11/1/10 - land and war

In today's excerpt - we all know the causes of the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War, they are enshrined in our national consciousness: the Revolutionary War was fought to end taxation without representation, and the Civil War was fought to end slavery (or, if you have Southern sympathies, it was fought over the issue of states' rights). These reasons, though true in part, may be insufficient to fully capture the causes of these wars. The colonists had lower tax rates than their English brethren, more independence on many matters, and an equally high standard of living. Parliament removed taxes from the colonists quickly after it imposed them, and left a token tax in place as a face-saving maneuver. And in the 1850s, the abolitionist movement was a tiny fraction of the U.S. population.

Historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton point out that those two wars both started roughly twelve years after the acquisition of control over vast news areas of land, and thus put in play potential shifts in the balance of power within the newly controlling governments. The Revolutionary War started shortly after the British and their colonists wrested control the remainder of the continent east of the Mississippi away from the French in the French and Indian War. The Civil War started shortly after the U.S. wrested half of Mexico's territory away from it in the Mexican American War, and thus gained effective control of the continent west of the Mississippi:

"Unlike the three previous wars between Britain and France, the vast conflict known in Europe as the Seven Years' War (1756-63; its North American phase, 1754-60, is sometimes called the French and Indian War) ... ended in a decisive victory, as a result of which the North American empire of France ceased to exist and Spain (France's ally in the final year of the war) was compelled to surrender its imperial claims east of the Mississippi River. This left Britain (in theory, at least) the proprietor of the eastern half of North America. ...

"The victorious British ... so alienated their colonists by attempted reforms that just a dozen years after the Peace of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War, the thirteen North American colonies took up arms against the empire. In their efforts to mount resistance to a sovereign king in Parliament in the decade before war broke out, colonial leaders used arguments that stressed what had usually been called the rights of Englishmen, stressing the centrality of political freedom and the protection of property and other rights. Because the colonists were a chronically divided lot, however, the leaders of the resistance movement took care to couch their explanations and appeals in universalistic language: as defenses of natural rights, not merely the liberties of Englishmen.

"The War for American Independence (1775-83) shattered the British empire and made those universalized ideas the foundation of American political identity. It took another dozen years after the end of the war in 1783, however, to produce the complex of agreements and understandings we call the Revolutionary Settlement. ...

Great Britain and the United States ceased to compete militarily after 1815, leaving Mexico, which declared its independence from Spain in 1821, as the last remaining obstacle to the dominion of the United States in North America. ... The Mexican leaders' fears of revolution and racial war, along with the rich geographic diversity of their nation, inhibited the emergence of an American-style revolutionary settlement and created a fertile field for caudillos, violence, and local rebellions. One of the latter, on the remote northeastern fringe of Mexico, created the Republic of Texas in 1836. A decade later, the United States annexed Texas, provoking a war with Mexico in 1846. Within two years American soldiers overwhelmed Mexican resistance, seized the national capital, and forced a peace, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), that deprived Mexico of fully half its territory.

"As in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, the accession of vast amounts of territory created a furious debate that shredded the political fabric of the victorious empire. Then it had taken twelve years for the imperial community to collapse in civil war; it now took thirteen. Adding the lands from the Rockies to the Pacific coast to what Americans thought of as the empire of liberty made the question of slavery's expansion into the conquests inescapable. The Revolutionary Settlement broke down as Northern and Southern Americans came to see each other as potential tyrants intent on subjugation. Thus in April 1861, Southerners and Northerners went to war to make the American empire safe for their own, mutually exclusive, notions of liberty, convinced that no alternative remained but an appeal to the god of battles."


Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


The Dominion of War: Empire And Liberty in North America 1500-2000


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


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