Revolutionary History


Conceived in Liberty, Volume 4: The Revolutionary War, 1775-1784, by Murray N. Rothbard, Westport, Conn.: Arlington House, 1979, 470 pp., $14.95.

This is the best volume yet in Rothbard's magnificent multi-volume history of the founding of the American republic. He demonstrates that, beyond his skill as an economist and social critic, he also has a grasp of military affairs and can recount that story with clarity and a sense of excitement.

The first part describes the debate over the kind of war the Americans ought to wage. As in earlier volumes, Rothbard is not a great admirer of George Washington, whose notions of warfare were close to European models of conventional war. His hero is the radical Whig Charles Lee. Based upon his experience in Europe, where he had observed Polish partisans in action against Russian forces, Lee advocated the use of militia guerrillas.

Then, Rothbard turns to a theme often absent from histories of the Revolution: that this was a true civil war. While the great majority of the population was pro-Patriot, there were areas such as New York where the Tories were numerous. It became necessary to suppress these Loyalists. Over the long course of the war, some of the bloodiest fighting was between Americans—revolutionists versus those who wished to keep the old order.

In parts three and four, he explores the polarization of opinion both in England and America, which grew as the war progressed and resulted in the Declaration of Independence. The war is traced in part five to a partial stalemate by 1778. Despite various reverses and the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, the Americans had defeated a British army at Saratoga and foiled the plan to separate the North from the South by cutting New York in two.

In part six and seven Rothbard discusses the internal history of the Revolution, culminating in the triumph of radicalism in Pennsylvania and the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, and describes the final part of the war in the South from 1778 to the British capitulation at Yorktown in 1781. During this period the British sought to develop a program of pacification starting from the South, where they believed there was a large number of Tory sympathizers upon which to build a base to retake America. This illusion was eventually shattered, not only in several pitched battles involving partisan forces and militia as well as Continental soldiers, but by the continual harassment by guerrillas that General Cornwallis experienced as he made his way inland into the Carolinas and then retreated through Virginia to the sea.

Part eight covers the political and economic history of the nation from 1778 to 1784. Here, a variety of themes come into play: the land issue in the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, the inflation and price controls, and the resurgence of the nationalist-conservatives led by Robert Morris, whose power, due to his control of finances, was considerable.

Finally, Rothbard assesses the impact of the Revolution, suggesting it was a radical one in such factors as the seizure of Tory lands, the number of Tories who fled, the elimination of feudalism, the beginnings of antislavery, the disestablishment of religion, and the divorce from monarchical Europe. Rothbard's conclusions stand in splendid contrast to some of the "consensus" pap pedaled by neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol during the bicentennial celebration, which glossed over the violence of the civil war and the crucial differences within the revolutionary coalition itself.

Rothbard's sympathy for the partisan warfare tactics of Charles Lee and his criticisms of Washington as a war leader stand in interesting contrast to recent studies by Page Smith, who argues that Lee was to blame for the defeat at Monmouth, and Dave Palmer, a military historian who praises Washington's larger strategy and willingness to engage the enemy. But despite some of his criticisms of Washington's military tactics, Rothbard notes in the last part of the book that it was Washington's antipathy to monarchical notions that undercut the conspiracy at Newburgh and the aristocratic pretensions of extreme conservatives who tried to organize the elitist group of officers known as the Order of Cincinnati.

Curiously, Rothbard, noted for his anti-imperialism and willingness to make moral assessments about historical choices, gives a rather straightforward account of the American "tragic and disastrous failure" to take Canada. It is not altogether clear that he regrets we were unable to do so—a desire of some Americans not only in 1812 but almost into this century. But even if John Adams was incorrect in his view that the first Canadian expedition in 1775 expended men and materials that ought to have been used to drive the British at Boston into the sea, it soon became apparent that the Canadians, Catholic for the most part, did not wish to be liberated by the Protestant Americans.

By 1778, the designs on Canada by some within the revolutionary coalition were a factor in undercutting a last effort at peace, and the war dragged on for three more years before it became evident Great Britain would not concede such expansionist goals. As late as 1780, Lafayette was still trying to organize yet another expedition to take Canada, but the Vermont militia understood the motives for such a venture and foiled it by demanding double pay, double rations, and plunder.

All things considered, however, this is a perceptive and exciting account of the Revolution in all its dimensions. One can only look forward in eager anticipation to the final volume, which will take the story through the adoption of the Constitution.

William Marina, a contributing editor of REASON, teaches in the College of Business and Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University.