“Rabble in Arms”

“A rabble in arms, flushed with success and insolence.”

–General Burgoyne to Lord Rockfort describing American troops before Boston.

When we were living in New England years ago, one day I visited a favorite used book store. As I was talking books and history with the husband of the store owner,  he asked if I’d read Kenneth Roberts. I said, “No,” and he exclaimed, “You’ve never read Rabble in Arms!” Again, I replied, no, but with the anticipation that all bibliophiles know when they realize they are about to be given a new author to read.

One of the most enjoyable and easy way to learn history is through novels of the time. Kenneth Roberts was a Down Easter born in Kennebunk, Maine, and his books reflect the seafaring heritage of Maine. At times you may disagree with the shades of Roberts’s bias, but he was known for his historical accuracy and his books provide an entrance into the early days of our nation.

Kenneth Roberts opens Rabble in Arms with the above words of General Burgoyne and finishes with Burgoyne’s defeat at the Second Battle of Saratoga by the “rabble” he had so derisively described. The story begins in early 1776, and follows the American northern army during the retreat from Canada through the building of the first American Navy and the valiant delay of the British on Lake Champlain in the Battle of Valcour Island, to the turning point of the Revolutionary War: the Battles of Saratoga in 1777.

The story of the campaigns to stop Carleton and Burgoyne as they moved south is a story of perseverance when circumstances were grim and the odds of prevailing against the British offered no hope. It is a story of a frequently incompetent Congress that directed and interfered in matters with little understanding as it promoted and rewarded those who should have been ignored or disgraced. It is a story of petty jealousies and revenge among men who used their positions of authority in self-serving efforts and protection. It is also a story of a few leaders who sacrificially held to their course and inspired men to stand with them. It is a story to read in hard and difficult times.

…I turned to see where the British were. The Inflexible was coming into the wind, preparatory to tacking, far out beyond the headland. She fell off slowly on the other tack, working her guns with grim persistence. The shot splashed astern of the beached vessels. All of them were burning, the smoke and flames rolling and crackling from cabins and hatches. At their mast-heads flew our red and white flags, each with its rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

There was satisfaction in the knowledge that in three days of fighting, the British hadn’t been able to make us haul them down. And there was something in the sight of them that seemed to half strangle me. I think the scores who lay behind such shelters as the beach afforded, waiting for the fire to take those flags, must have felt as I did; for when Arnold, standing alone in the bow of the Congress to watch the progress of the flames, turned and stepped up on the bulwarks, the men burst into a shrill and quavering cheer that sounded as choked as my throat felt.

Other Roberts books I’ve enjoyed:1

  • Arundel (1929) The American Revolution through the Battle of Quebec
  • The Lively Lady (1931) War of 1812
  • Rabble in Arms (1933) Sequel to Arundel; the American Revolution through the Battles of Saratoga
  • Captain Caution (1934) War of 1812
  • Northwest Passage (1937) French and Indian War and the Carver expedition
  • Oliver Wiswell (1940) The American Revolution from a Loyalist’s perspective
  • Lydia Bailey (1947) The Haitian Revolution and the First Barbary War

In 1957 Roberts was awarded a Pulitzer Prize: Special Awards and Citations, for his historical novels, “…which have long contributed to the creation of greater interest in our early American history.”2
Culpepper Ensign: NavyJack.info Clip Art
1Book dates and summaries from Kenneth Roberts (author), Wikipedia.
2Elizabeth A. Brennan and Elizabeth C. Clarage, Who’s who of Pulitzer Prize winners, 571.


The Declaration of Independence

In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

There are three incredible things to keep in mind about the Declaration. First, there had never been anything like it in history. It was believed widely that the only way to have political stability was to have some family appointed to rule….That was the known world at the time of the American Founding.

Second, look at the end of the Declaration. Its signers were being hunted by British troops. General Gage had an order to find and detain them as traitors. And here they were putting their names on a revolutionary document and sending it to the King. Its last sentence reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” That is how people talk on a battlefield when they are ready to die for each other.

The third thing about the Declaration is even more extraordinary in light of the first two: It opens by speaking of universal principles. It does not portray the Founding era as unique—“When in the Course of human events” means any time—or portray the Founding generation as special or grand—“it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” means any people. The Declaration is thus an act of obedience—an act of obedience to a law that persists beyond the English law and beyond any law that the Founders themselves might make. It is an act of obedience to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and to certain self-evident principles—above all the principle “that all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights.”

For the signers to be placing their lives at risk, and to be doing so while overturning a way of organizing society that had dominated for two thousand years, and yet for them to begin the Declaration in such a humble way, is very grand.

Larry P. Arnn, President, Hillsdale College

You can learn what happened to some of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence in “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor,” a speech given by Rush Limbaugh’s father. At the end of the text, Rush added these words:

“Sacred honor” isn’t a phrase we use much these days, but every American life is touched by the bounty of this, the Founders’ legacy. It is freedom, tested by blood, and watered with tears.2

The Syng inkstand, an inkstand made by Philip Syng with which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed, on display at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The Assembly Room, in which the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution were drafted and signed, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Rdsmith4. These files are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
1The Unity and Beauty of the Declaration and the Constitution: An Interview with Larry P. Arnn,” Imprimus, December 2011. The quote is from an adaptation of an interview by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institution for his show “Uncommon Knowledge,” on October 3, 2011, at Hillsdale College. It can be viewed in full at hoover.org/multimedia/uncommon-knowledge/96901.
2Rush H. Limbaugh III, “The Americans Who Risked Everything.”

John Adams: The Atlas of Independence

In his biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes Adams’s work during the Continental Congress of 1776:

…he had shown unflinching devotion to the cause of his country, “swim or sink, live or die.” He had never walked away from work that needed doing. He had never failed to speak his mind when it counted, to take a stand and fight for what he believed.

Benjamin Rush told a friend, “This illustrious patriot has not his superior, scarcely his equal for abilities and virtue on the whole of the continent of America.” Later Rush would say of Adams, “Every member of Congress in 1776 acknowledged him to be the first man in the House.”…

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency and unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did.1

As the author of its draft, Thomas Jefferson is usually thought of first whenever the Declaration of Independence is mentioned, but to John Adams we owe a primary debt for his untiring debate and constant advocacy for independence on the floor of Congress. McCullough states that when Adams arrived at the Second Continental Congress in February of 1776, a “Declaration of Independency” was on his list of things he was “determined to accomplish.”2 Bradley Thompson explains:

Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Adams began to argue that the time had come for the colonies to declare independence and to constitutionalize the powers, rights, and responsibilities of self-government. In May 1776, in large measure due to Adams’s labors, Congress passed a resolution recommending that the various colonial assemblies draft constitutions and construct new governments. At the request of several colleagues, Adams wrote his own constitutional blueprint. Published as Thoughts on Government, the pamphlet circulated widely and constitution makers in at least four states used its design as a working model for their state constitutions.3

Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822:

…Mr. Jefferson…brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart…

The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught I said, “l will not.” “You should do it.” “Oh! no.” “Why will you not? You ought do it.” “I will not.” “Why?” “Reasons enough.” “What can be your reasons?” “Reason first–You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second–I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.– You are much otherwise. Reason third–You can write ten times better than I can.” “Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.” “Very well.– When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”4

Declaration of Independence: John Trumbull
The Committee presents the draft to Congress

Although no record is found that Congress, indeed, had such an opinion of Adams, Jefferson composed the draft.5 After examination and proposed alterations by the committee, on June 28, Jefferson read it aloud to Congress. It was then tabled until the final vote on independence had been taken.6 Thompson writes:

Adams’s greatest moment in Congress came in the summer of 1776. On July 1, Congress considered final arguments on the question of independence, and John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, argued forcefully against it.When no one responded to Dickinson, Adams rose and delivered a rhetorical tour-de-force that moved the assembly to vote in favor of independence. Years later, Thomas Jefferson recalled that so powerful in “thought & expression” was Adams’s speech, that it “moved us from our seats.” He was, Jefferson said, “our Colossus on the floor.”

The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams … I call him the Atlas of American independence. He it was who sustained the debate, and by force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure.

Richard Stockton (attributed), New Jersey delegate
to the Second Continental Congress, circa 17767


James Grant states, “No record was made of his arguments; the surviving record is one of the admiration and gratitude of his fellow members.”8 David McCullough gives this description:

No transcription was made, no notes were kept. There would be only Adams’s own recollections, plus those of several others who would remember more the force of Adams himself than any particular thing he said. That it was the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since it first convened, and the greatest speech of Adams’s life, there is no question.9

On July 2nd, the Thirteen Colonies voted unanimously to declare their Independence from Great Britain.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776:

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days….

…The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.10

For the rest of July 2nd until the fourth, Congress debated over final editing of the Declaration.11 It was adopted on July 4, 1776.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777:

Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.12

John Adams portrait superimposed on flag: The Federalist Papers on Facebook.
1, 2, 5, 9David McCullough, John Adams, (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2001) 163, 89, 120, 127.
3C. Bradley Thompson, “John Adams.” http://site.heritage.org/research/features/almanac/pdf/adams.pdf
4Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2081
Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull: Public Domain. See: key to identification of members.
6, 11Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind, (Simon & Schuster, New York: 1997) 196, 198; 198.
8James Grant, John Adams: Party of One, (Farrar, Straus and Girous, New York: 2005) 174.
10Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2389
12Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777: http://www.masshist.org/publications/apde/portia.php?id=AFC02d170
John Adams’ signature in SVG, Raeky: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version

“…the acts and choices of ordinary people…”

One reason I love history so much is its stories of courage and perseverance by men and women in the face of disaster. When you read the history of our country, you see this again and again. You also see something else. You see timings and deliverances that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day is turned around by events of the next.

In Washington’s Crossing David Hackett Fischer gives us the circumstances of the writing and impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis. After George Washington’s debilitating military defeats in New York from August to November 1776, described by Fischer as a “A Cataract of Disaster,” Washington retreated across New Jersey into Pennsylvania as Cornwallis pursued him. Thomas Paine had previously joined the army in July of that year. In his chapter, “The Crisis: Thomas Paine and the Black Times of 1776,” Fischer writes:

“…The army was shrinking before his eyes, and the people of New Jersey were not turning out to support it. Paine concluded that something had to be done. “It was necessary,” he decided, that “the country should be strongly animated.”

“On November 22, when the army was crossing the Passaic River, Paine came to a decision. He resolved to write another pamphlet, like Common Sense but with a different message….

“A rough draft was more or less complete by the time he crossed the Delaware River. He carried it to Philadelphia, but when he reached the city, he was shocked to find the houses shuttered, the streets deserted….The air of panic in the town increased Thomas Paine’s sense of urgency. He remembered, “I sat down and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number” of his new pamphlet in a final draft.

“He called it The American Crisis. The first sentence had the cadence of a drumbeat. Even after two hundred years, its opening phrases still have the power to lift a reader out of his seat. “There are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

“…Such was the panic and chaos in Philadelphia that it took Thomas Paine ten days to get his essay into print. Finally, the first number of The American Crisis appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776. Four days later it was published as a pamphlet. Paine insisted that it be sold for two pennies, just enough to pay the printer’s expenses. The author asked nothing for himself and encouraged printers everywhere to copy it freely. It traveled through the country as fast as galloping horses could carry it.

“Within a day of its first publication it was circulating in the camp of the Continental army along the Delaware River. Even Paine’s bitter political rival James Cheetham testified to its impact. Cheetham wrote that The Crisis was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army, and out of it had more than the intended effect.” The troops used its first sentence as a watchword and later as a battle cry….

“There is an old American folk tale about George Washington and the Crossing of the Delaware. It tells us that the new American republic nearly failed in the winter of 1776, that George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, and that his victory at Trenton revived the Revolution. All of this story is true, but it is not the whole truth. There was more to it. The great revival did not follow the battles of Trenton and Princeton, important as they were. It preceded them, and made those events possible (though not inevitable). Further, the revival did not rise solely from the leadership of George Washington himself, great as he was a general and a man…it emerged from the efforts of many soldiers and civilians, merchants and farmers, leaders in the army and members of Congress. Most of all it rose from the acts and choices of ordinary people in the valley of the Delaware, as Thomas Paine’s American Crisis began to circulate among them.

“This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.””1

On December 18, 1776, George Washington had written to his brother, John A. Washington, and to another relative, Samuel Washington. This is the letter to his brother. The bracketed phrase within it was part of his letter to Samuel Washington.

“I have no doubt but that General Howe will still make an attempt upon Philadelphia this Winter. I see nothing to oppose him a fortnight hence, as the time of all the Troops, except those of Virginia (reduced almost to nothing,) and Smallwood’s Regiment of Maryland, (equally as bad) will expire in less than that time. In a word my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strain’d to recruit the New Army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up, owing, in a great measure, to the insidious Arts of the Enemy, and disaffection of the Colonies before mentioned, but principally to the accursed policy of short Inlistments, and placing too great a dependence on the Militia the Evil consequences of which were foretold 15 Months ago with a spirit almost Prophetick….

“You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation. No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them. However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.”2

Those letters were written the day before The American Crisis was published in the Pennsylvania Journal and five days before it was printed as a pamphlet for widespread distribution. Washington did not know the events that would follow in the days after he wrote those bleak words. But that great man persevered.

Paine opened his December Crisis by writing, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Today again our souls are tried and tested, and who will we discover that we are? I don’t know. I cannot tell you the extent or depth of the character of our country or if the acts and choices of ordinary people of today will fare well. Our souls are tried individually, but our acts and choices always affect and influence others.

Is the game pretty near up for us? Again, I don’t know. But I encourage and exhort you not to mire yourself or others in cynicism or contempt, but within your own realm of influence to speak the truth, to build up others, and to consider the task that with your soul and your skill you should do.

Remember what I wrote earlier about timings and deliverances in our nation’s history that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day was turned around by events of the next? I would also encourage and exhort you to pray. Some of you who read this may not share my faith, but for those who do, remember to seek God’s mercy and help for our nation.

When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer and fasting in 1863, he wrote, “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own…3 Read Lincoln’s words. May God grant us to turn back to Him, for the results of the poverty of our lack of a deep and abiding faith in God is seen everywhere.

These are the days of the acts and choices of ordinary people. Of grit and endurance. Of everyday exasperation and depressing setbacks. Whether the game is up for us or not, remember the courage and faith of those who preceded us. Be worthy of them, and leave the results in the hands of God.
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis: The first page of the original printing of the first volume. {{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.
1David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York): 80, 127, 138, 140-143.
2The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799: Library of Congress. Thanks to Stacey McCain for his post, ‘I think the game is pretty near up,’ that I found after my initial writing of this post. The phrase caught my eye, and I tracked it down to these letters of Washington.
3Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day: Abraham Lincoln Online.

The Founders & Christianity

To celebrate the 4th of July I thought I’d make this Founders’ Week with posts on the Founders and the heritage of our nation. On a Sunday, the place to begin is by looking at their religious beliefs. M.E. Bradford, in his Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution has an excellent chapter titled, “Religion and the Framers: The Biographical Evidence.” Bradford’s credentials as a historian are verified by Russell Kirk in his foreword to another book of Bradford’s Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution. Kirk states that he and Bradford were frequent correspondents and met at least once a year, and it is quite evident that he had the highest esteem for Bradford.

Bradford’s national reputation is founded upon his painstaking and accurate scholarship—and upon his rhetorical skill as well…In general, American historians have been daunted by the tremendous task of fighting their way through antique printed collections of politicians’ letters and through thousands of holograph letters, uncollected, in dusty archives and private hands, but Mel Bradford was possessed of fortitude and a desire to write real history. He knew that there is no better way to ascertain the much-debated “original intent” of the Framers than to pass beyond the somewhat meager journals of the Convention, and beyond The Federalist Papers, to the labyrinthine treasury of letters the Framers wrote home or to one another.

…More fully than most commentators upon those Framers, Bradford has carefully examined their several religious persuasions or affiliations, discovering few Deists or unchurched.1

Bradford writes this in his introduction about the men in Founding Fathers (emphasis added in the below quotes):

…with no more than five exceptions, they were orthodox members of one of the established Christian communions. An internal transformation of American society in the direction of a secularized egalitarian state was the furthest thing from the minds of these men. The majority of them were committed to representative government, to the continued existence of the sovereign states, and to a dependence upon the virtue of the people acting as independent political, economic and moral agents as the best security for the hope of a common future. But they also believed in the imperfection of human nature and had no patience with the notion that men were essentially good of that institutions were the culprit in the darker chapters of history.2

In Original Intentions Bradford expands his discussion to the 150 to 200 men considered to be the principal Founders of the Republic. Continue reading