Politics & Policy

The Scars of Our Nation’s Violent Birth

Detail of John Trumbull’s The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 (via Wikimedia)
The new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia preserves our bloody road to independence.

Philadelphia — Some American history museums belabor visitors with this message: You shall know the truth and it shall make you feel ashamed of, but oh-so-superior to, your wretched ancestors. The new Museum of the American Revolution is better than that. Located near Independence Hall, it celebrates the luminous ideas affirmed there 241 Julys ago, but it does not flinch from this fact: The war that began at Lexington and Concord 14 months before the Declaration of Independence was America’s first civil war. And it had all the messiness and nastiness that always accompany protracted fratricide.

Among its many interesting artifacts — weapons, uniforms, documents — the museum’s great possession is the tent George Washington used from 1778 to 1783, which on its long, winding path to the museum was owned by Robert E. Lee’s wife and was later sold to raise money for Confederate widows. The museum makes rather more than is necessary of the Oneida Indian Nation’s contributions to American independence but, then, the Oneidas are now in the casino business and contributed $10 million to the museum.

The museum has one of those “immersive” exhibits wherein visitors hear the cannon and feel the vibrations of battle. It would, however, be a more convincing experience of war if enemies were trying to impale the visitors with this war’s most lethal device, the bayonet.

Never mind. There are limits to what realities a museum can, or should try to, convey. This probably bothers those who are properly intent on making us face the worst facts. Consider, for example, Holger Hoock’s recently published Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth.

He writes in the manner of current academics, who are forever “unmasking” this and that. He offers “an unvarnished portrait” of revolutionary violence in order to purge the “popular memory” of “romanticized notions” and end the “whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting” and — herewith the inevitable academic trope — the “privileging” of patriots’ perspectives.

Hoock is, however, right to document the harrowing violence, often opportunistic and sadistic, that was “fundamental” to how both sides experienced “America’s founding moment.” The war caused “proportionately more” deaths — from battle, captivity, and disease — than any war other than that of 1861–65. The perhaps 37,000 deaths were five times more per capita than America lost in World War II. Sixty-thousand loyalists became refugees. “The dislocated proportion of the American population exceeded that of the French in their revolution.” The economic decline “lasted for 15 years in a crisis unmatched until the Great Depression.”

After the second civil war, William Tecumseh Sherman declared that “war is hell.” Hoock demonstrates that this was true even when battle casualties (only 23 patriots died at Yorktown) were small by modern standards. He is, however, mistaken in suggesting that he is uniquely sensitive to our founding mayhem. Consider two recent books that examine the anarchic violence on both sides.

After the second civil war, William Tecumseh Sherman declared that ‘war is hell.’

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (2013) recounts a patriot mob’s long torture, in January 1774, of loyalist John Malcom, a Boston customs officer, who was tarred and feathered: The crowd dislocated his arm while tearing off his clothes, then daubed his skin with steaming tar that parboiled his flesh. Paraded for many hours through Boston’s two feet of snow, beaten, whipped, and finally dumped “like a log” at his home, where “his tarred flesh started to peel off in ’steaks.’”

Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History (2016) hammers home the war’s human costs. A Connecticut critic of the Continental Congress was tarred, carried to a sty, and covered with hog’s dung, some of which was forced down his throat. Connecticut loyalists were imprisoned in a copper mine, in darkness 120 feet underground. Georgia patriots knocked a loyalist unconscious, “tied him to a tree, tarred his legs, and set them on fire” and then partially scalped him. Some courts ordered loyalists “branded on the face or cut off their ears” to make them recognizable.

This small, efficient new museum will stimulate public understanding by quickening interest in books like these. Its bookstore includes The Last Muster, a treasure of photographs displayed in the museum. They are of people who were born before the Revolution and lived to sit in front of cameras. An unquenchable dignity radiates from the visage of nattily dressed Caesar, who was born in 1737, and was owned as a slave by four generations of a New York family until his death in 1852, shortly before a new birth of freedom in our complicated country.


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— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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