Watching most of the movies Dr Zhivago and A Tale Of Two Cities last night, I was reminded of somthing I’ve always wondered about. It seems that after most major revolutions, there comes a point when the revolutionists, now in power, commit atrocities due to general rage against the former privileged classes, and almost paranoid fear of counterrevolution. Both the French and Russian revolutions arrived at that point, even though, IIRC, they both began as relatively moderate political movements opposing the excesses of the monarch.
By contrast, the American revolution seems to have been a gentle one, with no great popular rage being vented afterwards against the loyalists. As far as we know, there were no ‘revolutionary tribunals’ or committees of safety, and at no point does there seem to have been anyone who emerged as a dictator, though possibly Washington could have been one if he’d wished it.
Is this popular view of the American revolution correct, or is that just what they tell us 'Merkins? What do they teach about the Revolutionary War in other countries?
Well, bear in mind that the losing side’s homeland was across the Atlantic ocean, and their forces soon went there.some American loyalists were tarred and feathered, and the more active were tried for treason, and some of those were executed or forced to flee. Benedict Arnold was Military Commander of Philadelphia for a while, and accusations of being “soft” on loyalists led to his downfall and subsequent treason.
Oh, and remember that America’s “privileged classes” carried out the revolution.
If you were a loyalist, especially an outspoken loyalist, you would have been smart to go with the British army when they were evacuating the area. Many loyalists (and a number of Quaker pacifists) who stayed suffered harassment, assault by mobs, theft, looting, and arson, and in some cases, lynching. (In fact, the word “lynch” probably comes from Col. Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, after the war set up a kind of revolutionary tribunal, sentencing loyalists and suspected loyalists without trial.
As for “Committees of Safety”, they existed throughout the revolution. In 1774, it was the Boston Committee of Safety that sent Paul Revere and the other riders to Concord to stir up the countryside.
In This Kind of War, his history of the Korean War, T.R. Fehrenbach notes that the United States exiled as many as 500,000 loyalists after the Revolutionary War. Also, if I remember my American history course in college correctly, the United States failed to abide by the Treaty of Ghent’s provisions requiring loyalists to be treated well and to have property restored.
However, I think the War of 1776-1783 should be considered a war of independence, not a true revolution.
The peace treaty signed 11/30/1782, said the the United States would “earnestly recommend” that the states restore their property to the Loyalists and that “no future confiscations” would occur and that American debts owed to British subjuects would be repaid. Few states complied. Pennsylvania paid the heirs of William Penn$650,000 and Maryland paid the Calverts. In New York and South Carolina, because of the special bitterness during the war, there were confiscations of Loyalist property but these laws were ruled invalid (Alexander Hamilton defended the Loyalists’ property rights in the court case). I can see no record of forced expulsion of Tories other than the exageration that Arnold Toynbee claims. S. E. Morison states that 80,000 loyalists left with the British garrisons, mostly for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario. Many of these later returned. The vast majority of Loyalists never left and became good citizens of the U.S. (very similar to the way former Clinton supporters are now behaving.) As for the debts owed to British subjects, this was a long contentious issue. It was settled in 1802 by a 600,000 pound lump sum payment to the creditors. The value of several hundred slaves that the Bristish sold in the West Indies or carried off was deducted from the total claims
The reason the US revolution was different was because, despite the pre Rev War rhetoric, the colonists probably had more freedom than any other people in the world. Their leaders were college educated devotees of classical Roman political writers. Again quoting S.E. Morison, the new Americans had “merely to maintain, develop, and correct the state of things political and religous, which already existed.”
Both the French and Russian revolutions involved the destruction of one form of government and the introduction of another form of government. The French took almost two centuries to finally find a form of government that worked for them and Russia’s form of government was never successful without iron rule, purges, etc. The American Revolution did not involve a complete change in the form of government, thus avoiding many of the problems the French and Russians encountered. Edmund Burke criticized the French Revolution and praised the American Revolution for this very fact at the time of those revolutions (without aid of hind sight).