I am about ¾ths of the way through my annual pilgrimage of watching Liberty! The American Revolution (see also IMDB page). I try to watch the series sometime around each Independence Day. I wrote about this last year. This series of six one-hour segments is one of the finest documentaries in existence about how a remarkable new democratic republican nation formed from 13 loyal British colonies over a stunningly short period of time.
I have been watching Liberty! for the past few days during my morning workout. The end of this morning’s workout had Cornwallis camped at Yorktown awaiting resupply while resting from chasing Nathanael Greene’s American forces around the South for half a year. Washington is at New York and is frustrated at what is going on. The French, who have come to assist the Americans, have been camped out in Rhode Island for over a year without doing anything other than to supply the Americans (which was essential to the war effort).
At this point in the war, it is not at all clear that the Americans will prevail. Washington has lost most of the battles in which he has engaged. Many major seaport cities throughout the colonies have fallen to the British. Green has lost every single battle with the British in the South. One of the American’s greatest war heroes, General Benedict Arnold, has recently defected to the British (treasonously attempting to turn over West Point to the enemy), convinced that the Americans cannot win the war. Support of the citizenry for the war rises and falls with each bit of news. At this point in the war, all is not necessarily lost, but it seems nearly to be so.
In retrospect, the tide had already turned in the Americans’ favor. Greene had understood that to win the war he had only to turn the hearts of the people against the British. That did not require winning battles. It only required forcing direct interaction between British forces and average Americans. Thus, his months-long strategy of leading the British away from their supply channels and through a string of American villages. The British were forced to plunder for supplies. And they plundered everyone, including loyalists and neutrals.
The British were fighting a hopeless war because a significant core of Americans felt what liberty was like and were not ready to give it up in any case. The British were used to war being between professional military forces. They were completely unprepared to deal with a hostile population (loyalists notwithstanding).
Another important factor was that France had engaged Great Britain on the sea and in areas far away from America. For the British, what had begun as an internecine struggle had become a world war. The conflict in America had given rise to conflicts far worse and more costly than the one in America. Support for the war in Britain, and particularly among the ruling class, was foundering.
It is interesting to see these issues in hindsight. But none of this was apparent to American political leaders, military leaders, and average citizens at the time. Many were quite disheartened. Washington was the quintessential man of the hour. He courageously soldiered on, never publicly displaying any doubt concerning the justness and final outcome of the revolution.
Tomorrow morning I will watch as the documentary discusses the miraculous turn of events that made possible the Siege of Yorktown. It will be explained that even when Cornwallis surrendered it was not really clear to anybody that the war was over. I may even see part of the final segment, which delves into the problematic postwar era that finally resulted in a new form of government, codified via the Constitution (and later the Bill of Rights), with George Washington as the first Chief Executive.
It is truly marvelous to me to review how our nation came to be. So many little things along the path could have resulted in an entirely different outcome.
Two days ago as I relaxed on the couch with my 10-year-old, I asked if he knew what our nation was celebrating on Wednesday. He said, “Its birthday.” “Yes,” I replied, “but what event happened to cause the birth of our nation?” He thought for a moment, and then said, “The end of the Civil War.” I knew I had some work to do. So we discussed the Declaration of Independence. My 14-year-old chimed in to say that many of its signers didn’t sign the document until August 1776. “What matters,” I responded, “is that it was formally adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, and that is why we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July.”
Tomorrow we will attend our community’s small parade. We will volunteer at the city park to run some of the city sponsored children’s games in the hot sun. One of my sons will play the National Anthem on his trumpet as a large flag is raised at the park by the Boy Scout Order of the Arrow chapter of which he is a member. Later we will gather with extended family members to celebrate a noted family member’s birthday that coincides with our nation’s birthday. Finally we will set off a few (very few and completely legal) fireworks in front of our house. We will have a lot of fun. But mostly, I hope my kids understand the importance of what we are celebrating.