Wednesday, May 25, 2016

War Is Expensive: Paying for Independence

When the thirteen colonies fought for their independence, one of the chief obstacles they encountered was a lack of resources. The Continental Congress was not able to provide large quantities of men or materiel.

To address this problem, the American military used the practices of impressment and conscription. While the two terms are similar, ‘impressment’ is usually used to refer to the act of seizing property. ‘Conscription’ is refers to mandatory military service, or the ‘draft’ in modern terminology.

These practices constituted a challenge to the identity of the new nation: their grievance against England was partly based on the British army’s practices of conscription and impressment, and one of their goals in the war was to end conscription and impressment.

Was it, then, consistent or plausible to use these tactics in the effort to abolish these tactics? Historian John Maass writes:

Logistical and manpower problems and North Carolina’s efforts to resolve them occupied civil and military leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, throughout the Revolutionary conflict. These unremitting demands led to two of the most burdensome intrusions into the routines of Carolina inhabitants during “these troublesome times”: impressment and conscription. Both of these expedients produced antipathy and resistance to Patriot authorities, and undermined support for the new state in general. Moreover, they added significantly to the debilitating disorders within the state during most of the war years. Impressment, the act of seizing property for public service or use, was a lawful yet deeply resented practice adopted by North Carolina out of military necessity given the woefully inadequate logistical apparatus the state established. Despite the legitimate basis for impressment, it was subject to considerable abuse, was often overly broad in scope, and became a license to steal in the hands of some disreputable agents. This practice, vehemently opposed by merchants, planters, and poor families alike, was employed during most of the conflict, so that it affected what must have been the majority of Carolinians, whose resultant anger was directed primarily at the state. Such a widespread practice not only caused inhabitants to resist the state’s incessant demands, but also led others to join the enemy.

The practices generated resentment and bitterness among the populace, so much so that it some cases it threatened to nudge individuals to change their allegiance: to cease supporting the bid for independence and embrace instead the British colonial masters.

The Americans encountered a problem which is inherent in any society which embraces liberty as one of its highest values: any government which is strong enough to protect liberty will also be strong enough to damage liberty, and may indeed infringe on liberty in its effort to defend it.

Must one sacrifice part of one’s freedom to keep that freedom? Surrender bits of freedom to pay for the effort to defend it?

Yet the alternative was for the colonies to continue under the harsh rule of the British imperialists.

The Americans took a risk. They wagered that their government would give back the wartime powers it used in impressment and conscription. They gambled that, if they granted power to the government long enough to establish freedom from England, then the government would relinquish those powers once the thirteen colonies had established their independence.

The great historical singularity is this: that America’s risk, gamble, and wager paid off. From 1775 to 1783, Americans surrendered some of their liberty in the effort to permanently increase their liberty. It worked. In 1784, Americans had measurably more political liberty than they did in 1774.