P.M. Lawrence is a commenter from across the pond who revels in picking at various nits here, some of which are worth picking, some not so much. Always erudite and informative, his comments often open up some neglected ethics trap doors, and in this comment of the day in response to my post about Patriot’s Day, the regional holiday of my beloved Massachusetts that commemorated the Battles of Concord and Lexington. (The only “famous” incident that occurred that same day in 1775 in my home town Arlington, then Menotomy, Mass., was that Jason Russell and some fellow Minute Men were massacred by British soldiers as they retreated from Concord.)
P.M. took umbrage at my characterization of the day’s events as “the inspiring story of how ragtag groups of volunteers faced off against the trained soldiers of the most powerful country on Earth.” This is certainly how I was taught about the early days of the Revolution, and despite P.M’s objections, I’m not certain that it wasn’t accurate enough for regional history. The matter naturally raises the ethical conundrum at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”when the old newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I’m generally in P.M.’s camp regarding fake history. As thrilling as it is to see Jim Bowie die fighting off multiple Mexican soldiers from his sickbed in the Alamo, it just plain didn’t happen, and his death shouldn’t be portrayed that way. I am not so certain that P.M. picked a valid historical nit to pick this time however, but he still earned a Comment of the Day (the last paragraph is from a follow-up comment) on the post, Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/15/2019: Patriots Day! Jackie Robinson Day!
I’ll be back at the end for a few comments.
“… the inspiring story of how ragtag groups of volunteers faced off against the trained soldiers of the most powerful country on Earth …”
Sigh. This fallacy keeps cropping up and should not be perpetuated. I will deal with it properly when I get the chance to write the fuller replies to some related matters, but for now I will point out the following more accurate material, leaving it up to readers to go into denial or go and check for themselves, as they prefer:-
They did no such thing, though what they did do was quite impressive enough as it was. They faced up against sizeable numbers of highly trained soldiers. There is absolutely no need or justification for mis-stating that those highly trained soldiers were from “the most powerful country on Earth”; they weren’t, they were British. The very real accomplishment would have been the same if they had faced as many Dutch or Danish regulars.
At that time, Britain was the strongest single naval power, though not yet strong enough to stand against France’s and Spain’s navies combined (that came with Trafalgar in 1805). Britain wasn’t able to secure its sea communications adequately because of that, which showed very visibly at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay and its consequence that Yorktown didn’t turn into a Torres Vedras or at worst a Dunkirk or Corunna but rather a Dien Bien Phu.
Spain, France, Turkey, Russia and China were all more powerful than Britain (then), though only the first two had material out of area capability. Certainly the last four had larger economies. But those first two later became allies of the rebels! Though they weren’t yet in 1775, the rebels were trying to arrange it and may have been planning around it (though we can’t be sure).
Britain was a very weak military power, even for its economic size, largely because of a deliberate policy for constitutional reasons: keeping the military small in peace time, and keeping it in foreign operations in war, meant that it couldn’t be used to override British constitutional arrangements. Things had been like that ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That made Britain comparable to Denmark and Holland. It gets worse: the Dutch refused to comply with treaty obligations to release British troops (the “Scots Hollanders”), who were supposed to be on call as a reserve not needing training. Why else would Britain hire mercenaries (this is loose usage), if it had enough troops anyway?
Britain did have two things going for it, that helped it recover from the war but did little or nothing to help during the war: it had a stronger and more sophisticated financial system than nearly everybody but the Dutch, so it didn’t suffer from defeat as badly as France did from a Pyrrhic Victory; and, those conquests of the Seven Years’ War that weren’t lost by 1783, which at that stage were still military drains as they needed consolidation, came on stream enough to rebuild the British Empire.
…Although the story is worth repeating as a story, it should always be noted as such. To do otherwise is to perpetuate a fallacy that could get people into trouble even in our day by feeding them a myth of personal superiority or something of the sort (that’s how all this connects). It would make the teller an enemy of truth and a servant of the lie, all the more likely to do more and worse along those lines and all the less trustworthy and reliable for it. As someone recently asked around here, how many lies does someone have to tell for that to make him a liar?
- There is little doubt that the Colonials/Rebels thought they were fighting the most powerful country on Earth. That certianly was the rhetorics used in the debate over the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress members who thought declaring independence was suicide. Oddly, nobody interjected the information that if you didn’t count sea power, England was no more powerful than Denmark—which still was a lot stronger militarily than the colonies, collectively of individually.
- The British Isles, as I’m sure P.M. knows, was and is surrounded by water, so all Great Britain needed to defend itself was the strongest navy, which it had. Does that justify calling its troops on April 19th 1775 “the trained soldiers of the most powerful country on Earth …”? I guess it depends on how you measure “power.” [Note: I carelessly wrote “England” in the original version. I assure all that it isn’t because I didn’t now about Scotland, Wales and Ireland.]
- The “Minute Men” were volunteers, and were untrained by British military standards: read George Washington’s denigrating letters about his soldiers a more than a year later. Ragtag is a fair description: they had no uniforms or standard weaponry. They had also never faced any kind of combat before. I can’t prove it, but I doubt any of the boys—many were also teenagers—settled the nerves of their comrades by pointing out, “You know, there are several nations with bigger economies than where these troops come from. We should be all right.”
- The fact that Span and France helped the Colonies later is completely irrelevant to the matter at issue: the bravery and audacity of the volunteers facing an army that they knew was a lot better trained than they were, from a nation a lot more powerful than the colonies.
- There is no reason to believe that those shivering kids and farmers waiting to do battle on the morning of April 19 didn’t think they were facing off against the “the most powerful country on Earth.”
That description is fairer to their courage and sacrifice than P.M.’s preferred, “Faced off against the weak army of an overrated European power.”
On Patriots Day, I’ll stick withe legend.