As the 18th century drew to a close, American colonists sought their independence from Great Britain. This, first of many, major American wars became the touchstone of American history.
Not only did the rebellion produce an unlikely victory, it nurtured a unique philosophy of governance that created a balance between personal liberty and government power. Five hundred years before the Common Era democracy had last been attempted in the golden age of Athens. Their system of pure democracy created direct voting by Athenians to pass laws. In the thirteen colonies, distance and time from the English mother country provided a similar opportunity for local government to operate on a direct voting principle. Colonials enjoyed a free vote that their European cousins, with the exception of a privileged class, had never experienced.
It became evident to the early colonists that the direct vote for policies affecting larger regional entities then one local area was impractical. Often a meeting to cast a vote required traveling distances over difficult terrain and the dangers inherent in unsettled areas. Thus a deliberative body was formed to meet in a single, central location to enact laws that affected larger political units than a town. Each locality elected a representative that reflected their views to attend the meetings of the legislatures that were formed in each of the thirteen colonies. The only restraint was the royal governor appointed by the crown to administer a colony. Often that individual, a peer of the British realm, acted in concert with the local legislative body. Thus the Athenian model evolved from a direct voting democracy into a representative democracy.
When the English parliament passed a series of taxes affecting the American colonies, the colonists rejected the measures on the grounds that they were imposed by “taxation without representation”. Therein lay the seeds of rebellion--an affront to the architecture of representative democracy.
American colonists faced the daunting task of confronting a disciplined, battle tested, British army over combat fronts ranging thousands of square miles. They and their descendents were fortunate that the land produced so many patriots, many intellectual giants, cut from the primitive forests. Their most singular virtue was their selfless integrity of purpose devoted to the common welfare. They earned the right to sit at the head of the table and fittingly called "founding fathers".
In the late 18th century, the structure of warfare could no longer depend on “seat of the pants” decisions or hunches. War had become a complex interaction of forces requiring planning, preparation, resources and organized manpower. It was evident then, as it is now, that the colonists’ nascent armed forces were ill prepared for its first test. Overcoming these deficiencies was contrary to the famous Santayana dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". The past forecasts the future, and thus anticipate that “might makes right” in almost all confrontations. Don’t fight the inevitable.
Early Americans refused to be bound by past history, and in the passage of time, an immutable rule may infrequently be broken. Their actions provided an exception to the Santayana rule that a poorly organized “underdog” through incredible will, native intelligence, and unity of purpose could be victorious in the face of overwhelming odds. In fact, the trajectory of history could be altered by the intervention of fortuitous circumstances. Thus, let’s not discount a bit of serendipity. A victorious Spartan army withdrew from the walls of Athens (429 b.c.e.) because plague was destroying the city. Athens was saved from Spartan dominion---if left to the ravages of disease may be interpreted as "saved". And more to the point, in the 18th century, French antipathy to Britain aided Americans to "snatch victory from the jaws of defeat". In the 20th century, while the Cold War raged, Americans supplied arms to the Mujahidin guerrillas that forced the Russian invaders to withdraw from Afghanistan. It is more likely that history in its many disguises does repeat itself as Santayana warned, and luck was undependable. Colonial Americans were ready to bet against the odds.
Some early American leaders, few with military experience, were well versed in the history of warfare. Some could quote Herodotus on the Greco-Persian wars, Julius Caesar on the Gallic wars, with the ease of a minister citing the exploits of Joshua in the land of Canaan. They did understand that war was complex and a superior force would almost always overcome a valorous defense. They began to build a fighting force and entrusted its leadership to a former militia colonel, George Washington-- a smart decision to choose a man who believed that the personal liberty of Americans could exist with the need for a secure nation. Over a five year period, he emphasized the need for a disciplined regular army and the resources to support it. He sought to build a well trained officer corps, played no favorites, and never surrendered his belief in an ultimate victory. Most important was his unquestioned patriotism. This example is the unseen flag that motivated American servicemen in every succeeding century.
Fueling the War Machine
During the 19th century, immigration augmented the ranks of the armed services in time for the gathering storm of the American civil war. This new resource, fresh bodies, in fact, had given rise to one of the most unique experiments in the history of war and, indeed, in all of the world's history.
It is simplistic to ignore the significance of the wave that brought a new human tide to U.S. shores and its effect on American history. Never before had such diverse peoples been so peaceably absorbed in a country foreign to their experiences----the “American Melting Pot”. The same spirit that created this successful experiment ultimately filtered into its armed services. No other country had ever drawn on such a willing, disparate population to fill its ranks with the newly arrived, or their first generation American progeny.
Other countries paid foreign mercenaries or conscripted subjugated peoples,
but their loyalties were always suspect: Hessians in the British army during
the U.S. Revolutionary War, the mixed nationalities in the French Foreign
Legion who were detached from any form of patriotism. The armed forces in most
countries were mainly dependent on home grown, in-bred stock without any
potential divided loyalty.
In the 20th century, the U.S. again filled its ranks from its diverse immigrant stock. As in earlier centuries, the military drew upon a multicultural population, and against the odds normally anticipated when joining such mixed ethnicity, were able to forge tightly knit combat forces.
How distinct were American Wars in this regard? Merely note the many traditionally foreign surnames of fallen Americans on the headstones in Belleau Woods, Normandy and Arlington cemeteries.
Ironically, many fallen were sons of immigrants who had come to America to escape European continental wars. It is in these hallowed locales that we understand the true cost of war, and that the term “American Exceptionalism” is most applicable.
Unlike the American Wars that touched four different centuries of this Republic, the engagement of the non-military public in our earlier centuries of wars was nearly 100%. Every family had a connection with the war. Either a member or friend was an active participant, employment was involved with the war effort, shortages of resources affected all, and the cause was universally adopted. Now, in the time of an all volunteer army, the public has little immediate, personal contact with its fighting forces. Will that adversely impact the nation at a time when unity of purpose is essential for its existence?
The connection that now exists is dependent on a high tech communication system that delivers an impersonal message. Only the future will tell whether that message will be strong enough for Americans to rally behind its fighting forces in times of great national danger and create a bond that, in the past, used each century as building blocks for the next. .
Will a new message deliver a principle as powerful as " no taxation without representation", protection of personal liberties, pro or con on states rights, or a threat to Constitutional guaranteed freedoms? These concepts formed the citizen relationship with the Armed Services that has been defined as “shared sacrifice”. It was the mortar that bound Americans.
Would compulsory service in peace time do more to connect the American public with the military? Would it better prepare American youth for later civilian careers?
Connecting Policy with Principle
Lastly, as a testament to the fundamentals of democratic government, American wars were not expansionist. The United States did not fit the classic pattern of countries attacking neighbors to expand their land mass with minimal 19th century exceptions, both with a Spanish flavor, -Mexican American War - Spanish American War- which our chapters explore in depth.
As the victors in World Wars 1 and 2, America made no claim on foreign lands. In point of fact, their only demand was for enough land to bury their dead. On the other hand, contemporary leaders of some countries made no effort to hide their covetous intentions.
Fifteen years prior to World War 2, Adolph Hitler announced that Germany required more territory. He called for “lebensraum” (living space). The rest is history. We pick up that history with unique timelines that connect the dots rather than leaving the reader searching elsewhere for relevance.
We have chosen to allow passions and ideological dust to settle on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts before extending our reach into the fourth century of American Wars.
Author: Ivy Kenneth Blecher
Fact Check: We strive for accuracy, fairness and we cross checked data. But if you see something that appears incorrect, has an improper or omitted provenance, please contact us.
A special shout out and thanks to Matt Zavadil for technical support , Ali Weinig's indispensable artistic skills and the photographic talent and support of my wife, Ana Blecher.
Not to be forgotten are the other photographic journalists, authors, artists,
public libraries, print and website historians without whose help this
historical overview would not have been possible. This effort was a family affair, and thus a special thanks is reserved for my daughter, Donna Lichti, who labored for untold
months in library stacks researching data that helped fill these pages
with thoroughly vetted content. Any errors of omission or commission are readily assumed by this editor. Ivy Kenneth Blecher