Authors: Kevin Phillips
ALSO BY KEVIN PHILLIPS
Wealth and Democracy
The Cousins’ Wars
The Politics of Rich and Poor
Staying on Top
Electoral Reform and Voter Participation
The Emerging Republican Majority
A Good Year for Revolution
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First published in 2012 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Copyright © Kevin Phillips, 2012
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Maps by Jeffrey L. Ward
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
1775 : a good year for revolution / Kevin Phillips.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. United States—History—Revolution, 1775–1783. 2. United States—Politics and government—1775–1783. 3. Lexington, Battle of, Lexington, Mass., 1775. 4. Concord, Battle of, Concord, Mass., 1775. 5. Boston (Mass.)—History—Siege, 1775–1776. 6. Fort Ticonderoga (N.Y.)— Capture, 1775. 7. United States. Continental Congress. 8. Paine, Thomas, 1737–1809. Common sense.
I. Title. II. Title: Seventeen seventy-five.
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To the newest generation—William, Lindy, and Evan Phillips
John Jay, president of the Continental Congress and later the first U.S. Chief Justice, opined years later that “the true history of the American Revolution can never be written…A great many of the people in those days were not at all what they seemed, nor what they were generally believed to have been.”
If they were not—and some evidence and similar statements by others uphold Jay’s point—perhaps it is best to let events, circumstances, suspicions, and necessities tell more of the tale. Less need be taken from the memoirs of the gentlemen, however worthy, whose portraits grace our currency, coinage, and postage stamps. Which is one of this book’s underlying premises.
easy title that it is, stands for the somewhat forgotten and widely misunderstood first year of the American Revolution. If 1775 hadn’t been a year of successful nation building, 1776 might have been a year of lost opportunity, quiet disappointment, and continued colonial status.
Although I will of necessity cover events both before and after 1775, the title means what it says: 1775 is the crucial, early-momentum year of the Revolutionary era. Still, the period profiled in these pages is not a standard January 1 to December 31 chronology. It is the larger sweep of a powerful start that put independence farther along earlier in time than most Americans realize.
Bluntly put, much of “the history” of the American Revolution suffers from distortion and omission tied to the twentieth century’s excessive immersion in 1776 as a moral and ideological starting point. If July 4 of that year is truly the nation’s birthday, then 1775 was little more than a number of months
And this it categorically was not.
The infant named the United Colonies, born in 1775, was conceived
during the Continental Congress of September and October 1774. The famous date, July 4, 1776, was actually a belated christening, with only a few godparents on hand. Indeed, the actual ceremony—the gathering, the signatures that bore witness—did not occur until August. Few thought the date or delay mattered. Nor was Thomas Jefferson the true father. Back in autumn 1774, Lady Liberty had never seriously dated him. He was still just Peyton Randolph’s string bean of a nephew in remote Albemarle County, Virginia.
The initial purpose of this book, as contemplated in 2008, was to argue that
1775 was as important as 1776.
The finished book goes farther. It argues—and I hope substantiates—that in many respects,
1775 was more important than 1776.
The earlier year’s cocky optimism, its advance guard of hundreds of new grassroots Patriot committees, its political gambles, and its unsung military successes enabled and entrenched de facto American independence. Moreover, it was begun powerfully enough to survive the crushing Patriot defeats and disillusionments that came in summer and autumn 1776 as the British Army and Royal Navy won major battles in and around New York. Much of the necessary underpinning of American self-governance—provincial congresses, local committees of safety, new seaport regulators, the flight of royal governors to small British warships obliged to provide cramped and humble quarters, and Patriot militia ordered to double as political police—had been put in place, as part of the spirit of 1775. Jefferson himself thought that the United Colonies already had de facto independence before the Declaration came along. As 1775 ended, the only place the British still controlled was occupied Boston.
A second spur to write on this topic came from my fascination over more than a half century with the periodic realignments of U.S. politics. My first book,
The Emerging Republican Majority,
written in 1966–1968 and published in 1969, predicted the beginning of a new Republican era in presidential politics. In 1993, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated, the departing GOP had held the White House for 20 of the last 24 years.
Two decades later, I am not sanguine. Both major parties seem chained to pernicious interest groups and tired ideologies. In 2008, given this context, it had seemed more rewarding to stop analyzing the present and instead to delve back into history and examine English-speaking North America’s first political realignment, the 1774–1776 resort to war by which thirteen colonies quit the British Empire with such great consequence. That was an era of political hope and ambition to take seriously. The political
realignment achieved amid revolution was unique—no other has come with simultaneous ballots and bullets, although the Confederacy tried in 1860–1861.
As for 1775 and 1776, no stretch is needed to talk about an emerging republican (small-
) majority or plurality. And despite exhaustion and disillusionment, much of this civic commitment hung on through 1782 and 1783. The U.S. Constitution, to be sure, was hammered out and ratified five years later by a somewhat different combination—one in which many persons who had been Tory-minded or neutrally inclined during the war came together with the wealthier Patriots to write more conservative national guidelines. Many of the farmers, artisans, laborers, and seamen—vocal rebels whose egalitarian postures circa 1775 had disquieted the northern commercial and southern plantation elites—opposed the new coalition a decade later. But although this further transformation is a fascinating one, this book does not pursue it.
focuses entirely on the early biases, ballots, and bullets that—literally—made the United States, albeit with the critical assistance of French and Dutch gunpowder.
My decision in 2008 to forgo current affairs for history had its own small backdrop. I had immersed myself between 2002 and 2008 in early twenty-first-century U.S. politics and the American political economy. In four sequential national election years, I had published books that sought to explain national predicaments and their implications—
Wealth and Democracy
American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush
American Theocracy: The Politics and Perils of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money
in 2006; and
Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism
in 2008. All were best sellers, but the quandaries persisted.
The “financialization” of America—an ill omen I had been writing about since 1993—helped bring about a crash in 2008, but postcrash politics did not yield the needed far-reaching reform. Finance continued to sit in the catbird seat. Between 2008 and 2012, the relative economic decline of the United States and the shift of influence to Asia moved from theory to reality. The prospect is not cheering, but I have discussed it at sufficient length in earlier books.
represents a decision to write about a United States taking shape rather than one losing headway.
The present book completes another disillusionment-spurred cycle in my writing. Back in 1994 and 1995, after souring on a lobbyist-larded Washington preoccupied with Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, I opted to spend the
next four years on a history project published in 1999 under the title
The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America.
This volume examined and sought to interrelate the three principal English-speaking civil wars—the English Civil War of the 1640s, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War—and their sequential role in the hegemonic rise first of Britain and then of the United States. The book was well received, and the change of subject matter and residence was restorative. Soon thereafter the Bush family’s return to the White House in 2001 lured me back to my word processor, initiating the four 2002–2008 books mentioned above.
The Cousins’ Wars,
in turn, worked to seed this new book—first, by leaving a desire to revisit the American Revolution in greater depth, yet also by encouraging a second psychological holiday from national politics and the ups and downs of the Republicans and Democrats.