Hannan: The Cousins’ Wars

From Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, by Daniel Hannan.  pp 228-242


Most American historians have focused overwhelmingly on events on their side of the Atlantic, giving some consideration to the Loyalists (the most hard-line of whom conveniently departed after the war), but little to the pro-American tendency in Great Britain. Most British historians have made the equivalent error. That is to say, while they have explored the motives of the radicals in Great Britain, they have tended to treat their support for American Whigs as sympathy with an overseas cause, much as later generations of British radicals were to campaign for Spanish Republicans or anti-apartheid South Africans.

One writer who approached the conflict in terms that contemporaries would have understood— namely as a civil war with ancient roots within the Anglosphere— was the former Reagan administration official Kevin Phillips. In 1995, disgusted by the tawdriness of Clinton-era Washington, he retreated to his Connecticut home to write a book about whether, had “the British” been a bit tougher during the Saratoga campaign in 1777, the American Revolution might have been forestalled. But the more he studied the period, the more ambitious his project became. As he explored the reasons that British generals had been so reluctant to prosecute the war more vigorously, he began to see that the origins of the American Revolution were in fact to be found in the British Isles. Having tramped across the battlefields of Saratoga and Yorktown, he soon found himself doing the same at Naseby and Marston Moor (Britain, unlike the United States, is shamefully neglectful of these sites: where American battlefields are beautifully tended and covered with memorials, British ones are left as turnip fields and are often bisected by new roads).

Being a political strategist rather than a professional historian, Phillips stumbled upon something that eluded most specialists, namely the essential continuity between the two Anglosphere civil wars. In both cases, Puritan militiamen with names like Isaiah and Obadiah were battling against what they saw as a corrupt, tyrannical, crypto-Catholic monarchy. In both cases, the battle touched every part of the Anglosphere: England, Scotland, Ireland, and North America. And, in both cases, these places tended to divide along the same geographical and denominational lines.

Indeed, Phillips took the argument one stage further. For him, the American Civil War was also a continuation of the earlier two Anglosphere civil wars. Once again, he saw accustomed battle lines taking shape, as the New England Yankees, who had led the fighting against Charles I and George III, invoked their “God of War” in a new crusade. Once again, he saw the Episcopalian landowners of the South using the arguments that Royalists had used, namely that they were defending an orderly, settled, natural way of life against agitators and enthusiasts. Once again, he saw factions in Britain ranging themselves familiarly, with Nonconformists and evangelicals backing the Union while Tories looked kindly on a confederacy whose leading men had toyed with the idea of making Victoria their queen in return for British recognition.

The result of all these researches was the seminal 1999 book The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. Its central thesis— that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War were three spasms in one ongoing conflict— sounds implausible when baldly stated. But Phillips had done his homework, tracing the loyalties of church groups and even individual families from one war to the next, and finding extraordinary political continuities. The mark of a convincing new thesis is that, though it may jar at first, it afterward seems obvious. Once the American Revolution is understood as a civil war, much falls into place.

Phillips looked in detail at who had chosen which side in the Americas, and found that, in most cases, their sympathies were inherited from the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Strongest for the Patriot cause were the New England Yankees; the Low Church tidewater gentry of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina; and the Ulster Protestants. In George Washington’s darkest moment, leading the remnants of the Continental Army away from the debacles of Germantown and Brandywine, he despairingly wrote: “If defeated everywhere else, I will take my last stand for liberty among the Scotch-Irish of my native Virginia.” Strongest for the Crown were the High Anglicans, German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, and Scottish Highlanders (Jefferson had to be made to remove a specific attack on Scotland from the Declaration of Independence).

It goes without saying that these are broad generalizations. Almost every county was divided. Some families fell out. Many people simply wanted to be left alone. John Adams’s assessment that “we were about one third Tories and one third timid and one third true blue” is not far off the mark. The best guess of historians nowadays is that around 20 percent of the active white population of the Thirteen Colonies was Loyalist, around 40 percent Patriot, and 40 percent neutral. It was George III’s wavering between petulance and weakness that eventually pushed most of the “timid” into the Whig camp.

As often happens in civil wars, the national conflict overlaid and absorbed local vendettas that had little to do with the issues at stake. If one group picked a side, its local rivals would often pick the other. Many Native Americans, for example, fought for the Crown, seeing it as an ally against land-hungry settlers. But their decision pushed some tribes, for reasons of inherited enmity, onto the Patriot side. Many slaves fought with the Loyalists hoping for emancipation, which drew some slave owners into a more radical position than they might otherwise have chosen. As one historian of American loyalism put it, “In every feuding neighborhood they [Loyalists] were one of the two local parties; for irrelevant disputes were generally not abandoned at the onset of war: instead they quickly took on, almost at random, the larger enmities of Whig and Tory.”

One especially fateful decision was the Crown’s refusal to attempt a large-scale occupation of the colonies after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. The ministry hung back, hoping for reconciliation, but in practice ensuring that armed revolt spread well beyond Massachusetts. Phillips was in no doubt about the consequence:

From May 1775, when the events at Lexington and Concord became known, to November 1777, as the word of victory at Saratoga spread, the majority of the thirteen colonies were unoccupied for most of those 30 critical months. No significant troops were present to interrupt rebel consolidation of political power. Hardly any were on hand to inhibit collection of local tax revenues, control of local militia, and procurement of food supplies, weapons, and munitions. Historically, this has not been the way to quell a revolution.

Indeed. But George’s ministry had a problem. There was little appetite in Great Britain for a repressive war against fellow countrymen whose grievances struck most people as just.

Several senior military officers who had served against the French in North America— Lord Amherst, Sir Henry Conway, and others— flatly refused to take up arms against the colonists. Those who did agree carried out their commissions to the letter, but without enthusiasm. Generals Gage, Carleton, and Howe made clear that they were unhappy with the war, and in consequence were heartily disliked by American Tories. Even Generals Burgoyne and Clinton had no stomach for the kind of coercive force that would have been required to bring the rebels to heel. One gets the impression that these were men doing their duty rather than fighting to win.

Their distaste for the task was widely shared in the British Isles, which divided much as they had during the 1640s. Of course, these things are not easy to gauge scientifically. The British Parliament was elected with a very restricted franchise, and the views of the unrepresented classes cannot be precisely measured. Still, we can get an idea from the circulation of the newspapers that favored one side or the other; from petitions to Parliament, either for coercion or for conciliation; and from the attitudes of that minority of MPs who, under the Byzantine electoral system that pertained before the rationalization of 1832, represented more populous constituencies.

What we find is telling. Public opinion in Great Britain seems to have been remarkably similar to that in the colonies, with perhaps 25 to 30 percent of the population broadly Tory in inclination, and the rest Whig with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The main reason that the American legislatures were so much more radical than the House of Commons turns out to be a rather banal one: land was more evenly distributed in America, and the colonial assemblies were elected by a far higher proportion of the male population. They were therefore more representative of public opinion as a whole.

Even more fascinating is how the British Isles divided geographically, for here we see an almost exact replication of the battle lines of the First Anglosphere Civil War. The areas that were strongest for the American rebels were those that had resisted the Stuarts most fiercely: the Scottish Lowlands (especially the southwest); London and its surrounding counties; the Puritan flatlands of Cromwell’s old Eastern Association; the Nonconformist cloth towns; and Ulster, whose martial inhabitants were soon forming militias and drilling in mimicry of their Pennsylvanian cousins.

The parts of England that, by contrast, were keenest on coercion, at least if we judge by the evidence of their petitions to Parliament, were the old Stuart redoubts: the West Midlands and, above all, Lancashire. With recruiting sergeants in England struggling to find men for the American campaign, Lord North was forced to turn to the old Jacobite heartlands of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands.

James II’s heirs had never abandoned their claim to the throne, and the first half of the eighteenth century had seen constant Jacobite plots and invasion scares, as well as full-scale risings in 1715 and 1745. The second of these ended in the obliteration of the Jacobite cause when Charles Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of James II and son of James Stuart whose birth had prompted the warming-pan story, was routed at Culloden Moor. The distance of that defeat gives it a patina of Romantic imagery: the glint of claymores, the mist risingfrom the heather, the dashing escape of the tartan-clad prince. But most contemporary English-speakers reacted with dizzy relief. The old threat to their liberty and property— or, more prosaically, to their Protestantism and their commercial success— had finally been lifted.

With Jacobitism finished, most Highlanders swung behind the Hanoverian dynasty with the same stolid fidelity they had offered the Stuarts. They fought with terrifying ferocity against their former French allies in the Seven Years’ War as, indeed, they have in almost every major British engagement since. As William Pitt the Elder put it in 1766:

I sought for merit wherever it could be found. It is my boast that I was the first Minister who looked for it and found it in the Mountains of the North. I called it forth, and drew into your service a hardy and intrepid race of men; men who left by your jealousy became a prey to the artifices of your enemies, and had gone nigh to have overturned the State in the War before last [the 1745 rising]. These men in the last War were brought to combat on your side; they served with fidelity as they fought with valor, and conquered for you in every quarter of the world.

The American unrest was an opportunity for the sons of the men beaten at Culloden to prove their faith again, while at the same time striking a blow against the descendants of the Covenanters, their ancient foes. Highlanders made up a majority of the regular forces that saw action in the American campaign, forming no fewer than ten regiments. They were complemented by volunteer battalions formed by their émigré kinsmen. Large numbers of demobilized Highlanders had purchased land in the colonies after the Seven Years’ War, some along the Hudson Valley, others in the Carolinas. These men now rushed to answer the king’s call, a few wearing the Jacobite white cockade in their bonnets. They formed several auxiliary Tory regiments: the North Carolina Highlanders, the Royal North British Volunteers, the Highland Company of the Queen’s Rangers. This last is now a Canadian regiment, the Queen’s York Rangers, for many of these loyal men chose exile in the north rather than life in a republic.

Ireland, too, was largely for the Crown. Once more, the evidence is necessarily patchy. Because Catholics were excluded from political life, the MPs and town corporations reflected only the views of the Protestant minority— who were, for the most part, fiercely Whig. Again, though, when we look at petitions, at the declarations of Catholic priests and, not least, at the number of military volunteers,there is no denying the enthusiasm for the Royalist cause in Ireland— though, naturally, generations of Irish Americans have done their best to deny it, focusing on the exceptions and, on occasion, blurring the distinction between Scotch-Irish and Irish. Still, studies by Owen Dudley Edwards and Conor Cruise O’Brien are conclusive. Irish Catholics were overwhelmingly Loyalist and, indeed, their loyalty at last won them relief from some of the penal legislation that had been in place since the Flight of the Wild Geese. Laws passed during the American war lifted many of the civil disabilities from which Irish Catholics suffered and restored their right to bear arms and serve as soldiers.

Phillips’s book contained no new primary research. All of its facts were drawn from published works of history, some of them dating from the early twentieth century. Yet, in bringing the data together open-mindedly, Phillips gave a sense of perspective to the Anglosphere Civil Wars— the Cousins’ Wars— that had eluded many academic historians.

Like the First Anglosphere Civil War, the Second was fought in a gentlemanly fashion— not just by the standard of its time, but by the standard of civil wars generally. The routine roundups and massacres that accompanied, say, the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s were unknown, and the occasional lapses by one side or the other were newsworthy precisely because they were occasional. Some Tories had their property confiscated; some unpopular officials were tarred and feathered. But, as in the English Civil War, the machinery of local government, including the sheriff’s offices, functioned throughout the war.

Casualties were, in the context of their age, almost unbelievably light. According to the U.S. Defense Department, there were 4,435 fatalities and 6,188 other casualties on the Whig side. Tory losses were even slighter. When we think of the tens of thousands who were dying in Britain’s wars against France at the time, Yorktown was a skirmish.

Though Hollywood would have us believe otherwise, the military authorities on both sides did their best to behave chivalrously. When the governor of Quebec, Sir Guy Carleton, was asked why he treated Whig prisoners so well, he replied, “Since we have tried in vain to make them acknowledge us as brothers, let us at least send them away disposed to regard us as first cousins”— which is, more or less, what happened.

In all wars, of course, there is sequestration and looting, but such atrocities as there were did not happen at the hands of regular forces on either side. Rather, they were the result of local internecine feudsthat often had little to do with the national issue.

Nathanael Greene, Washington’s most trusted general, was horrified by the vicious ambuscades and cattle raids he found in South Carolina: “The animosity between the Whigs and Tories of this state renders their situation truly deplorable. There is not a day passes but there are more or less who fall a sacrifice to their savage dispositions. The Whigs seem determined to extirpate the Tories and the Tories the Whigs.”

In the end, of course, the Whigs prevailed. And, unlike in the 1640s, they were now in a position to remove the more dangerous of their enemies. While 80 percent of the Loyalist population remained in the republic, the most doctrinally committed Tories left, either by choice or from social pressure. Those leaving the southern states generally relocated to Florida, the West Indies, and the Bahamas, often taking their slaves with them. Most of those fleeing the Middle Colonies and New England headed north, some to Quebec, more to Nova Scotia, where a new province was eventually carved out to accommodate them: New Brunswick. A few went as far as the British Isles.

The Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff estimates that a total of 60,000 Tories, including 10,000 black Loyalists, emigrated. Of these, 33,000 settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; 6,600 in Quebec; 5,000 in Florida; and 13,000 (including 5,000 free blacks) in Great Britain. A number of the black Tories ended up founding a settlement in Sierra Leone.

At the same time, Whig and radical emigration from Great Britain to what was now the United States of America began to increase following independence. Perhaps five million British migrants crossed the Atlantic in the century and a half after the Declaration of Independence, and while the migration was overwhelmingly economic, the United States always exerted a stronger pull for British radicals than did alternative destinations.

The Tory-Whig division, though its balance had varied from place to place, had existed throughout the Anglosphere. After 1776, however, the Whigs won more or less total political control of one part of the English-speaking world. What followed was the most perfect consummation of English Whig philosophy in the form of the U.S. Constitution and, most especially, the Bill of Rights.

All states develop according to the DNA that was fixed at the moment of their conception. The United States of America was founded on a series of premises: that concentrated power corrupts; that jurisdiction should be dispersed; that decision makers should be accountable; that taxes should not be raised, nor laws passed, save by elected representatives; that the executive should be answerable to the legislature.

The men who met in the old courthouse at Philadelphia were determined to prevent a repetition of the abuses through which they had lived. In consequence, they came up with the most successful constitution on earth: one that, to this day, has served to keep the government under control and to aggrandize the citizen. The peculiarities of the American governmental model— states’ rights, the direct election of almost every public official, an accountable judiciary, primaries, ballot initiatives, balanced budget rules, term limits— all are a working out of the Jeffersonian ideal of the maximum devolution of power. If the Second Anglosphere Civil War was the genotype, they are the phenotype.

Yet again, we need to remind ourselves that the Founders saw themselves as conservatives, not innovators. In their own eyes, all they were doing was guaranteeing the liberties they had always assumed to be their heritage as Englishmen. Far from creating new rights, they were reasserting rights that they traced back through the Glorious Revolution, through the First Anglosphere Civil War, through Simon de Montfort’s campaigns, through even the Great Charter itself to the folkright of Anglo-Saxon freedoms.

I have tried to show that their version of history was nowhere near as fanciful as is often claimed. The exceptionalism of pre-Norman England was real enough. The English-speaking peoples were indeed set apart by their political structures. In a sense, though, what mattered most was that these things were believed to be true.

The histories most widely read in the colonies— Nathaniel Bacon’s Historical Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England; Henry Care’s English Liberties; Lord Kames’s British Antiquities— all told the same story: in 1066, a free people had lost their liberties to a Continental invader, and their subsequent history had been a struggle for the restoration of those liberties. Even at the time of independence, there were several Americans who were aware of having non-English ancestry, yet they cheerfully bought into a self-consciously Anglo-Saxon political identity.

That identity was now exalted. The seventeenth-century campaign to “throw off the Norman Yoke” had finally been vindicated. William the Conqueror’s lieutenants and their Tory descendants had been banished.

On both sides of the Atlantic, many regretted that these outcomes had required a rupture. One of the most wistful and beautiful lines that Jefferson had put in the Declaration of Independence was eventually excised from the final version: “We might have been a great and free people together.”

By then, though, events had moved on. As Lord Camden had foreseen, France and Spain were not “tame, inactive spectators” during the fighting. The involvement of these ancient foes had the same effect on moderate opinion in Great Britain that George III’s infamous decision to use German mercenaries had had on moderate opinion in the colonies.

France formally declared war on Great Britain in 1778, and Spain in 1779, and soon engagements were being fought from the Caribbean to Gibraltar, from India to Central America. In this new world war, North America became a sideshow. Even George III slow-wittedly came round to the idea that his sovereignty in the colonies was over. “It is a joke to think of keeping Pennsylvania or New England,” he declared. “They are lost.”

That large body of transatlantic opinion, which, as late as 1775, had hoped for some form of Anglo-American federation, was quickly dispersed before the volleys of foreign muskets. The sundering of the Anglosphere became an accepted fact— although a further war had to be fought in 1812 before British Tories accepted emotionally what they had accepted legally, namely that the United States was a wholly independent state rather than a sort of tolerated protectorate; that it had the same naval rights as any other power; and that British subjects who emigrated there became foreign citizens, and were no longer subject to conscription.

The political unity of the English-speaking peoples had been short-lived. After its Second Civil War, the Anglosphere reverted to being a legal, cultural, and linguistic entity rather than a single state.

Its partition had happy consequences for both sides. In Britain, the downfall of Lord North’s rotten ministry was followed by urgent administrative reform. The power and prestige of the monarchy declined, that of Parliament expanded, and there was a focus on meritocracy and efficiency. Pitt the Elder’s son, William Pitt the Younger, became prime minister in 1783 at the age of just twenty-four. He was to lead the government, with one intermission, until his early death in 1806, and was as restless, brave, and brilliant an occupant as 10 Downing Street has known. He restored the national finances, prepared the ground for the abolition of slavery in 1807, and defeated a resurgent, revolutionary France.

The independence of the United States turned out to be a great boon for the Anglosphere’s military cause. Instead of having to divert significant troops and resources to North America, Britain was able to concentrate on other fronts, knowing that the Americans could berelied upon to press their own claims vigorously against France and Spain— which nations, indeed, they soon ousted altogether from their continent.

The split accelerated the shift from mercantilism and monopolies to free trade. Anglo-American commerce had recovered to prewar levels by 1785, doubled by 1792, and has been exceptionally strong ever since.

The separation also gave the Anglosphere a boost in a more direct sense, leading to the colonization of two of its core members. The Loyalist exodus to Canada ensured that that great expanse become part of the Anglosphere. Had forty thousand English-speakers not trudged into the snowy north, the entire territory might have remained essentially Gallic in language and culture. And the loss of Georgia, whither Britain had been in the habit of transporting its able-bodied criminals, created the need for a new penal destination. Transportation to Australia, whose more habitable eastern part had been claimed by Britain in 1770, began five years after the recognition of American independence.

Above all, the nature of the war, and the arguments that had preceded it, produced the greatest constitution ever drafted, designed to prevent the concentration of power and written in full awareness of man’s fallen nature. Where most national constitutions come and go every few decades (or, in South America, every couple of years), the U.S. Constitution has served the purpose for which it was intended for more than two centuries— that is to say, it has ensured that the government is constrained and the citizen is free; that jurisdiction is dispersed; that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the people they affect; that power is balanced.

That constitution was not just an American achievement. It was, as its authors were keen to stress, the ultimate expression and vindication of the creed of the English-speaking peoples. The ideals of the rule of law, representative government, and personal liberty, ideals that had their genesis in those ancient forest meetings described by Tacitus, had found their fullest and highest expression.


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