Few Americans today would likely recognize their country at the time of its founding. The first U.S. national census, conducted in 1790, revealed a mostly agrarian population of little more than 3 million people spread across 13 states clustered up and down the eastern seaboard. The typical American life expectancy was less than 50 years. Women were denied fundamental legal protection. Blacks were considered property. And the United States was proud not to have a large standing army. Yet, according to historian David Richards, despite the many things that set the two eras apart, there are some striking parallels between Revolutionary America and our own times.
“From our vantage point in history we can appreciate how much things have changed. But, on the other hand, there are many national issues today that remain eerily similar to the problems faced 237 years ago,” says Richards, author of the book Swords in Their Hands: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy. “History not only allows us to appreciate what those before us endured, but also reminds us of the lessons we apparently have yet to learn.”
Richards has compiled this list of differences (and similarities) between 18th and 21st century America:
1. Desertion was such a problem during the war that George Washington actually expected the Continental Army to dissolve. When the Revolution began, American soldiers were enthusiastic about fighting for the cause of independence. But as the war dragged on and the hardships of campaigning mounted, once-eager volunteers began to melt away in droves. In fact, prior to the victory at Trenton in late 1776, as many as half of Washington’s men had absconded. Desertion is once again front page news in America with the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Despite the fact that we simply don’t know the full story behind how the 28-year-old U.S. soldier wound up in Taliban hands, many Americans are enraged by the deal to free him in exchange for five prominent enemy prisoners. Many also point to the allegations that Bergdahl may have deserted his post in 2009.
2. Both Washington and Alexander Hamilton deeply feared the Revolution might be followed by chaos or even a civil war. Of course, the American Civil War did follow eight decades later and resentment among fringe groups still lingers in the South to this day. Additionally, contemporary separatist movements have emerged throughout the United States, including Texas; Alaska; North Colorado; South Florida; Upper Peninsula Michigan; Baja, Arizona; State of Jefferson (northern California and southern Oregon), South California, Cook County (Illinois), Northwest Angle (Minnesota), Independent Long Island, Northern Virginia, Killington (Vermont) and Western Maryland.
3. The original Congress had strict term limits. Unlike 21st Century Washington, no delegate to the first Continental Congress could serve for more than three years during any six-year period. And with today’s House and Senate facing record low job approval ratings (about 15 percent, according to Gallup) many interest groups, not the least of which include the Tea Party, would like to see a return of term limits.
4. National lotteries were established to help finance the war. Unlike the well equipped British redcoats, the American army was a rag-tag rabble with insufficient resources even at the best of times. At the war’s outset, Congress tried to raise money for the nascent military through a series of national lotteries. Four such draws were held in 1777, raising more than $1.5 million for the cause while paying out a top prize of $50,000 along with tens of thousands of lesser cash rewards. Funds raised helped pay for goods, which were sorely needed in Washington’s shanty army camps. Today, many states use lotteries to obtain revenue for educational purposes. But given the state of decline in American schools, one could argue that what’s also lacking is the kind of will, leadership and ingenuity that won the war against the British.
5. Soldiers and officers in the Continental Army went months, if not years, without pay. In the autumn of 1782, Continental officers in the Hudson Highlands were seething over the fact that they had not been paid in months – in some cases, years. Eventually, this mounting frustration led to a budding army insurrection known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, which Washington fortunately snuffed out. Today we see Americans growing almost as angry as they hear about the trouble with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency is struggling to treat nearly nine million vets, while dozens of VA facilities are now under investigation amid complaints about falsified records, treatment delays, patient deaths and allegations of a cover-up by top administrators.
6. Congress sought to ban theatre and other forms of public entertainment during the Revolution. Even a year before the war began, the delegates in Congress tried to discourage stage performances. The Founding Fathers deemed such displays extravagant and decadent, particularly amid a struggle for independence. In October 1778, the delegates in Congress even encouraged the states “to take the most effectual measures for … suppressing theatrical entertainments” and decided that any government official who decided to “act, promote, encourage or attend such plays” ought to be fired. In March 1779, Pennsylvania, home of one of America’s first playhouses (The Southwark Theatre), banned all performances for the duration because owners felt they contributed to vice and immorality. Interestingly, in our own times, it’s Hollywood that often comes under fire for what many perceive as a glamourization of drugs, sex and violence.
7. 18th Century Americans resisted foreign rule… as well as the rules of grammar. During the Revolutionary War, the written form of English used by Americans featured punctuation and capitalization most people today would consider strange. At that time, the rules as we know them now had yet to be standardized. Consequently, an officer like Lt.-Col. Ebenezer Huntington could not be criticized for writing that “The Insults & Neglects which the Army have met with from the Country, Beggers all description, it must Go no farther they can endure it no longer. <sic>” Although grammar rules do exist today, not everyone pays attention to them, especially when they compose e-mail messages. Even in spoken English, we see less attention being paid to grammar rules.
8. The Continentals used cash incentives to recruit talent. While the Declaration of Independence specifically condemned the British use of paid mercenaries to suppress the rebellion (like the Hessians), the Continental Army lured recruits to its cause with cold hard cash. During the Revolutionary War, a young man would receive a “bounty”–a cash award– if he signed up to fight the British. Today the United States Army offers young men and women the same type of incentive to sign up for service, but they don’t use the word “bounty”; they call it an “enlistment bonus.”
9. No formal parties existed in Congress during the Revolutionary War. Some historians may call the Revolutionary War-era delegates Federalists, Anti-Federalists, Nationalists, or any other title they like. But strictly speaking, they should avoid using capital letters. Although political factions existed in Philadelphia, no formal parties did. Their establishment came well after the war. Most Americans today, consider themselves either Republicans or Democrats. But as partisan deadlock continues to paralyze Washington, more voters appear to be souring on the two major parties and, consequently, are becoming more likely to call themselves “independents.” Even some prominent politicians (i.e. Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders) have moved into the ranks of “independents.”