Many Americans at the time didn’t think it was possible to defeat a military power as great as Britain at the start of the Revolutionary War, according to Paul Moreno.
“I think just about any historian looking backwards would say, ‘Yeah, the odds were certainly very overwhelmingly against the Colonists,'” says Moreno, a professor of history and dean of social sciences at Hillsdale College.
The Founding Fathers understood they were risking their “lives and fortunes and honor, but most of them thought that it was a risk that was worth taking, that was justified because their cause was right,” he says.
It was clear from the start of the war that no man was better equipped to handle the challenges of leading the Continental Army against the British than George Washington.
“One of the subtitles of great biographies of Washington is ‘The Indispensable Man,’ and that’s absolutely what he was,” Moreno says of Washington, adding that “he was a man of such a character, that he’s sort of embodied the virtue that the American people believed their cause and the cause of republican government depended upon.”
Moreno joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” for the second part of an Independence Day series to discuss how the Colonists, under Washington’s leadership, defeated the British to win to Revolutionary War.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by the professor of history and dean of social sciences at Hillsdale College, Dr. Paul Moreno.
Dr. Moreno, thanks so much for joining us today.
Paul Moreno: Oh, thanks very much for having me. Glad to be here.
Allen: We had such a good conversation on the show on Friday with your colleague, Dr. Bill McClay, discussing the buildup to the Revolutionary War and, of course, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. So today I’m very excited that we get to dive deeper into the Revolution itself and some of the major events.
I wanted to start with a question that was raised by something Dr. McClay said in our last conversation. He mentioned that some were opposed to the Revolutionary War among the colonists because they didn’t think that the colonists could actually defeat a military power as strong as Britain. Did the majority of the colonists really believe that the war could be won when they entered it?
Moreno: Well, yeah. John Adams’ estimate was that probably a third of the Americans were opposed, they were Tories, a third were Patriots, and a third were on the fence. And I would imagine that a lot of those people who were on the fence, one of the things that put them there was doubts about the military capability.
And I think just about any historian looking backward would say, yeah, the odds were certainly very overwhelmingly against the colonists. The British had the best military establishment in the world. The colonists certainly had some advantages, internal, sort of fighting on their own turf and that sort of thing, but it was definitely long odds.
And given the theory that the American Revolution was based upon—take [Thomas] Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence were exercising the right to revolution. And one of the requirements when you exercise that right is you have to have a reasonable chance of winning. If you’re doomed, it would be an unjustified exercise of the right to revolution.
So I think most of the Founders said, “We know that we’re risking our lives and fortunes and honor,” but most of them thought that it was a risk that was worth taking, that was justified because their cause was right.
The right to revolution, the appeal to arms was sometimes referred to as an appeal to heaven, and the Declaration of Independence also says that they believe that providence, that God, is on their side.
Allen: Their leader was very quickly selected as fighting really began to pick up in 1775. The Continental Congress commissioned George Washington as the commander in chief of the Continental Army. Why was Washington such an obvious choice to lead the army?
Moreno: Yeah. One of the subtitles of great biographies of Washington is “The Indispensable Man,” and that’s absolutely what he was. He was a man of such a character that he sort of embodied the virtue that the American people believed their cause and the cause of republican government depended upon.
And Washington turned out to be just, again, the perfect general.
On the one hand, he sort of cooled the enthusiasm of some radical Americans that we could win this war with a civilian militia, citizen soldiers. Washington realized you have to have a professional army.
And on the other hand, he recognized that to keep the Continental Army in being was his essential task. And so he avoided direct confrontations with the British unless the circumstances were favorable. And maintaining the Continental Army, Washington kept his eye on his principal goal and succeeded in that.
Allen: Well, let’s go ahead and talk about some of those confrontations. Of course, one of the major actions of the war was the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston. What were the casualties like at that battle?
Moreno: I think they might have been the highest casualties of any battle for the British in the entire war. It was just sort of shocking how high the casualties were. And that sort of meant a lot to the British, it gave them an impression that the Americans were sort of more formidable than a lot of British officers thought they would be.
The British, especially because of the structure of their army, had a kind of aristocratic disdain for the Americans. In fact, Washington himself was to some degree the product of this in that he was considered a provincial.
The way into the officer corps in the regular British army was pretty much closed to Americans just because they were Americans. And that kind of disdain for provincial, for colonial Americans—which had been going on for a long time.
Americans experienced this in a lot of the wars that they participated with in the British— the French and Indian War and earlier wars in the 18th century. And that helped to widen the separation between the British and the Americans, the kind of British underestimation and condescension toward the Americans.
Allen: What was the difference in the weaponry? Was it pretty similar, the weapons that the colonists were using versus those that the British were using?
Moreno: Again, I’m not a military historian. I know more about the sort of political and strategic aspects of it.
Moreno: The Americans, to some degree, my understanding is that the British were regular army and the Americans tried to have a regular army as well, but they were also willing to use sort of irregular methods, some of which through their experience with Indian fighting in the 18th century. The American rifleman was something of a legend that came out of the Revolutionary War.
And I think the initial enthusiasm that the Americans had for the war was dampened as the war became protracted and as the war moved from New England southward. By the time you get toward the end of the war, it was more or less a civil war within the United States, in the southern part of the war.
Washington’s ability to keep Americans together as the British tried to divide them, both physically, geographically, occupying New York and trying to cut off New England, they thought that there’d be more Tory, more loyalist sentiment in the South, and they tried to exploit that.
So there were a lot of internal divisions within the United States that keeping regular and sort of irregular forces in existence were part of Washington’s whole strategic gift.
Allen: That’s incredible. How did Washington navigate that, to continually be having to remind all of the colonists that this isn’t just a fight for those in the North or one specific group who wants it, this is a fight for all of us?
Moreno: Yes. I mean, that’s one of the most important results of the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War, was that continental experience. Washington was, you say, sort of a nationalist from the outset and a lot of other Americans were made nationalists by the war experience.
War generally tends to do this. It tends to centralize and bring people out of their provincial experience and make them more sort of homogenous.
This happened as recently as World War II. My father’s generation, he’s a World War II veteran, and the army experience of that war made Americans more integrated. In fact, the civil rights movement and the movement toward racial equality was given a big boost by the World War II experience.
So Washington, and he would go on and his people, the Federalist Party, and I think John Marshall who worked with Washington, served under him, would continue that sort of nationalist federalist tradition well into the 1830s.
And I would say, even more than that, Washington’s genius and the genius of the Founders was not only to move this from a sort of provincial state to a national level, but also to frame the struggle in international or sort of global terms, that this war was about redeeming the right of self-government and the natural rights of men for the entire world.
I think [Abraham] Lincoln during the Civil War was able to sort of channel Washington and the revolutionary generation’s belief that this was about mankind, this was about the last best hope of man on earth to prove that we can govern ourselves.
Allen: During the war, obviously, I think as you’ve alluded to, there were so many highs and lows, and Washington was constantly trying to navigate that and look for opportunities where morale could be boosted. And one of those situations was, of course, when George Washington crossed the Delaware in December of 1776. Why was that such a critical move?
Moreno: Well, they’d been on the run for such a long time, from New England when the British changed the center of the war to New York and Washington lost several battles in New York and had to give up Philadelphia. So sort of a symbolic victory like that, especially with regard to the Hessians, British mercenaries.
I mean, the American Revolution, the war for independence, had some pretty dark elements to it, and the complaints in the Declaration of Independence—even before independence was declared—about some of the atrocities that the British military had committed, and it refers to large bands of foreign mercenaries that the king had sent over.
So the war for independence, even though it was between sort of people who previously thought of themselves as Englishmen in common, could become pretty bitter. And I think that, yes, as you put it, the morale building of a victory like that, of the Delaware, was important.
Allen: We hear about the struggle in the winters during the war. How did Washington navigate that? The struggle of not having the right supplies and having to navigate very cold temperatures in the midst of this bitter war.
Moreno: Yeah. Part of it was his attempt to build up the Continental Army as an organization and bringing over European professionals like Baron von Steuben and also Washington by his personal example, the fact that he was sharing the privations of his soldiers, that he was giving up and risking a lot in this effort. And that continued until the very end of the war.
One of the most famous stories about Washington was his putting down to the Newburgh Conspiracy, where, again, all these grievances of soldiers who hadn’t been paid and the government under the Articles of Confederation had neglected the army so much. And there was a movement where they were going to essentially overthrow the Continental Congress and have a military coup. And Washington appealed to them by the experience of his own sacrifices, all that he had given up for the cause. And he sort of shamed them into giving up the conspiracy.
So Washington was very—some historians have said he was also something of an actor. He recognized so much the sort of importance of public relations or optics, as we would call it today. Literally, in this case, because he had to pull out his spectacles to read the speech that he was going to make and he apologized because he said that he’d grown old and now nearly blind in the service of his country, and that just sort of melted everybody. He was something of a thespian as well.
Allen: That’s so fascinating. Now, when the French entered the war, when France entered in 1778, how did that shift the dynamic for the colonists?
Moreno: That is the game-changer. I mean, you could say, if you believe that God, providence, is on your side, then nothing else matters. But most people would say it was French intervention that was absolutely crucial.
And really, that’s a large part of the reason for the Declaration of Independence. It is a statement of sort of general principles and sort of the natural rights political philosophy of the American Founders. But it’s also an appeal for foreign assistance, to let the French especially know that we’re not just fighting here for a better deal within the British Empire. And we’re playing for keeps now, we’re going to break up the British Empire.
And this was in France’s interest. France wanted revenge from their humiliation in the previous Seven Years’ War. And so getting France on board was essential to the American victory.
Very similar process works itself out in the American Civil War. One of the most underappreciated aspects of the Civil War was Lincoln’s ability in keeping European powers out of the war, keeping the British and the French from recognizing the Confederacy. The diplomacy of both of those wars was essential.
Allen: The war was essentially over in 1781 when the British surrendered at Yorktown. Why did the British surrender?
Moreno: Well, this is in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War by which they had acquired this huge North American empire. So there’s some degree of exhaustion, and the same thing would happen after the War of 1812.
The other question is, why did they agree to the terms when they did and why did they agree to such generous terms, the territorial terms especially? And I think part of it was a lot of British thought: “This is impermanent, this is not going to be long-lasting. The Americans won’t be able to pull off this republican self-government experiment. Sooner or later they’ll fall out among themselves and the American Union will break up and we’ll be there to pick up the pieces.”
I think the French and the Spanish probably thought the same thing, that the Americans were not capable of establishing themselves as a sovereign power among sovereign powers.
So the British might have looked upon it just as sort of an armistice temporary piece before they got involved again. And it looked that way. One of the principal reasons, the principal reason, for the Constitution was fear among the Federalists that the Union would come apart and it would break up into a couple of Confederacies that would then be prey to reestablishment of European imperialism. And as late as the War of 1812, the survival of the United States was an open question.
Allen: So the war ends, but the future is very much still hanging in the balance.
Moreno: Yeah. Once the war was over, in fact, you could see this during the war itself, as the war moved from New England to the middle states to the South, when the British threat was away, the Americans became less united. War, again, has this tendency of necessity of bringing people together, making them willing to make sacrifices that they wouldn’t make in peace time.
So you see this kind of the unity of the American people slackens after the peace is made. The kind of government that they established under the Articles of Confederation was very decentralized. The states returned to a kind of jealousy of their individual powers, of the kind that they’re willing to give up during the Revolutionary War. And that’s what brought about the crisis that led to the Constitutional Convention, a need for a more perfect union because the Union had weakened when the British threat was removed.
Allen: Dr. Paul Moreno of Hillsdale College. Dr. Moreno, thank you so much for your insight and for your time today, we really appreciate it and have a wonderful July Fourth.
Moreno: Well, thank you. Happy Independence Day to you and all my fellow citizens.
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