Home Rule and Colonial “Isolationism”

THE MILITIA had arisen to defend farms, homes, and towns, not to serve as pawns in anyone’s grand strategy. When threatened by unpredictable bands of marauding Indians, colonists saw no sense in sending men off to fight in some distant place, while leaving their own homes unprotected. Anyway, there was seldom a battlefront in Indian warfare. From the very beginning, therefore, Americans thought of military defense in the most direct and simple terms. They did not think of men marching off to battle, but of a man standing, gun in hand, beside his neighbors to fend off the enemy attacking his village. Settlers were ready enough to build a stockade, a garrison house, or a fort for their own town, but they were reluctant to maintain a fort at some distance—however strategic it might be for their own defense.

Some of the crucial defenses of the colonies were never built, simply because the nearby towns could not afford the expense of an adequate fortification and remote towns were not enough interested. For example, Castle Island commanded the channel by which vessels had to approach Boston, and a strong, continuously-maintained fort there would have protected the whole colony. But repeated efforts to persuade outlying towns to bear their share of the expense were unsuccessful; the Island fortification lacked a permanent garrison, was never fully manned, and periodically fell into decay. The burden of maintaining it, when it was maintained at all, was assumed by Boston and a few adjacent towns. The same story could be told of Virginia and the southern colonies, where the danger of coastal invasion by foreign powers and by pirates was constant. At Jamestown, for example, the fortification had so decayed by 1691 that it could not even be used as a depot for supplies. Because the coastal defenses of the colonies required the largest investment, the most cooperation and planning, and the greatest support from remote places, they proved to be the weakest link in the colonial military scheme. For such defense, colonists came to rely on guard-ships arriving fully manned from England.

Perhaps the dominant fact about the relationship of the colonies to each other was this reluctance of any one colony to send its militia to join in the defense of its neighbor. The “burgher guard,” or local militia, of New Amsterdam, which had been first mustered during the Indian War of 1644, was unwilling even to go outside the city limits. When New York or South Carolina fought in their own defense, they automatically defended the other colonies, but this was the consequence of their more exposed geographic situation; it was not due to any cooperative or far-sighted spirit. Nevertheless, no colony hesitated to use its neighbors. For a long time Virginia regularly sent a messenger to New York and New England to bring back word on the movements of the hostile French and the northern Indians—never to see whether help was needed in the North, but simply to be forewarned against a possible attack on themselves. A large proportion of the intercolonial communications consisted of explanations, more or less diplomatic, of why each dared not, or could not afford, to send its militia outside its own borders.

For example, when Governor Henry Sloughter of New York, in midsummer 1691, wrote the Governor of Massachusetts proposing a joint conquest of Canada in order to remove their common frontier menace at its source, the reply was a parcel of inconsistent excuses. Massachusetts, Governor Bradstreet explained, was already occupied with new Indian outbreaks on her borders; she was trying to finance two ships to cruise her own coast against a French privateer; and besides she had no money to spare. But none of this prevented the Massachusetts Governor from asking whether New York would possibly be interested in establishing a garrison at Pemaquid, where the Indians menaced Massachusetts from the northeast. When Virginia received a similar request from New York (supported by a requisition from England) in 1693, her Burgesses asked: How could the defense of far-off New York amount to a defense of their Virginia? Virginia had her own exposed seacoast; to reduce her military force by sending any of it to New York would simply increase her own peril. Virginia had always been her own best defense, and (the Burgesses were still arguing in 1695) she wished to keep it that way. Needless to say, no Virginia forces were sent; the money sent to help New York in the common cause was provided only after the Virginia Governor and Council overruled the Burgesses. When Massachusetts suffered a new wave of disastrous Indian raids in 1703, she appealed in vain to neighboring Connecticut and Rhode Island. The Council of Connecticut plausibly explained that the colony was barely strong enough to defend her own valley-frontier. They ignored the fact, already proved by the fall of Deerfield, that this frontier could not be effectively defended except in Massachusetts. The people of Connecticut even appealed to their charter: their defense could not extend beyond their own borders without a special Act of their General Court, which, of course, could not be obtained.

The great obstacle to British efforts to combine all the colonial troops against the French and Indian menace in the mid-18th century was this pervasive localism. Sir Charles Hardy, Governor of New York, wrote from Fort George on May 7, 1756:

To consider the general Good ought to be the Attention of every honest Man, & no time ever more strongly called for an Exertion of the united Strength of this extensive Dominion to defend His Majesty’s just rights, & remove a perfidious & vigilant Enemy from their Encroachments, an Enemy watching every Neglect, & improving every Advantage, & tho’ small in Number, when compared to our numerous Inhabitants, still acting as one Body, under one Order of Controul, & united in that Order, put Us poor disunited Millions in Defiance, committing by the Means of their Indians, the most unheard of Barbarities, & laying waste our Lands without opposition.

This, My Lord, is the State of unhappy divided America. Your Lordship is desirous that a strong Army may appear in the Field; the Provinces that were concerned last Year, are raising a great many Men, intended to be 10,000 & I believe will fall little short of that Number; This may in appearance promise great Things, but I cannot flatter myself in much Success; Our Measures are slow; one Colony will not begin to raise their Men in an early time, doubting whether their Neighbours will not deceive them, in compleating their Levies so largely as they promised.

Everywhere colonists feared to put their young men into a regular army that might be sent to a distant place as part of a large strategy. That seemed the surest way of depriving their homes and closest borders of necessary defense.

The issue of home-defense soon became involved with constitutional issues. The English Civil War of the mid-17th century had been fought, in part at least, over the question of parliamentary control of the army. The liberties of Englishmen, freedom from oppressive taxation, and representative government itself—according to the Commonwealth men—depended on the power of a representative assembly to raise, discipline, and command its own forces. If the British government could raise an army of colonials at colonial expense, could keep it under remote command and strict discipline, and could send it wherever British interests dictated, what meaning was there to the constitution and the self-governing rights of free Englishmen?

The older English fear of a standing army combined with the newer American fear of a drained-off, remotely stationed army. The colonies temporized, offering bad prudential excuses and good legalistic reasons; these all added up to each colony’s refusal to release its armed men from its own separate control. “The truth is,” Lord Loudoun shrewdly wrote from New York on November 22, 1756, “Governors here are Cyphers; their Predecessors sold the whole of the Kings Prerogative, to get their Sallaries; and till you find a Fund, independent of the Province, to Pay the Governors, and new model the Government, you can do nothing with the Provinces…. if you delay it till a Peace, You will not have a force to Exert any Brittish Acts of Parliament here.”

War was becoming a different institution for the Americans. The “isolationism” of the separate colonies and the New World experience of war from which that isolationism sprang helps explain many things about the American Revolution. The War for Independence was a clash between two concepts of how, when, and where men should fight. In America, the British government had found it necessary to wage old-style European wars, fought for some very large or very petty (but always half-hidden) purposes by a regular army moved about the continent at the will of its commander. Incidentally, the colonists were defended and they profited in many indirect ways from participation in the Empire.

But it would be hard to prove simple “self-defense” for any of Britain’s colonial wars. Sometimes they required an offensive in remote places to serve the large strategy. The justification was always elaborate: What benefit would accrue to the Empire if its professional military force was used to this or that end? British military policy was never obvious in the sense in which self-defense against marauding Indians was obvious to the American settler. Even at the conclusion of the long, expensive, and “victorious” French and Indian War in 1763, it was by no means clearly desirable that the British should acquire Canada and so force the French from North America. As we have seen, some English plausibly feared that removal of the French menace might make the colonists less dependent on the mother country, and they doubted that much profit could come from the frigid Canadian wilderness. Such questions of empire policy seemed irrelevant to the remote American settler, for whom defense meant protection against sudden death. Even the Americans who were more safe on the seacoast hoped in the New World to escape European dynastic and military policy.

The major financial and manpower burden of the French and Indian War was, of course, borne by the British government itself. Whether the colonists (despite their protests) bore their fair share of the cost and the fighting can be argued, but it is plain that the Colonial Assemblies did their best to keep their contributions as small as possible. If the colonists had been more “far-sighted” and less “isolationist,” they might have seen that their concept of a Fortress America was narrow and they might have foreseen the many long-range advantages in sharing the expenses of imperial wars. Had they voluntarily undertaken such expenses, the occasion might never have arisen for those changes in British policy after 1763 which aimed to make the colonies pay their way, which fomented the constitutional debate over taxation, and without which the colonies might not have been stirred to rebellion.

From their American experience the colonies had come to believe that defense began at home. The more they worried the problem, the more they believed that the British Constitution hallowed their assertion that treasury and army must be locally controlled. Parliament had tried to commit the colonists to fight—and to finance—wars of policy. But the strongly particularist feelings of each of the colonies, which prevented them from helping one another in the earlier colonial wars and which plagued Lord Loudoun during the French and Indian War, led them toward a “War of Separation.” In that war, and later in the War of 1812, a similar short-sightedness—again reënforced by legal, constitutional, financial, and prudential arguments—would again produce near-disaster.

There is, then, no paradox in the fact that the colonies were willing to “revolt” and yet were unwilling to unite; on the contrary, the two facts explain each other. The intense separatism and the determination to keep local resources to defend homes and towns also caused the nearly overwhelming difficulties which afflicted the colonial armies during the Revolution. These, too, were the very reasons why, in the long run, it was impossible for the British regular army to subdue the Americans. And these were the reasons which would make American federalism difficult, necessary, and in the long run spectacularly successful.

Here also were roots of a latter-day American “isolationism.” In place of the European concept of wars undertaken to serve the half-secret needs of dynasty, commerce, or empire, there had grown here a notion of war as the urgent and temporary defense of the homeland. In the words of Washington’s Farewell Address:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

Under the new Federal Constitution, declarations of war were possible only through a cumbersome and time-consuming legislative process, in full public view. The after-image of the early American vision remained. And the American people retained a strong and often disorganizing hand on their nation’s foreign policy.

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