J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Who Really Paid the Biggest Price?

I’ve been writing about the error-ridden “Price They Paid” essay on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. As detailed in many refutations, the essay greatly exaggerates the personal sacrifices that those Continental Congress delegates during the war. None were killed in battle, it turns out. Few, if any, suffered torture as prisoners, or died as paupers.

Even when the essay is rewritten to avoid those factual errors, however, I still think it distorts history by focusing on the very top tier of American society and ignoring the greater suffering of people at lower levels. The signers were well insulated from most difficulties by their wealth and by the values of their time.

Indeed, Congress delegates were sometimes literally insulated. When George Washington oversaw the siege of Boston in 1775-76, he lived in the large house shown above, now Longfellow National Historic Site. In contrast, Daniel Granger, who served a short time that winter as a thirteen-year-old private, recalled his housing this way:

The Barracks were then building, but were not finished. The Weather was extremely cold. . . .

the Mess, my brother belonged to had excavated a place into the side of a Hill covered it with Timber & boards built up a fireplace & Chimney and a Door, had Straw for the flooring & bedding, where they were warm & comfortable, and were called a Mess of Cubs, who lived in a Den.

As soon as the Barracks were finished, we were obliged to quit the Den & go into the Barraks. but were not so warm & comfortable: the Barraks were hastily built only boarded & battened & without Windows excepting a square opening with a sliding shutter.
So who was paying the biggest price that winter—the general, who had represented Virginia at the Congress, or his men?

No one saw anything wrong with the vast difference between Gen. Washington’s mansion and Pvt. Granger’s den and barracks. American society in the 1770s was far more deferential to the upper classes than we behave (or acknowledge behaving) today. Washington and his officers were gentlemen, and therefore expected to enjoy comfortable quarters, while almost all enlisted men were yeomen (small farmers), mechanics, or laborers with no property at all.

Even when taken prisoner, gentlemen got better treatment than ordinary men. The essay notes that a handful of signers were captured by the British military, particularly South Carolinians caught in the fall of Charleston. However, most American gentlemen were held captive in mansions, or the better parts of jails; and paroled on their word of honor or exchanged for other gentlemen. It’s hard to find an American prisoner who suffered particularly for having signed the Declaration.

In contrast, enlisted men and sailors who became prisoners or war were usually held longer than officers and captains, and in worse conditions. Danske Dandridge’s American Prisoners of the Revolution states:
From printed journals, published in New York at the close of the war, it appeared that 11,500 American prisoners had died on board the prison ships.
That estimate is probably high; I’ve seen a more recent number of 8,500 dead in all British prisons. Still, it’s clear that the prison hulks anchored off Brooklyn, holding tens of thousands of ordinary soldiers and sailors, were disease-ridden hellholes. Those men were held in those conditions not only despite the fact that they weren’t leading the rebellion but because they weren’t.

All told, about 25,000 American fighting men died of wounds and disease during the Revolutionary War—about 7% of the total enlisted. Of the fifty-six signers, eight died during the war, six of them from diseases at home. (Being established leaders of their communities, Congress delegates were probably older than the average gentleman.) Only two signers, or less than 4%, died unnaturally before the end of the war. Button Gwinnett was killed in a duel with a fellow American. Thomas Lynch, Jr., went on a voyage for his health and was lost at sea—along with all the sailors and other people on that ship, of course.

So in terms of physical suffering, the Declaration’s signers appear to have paid a significantly smaller price than ordinary, non-wealthy American soldiers.

TOMORROW: The matter of property.


Bill Peschel said...

Perhaps it would be worth inquiring what the Colonials risked if they had failed in their revolution. The English didn't seem charitable toward those who led previous attempts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. Bravo!

J. L. Bell said...

What “previous attempts,” Bill Peschel? Another Boston 1775 reader brought up the example of William Wallace, but that was centuries before, and of course the English got medieval on him and his troops.

By the eighteenth century British society viewed itself as one of the most free and fair in the world. Previous centuries of British history offer clear examples of retaliation against rebels. But more recent examples show leniency to those who gave up their fight: the quiet retirement of Oliver Cromwell’s son and successor, George III’s offer of a pension to the last Stuart claimant. London clamped down hard on Irish and Scottish rebellions, but seems to have been less strict toward English opponents of the winning government.

More importantly for the point of this posting, your term “the Colonials” seems to encompass both the Continental Congress delegates and the foot soldiers. I tried to show how the ordinary soldiers faced worse hardships than their genteel leaders in the same circumstances (campaign, capture).

“The Price They Paid” lionizes the Second Continental Congress delegates for taking a big risk in voting for independence. Why doesn’t it acknowledge the ordinary people who took bigger risks for less reward?

Anonymous said...

I understand (and concede and wholly agree with) your point about the Revolution being a group effort and that the sacrifices of the common militia man should not be underestimated or overlooked. However, I think that the focus on the signers is only natural given that without them as the driving force, first for their restoration of rights as Englishmen and then for indepencance, the militia men would likely have remained on their farms and grumbled. But maybe not. I could be changing the subject a bit, since your point was really about "The Price They Paid."

At any rate, love the blog.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t think we can say, “the militia men would likely have remained on their farms and grumbled” without the signers’ actions.

American militiamen had already been fighting for over a year when the Declaration was made. New Englanders rose up on 2 Sept 1774 and 19 Apr 1775 without a call from anyone involved in the Continental Congress. Indeed, on the first date the “committee men” trying to organize resistance in Boston and nearby towns were alarmed at that action, and tried to calm it.

The letters of John Adams and other sources show that people were discussing “independency” in 1775, well before he thought it was politic to do so. Pauline Maier’s American Scripture documents how the Congress’s Declaration echoed the sentiment and language of many other documents adopted by many other bodies down to the town and county level. In sum, the Continental Congress was going along with popular sentiment as much as it was leading it.

I think it can be argued that without such Continental Congress delegates as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Dickinson writing and speaking about politics from the 1760s on, ordinary farmers and workers might not have bundled up all of the London governments’ initiatives into one big ball of “tyranny,” and might not have realized that many others in North America felt the same way.

But equally, without wide popular support those pamphleteers would have accomplished nothing.

I think some historians, including those behind this essay, have focused on the signers because it’s easier to tell stories about them. As wealthy, educated men, they were more prominent and left more sources. And individuals are more sympathetic than crowds.

Those factors don’t affect just the signers, of course; we know a lot about Paul Revere because he was a successful industry leader after the war, and an individual with an exciting narrative, and much less about the other riders on 18-19 Apr 1775.