Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
In my retirement, I have, without great enthusiasm, looked at various books on American History. My lack of interest stems from my impression that most of these, in the past, were (a) overly impressed by certain personalities (Jefferson and Lee spring to mind) and (b) had no ability to take the point of view of foreign actors or even African and Native Americans.
As it turns out, that is changing, although not universally, and so there are, imho, some fascinating re-takes on some of the historical narratives such as those I found growing up in my American History textbooks. I’d just like to call attention here to two “new thoughts” about that history that I recently ran across. I will state them first in abbreviated and provocative form:
1. President John Tyler may have played the largest role in making the Civil War inevitable.
2. The most dangerous part of the American Revolution for the American cause was AFTER Valley Forge.
Now, let’s do a deeper dive into these.
John Tyler Did It
The time from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War has always been a bit of a blank spot in my knowledge of American History. The one event I remember that seems to mean much is Jackson’s termination of the Bank of the United States, which subjected the U.S. to severe rather than mild recessions for a century – including, of course, the effect on the Great Depression.
A recent biography of John Quincy Adams adds a great deal to my understanding of this period, even if it is (necessarily) overly focused on Adams himself. As it turns out, Adams was both involved in American diplomacy abroad from the Revolution to 1830, and also in its politics from 1805 to 1848, when he died. In that span, he saw three key developments in American politics:
1. The change in slavery’s prominence in politics from muted to front and center. We tend to see the Compromises leading up to the Civil War as springing out of the ground at the end of the Mexican War; on the contrary, it appears that the key event is the formation of a pro-slavery Republic of Texas in the early 1830s, along with (and related to) a new, much more uncompromising anti-slavery movement arriving around 1830. That, in turn, was a reaction to a much more expansionist slave-state politics after the War of 1812.
2. A change in the Presidential election system from “election by elites” (electors were much less bound to particular parties) to a much more widespread participation in elections as new states arrived (although, of course, the electorate still remained male, white, and Northern European).
3. A related change in the overall political system from “one-person” parties to a real two-party system. For the value of that, see modern Israel, whose descent from a two-party system to one in which most if not all parties are centered around one person and mutate or vanish whenever that person leaves the scene has brought dysfunction, short-term and selfish thinking, and paralysis to policy-making.
The way in which these changes occurred, however, had a great deal to do with the ultimate shape of the Civil War. Here’s my take at a quick synopsis: From 1812 to 1830, the old style of politics, in which each Democratic President effectively “crowned” his successor by making him Secretary of State, was dominant. During that time, also, there was a kind of “pause” in westward expansion during which the rest of the continent east of the Mississippi became states. And Adams during his time as Secretary of State arranged with Mexico the acquisition of the territory that later became the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho, and (most importantly) Oregon and Washington.
When Adams was elected, Jackson was the closest competitor (more electoral votes but actually fewer popular votes) in a four-person race. Inevitably, in the next election, as the power of the new Western states made itself felt, Jackson was a clear victor – but parties were still one-person things. Jackson as a slave-holder and anti-Native-American bigot certainly did African and Native Americans no favors personally, but did not strengthen the slave states’ political power significantly. Moreover, his successor, Martin van Buren, is credited as the true founder of the two-party system, very much along today’s lines: a party of Federal-government spending on “improvements” to supplement state and local spending (the Whigs) vs. a party along Jefferson’s lines of small government (the Democrats) – and these things cut across slavery and anti-slavery positions.
Inevitably, the Whigs quickly won an election vs. the Democrats, ushering in William Henry Harrison, a governor from the Northwest who promised to rein in the political power of the slave states via the Democrats (for example, they had imposed a “gag rule” to prevent Adams, who was now in Congress, from speaking out against slavery). And this was important, because between the 1820s and the early 1840s, settlers had created a “slave-state Republic” in Texas with uncertain boundaries, and the slave states were clamoring to accept Texas as a state, effectively upsetting the balance between slave and free states.
Unfortunately, Harrison died shortly after election, and John Tyler, a slave-state “balanced ticket” politician, took over. He had no interest in the Whig party – rather, he sought to carve out a position close to the Democratic one, in order to create his own political party and get re-elected. Thus, he splintered his own party and sectionalized it as well. What followed, as Polk and the Democrats accepted Texas and acquired the Southwest during the Mexican-American War, simply made inevitable and immediate the “irrepressible conflict.”
But let’s imagine Harrison hadn’t died, and had instead served two terms. It is very possible that the slave states would have benefited from “improvements”, and slavery expansion would have become less a matter of absolute necessity in their politics. It is then possible that the notion of secession would not have been so universally accepted, nor the excesses of slaveholding immigrants in Missouri as easily excused, nor the pressure to make the North conform as extreme. Thus, Kentucky and Tennessee would not have been as up for grabs as the Civil War started, the Confederacy weaker, and the result less bloody and quicker.
All this is speculative, I know. But to me, the biggest what-if about the Civil War is now: What if John Tyler had never gotten his mitts on the Presidency?
It’s Not About Valley Forge
Up until recently, my view of the Revolutionary War, militarily speaking, was that Washington simply hung on despite financial difficulties, defeats, and near-victories squandered by subordinates, until he surmounted his troops’ starvation at Valley Forge and the British, frustrated, shifted their focus to the South. Then, when Cornwallis in the South failed to conquer there and desperately marched North, Washington nipped down, wiped out his troops at Yorktown, and the war was effectively over, 2 years before the peace treaty got signed.
However, a new book called “The Strategy of Victory” (SoV) presents a different picture. It does so by (a) more completely presenting the British point of view, and (b) probing deeper into the roles of militia and regular army in the fighting.
SoV suggests that the overriding strategy of Washington was (a) keeping a trained regular army in existence so that the British in venturing south beyond New York could be defeated on its flank and in detail where possible, and (b) combining that regular army with militia who would, more or less, take the role of long-distance sharpshooters at the beginning of a battle. At first, that strategy was highly successful, and led to the “crossing the Delaware” victories, followed by a British conquest of Philadelphia that backfired because Washington sat on the communications and supply lines between New York and Philadelphia. So the British went back to New York.
However, Clinton, the British general in New York, next devised a strategy (and this is after Valley Forge) to catch Washington out of his well-defended “fortress area”, by landing his troops in mid-New Jersey and heading inland. In fact, he came surprisingly close to succeeding, and only a desperate last stand by a small portion of the militia and army allowed Washington to slip away again. That was Closest Shave Number One.
Attention then shifted to the South, where a nasty British officer named Tarleton basically moved faster than any colonial resistance and steadily wiped out militia resistance in Georgia, then South Carolina, then into North Carolina. Had he succeeded in North Carolina, it is very possible that that he would have succeeded in Virginia, and then Washington would have really been caught between two fires. But a magnificent mousetrap by Daniel Morgan that again combined regulars and militia to firstly tempt Tarleton into battle, and secondly ensure he lost it, saved the day: Closest Shave Number 2. Without Tarleton’s regulars to maintain it, the British pressure on the inland Carolinas and Georgia collapsed, and Cornwallis’ move into Virginia had no effect beyond where his army moved, making the Virginia invasion pointless and allowing Washington to trap him. Meanwhile, General Greene moved into the southern vacuum, his main concern being to preserve his regulars while doing so (again, Washington’s strategy), and was able to take over most of the Carolinas and Georgia again – as SoV puts it, he “took over all of Georgia while losing every battle.”
However, Yorktown was not the end of the fight for the North. It was always possible that the British would again sally from New York – if Washington were no longer there. And so the next two years were a colossal bluff, in which a regular army of a couple of thousand was kept together with spit, baling wire, and monetary promises just to keep the British afraid to venture again out of New York. Washington’s last address to his troops was not, says SoV, his thanks for faithful service; it was his apology for the lies he told them in order to hold the army together, meant to keep them from revolting rather than disbanding.
And one other point of this narrative that applies to the historical American “cult of the militia” that still hangs over us in today’s venal legal interpretations of the Second Amendment. SoV makes it very clear, as the other American History books through to the Civil War also do, that America could not have survived without a regular army, and that militia without a regular army are not sufficient to maintain a free society – whereas, in the Civil War, a regular army without militia made us more free.