January 19, 2006

America's Monarchist Period

Clayton Cramer comments on the current US PBS series The War That Made America, the opening episode of which I too watched last night. The series, as Cramer's post documents, is about the war known in the USA as the French and Indian War and elsewhere as the Seven Years' War. I was happy to see the series, as it helps to correct the lack of attention paid to the monarchist period of American history, and brings out the essential continuity of American life through the past four centuries. The war is also interesting as the last big thing that Americans did as part of the Empire, and to see how the Anglo-American tensions that arose during that effort pointed out to all how the political structures that had served the Empire to that point had become unworkable. This revelation led directly to Lord North's efforts to reform the structure by centralizing power in London, to Franklin's attempts to reform the structure by formalizing a balance of power between Westminster and America, and the Patriots' ultimate resort to independence.

It was also interesting because it shed more light on the interesting period between 1497 and (roughly) 1800, in which a set of hybrid cultures mixing various Indian tribes with French- and English-speaking cultures arose in the northeast quadrant of North America. At first it was confined to the Atlantic coastal strip, where fishermen mixed informally with Indians as soon as Cabot's voyage began bringing the former to American shores. However, as trappers and traders began to regularly visit the interior, and state interests followed with soldiers and missionaries, the various Indian nations began incorporating the capabilities of the Europeans into their political calculations. The PBS series shows this world at its maturity, a few decades before its collapse. It's worth remembering that the northeast North American Indian world as we know it from hsitorical accounts was nothing like a pristine native culture.

Cramer comments on the role of the American militias in the campaigns of that war. He notes that these militia were often drawn from the bottom of their respective colonial societies, and their lack of motivation to fight for Imperial and land speculators' interests might partly explain their poor performance. This is probably true of some units, particularly the frontier guard put together in Virginia after Braddock's defeat. However, that picture is at odds with the well-documented discussion of the New England militia in David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride. Fischer documents the ways in which New England militias tended to be well-integrated into civic life, well-trained, and often militarily effective.

It's also the case that New Englanders felt very much under the guns of the French and their Indian allies. They were close to the French seat of power in Quebec, and had long memories of French-led raids into New England such as the Deerfield Massacre. They had been part of a long series of previous British campaigns against France, and had ready access to the stories told by veterans of those expeditions. Cramer complains about the tendency of critics of the current war trying to conflate "wars for the benefit of the rich" with the War on Terror, and cites the French and Indian/Seven Years' War as one of the former. Perhaps, though, the New Englanders saw, with some validity, that war as a war against terror and the sources of terror.

Posted by James C. Bennett at January 19, 2006 01:52 PM

Interesting as always. I missed tjis documentary. Here's an interesting tidbit about the Canadian militia tradition: it's French. After the conquest, one of the first laws in the new colony was to codify the French militia laws and customs and incoporate them into the British units station here.
I was surprised because I always thought that the British simply replaced the French colonialism but that wasn't the case in various sphere. From what I've been able to glean the French militia tradition was much more fleixble and more attuned to North American conditions than the British at that time.
I don't know enough about the sociological makeup of the French militias but it would be interesting to compare them with the British/American militias.
For example: were were the English Canadian militias of 1812 better or equal to their American counterparts?


Posted by: xavier at January 19, 2006 03:48 PM

Perhaps some of the lack of enthusiasm amongst the malitia, at least in New England, was due to the return in 1749 of Fortress Louisbourg to France after it was captured by a New England militia in 1745.

The memory of King Philip's War, that saw the destruction of 13 New England towns by the Indians, may also have influenced the New Englanders perception of the French & Indian War as a war of terror.

The difference in perceptiion of causes of war and performance of militias may be the result of focusing on Mid-Atlantic and Southern malitias versus those from New England.

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at January 19, 2006 04:22 PM

Clayton wrote
While they have not discussed it yet, one side effect of the British victory over the French was the Proclamation Line of 1763--which effectively closed off much of the frontier to Colonial settlement.

Except .. it didn't. Boone was exploring Kentucky in 1767, establishing Boonseboro and blazing what became the 'Wilderness Road' in 1775. He wasn't the first, but he is the one we remember. See also the settlements in Tennesee at the same time.

Posted by: Brian at January 19, 2006 06:07 PM

Yes, there was a lot of unauthorized colonization and land specualttion going on at the time. The effect of the Proclamation was to give everyone with such an interest, or who hoped to have such an interest, a stake in independence.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 19, 2006 06:17 PM

The comment that "militia were often drawn from the bottom of their respective colonial societies" is very wrong, at least with regards to New England.

Actually, a millita was simply the entire male population of a town. The Provincial Forces in the French and Indian Wars were recruited from these militias on a quota system. The provincial soldiers were payed well (better then the regular British soldiers), and service was seen as a good way for a younger son to earn enough to set himself up as a farmer. This is in contrast to the British soldiers, who did come from the underclass and for whom service was not a ticket to a better life.

The Provincial soldiers in general did not perform well on the battlefield and were not called on to do so often, as they were mostly used for "fatigue duties" (i.e. construction and logistics). This should be confused for a lack of enthusiasim for the wars - rather it was a lack of training, discipline and trust on the part of the British regular army estabilishment. Provincial soldiers served only for a campaign season (maybe 8 months) and did not often re-enlist, again in contrast to the British soldiers who were generally career soldiers.

The Seven Year's war was the last of the French and Indian Wars, but it was the first time that Britian committed millitary force to North America on a large (and expensive) scale. In the previous wars the individual colonies footed a large portion of the bill for their troops, but in this one the colonies were fully reimbursed. While this level of commitment was very popular in the colonies, it would later lead to large problems because Parliament felt that need to get some of its expenses back in the form of tax revenue. Parliament also felt that because it had expended so much energy in North America it ought to pay closer attention to governing it.

For more information on this subject I recommend two books by Fred Anderson - "Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in
British North America" and "Peoples Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years War".

Posted by: Pete at January 19, 2006 06:27 PM

Xavier, did the pre-revolutionary militias in France get absorbed into the Garde Nationale? I wonder if the old miltia was a hangover from the germanic traditions of the Franks. Certainly the Swiss militias (John McPhee's Place de la Concorde Suisse is a gem on that topic) and the Anglo-American militia traditions derive from the same Germanic source.

Another good book is John Keegan's Fields of Battle, which has a comprehensive discussion of the major wars fought in northeastern North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 19, 2006 08:55 PM

"Cramer comments on the role of the American militias ...these militia were often drawn from the bottom of their respective colonial societies, and their lack of motivation to fight for Imperial and land speculators' interests might partly explain their poor performance."
"Fischer documents the ways in which New England militias tended to be well-integrated into civic life, well-trained, and often militarily effective."

The Indians were better warriors and used better tactics than the British therefore the militias did better against the British than the Indians. The Indians lost 2 continents due to lack of large scale organization. The French provided this during the French and Indian war. The French did not impose European style tactics on the Indians. Imagine how different western movies would be if the Indians fired their bows and threw spears in ranks.

Posted by: commenter at January 19, 2006 09:20 PM

European tactics didn't work that well in the thick forests and uneven ground of the North East, nor did the Indians conveniently line up in a front to recieve projectiles from their opponents. The situation is similar to what happened in the jungles of vietnam. Maybe that is why, tactically at least, the Americans did so much better there than the French. Guerrilla tactics were what the american military cut it's teeth against.

From: http://www.armyranger.com/mod.php?mod=userpage&page_id=44

Commencing in 1754 and lasting until 1763, the French and Indian War on the North American continent served as part of a larger conflict called the Seven Years' War in Europe. The British, having seen how successful Ranger units were against this new and unorthodox style of warfare, began recruiting American frontiersmen to form similar units to serve as auxiliaries of their Regular army. The impact of the war upon British infantry techniques and tactics was tremendous. Impressed by the successful combination of loose-knit Indian fighting and disciplined light-fighting skills, the British Army sought to incorporate these style units within their organizational structure.

Posted by: commenter at January 19, 2006 09:43 PM

Imagine how different western movies would be if the Indians fired their bows and threw spears in ranks.

Well, you can see how effective that would have been from the Zulu Wars. The Zulu impiswere roughly comparable to late Bronze Age-early Iron Age armies in classical times. They were highly effective against their less-well-organized tribal opponents. Against British troops armed with gunpowder weapons, not much more effective than the Indians.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 19, 2006 11:30 PM

The Indians lost 2 continents due to lack of large scale organization.

Is this meant to be an argument against decentralized social activities, such as the militia?

Weren't there other factors involved, such as absence of bacterial and viral antibodies as well as a multi-generational disadvantage in weapons systems??

Posted by: Richard Heddleson at January 20, 2006 07:26 AM

It didn't hurt the English cause to have the Iroquois as allies, or maybe more accurately, as protectors. They had a better level of political organization as the Five Nations than the Englsih did in their various colonies, and they had a fearsome reputation for success.

Note on militias - Washington never really ever got his head around the idea and at least once - I forget which battle - put them out in front of his regular troops just to keep them from breaking and running. This is less ironic than it looks, that the great champion of the republic and citizenship and all those new ideas should trust a citizens' militia so little, but he was a professional and his professional competence didn't extend to a radical innovation any more than anyone's else's did at the time. And he had a war to win; experimentation was a luxury unless it was a necessity.

Posted by: Jim at January 20, 2006 02:51 PM

Is this meant to be an argument against decentralized social activities, such as the militia?

We must remember that decentralization isn't a panacaea; it has weak points, including difficulties of coordination and focused, unified efffort. I thought the paper on the Iriquois was interesting and may have further comments on it. However, we havee to remember that the founders were omnivorous readers and combed all available literature for examples of federalism, including the ancient Greeks, Switzerland, and probably the most important example at thhat point in history, and the best-known to them -- the United Provinces of the Netherlands. NAM Rodger's Command of the Ocean (here I go again, but it's an important point) shows how the English became very familiar with Dutch confederalism, first as their enemies, and then as part of a unified command during the Crown Union of England, Scotland, and the Netherlands under William III. Each of the seven Dutch provinces kept its own admiralty, procured its vessels independently (and since some provinces did not have deep-water harbors, this kept many Dutch ships undersized relative to foreign fleets) and sailed under its own admirals -- since each command had three Admirals (full, Vice, and Rear) this meant every Dutch battle flet had twenty-one frickin' admirals, all of whom had to be consulted whenever anything important needed to be done. This drove the Royal Navy officers crazy (among other things, it led to title inflation in the Royal Navy in order to keep pace with their allies) and became a "lesson learned" for generations afterwards. I believe that experience influenced the Founders to create a strong, unified commander-in-chief position with unambiguous control over state forces.

It's interesting that the Confederate States had a looser constitution with more state independence in wartime, and that led to many problems in practice, which tended to vindicate the founders' judgement.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 20, 2006 08:11 PM

One of the strengths of the Anglosphere is its employment of decentralization to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds. But there are times when the decentralization needs to yield to centralization. What characterizes these circumstances?

Perhaps what is characteristic is the tendency to begin to solve problems in a decentralized fashion. When and how does the need for centralization become apparent? How is centralization adopted when it is necessary?

The example of Bridges and Catapaults is an interesting illustration of this in small groups of children.

Posted by: Richard A. Heddleson at January 21, 2006 07:26 AM


I'd be interested to know if there are any good references for the French militia system you refer to. I've been doing a lot of research on the colonial militia in the New England colonies and I'd love to be able to compare it to what was going on north of the St. Lawrence. My current focus has been early 17th century and I know relatively little about the 7-Years War period. I'm going to try to track down the Anderson books that Pete mentioned.

The colonists that established the Massachusetts Bay settlements c. 1630 arrived well armed with the latest equipment. Their organization mirrored the training bands that were popular in the larger cities of England and in many ways they resembled the forces that fought the English Civil War 10 years later. By 1636 they had three regiments of infantry and the first permanent drill field in North America. (Salem Common in Salem, Massachusetts is that field. Every year on the Saturday closest to April 19 the Mass. Army National Guard holds a National Guard Heritage Day Review there to celebrate almost 400 years of continuous, organized militia in the Bay State.) The drill they used was copied from that used by Maurice of Nassau in the 1580s during the wars between the Dutch, Spanish, and English.

The organization of the state militias after the ratification of the 1787 constitution was specified in Section 8 under the powers of Congress:

"To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;"

Standardizing drill at the federal level was the result of experience during the Revolution. The wide variety of systems of drill used by the militias at the beginning of the Revolutionary War were a source of frustration to Lt. Gen. Washington and he had Frederick von Stueben appointed Inspector General for the express purpose of standardizing drill. Von Stueben's drill remained the required drill for all militia units in the US by act of Congress until it was superceded by Scott's drill in 1812. Von Stueben's drill was based largely on the British Discipline of 1764. Scott's 1812 drill was translated from the contemporary French Ordinances.

In practice, the level of drill found in the various militia units fluctuated over time based on the immediacy of the perceived threat. The alarm companies that fought at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill had been expecting a confrontation with the regulars for a while. For example, a force of regulars landed in Marblehead on February 26, 1775, two months before Lexington, and attempted to march to Salem when they were confronted by a small force of locals. In this particular case Col. Leslie, the British officer commanding, decided against firing and withdrew after negotiating a compromise with the militia that allowed him to comply with the letter of his orders without achieving his objective of destroying the artillery he had been sent to find. The British navy raided the coast of New England during the War of 1812 and the number and quality of the local militia companies skyrocketed as a result. By the 1840s it had degenerated to the level of marching band and chowder societies again before it was reinvigorated by the threat of wars with Canada and Mexico.

I've always been intrigued by references to "Indian" tactics revolutionizing warfare, or in some way being unique to the American experience. Scouts and light infantry have been used by well-organized armies since classical times. Small unit actions place a premium on individual initiative and proficiency with weapons. Large unit actions require command and control and logistics. Successful hunter societies emphasize personal prowess, physical courage, ability to endure pain and privation, and weapons skill. These characteristics were recognized as useful ones for light infantry by lots of military thinkers throughout history and are reflected in names like "Jager" and "Chasseur" being applied to elite light infantry units in Europe. What I'm not seeing is these organizations imitating anything specifically derived from American Indians.

"Commencing in 1754 and lasting until 1763, the French and Indian War on the North American continent served as part of a larger conflict called the Seven Years' War in Europe. The British, having seen how successful Ranger units were against this new and unorthodox style of warfare, began recruiting American frontiersmen to form similar units to serve as auxiliaries of their Regular army."

The important point here is how much larger the Seven Years' War was than the French and Indian War. The Prussian army that Frederick II led in 1756 numbered 175,000 men. When he invaded Bohemia, he was confronted by Austrian armies with 135,000 men. Braddock's "army" numbered 1,500 men and was ambushed by 900 men. Warfare on the scale of European campaigns was completely impossible in the English colonies.

The main change you see in European armies' use of light infantry during the 18th century is to make them a permanent part of the regular forces. Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria used Croatian hunters as light infantry during the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Silesian Wars (the Seven Years' War is sometimes known as the 3rd Silesian War), but they were contracted for on a campaign by campaign basis. (Note the US Army was still contracting for Indian scouts on a campaign by campaign basis on the frontier well into the 1880s) The British start recruiting regiments of regulars in North America in 1755 (60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot), but they have limited success. The 60th ends up being half German-American colonists and half Irish recruited in Ireland. Two of the battalion commanders, including the commander of the light infantry battalion, are Swiss recruited in Europe. The regiment does not get issued green jackets until 1797 -- 42 years later. Around the middle of the century the British army begins training one company in each battalion of infantry as light infantry. (They also train one company per battalion as heavy infantry (grenadiers)). This gives their army a permanent light force with an official doctrine. By the end of the century all major armies are organized like this, including the US army.

Regarding the ability of Indians to resist European encrouchment, tactics were not their problem. European economic efficiency allowed them to match whatever size force the Indians could have fielded, regardless of how well it was trained and organized. Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" was published in 1776. In it he describes a pin factory as an example of the principle of division of labor. It took some 25 distinct operations to make something as simple as a common straight pin in 1776.

"...a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in day; that is, certainly not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not four thousand eight hundred part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequences of a proper division and combination of their different operations" (WN I.i.3. p. 15).

Smith's point is that even in the simplest kinds of manufacturing enterprise in the mid-18th century it is possible by a simple division of labor to get efficiencies on the order of 240 to 1. Imagine then the scale of the efficiencies that are necessary to allow a nation-state to build 74-gun ships of the line! The French had 32 of them in the Chesapeake during the siege of Yorktown. There is no conceivable way that the American Indian societies that existed along the eastern seaboard in the 18th century could have produced the food, equipment, weapons, or manpower necessary to successfully campaign against the British or the French.

Posted by: Paul K at January 21, 2006 10:03 AM

Paul K., thanks for the excellent comment! The picture you paint of the New England trained bands and the expereince of the British Army in North America is certainly consistent with Fischer and Keegan.

One interesting further point is that the New England militias had periodic exposure to European tactics and practices thoughout their history. Not only did they serve in the periodic wars against the French, but New Englanders participated in the English Civil War on the Parliamentary side in substantial numbers relative to the population of Boston in that era. I recently discovered, in passing, that many of the officers of Rainsborough's Regiment, a key Parliamentary unit, had been Americans.

You don't usually think of Cromwellians as being Americans. I wonder if they awoke in their tents in England having dreamt of raccoons, or corn on the cob.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 21, 2006 11:20 PM

"One interesting further point is that the New England militias had periodic exposure to European tactics and practices thoughout their history."

I think many people, including some historians, tend to think that the North American colonies were very isolated from Europe, when in fact they weren't. David Hackett Fisher has a little throw-away comment in his "Historian's Fallacies" about the myth of the oceans protecting America from European interference. He points out that for at least the first two centuries of European colonization, the oceans were highways, not barriers. Overland travel was much, much slower in the 18th century than sailing. It took longer to walk from New York City to Detroit in 1755 than it did to sail from New York to London. I see many of the political issues that occupied the colonists mirroring political issues in England and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

See, for example, Boynton, Lindsay. "The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638." (London: Routledge and Regan Paul, 1967.) to see how the issues of general obligation v. select service, and local autonomy v. Crown control were playing out in the mother country at the time that the first colonial militias are being organized. Centralized control of a standing army is one of the points of contention in the English Civil War just like it will be in the colonies in 1765. Each colony wrestles with the same questions during the intervening 150 years. Who has to serve in the militia? Who picks the officers? Do they serve only for home defense,or are they required to man expeditions away from home? How much of the local defense should depend on a standing army and how much on citizen-soldiers?

Timothy Breen in "Puritans and Adventurers" argues that the Mass Bay Colony militia was organized as a conscious rejection of the policy of Charles I, but even so, it means that the "Americanization" in this case is the result of a problem in England, not a problem in America. It seems to me that a lot of the exceptionalism in the colonies is like this. Rather than being an adaptation to local circumstances, it is a self-conscious desire to be different in some regard from England, Britain, or Europe. The colonists arrive in America already believing that it is their right and priviledge to govern themselves as they see fit. They develop and expand that notion from concepts that they bring with them. They nuture it with the latest ideas continuously imported from Europe. They don't develop it as the result of living in the woods by themselves for 150 years. In other words, the exceptionalism lies in the answers to the questions, but not in the questions themselves.

Posted by: Paul K at January 22, 2006 04:16 PM


Forgot to mention that the North American Roundheads were dreaming of boiled salt potatos and steamed clams.

Posted by: Paul K at January 22, 2006 04:32 PM

I recall that the apprentice boys of Boston once rioted because they were being fed too much lobster and too little salt pork.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 22, 2006 08:42 PM

Let me emphasize that my remarks quoted above were with respect to the French & Indian War. The emerging struggle with Britain in the 1770s led to a revival of the traditional militia structure, especially in New England. I have a chapter devoted to this transformation in my upcoming book Armed America.

Posted by: Clayton E. Cramer at January 31, 2006 10:50 AM
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