Mexico and the United States moved from their colonial experiences into revolution on very different roads. Those experiences imparted important legacies on each nation. Legacies that provided challenges to and offered promise for life as independent nations. Because the United States and Mexico were both new nations, understanding their colonial and revolutionary legacies is critical to understanding the actions that brought them to war in 1846. This post continues my examination into those legacies, focusing on the revolutionary legacy of the United States. A similar post examining the revolutionary legacy of Mexico will follow.
The United States
For the U.S., her leaders held to enlightenment ideas about humanity, commerce, and government. They envisioned a nation that could exercise god granted freedoms in a boundless domain. A people who could accumulate wealth, exercising their faith, and voice their opinions. People as sovereign, ruled not by kings but through consent of the governed. They desired the rule of law. America’s founders looked to establish a nation of opportunity.1 Although how these ideas would be implemented were not yet completely reasoned through, they provided ideals to which America’s founding generation worked toward. If the ideas were not universally held, enough believed in them that the cause of independence advanced. Even if no one knew the precise form their government would take, enough believed that independence, under these principles, was a noble cause and that their attaining it required a large measure of co-operation and compromise. This commonality of purpose, when coupled with others contributing factors, carried the U.S. successfully through her revolution and into a peaceful independence.
Another factor that contributed to the success of America’s revolution came from her colonial heritage. A tradition of representative political bodies existed across the colonies. America’s revolutionary leaders had political experience. Well entrenched in American political life, English Parliament and their own colonial representative bodies provided models that were extended to the collection of colonies. A body whose legitimacy was widely accepted.2 Convincing the individual colonies to work collectively proved an initial challenge. Regional divisions did exist (largely concerning slavery, fear of a strong central authority, and territorial claims) but were set aside in the effort to secure independence. Post- revolutionary relationships could be worked out later. In establishing the Continental Congress, revolutionary leaders provided a political mechanism from which they could advance their cause.
Another contributing factor for the successful conclusion of the American Revolution was fact that among the greater population pro- Independence sentiment remained as the war progressed. Initially, most of the colonial population either supported the revolution or were ambivalent to the outcome. Although many remained loyal to Britain, their numbers shrank as distaste for British war policies increased many loyalists fled the colonies. Loyalists, or Tories, were often influential members of the colonial upper class. Modern historians place their population at less than 500,000 (or up to 20%).3 In some places the percentage of loyalists were higher (in New York for instance where 23,000 fought for Britain). Tories were most prominent in New York, Pennsylvania, and the Carolina’s.4 Many in New York’s upper-class Tories believed that Americans were lowly and incapable of self-governance. Tory raiders destroyed property in Pennsylvania and Delaware, including the home of John Dickinson.5 Patriots and Tories established laws greatly restricting actions of the other when in control, often confiscating property.6,7 Many loyalists eventually left the colonies, with most moving to Canada. Anti- Tory sentiment quickly abated after the U.S. adopted its Constitution. Many of the Tories that remained eventually found their property restored. For the most part, resentment toward loyalists did not fester long into independence.8
While loyalist activity hampered colonial efforts in parts of the Mid-Atlantic and southern regions, the revolution also faced challenges from other populations in other areas. Indians and African slaves both participated in and experienced the American Revolution in different ways. Most American colonists acknowledged that liberty for Euro- Americans was a natural condition. They did not believe that Africans and Indians shared that condition. As it did colonists, America’s revolution also divided Indian groups. For the Iroquois Confederacy, the revolution became a civil war. Several other groups fought for the colonial cause. However, most Indians remained outside the authority of the Continental Congress, beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Theirs was not an internal threat. Engagements between frontier settlers and British allied Indians were brutal. In the end, the Indian nations that fought with the British lost much of their land when Britain ceded it to the U.S. in the Treaty of Paris. Additionally, the brutality of the frontier war furthered the resolve to secure, and expand into, the frontier once independence was achieved. A resolve that further excluded Indians from participating in an independent America, even those Indians who fought alongside the colonists.9
Africans also fought on both sides during the American Revolution. Loyalists promised freedom to any slave that would join their fight. In Virginia, many did, and many of those saw combat. Among the units they formed were Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment and a company of mounted cavalry. While the British did organize units of African slaves, they did not distribute weapons to or militarize America’s slaves on a large scale. Doing so would create a condition they did not desire. Unfortunately, loyalist African soldiers never realized true freedom. Most evacuated with the British withdrawal after the war. Those that fled to England were denied compensation, and the majority died destitute. Others established a community in Canada. America’s slave population remained subjugated, without access to weapons or the means organize a military challenge to the colonial cause. African slaves provided labor that contributed to the revolution. They were not rewarded for their efforts, slavery continued.10
Widespread familiarity with, and access to, weapons was another colonial legacy America’s colonist enjoyed. Britain had relied on colonial militias to provide the greater part of colonial defense. While the colonists initially lacked traditional military discipline, they proved hearty. George Washington’s Continental Army frustrated British aims with a strategy of avoiding large scale battles and staying in the field. Important battles were won at Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth in NJ, Saratoga in NY, King’s Mountain and Cowpens in the south. The longer the continental armies remained alive the more people believed in their cause. America’s young navy harassed British shipping.11 American determination, and active diplomacy, attracted the interest of France and Spain’s Bourbon monarchies. These European powers had many reasons to oppose Britain, and the Americans benefited from the rivalries. The American Revolution was now a global affair. Actions in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, India, and Central America stretched British resources. French naval support checked British troop movements. Spanish actions in Florida and Louisiana prevented more British actions on the frontier.12,13 American and French forces forced the surrender of British General Cornwallis at Yorktown, VA brought the revolution’s military actions to a close.
French and Spanish participation in the American Revolution provided more than military and material assistance. France and Spain also financed a large portion of the war’s expenses.14 Although the new United States would face financial challenges, their debt burden was somewhat reduced. Considering the U.S. benefited from the presence of arable farmland, abundant fisheries, a merchant class, and a developed trade network the new country’s financial prospects were not entirely bleak.
Accurate numbers do not exist but estimates of American casualties range from 25,000 to 70,000 deaths.15,16 A very high casualty rate for a nation of less than 4 million people. A quick for return to normalcy and the move toward prosperity were highly desired and the U.S. appeared well poised for the future. High literacy rates allowed for the wide-spread dissemination of the revolutions stated goals. A vast majority of the free population agreed with those goals. Several potential issues arose including the Newburgh Conspiracy and Shay’s Rebellion, America’s leaders dispatched them with no lingering effects. The new country possessed a political heritage that allowed for sizable political and participation and enough flexibility to address demands for increased participation. That same flexibility allowed for the U.S. to meet her financial challenges. People from all classes believed they would benefit economically from participating in national effort. The revolution continued the move toward a common American identity. They shared a common language and had developed a culture that was distinctly American. Religious difference was becoming increasingly tolerated.
Populations that might present an internal challenge were limited. British loyalists either fled or were reintegrated into society. Native- Americans existed largely outside the national body, allowing the U.S. to engage each group as separate nations. Slaves were subjugated and possessed few means to challenge the system. Their challenge to the national ideal was moral, and because they were internal to the national body their continued enslavement presented the greatest pitfall.
The United States’ greatest challenges were external. European empires, Britain most prominently, presented the greatest threats to America’s future. An elastic frontier existed at the United States’ western edge and several potentialities existed that could exploit that frontier. Any combination of European empires acting in concert with native nations could choke the United States economically and challenge her militarily. During the revolution Spain and France helped to minimize the British threat from that quarter. How would the United States fare if forced to act alone? European empires were still active and North America represented opportunity.
1 https://courses.lumenlearning.com/amgovernment/chapter/the-pre-revolutionary-period-and-the-roots-of- the- american-political-tradition/
5 Lefer, David The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution (New York: Sentinel, 2013) p. 269
6 Lefer, David The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution (New York: Sentinel, 2013) p. 230
11 William T. Allison, Jeffrey Grey, and Janet G. Valentine, American Military History: A Survey from Colonial Times to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007) pp. 50-55
15 William T. Allison, Jeffrey Grey, and Janet G. Valentine, American Military History: A Survey from Colonial Times to the Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007) p. 57