Independence wars are a dirty business

The distinguished American historian Eric Foner reviews another distinguished historian’s, Alan Taylor’s, book on the American war of independence:

Rather than being waged ‘by a united American people’, Taylor writes, the War of Independence quickly turned into a civil war that divided families and neighbours and unleashed local violence more extreme than military battles. ‘A plundered farm,’ he observes, ‘was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge.’

Surprise, surprise! Any armed struggle for independence is a civil war to some degree, unless the metropolitan power enjoys precisely zero support with the residents of the emancipating colony. The Irish war of independence had become a civil war well before officially degenerating into one. The first man killed by the patriots in the Easter Rising was an Irish Catholic policeman. The miracle of the American revolution is what happened in the next 200+ years following that messy conflict.

While most accounts of the coming of the Revolution focus on protests in eastern cities… Taylor is more interested in what was happening in the West (in the colonial era, this meant the region beyond the Appalachian mountains). Victory in the Seven Years’ War… gave Britain control of the trans-Appalachian region. It was quickly followed by the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement there in order to avoid constant warfare with Indians… The British found themselves in an impossible situation, inviting opposition to their supposed tyranny by attempting to stop settlement and contempt for failing to enforce the policy and seeming to side with Indians who resisted white intrusions onto their land.

How’s this new? I seem to have learned some of this stuff at school, and these grievances are definitely found in the Declaration of Independence:

He [King George] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands…

He… has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

Whereas King George wrote of the same “merciless savages” in his 1763 proclamation:

…it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest… that the several Nations or Tribes of lndians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as… are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds.

To which end, the grant or sale to private individuals of “Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the Rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the West and North West,” that is, on the Western side of the Appalachians, was prohibited.


  1. Indeed, and it also usually happens that the guys with the guns turn to drugs, extortion, etc. to fund their military operations. In a lot of cases (like with the IRA and Corsicans) it becomes hard to tell if they are an independence movement linked to crime or a criminal organisation linked to independence. And others, like the Sicilian Mafia, simply give up on the whole independence thing and concentrate on crime.

    • The Sicilians gave up on independence in the sense of a separate, self-sufficient state but they didn’t give up on self-government. Even after the much-publicized anti-Mafia operations of the 1990s, the Honored Society had enough influence over the local government to syphon off a share of the money transferred from Rome to Palermo.

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