Review of “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock

Hoock aims to tell the story of the American Revolution by using violence as his central analytical and narrative focus. He argues that the story of the revolution has been subject to “whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting.” Americans have chosen to portray the revolution as “an uplighting, heroic tale, as a triumph of high-minded ideas….” But as Hoock ably demonstrates from his well-researched account, the reality was much messier, marked by violence “in ways we don’t remember, and perhaps can’t even imagine, because they have been downplayed – if not written out of the conventional telling altogether.”

Why was this so? In all wars, narratives of one-sided violence (that is, violence by the “other” side) help to mobilize allegiance and support. Having a “moral” claim helps legitimize a nation both at home and abroad. And of course, with Americans averring that their primary interest was freedom, they needed a compelling message to counter the many ways their hypocrisy could be exposed – not only because of their enslavement of blacks and treatment of Natives, but because of the way the Patriots terrorized the Loyalists. Anglican churches and clergymen were singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Some were killed, including one who was lynched by a mob in Charleston, South Carolina with his body subsequently burned on a bonfire. (Hoock writes that different regions in America “specialized” in different types of abuse.)

Lynching of Loyalists

Lynching of Loyalists

One of the worst places to be punished for Loyalist leanings was in Connecticut, where the accused could be taken to an underground prison located in a converted copper mine. This hell on earth (or in earth, as it was 60-80 feet underground) was dark, damp, squalid, with limited air circulation, and exceedingly unsanitary. Prisoners could not stand upright, and the political prisoners were mixed in with dangerous felons. Many of them went mad. As Hoock observes: “Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America’s first civil war than is commonly acknowledged.”

Connecticut's notorious Newgate Prison

Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison

There were also “political” punishments. Hoock reports on extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” that policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence. Other Patriot actions against Loyalists included enactment of treason laws, confiscation and banishment acts, test laws (to test loyalty), and the banning of Loyalists from voting, holding office, practicing their professions, trading, serving on juries, acquiring property, inheriting land, or even traveling at will.

Confiscation of property affected tens of thousands of Loyalists during the war, allowing the states to accrue assets and condemn traitors to a social death without engaging in widespread executions.

But the Patriots in general, and George Washington in particular, were well aware that “in order to win the war on the moral front, with both American and international audiences watching, [they] must out-civilize the enemy.” Thus, not only were stories of American violence suppressed, but stories of barbarity by the British, while rare – particularly at the beginning of the war, became pivotal pieces of the Patriot atrocity narrative: “In their print media, the Patriots presented such atrocities as part of a broader pattern of British excessive violence.”

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

The American Congress published numerous reports of any British atrocity in order to persuade the population of “Britain’s moral inferiority and the righteous urgency of America’s cause.” The most effective propaganda took the form of charges of sexual predation. As Hoock observes, “The high proportion of references to girls and teenagers being raped does not correspond to verifiable data…” But of course, as he admits, “As is the case in most wars, and in most societies, the incidence of rape in the Revolutionary War is impossible to quantify.” Rape victims were intimidated by threats, social ostracizing, and humiliation. They lacked witnesses to corroborate their stories.

Regardless, the “Americans deployed rape as a political tool to discredit the British Empire…” (Sadly, Hoock points out, narratives of rape from the period highlight the injured reputation of dishonored fathers and husbands, and were said to symbolize the violation of the body politic. The abused women themselves didn’t seem to matter as much.)

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Hoock also devotes a considerable amount of time to the problems of prisoners of war. Observing the conventions related to prisoners created a dilemma for the British: if they called captured combatants thusly, and agreed to be bound by conventions re prisoners, they would ipso facto be recognizing the U.S. as a sovereign state. [Lincoln faced the same issue during the Civil War vis-a-vis captured Confederates.] It is estimated that between 16,500 and 19,000 American prisoners died in British captivity – roughly half of all the Patriots under arms who died in the war.

Hoock also shows the way racism fed the violence of the war, not only against blacks, but against Native Americans. America used the mobilization of the war to wage a simultaneous campaign against the Iroquois Confederation. Washington himself laid out the Continental Army’s objective in the campaign against the Six Nations to Major General John Sullivan as “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” ….. As Hoock remarks, “Today we would consider this a form of genocide.”

Major General John Sullivan

Major General John Sullivan

Finally, Hoock reports on the period after the war was over, when treatment of former Loyalists was quite punitive. While 60,000 or so white Loyalists went into permanent exile after the war, several hundred thousand wished to stay in their homes. But animosity ran deep, and violence was often employed against them.

Alexander Hamilton realized that while the physical fighting was ended, the war for hearts and minds was not over. He urged tolerance, warning of “the diplomatic, political, economic, and moral costs of persecuting the Loyalists.”

To that end, Americans “scrubbed” their own Revolutionary war record, which they celebrated as “untarnished with a single blood-speck of inhumanity.” For their part, Loyalists remaining in the States had no choice but to hide their trauma, or there would be severe repercussions. In any event, no American publisher would spread their version of events. The Patriots controlled the history.

The Spirit of '76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

The Spirit of ’76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

Discussion: Hoock uses multiple lenses to ferret out the real story of the American Revolution without the obfuscation of socially-constructed myth. In addition to accounts of American Patriots, he examines those of American Loyalists, the British, Native Americans, Black Americans, and German mercenaries. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of of the American Revolution was interpreted – first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWI, when it became especially important to minimize the legacy of violence between “kindred Anglo-Saxon peoples…”.

Hoock’s emphasis on the historical reconstruction of the war – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – is critical to an understanding of how narrative was used by America to reshape what happened into a suitable foundation story. Not only do “the victors write the history,” but they tend to do so in a way that is more self-serving than accurate.

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Evaluation: This book is a much-needed corrective to the many histories of the founding of America that only show the “noble” aspects of the struggle. It contains details of many violent incidents of the war that haven’t made it into other accounts. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” As we now combat the divisions of the country after an election that emphasizes our divides rather than our commonality, we would do well to remember how easy it has been for this country to succumb to violence, discrimination, and cruelty, and then use “alternative facts” to cover it up.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of penguin Random House LLC, 2017

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One Response to Review of “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock

  1. Beth F says:

    Oh wow! I must add this to my list. Sounds a must-read for those of us who have consumed many of the more popular, best-selling histories of the Revolution and Founding Fathers.

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