by James Lincoln Warren
Happy Birthday, U.S.A.
Yesterday, a friend of mine, Carlos Gonzalez, sent a message on a listserv I subscribe to celebrating the American Declaration of Independence as the most momentous event in world history. Carlos was raised in Castro’s Cuba and has a deeper and more personal appreciation of what it means to be an American that most of us natives, and I found his paean to be very moving.
There was one thing he wrote that I found particularly interesting. He stated in rather unequivocal terms that the definition of “modern history” as dating from the French Revolution instead of the American Revolution was a leftist fallacy. To support his claim, he pointed out that whereas the First Republic, despite its motto of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (still the national motto of France) devolved into an imperial dictatorship with a tyrannical conqueror at the helm, the American democracy has endured and evolved in the contrary direction, toward more civil liberty and stability. I can’t say that I necessarily agree with this assessment on every level, since we had our own internal blood-soaked contre-temps less than a century after the Declaration, but I fully appreciate and endorse its sentiment.
I do, however, completely disagree with his claim that the standard definition of “modern history” was chosen by historians because of any leftist leanings. Historians, whether left or right, selected that moment because France was at the center of world events in 1789, when North America was still essentially a political backwater. We date America’s independence from July 4, 1776, and it is right that we should do so, but from a practical point of view, a more accurate date would be October 17, 1781, when at the Siege of Yorktown the British commander, General Cornwallis, sued for peace, thereby ensuring the survival of the United States as an independent political entity.
Americans are infamous for having selective memories when it comes to our own history, and short ones regarding the history of anyone else. A distinguishing feature of the Siege of Yorktown is that is was not purely an American victory. To be blunt, it was at least two-thirds French.
Warfare is always complex, and the summary of the final defeat of the British in the colonies which follows is extremely simplified, but essentially what happened was this. Cornwallis was ordered by his superior, General Sir Henry Clinton (with whom he had a contentious relationship), to occupy and fortify a deep-water port in Virginia for reasons which must have seemed very good to Clinton at the time. Cornwallis selected Yorktown, Virginia, on Chesapeake Bay, and on his way there was shadowed and harassed by the Marquis de Lafayette leading Continental (American) soldiers. About the same time, the French sent an army led by the Comte de Rochambeau to assist Washington in the north. After consultations with the Comte de Grasse, the French admiral whose fleet had transported the French army, the three leaders came up with a brilliant plan. Instead of attacking New York, then controlled by the British and the avowed purpose of the French reinforcements, they decided to join forces with Lafayette and take on Cornwallis in Virginia. In executing this stratagem, they managed to completely deceive the British regarding their intentions.
The presence of the French troops actually doubled the strength of the American forces, especially after de Grasse disembarked even more French troops in Virginia—there were as many French troops at Yorktown, possibly more, than American ones. Furthermore, de Grasse’s fleet blockaded the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in the Battle of the Virgina Capes, preventing the British fleet from reinforcing Cornwallis. (As far as I know, it is the only large fleet action in history where La Royalle defeated the Royal Navy, although they had many smaller triumphs, especially in the Indian Ocean under Suffren, one of the most brilliant naval commanders in history.)1 If the French Navy had lost that naval engagement, Washington and de Rochambeau would have been repulsed, and the British would have controlled the entire seaboard. The United States would most likely have collapsed.
This was more than decade before the Tricolour became the national flag of France. The French (Lafayette excepted) were not remotely interested in the success of democracy. They were interested in the defeat of Britain. One might think that the British loss of the American colonies might have had a crippling effect on British world aspirations, but one would be wrong. The British government were more interested in India than in America, as is demonstrated by the Boston Tea Party incident. The real showdown was sometime later: since La Royalle was dominated by aristocratic officers, the French Revolution had a pronounced and deleterious effect on France’s ability to wage war at sea, since so many French naval officers ended up keeping appointments with Madame la Guillotine. This, along with Jervis’s defeat of the Armada at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and Nelson’s great victories against Napoleon’s reconstituted navy at the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805), effectively led up to the long-lived British domination of the seas in the 19th century, and by extension, to the dominance of the British Empire over the entire globe in Victorian times. Losing the Thirteen Colonies was a bad sting, but it wasn’t the kind of defining moment in history that changed everything everywhere all at once.
The American Revolution succeeded because our fledgling republic enjoyed vital support from much more potent foreign powers (Spain was in the mix, too, by the way) who were allies operating in their own interests. The French Revolution, by contrast, had support from no one, not even the U.S., which was not then in any position to engage on the world stage. It was entirely an internal affair, and its immediate repercussions resonated in the world like a great bronze bell. I would go so far as to argue that the Napoleonic Wars helped ensure the survival of the U.S., because if the British hadn’t been more concerned with Bonaparte than with Madison, the War of 1812 would have gone very differently.
Don’t get me wrong. I am an American and a veteran, and I am very proud of my nation and what it stands for. My great great great great great (that’s five, in case you’ve lost count) grandfather, Gideon Warren, was an officer in Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and the Colonel of the Fifth Regiment of Vermont Militia, and actually had a fort named after him in 1778. I fly the Stars and Stripes off my balcony on the Fourth (as well as on other patriotic holidays) with deep-seated reverence.
But this slice of history teaches an important lesson, one which as a writer of crime fiction I find critical to my trade: Perception is distinct from reality. This is true on so many levels it almost boggles the mind. Washington and de Rochambeau manipulated Clinton’s perceptions, enabling them to achieve their goals. The common American historical view of our victory at Yorktown is seriously flawed, underestimating the influences that were at work, unjustifiably supporting a cultural go-it-alone attitude that has never served us well. Power, or at least potency, comes with the dispelling of illusion and the recognition of truth.
That’s what a detective’s job is, after all.