The 'common' man in the American War for Independence

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#1
Most of the best-known figures from the American Revolution were wealthy men - many were slave-owners coming from the plantation aristocracy of the South. But what do we know about how the 'common' man of the 18th Century Colonies-turned United States, viewed the issues of his day? I've come across many accounts of civilian riots and military mutinies during the Revolution that would lead me to think that some Americans did not view the move for Independence - or at least the men who were directed it - in such a favorable light.

The main thrust of this discussion is - what was the private soldier in the Continental Army striving for?
 

Rongo

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
5,683
Ohio
#2
No doubt there were many Americans who opposed the war, and especially opposed independence. But they were definitely the minority. In certain areas though, like New York City, New Jersey, and the Deep South, they made up a significant portion of the population. That's why the British preferred to fight in those areas, where they believed they'd have popular support. It turns out there wasn't as much support as they hoped for though, and they may have actually shot themselves in the foot by turning some of their supporters against them.

As for the soldiers, many of them truly were fighting for independence and/or against British oppression, but like all soldiers in all wars, they fought for many reasons, some of them having nothing to do with the overall political goals.
 

Belgarion

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,677
Australia
#3
Apart from the the wealthy leaders with vested interests and the most to gain from indpendence, the majority of people probably did not care one way or the other. Only whan the tide began to turn in favour of the rebels would there have been an increase in support as people jumped on the bandwagon in order to be on the winning side.
 

tjadams

Ad Honoris
Mar 2009
25,362
Texas
#4
Apart from the the wealthy leaders with vested interests and the most to gain from indpendence, the majority of people probably did not care one way or the other. Only whan the tide began to turn in favour of the rebels would there have been an increase in support as people jumped on the bandwagon in order to be on the winning side.
Very true. The Southern colonies felt is was just a Northern matter and were
fat and happy as they were. Tom Paine helped sway a lot of minds with his writings and
we see the real lack of unity in the young nation that led to all those compromises
in getting founding documents ironed out.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
4,005
Texas
#5
Very true. The Southern colonies felt is was just a Northern matter and were
fat and happy as they were. Tom Paine helped sway a lot of minds with his writings and
we see the real lack of unity in the young nation that led to all those compromises
in getting founding documents ironed out.
Not sure where this first line came from. The southern colonists had their own reasons in part and agreed with the north in part. When Boston was put under martial law, they responded up and down the east coast. Powder was secured in Savannah, Charlestown, and VA. Without assistance from the southern patriots, Bunker Hill would likely not have been possible.

The southern colonist had a variety of motivations. They were very displeased about 1763 line cutting them off from western lands. A surprising number of Virginians, North Carolinians, and Pennsylvanians were pouring across the mountain lines in defiance of the Proclamation Line, claiming indian lands and, in some cases, making private treaties with Indian nations for land, etc.

At the time of Independence, the southern colonies were aflame with the 2nd Cherokee war. There is some disagreement as to just how involved the British were in instigating the invasion but, it really doesn't make any difference. What mattered was in the colonist's minds and they firmly believed the British brought down the Cherokee invasion. These groups included many the British would end-up sorry they crossed. The Overmountain Men from Watauga, Back Country men from Ninety-Six, and farmers from across both North and South Carolina piedmont areas. Some of the most ardent patriots of all came from the newly settled Cession Lands above Augusta. This group included Elijah Clarke, Paddy Carr, Benjamin Few, and others. They were definitely common men. There is reason to believe many of the back country southern patriots actually became ardent whigs in the summer of '76 due to the British and Tories making allies of the Cherokee and Creek tribes.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
4,005
Texas
#6
Apart from the the wealthy leaders with vested interests and the most to gain from indpendence, the majority of people probably did not care one way or the other. Only whan the tide began to turn in favour of the rebels would there have been an increase in support as people jumped on the bandwagon in order to be on the winning side.
Actually, the vast majority of whigs were not wealthy individuals. They were the Boston waterfront, the New York mobs, and the farmers of New England. We know many of the affluent whigs and they were in fact the leaders. However, the real power of Sam Adams and John Hancock was their ability to whip up a mob the affluent of Boston were incapable of controlling. The natural resentment of the poor toward the wealthy is something Adams played upon to great advantage. Tar and feathering were the tools of the unruly mob striking fear in the law abiding citizens. If there was any argument the loyalists found particularly effective in arguing for the king, it was their fear of mob rule. This only got worse after the colonial governments began to fall and the Whigs started forming their various Committees of Safety. 'Committeemen' became a word of fear among the affluent.

If anything, the revolution was a movement of the poor against the upper class, not the other way around. People of wealth and property preferred law and order to anarchy and chaos. This was among the very best arguments that made them loyalists.
 

Baltis

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
4,005
Texas
#7
No doubt there were many Americans who opposed the war, and especially opposed independence. But they were definitely the minority. In certain areas though, like New York City, New Jersey, and the Deep South, they made up a significant portion of the population. That's why the British preferred to fight in those areas, where they believed they'd have popular support. It turns out there wasn't as much support as they hoped for though, and they may have actually shot themselves in the foot by turning some of their supporters against them.

As for the soldiers, many of them truly were fighting for independence and/or against British oppression, but like all soldiers in all wars, they fought for many reasons, some of them having nothing to do with the overall political goals.
I agree the Loyalists were in the overall minority. But it was a fairly strong minority. Particularly in New York in the counties north of NY city. In that area, land holdings were setup into large estates that had renters who lived and populated the area. Very similar to nobles and serfs. West Chester county and the areas right along the Hudson were very populated and also great recruiting for Loyalists. (Grandpa Dusenberry served as a loyalist. He was from near Courtlandt.) In many cases, the renters of loyalist landowners went whig out of resentment toward their landlords. In other cases, the opposite motivation held. They remained loyal to the king out of a desire for loyalty and status quo in their homelife.
 
Mar 2010
1,326
Ohio
#8
Actually, the vast majority of whigs were not wealthy individuals. They were the Boston waterfront, the New York mobs, and the farmers of New England. We know many of the affluent whigs and they were in fact the leaders. However, the real power of Sam Adams and John Hancock was their ability to whip up a mob the affluent of Boston were incapable of controlling. The natural resentment of the poor toward the wealthy is something Adams played upon to great advantage. Tar and feathering were the tools of the unruly mob striking fear in the law abiding citizens. If there was any argument the loyalists found particularly effective in arguing for the king, it was their fear of mob rule. This only got worse after the colonial governments began to fall and the Whigs started forming their various Committees of Safety. 'Committeemen' became a word of fear among the affluent.

If anything, the revolution was a movement of the poor against the upper class, not the other way around. People of wealth and property preferred law and order to anarchy and chaos. This was among the very best arguments that made them loyalists.
Great post! There is certainty that school of thought floating around that the revolution was a simply a product of the bourgeoisie who disliked like the concept of taxation and control. This ignores the fact that there was a sense of animosity from soldiers who fought in the French Indian Wars. The majority whom were poor farmers and grew to disdain rigid system of the British Army. It ignores the various quartering acts would have caused animosity across social lines. It ignores the unpopularity of Impressment which understandably would draw the ire of the lower class. Of course well to do intellectuals such as Samuel Adams and James Otis were the straws that stirred the drink, you will find this in all revolutions, but this pretty facade needed a solid foundation, and a solid foundation they had.
 

Rongo

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
5,683
Ohio
#9
Great post! There is certainty that school of thought floating around that the revolution was a simply a product of the bourgeoisie who disliked like the concept of taxation and control. This ignores the fact that there was a sense of animosity from soldiers who fought in the French Indian Wars. The majority whom were poor farmers and grew to disdain rigid system of the British Army. It ignores the various quartering acts would have caused animosity across social lines. It ignores the unpopularity of Impressment which understandably would draw the ire of the lower class. Of course well to do intellectuals such as Samuel Adams and James Otis were the straws that stirred the drink, you will find this in all revolutions, but this pretty facade needed a solid foundation, and a solid foundation they had.
Agreed with both of you. It really was a bottom-up movement. The British sent troops to Boston to put down the mobs, not the wealthy. Instead what they did was rile up the masses throughout the colonies.

Declaring independence was also a bottom-up movement. The Continental Congress dragged its feet for months trying to make the decision, meanwhile they were getting all kinds of pressure from back home to just do it.

Again, that doesn't mean there wasn't significant opposition, but there was much more significant support.
 
Apr 2010
1,029
evergreen state, USA
#10
One quarter of my ancestry goes back to colonial times (maternal side). I have one pretty well documented ancestor there who fought as a Patriot. He resided in Anson County, North Carolina at the time the war broke out. His first skirmish was as a volunteer in a punitive mission targeting the Cherokees in western North Carolina, who were regarded as British allies. Later he fought directly against the British, especially the loyalist militias. He received a small pension for it much later, when he was already very old. By that time he was residing on his farm in Indiana.
 

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