—and won.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.