Royster’s “A Revolutionary People at War”

A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  By Charles Royster. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1979.


One of the essential books for any student of the American Revolution (and perhaps any scholar of exceptionally well written history) is Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War.  In it, Royster gives the reader a sense of the patriotic mentalité and the development of the American national character during the eight year period of the War for Independence.  Based upon the premise that the “prevailing sentiment” of most Americans was generally favorable toward independence, Royster asks the critical question, “what was the relationship between the ideals espoused during the revolution and the actions of Americans?” (p. viii) His conclusion is that while the ideals preached by revolutionaries were lofty, their actual conduct failed to measure up, and in fact proved to be “flawed and often gravely deficient.” (p. ix)  This disconnect is best illustrated in the study of the Continental Army and the experiences of those revolutionaries who joined the army and those who did not.

American revolutionaries, argues Royster, were convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the preordination of its outcome.  Many “believed that God had chosen America to persevere and exemplify self-government for the world.” (p.5) As such, the war, in their eyes, represented the juxtaposition of British oppression, tyranny, and corruption versus American benevolence, disinterestedness (or lack of self-interest in the public arena), and virtue.

Possessed with this religious certitude, and flushed with the initial, dramatic successes at Lexington, Concord, and most especially Breed’s (Bunker) Hill, “Americans announced determination to surpass the British in military prowess as in virtue.” (p.25) Royster’s term for this initial “passion for arms” at the outset of the war is rage militaire.  This fervor which characterized the first months of the war would wane by the end of 1776, according to Royster, “never to return” with the same intensity despite the desires of revolutionary leaders to reignite the same passion through out the conflict.  And as rage militaire faded, with it faded the possibility of a short war won by popular resistance, a cornerstone to the patriots’ conviction in their righteousness and preordination of victory as the product of the virtue of their revolution.  The alternative, as Royster demonstrates, would be a dependence (reluctantly so) upon a professional, standing army. 

The creation of this standing army – the Continental Army – challenged the sensibilities of many revolutionary leaders.  Like most Americans at the time, Royster notes, “Samuel Adams was proud of the…militia and suspicious of a regular army in war as in peace.”  There was an inherent distrust of standing armies, and in a virtuous republic there would be no need for an army, as the homeland would be defended by self-sacrificing men of character and innate courage (both physical and moral).  The waning of rage militaire, and the failure to sweep the British away in a whirlwind of popular uprising, changed the minds of the revolutionaries.  “One year’s experience,” according to Royster, “convinced most American officials that they needed a standing army to fight the war.” (p.67)  He cites Adams again writing several years later in 1780 to former militia general, James Warren, “‘Would any Man in his Senses…prefer the temporary and expensive Drafts of Militia, to a permanent and well appointed Army!’” (p.37)   Royster further explains the inner conflict the decision to accept a standing army posed:

“The revolutionaries often said that freedom could not survive with out virtue.  If people were not willing to put the public good ahead of personal interest, power would pass to those who could, in the selfish free-for-all, buy or coerce the most support” (p.67)

This goes to the heart of the conflict between the ideal of virtue as the noble sacrifice of personal interest for the welfare of society, a concept held dear by the revolutionary Americans.  Virtue is a term continuously tossed around by the revolutionaries, but by the end of 1776, as Royster points out, the virtuous public had not wiped the British from the American continent.  In fact, complacency and self-interest seemed to trump sacrifice as the populace in general began to behave as if independence had already been achieved.  The establishment of a Continental army illustrated to the more fervent adherents to the patriot cause that very failure of self-sacrifice and virtue:

“A standing army – even one created to defend the country’s freedom – brought an individual’s virtue and freedom into conflict…[it] departed so far from the Americans’ ideal of personal freedom that they were unable, in conscience of in fact, to force a man to serve for as long as was needed, even while they could explain why he ought to want to do so.” (pp.67-68)

To bridge the gap created by this conflict of personal freedom subjugated for public virtue, Royster explains, revolutionaries relied on money.  But, as he demonstrates, this brings the ideology of the revolution and its participants into question:

“Suppose a man who does not want to serve in the army pays another man who will serve.  Both can claim to have done a virtuous act.  Each can accuse the other of being less virtuous, or even selfish, for evading service or for extorting a large bounty.  In fact, one man has kept his personal freedom and given up money, while the other has gained money and given up some of his personal freedom” (p.69)

In fact, this scenario does play itself out during and immediately following the War for Independence, as soldiers and officers become more professionalized over the course of the war, and a sense of pride and esprit de corps is developed.  Keenly aware of the hardships they have endured, regulars in the Continental Army come to regard themselves as the true patriots of the Revolution in whom the rage militaire was preserved.  Royster explains: “The uniqueness of the army’s revolutionary experience and in other revolutionaries’ reliance on the army lay a potential claim to superior revolutionary merit.” Revolutionaries, on the other hand, chose to regard the victory of America in the War for Independence as a victory of public virtue, a manifestation of the righteousness of the cause in which all supporters of the revolution sacrificed.  “Civilians rightly feared” the soldiers’ claim of superior merit, “perhaps because their dependence on the army entailed a strain of envy of the army’s more conspicuous communal heroism.” (p.247) 

In studying the Continental Army and its relationship to the broader American society, we find that the myth of unity in sacrifice, the Revolution as a “triumph of public virtue,” owes its creation not as much to worshipful generations of Americans who admired the Founders, rather it is the Founders themselves who molded the interpretation of their deeds for posterity.  The American Revolution, we find, is comprised of more than one vision of independence, the requirements of independence, and who is to contribute to that independence and in what degree.  Royster spends much of his book focusing on the officers and the development of an office corps of professionals.  And while the development of their professionalism naturally created a sense of esprit de corps, the desire on the part of American officers to preserve that spirit and sense of brotherhood in the form of the Society of the Cincinnati, smacked of elitism to the civilian patriots because they perceived that the officers were staking a greater claim on the revolution. 

Royster does not draw the conclusion for the reader, but it is easy to come away with a sense that a superior claim upon revolutionary merit is deserved, especially for the common soldier, the “privates” who Roster often contrasts with the officers.  He details the suffering and depravation endured by the common soldier and marvels not at the number of mutinies that occurred, rather how few these incidents were and how quickly they were resolved, evidence of the Continental’s desire to remain in service.  The composition of the line is presented in the Appendix.  “The Continental Army consisted largely of young, poor men,” writes Royster, but he then goes on to challenge the argument posed by other historians (especially Edward Papenfuse and Gregory Stiverson) that because of their poverty, the regular soldier was motivated by economics rather than the spirit of the Revolution.  He points out that the British were offering the same, if not greater opportunity for the “dregs” of society, yet Americans did not flock to the English Army in numbers any where as great as those to the Continental Army.  He sums the experience of the regular private thus:

“Considered as a people rather than as socioeconomic entities, soldiers had as much to lose as anyone had; they chose to risk it and, in many instances, to lose it.”(p.378) 

As Royster shows, many Americans chose to partake of the benefits of independence well in advance of the actual winning of that independence, often profiting at the expense of the Continental Army.  He makes the case that the private did have a choice; army pay was not very enticing and certainly not a sure bet, if it was otherwise then there would have been little difficulty in recruiting.  There were options for men who enlisted in the ranks, and it was a serious challenge for the army to convince soldiers to enlist for longer terms (three years of for the duration of the war), but there were men who did sign up for those lengthy terms, which does support Royster’s assertion that factors other than pure  economics were at play for the lower class who typically filled the privates ranks.  In light of this, we might agree with the enthusiasm of Colonel Jean Baptist Ternant, whose response to those soldiers “who exclaimed when called upon by name, ‘for the war!’ was to “respectfully” bow, and “raising his hat,” say “‘you, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you.’” (p.223)

Anyone serious about understanding the American Revolution and the War for Independence will, likewise, be happy to make an acquaintance with A Revolutionary People at War.


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