1789 is a chapter break in American history (as it is in European history, but for a very different reason). We’re all finished up with Enlightenment philosophy and Revolution, and we turn the page to a new time with a new lexicon reflecting new, possibly less exciting concerns: nullification, internal improvements, Manifest Destiny and the cotton gin.
As we start the long 1789-1848 chapter (it really is weird how those dates match up with such important European dates), the most striking difference with the 1763-1789 chapter is that there’s a sense of stability, a permanence to this new beginning. Not only does America now have its own country, it also has its very own government that it has now made sure is going to be vigorous enough and flexible enough to hold the country together against whatever gets thrown at it, right down to the present day.
What we need to remember is that there’s absolutely no reason the people on the ground in 1789 should have felt that new stability. There’s no reason this particular new beginning should have felt any different to them than the very many new beginnings they had spent, at that point, their whole lives living through.
Let’s look at how much the world had changed for an American alive in the 1790s. Let’s look at, say, John Adams, born in Massachusetts in 1735. John Adams grew up in a British America that was confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Far more of North America was French than was British—Adams didn’t know much about the land that lay behind the Appalachian Mountains a few hundred miles to the west, beyond that it was vast and fertile, but he did know that it was accessible either through French Quebec on the St. Lawrence or through French New Orleans on the Mississippi, and that what settlements existed there were French. For Adams and his fellow colonists—to whom “French” meant two things they abhorred: Roman Catholic and absolutist—the spectre of so much of the continent being in enemy hands must have truly hung over them.
But in 1759 and 1760 (confirmed by treaty in 1763), all that changed. The Seven Years’ War swept France from North America, and the entire continent east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain. For John Adams and his fellow colonists, it must have been like how we felt when the Berlin Wall came down. British America had gone from a narrow strip clutching the Atlantic Seaboard to a limitless expanse big enough that, as Thomas Jefferson later described it, it would take until the “thousandth and thousandth” generation for them to fill.
Then, of course, came the new beginning when Adams and his countrymen decided to forego the protection and the supervision of the world’s most powerful empire and take responsibility for their affairs wholly within their own control, and cemented that decision by winning a war very much against the odds. Replacing common allegiance to a hereditary monarch with common allegiance to the ideal of liberty was the biggest revolution Adams lived through, but it wasn’t the first, and it wasn’t the last: because just four years after Britain recognised American independence, the United States realised that it had got its first attempt at self-government absolutely wrong, and that it had to scrap its first constitution (the Articles of Confederation) and write a new one, a Constitution that many Americans thought was a recipe guaranteed to lead to tyranny and monarchy.
And for all that change that men and women of Adams’s generation saw politically in a single lifetime, let’s not forget that the boundaries of the world itself were undergoing constant change for them, too. When John Adams was an adult in his early twenties, the extreme frontier of white settlement in America was Albany, New York—Albany, in the southeastern quadrant of New York, a couple hours’ drive north from New York City and only about half an hour from the Massachusetts state line, was the gateway beyond which, to the north or west, the uncharted forests belonged to Indians, lone fur trappers, and the occasional stockade of companies of British or French soldiers. Albany was the crossroads where colonial leaders would gather when they wished to treat with the Iroquois sachems who would come out of the woods. And yet by the time Adams died, Missouri—in the very heart of the American continent—had already been so thoroughly settled by white colonists that it had been granted statehood, as had twenty-one of the twenty-four states east of the Mississippi River. (Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, then as now desolate frontiers on the American periphery, were the exceptions.)
So for many Americans, the reaction to the Constitution in 1789 wasn’t wondering whether or not the new federal government would succeed, it would have been wondering what was going to replace it within the next decade or so. This was especially true for Americans, like James Wilkinson, who had moved west and were already rapidly filling Kentucky (statehood 1792), Tennessee (1796) and Ohio (1803). Americans already had a suspicion that their country would prove too large and would eventually fracture; they just didn’t think the fault would be along the Mason-Dixon Line, they thought it would be along the Appalachian Ridge, dividing the Atlantic states from the Ohio Valley.
In such a world of uncertain future, then, James Wilkinson—hero of the Battle of Saratoga, major landowner who was turning Lexington into Kentucky’s major town, and man of extreme ambition—decided that his most likely route to fame and fortune was to take a secret oath of loyalty to Spain for the express purpose of detaching Kentucky from the United States and turning it into a Spanish colony. This became common knowledge by the early 1790s (though not concrete proof was ever unearthed; if it had, Wilkinson would certainly have been tried for treason, and likely convicted), and yet George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all felt willing to keep giving Wilkinson successively greater responsibility, and greater power located at a greater remove from their own oversight: second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in Ohio and Indiana, then commander-in-chief of the United States Army along the left bank of the Mississippi, then governor of the Louisiana Territory with his capital at St. Louis.
Or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so much as they didn’t feel they had a choice; maybe they felt that, like the Roman empire appointing a Germanic chieftain governor of the province he’s just invaded, they had to maintain Wilkinson in a position of honour at the American empire’s distant outposts in order to prevent him and the men loyal to him from turning against them.
In 1806, when Wilkinson was presented with the opportunity to do what he had actually pledged to do in 1787—detach the Mississippi Valley from the United States—he instead chose to betray his co-conspirator Aaron Burr to the federal government and side with the Union. But he acted no more out of loyalty to the United States in 1806 than he had to Spain in 1787; both times, he sided with the power that he felt was in the best position to give him honour and fortune in the Mississippi Valley. In the intervening nineteen years the United States was able to strengthen its grip west of the Appalachians until Wilkinson reached the calculation that it was simply too strong to dislodge there.
But James Wilkinson didn’t just watch that change: he was an integral part of it. Examining how he made his choice for Spain in 1787 and for the United States in 1806 shows us how it was that many of his fellow Americans of the period came gradually to the conclusion that the United States was something that would last longer than their own generation.
As usual, it all comes down to perspective.
We know intellectually that people who lived through history didn’t know what the future held for them, and we probably have no problem grasping that when we talk about moments of great crisis. We can understand, for instance, that when George Washington led the defeated remnants of the Continental Army into hiding in the woods after the Battle of White Plains, then had them flee across the Hudson River under cover of rain and fog, that a lot of people on both sides probably thought they’d just seen the end of the American rebellion and that British rule would be restored in the colonies shortly. And we can understand why Joseph Kennedy, ambassador in a London that was being pulverised nightly by an overwhelming German air force while the German army stood in control of all Europe from the Spanish border to the Russian, sent dispatch after dispatch back to Washington telling FDR that Britain was completely finished and Germany already had the war won—even as we smugly snigger at him for how wrong he was.
But as humans, we’re psychologically incapable of stopping ourselves from forgetting that people’s view of the future has always been like this all the time, not just in those instants when all the pieces are thrown up in the air. It was inevitable, we insist, that once the threat of French colonies in Canada and Louisiana had been removed, once Parliament had determined on extracting revenue from the American colonies, that those colonies would revolt from British rule; but the colonists certainly didn’t think that was a likely or even a realistic outcome until fairly late on in the day. It was inevitable, we’ve been saying ever since the East Berliners climbed over that wall in December 1989, that we would win the Cold War, that the Eastern Bloc would collapse under their own economic inefficiency. But we never said that during the Cold War, because we didn’t think it was true. We thought the Cold War and Communism were going to go on indefinitely; the 1984 Doctor Who story “Fury From the Deep” depicts them as still alive and kicking in 2084. If anything we thought the Communists probably had the edge on us; you don’t come up with something like the domino theory if you think the natural advantage lies with democracy and the free market.
Of course normally when I talk about this sort of thing, I’m talking about it in relation to alternate history. But I want to make the point that this is important to consider when looking at real history instead. I wrote a novel set in Berlin in 1946, under Allied occupation, right after the end of the Second World War. Read any account of that time and the one thing that comes across very strongly is just how actively uncertain everyone was about what the world would look like in the coming days or months or years. People were uniquely conscious of how impossible it was to see into the future, both on the personal level (where had their loved ones gone, were they still alive somewhere, would they ever return?) and the geopolitical (was Hitler still alive? Would the Russians stay in Europe? Would the Americans? Would the Allies demolish all the German cities and leave its people to live as peasant farmers for ever? Would there even be such a thing as Germany ever again?) It’s really difficult to convey that uncertainty on the page because the reader, of course, already knows the answers to all those questions, and so doesn’t feel the tension over them naturally.
Next time I want to talk about what James Wilkinson can tell us about how Americans saw their republic and its future during its first generation of life. But before I did that, I thought it was important to establish why and how he can tell us it. And the answer to that is all about that magical P-word: perspective.
Last go round I mentioned that this biography I’m reading of James Wilkinson was probably going to prompt some posts here, so I figured maybe the best thing to do would be to start by talking about James Wilkinson. Because I don’t think he’s particularly well known, and yet he should be. James Wilkinson’s life reads like a hokey historical novel. He was a key servant of America during the Revolutionary War, the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, and commander-in-chief of the United States Army for sixteen years—and yet he spent the whole period actively plotting against American interests as the secret agent of a foreign power.
At age twenty, James Wilkinson became the youngest brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was a hero (by his account, the hero) of the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the war. After the war he moved to Kentucky to make his fortune in land speculation, where he became the leader of the movement for Kentucky to secede from Virginia and form its own state—and also opposed ratification of the Constitution, as he felt it would interfere with Kentucky statehood. And then from the 1790s until after the War of 1812 began, he was commander-in-chief of the US Army, responsible for the defence of the Mississippi frontier from the Spanish garrisons that controlled it at St. Louis, Natchez and New Orleans, and then after the Louisiana Purchase, responsible protecting New Orleans from the Spanish armies in Texas and Florida during the war scare of 1806. It was at the height of that war scare that he became the man who exposed Aaron Burr‘s plot to seize New Orleans and set himself up as Emperor of the western states.
But also. In 1787 Wilkinson took a little trip down the mighty Mississip’ to New Orleans, where he met with the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown, wrote a seven-thousand word report on the likelihood of Kentucky seceding from the Union and placing itself into the Spanish Empire, and accepted an annual pension from the Spanish government. For the remaining forty years of his life, James Wilkinson, highest-ranking military officer in the United States, was Spain’s Agent 13. That was why he led Kentucky to separate statehood but opposed the Constitution, because his aim was to use statehood as a stepping stone to turning Kentucky into a Spanish colony. While preparing to lead invasions into the Spanish colonies of Texas and Florida in 1806, he knew that the Spanish government possessed copious records in Havana and Madrid that would condemn him to execution for treason.
Nor was Wilkinson’s duplicity limited to his service for Spain. He exposed Burr’s plot in 1806, but it would appear that he had been Burr’s active co-conspirator in 1804 and 1805, only turning against him once he concluded that the enterprise was likely to fail; indeed, there are some historians who allege that what has gone down in history as Burr’s Conspiracy should more accurately be called Wilkinson’s. During the Revolutionary War, after he abandoned his first mentor, a certain Benedict Arnold, he became tangled up with the Conway Cabal, a plot by several generals after the Battle of Saratoga to have Washington dismissed from the supreme command and replaced by Horatio Gates. He eventually died in Mexico City, where he had become a senior advisor to Augustine I, the Spanish Loyalist general who had gone over to the Mexican independence fighters, and then immediately after winning Mexico’s independence from Spain had declared himself Emperor of the new nation. Theodore Roosevelt declared that “in all our history, there is no more despicable character.”
The really remarkable thing about Wilkinson’s career of treachery is that it doesn’t seem to have been much of a secret. He was regularly referred to as a “Spanish pensioner”. When he was second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in the Ohio Valley in the 1790s, his superior, “Mad Anthony” Wayne (after whom Fort Wayne is named), made a point of intercepting merchants coming up the Ohio from Spanish territory to make it harder for him to receive dispatches from the Spanish governor in New Orleans. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn refused his application to be given the post of surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory because he felt that allowing Wilkinson to roam freely around the Upper Mississippi frontier would make it too easy for him to get in touch with Spanish officials. The United States’ first four presidents all received letters detailing evidence against him and urging an inquiry, yet they all also chose to confirm him in his command.
I think that’s fascinating, and I think the phenomenon of James Wilkinson sheds some really interesting light on how the Founding Fathers saw the republic they had founded and its prospects for the future. But that’s for another post.
I think I’m planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year. It’ll be a fun way to mark how much more writing time I’m getting now that the kids are in school, and it’ll be a good way to focus. Writing that much that quickly is always exhilarating. Plus I previously did it in 2006 and 2010, so I suppose by doing it again this year I can establish a motif.
Lately I’ve been working on the Shanghai novel I used to talk about here, and I’m happy with how that’s going. But NaNoWriMo requires something new, so both Shanghai and revisions on Zero Hour are out. (Honestly, I’ve recently had a couple of ideas for the Shanghai book that I’m kind of happy to give a month or so to gel.) I’m going to go with writing some alternate history and give myself a chance to flex my worldbuilding muscles in a way that writing historical novels about interwar Shanghai or Allied-occupied Berlin doesn’t.
That decided, I’ve got basically two possibilities of what to write: either I could sit down and write a manuscript for my South-wins-the-American-Civil-War novel, or I could give in to this kick I’ve been on lately about the Federalist Period and do something with a point of departure in 1787 (which is to say, a POD where the United States never ratifies the Constitution). The South-wins novel is actually in a pretty advanced stage of planning, with a cast of characters, a solidly developed setting and most of a plot; its one big problem is that I’m simply unable to find a way that my protagonist fits into the rest of the book. Plus (and this is a pretty big consideration) I’m very confident the book is saleable; at least, as saleable as alternate history gets.
The no-Constitution idea, on the other hand, is really just in its infancy. I have some idea of how the world looks, but no idea of the setting, characters or plot, beyond an opening line that fascinates me. But it’s what’s been catching at my imagination for the last couple of months, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the period and am really immersed in it right now. Yesterday I checked a biography of James Wilkinson out the library, who’s a fascinating character who really should be better known from this period of American history. After just forty pages it’s already prompted a number of thoughts that are almost certainly going to end up as posts here in the coming days.
I really wish NaNoWriMo were December rather than November, is what I’m saying, because then I’d jump on the idea of doing something with the no-Constitution POD. But it ain’t; it’s November. So I’ve got a decision to make.
Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia; Friday will mark the hundredth anniversary of Serbia’s response, after which the outbreak of the First World War, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, became almost inevitable. In terms of the ongoing four-year centenary of the war, then, we’re right now embarking on the very climax of the July Crisis.
The ultimatum and its response are the second-most well-known thing about the July Crisis, after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand itself (which didn’t in fact happen in July, but on 28 June). So now, a hundred years and a few hours after Austro-Hungarian Ambassador Baron Giesl von Gieslingen placed the ultimatum on a table in the Serbian prime minister’s office because the Serbian finance minister, Lazar Paču, refused to accept it physically from his hands, I’d like to take a moment to examine them.
The received history of the July Crisis is that Serbia’s response to the ultimatum was one of almost total acceptance—that the Serbians capitulated on every point but one, and that Austria-Hungary’s decision to nevertheless break off diplomatic relations and mobilise their army is therefore proof that responsibility for the start of the First World War therefore lies with the warmongering, Teutonic leadership of the Central Powers and not at all with the Allies.
This is entirely false.
Serbia’s response was far more nuanced and far more equivocal than that:
The claim often made in general narratives that this reply represented an almost complete capitulation to the Austrian demands is profoundly misleading. This was a document fashioned for Serbia’s friends, not for its enemy. It offered the Austrians amazingly little. Above all, it placed the onus on Vienna to drive ahead the process of opening up the investigation in the Serbian background of the conspiracy, without, on the other hand, conceding the kind of collaboration that would have enabled an effective pursuit of the relevant leads.
In this sense it represented a continuation of the policy the Serbian authorities had followed since 28 June: flatly to deny any form of involvement and to abstain from any initiative that might be taken to indicate the acknowledgement of such involvement. Many of the replies on specific points opened up the prospect of long, querulous and in all likelihood ultimately pointless negotiations with the Austrians over what exactly constituted ‘facts and proofs’ of irredentist propaganda or conspiratorial activity by officers and officials. The appeal to ‘international law’, though effective as propaganda, was pure obfuscation, since there existed no international jurisprudence for cases of this kind and no international organs with the authority to resolve them in a legal and binding way.
Yet the text was perfectly pitched to convey the tone of voice of reasonable statesmen in a condition of sincere puzzlement, struggling to make sense of outrageous and unacceptable demands. … It naturally sufficed to persuade Serbia’s friends that in the face of such a full capitulation, Vienna had no possible ground for taking action.
In reality, then, this was a highly perfumed rejection on most points.
[All paragraph breaks in the above, except for the last one, have been added by me to make the passage readable on a computer screen.]
The myth that Serbia all-but-surrendered to Austria-Hungary’s demands is a comfortable one for us, because it allows us to construct a narrative whereby the Central Powers were set on war and we, the Allies, are aggrieved, attacked party (—a narrative we accept intuitively despite the fact that it was a terrorist attack upon Austria-Hungary that sparked the crisis in the first place). But that’s exactly why it’s important for us to reject it, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking of the outbreak of the First World War as an act of morality (with, of course, our side being the moral side) rather than seeing it as what it was, an act of (amazingly ill-judged, as it turned out) statecraft.
There are wars with a legitimate good side and bad side, but there are far fewer of them than we like to pretend (because we like to pretend that all of our wars were just wars), and the Great War isn’t really one of them.
Note that I am not attempting to relieve Austria-Hungary or Germany of responsibility for the outbreak of war. It’s true that Serbia didn’t capitulate to Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum in the way histories often tell us they did; but that’s because the ultimatum was deliberately designed to be impossible to accept. The Austro-Hungarian government wanted war, and they gave Serbia an ultimatum that they felt had to be refused. The pro-war faction among the Austro-Hungarian government had ultimately won out because of the strong backing it had received from Germany, where the dominant voices were also pro-war.
But just as Austria-Hungary had German voices in their ears urging them to take a hard line with Serbia, so were Serbia and Russia buttressed in their resolve to oppose Vienna’s demands by France, whose foreign policy had for some time been controlled by the staunchly pro-war, anti-German President Raymond Poincaré. Indeed, French foreign policy had long ago identified a Balkan crisis as their most likely opportunity to bring Russia into a war with Germany—it was felt that if France instead provoked war over a specifically Franco-German conflict, like possession of Alsace-Lorraine or a colonial dispute in Africa, then the Russians would be unwilling to come along with them. The Central Powers were certainly guilty of warmongering in 1914, but just as much were the Allies.
The passage I’ve quoted above, discussing the Serbian response, is from The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested enough in the outbreak of the First World War to already have a picture in their head of how it came about. There are things in the book I’d need to read more about in order to accept them, like Clark’s statement that the Franco-Russian alliance was originally an anti-British, rather than anti-German, agreement, or that it was important to France and Russia to bring on a war in 1914 because the British Foreign Office was readying itself to shift Britain’s alignment away from the Entente and back to one of friendship with Germany. And there are things that are usually taken as important factors in the buildup to the war (like the Anglo-German naval rivalry) that Clark, evidently feeling they aren’t important after all, simply doesn’t mention. But the book is a thoroughly detailed, exceptionally well researched work of scholarship that went into a lot of details in areas I hadn’t known about before, and it left me thinking hard about a topic I thought I already had well hashed-out in my head.
There’s a word that I’ve seen in alternate history discussions, and I like it a lot—overdetermined.
Essentially, a historical event or phenomenon is overdetermined if its likelihood of happening remains robust across different alternate timelines—that is to say, if the event remains likely to happen even in timelines where prior events that led up to it have been changed.
The French Revolution would seem to be overdetermined, in that after 1750 (and very possibly before), there’s very little that can be done to change it. No matter what change you make, France still has a brittle, inadequate fiscal system held in place by very strong forces of social inertia. The Seven Years’ War is still going to push that system to its limit, no matter how you change the war’s outcome; and French participation in the next general European war (in real history, that was the American Revolutionary War, but even if you somehow remove it, there’ll be a different war to fight in) is still going to push French finances beyond that limit. Therefore the French monarchy will have to initiate some sort of drastic fiscal reform, which will necessarily entail also attempting social reform, which will almost certainly unleash the same revolutionary forces that it did in real history; all this will happen somewhere between five and ten years after the end of the American Revolutionary War or whatever war replaces it.
Similarly, the historical consensus would probably be that the outbreak of the First World War was overdetermined after, oh, probably 1870. After a German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, it becomes almost inevitable that, once Bismarck eventually falls from power (1891, in real history), the European Great Powers will eventually crystallise into two armed systems of alliances; and once that happens (say, by 1905), it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one of the series of crises that gripped Europe during the period will eventually spark a general conflict. It could have happened in the Moroccan Crises of 1905 or 1911; or in the Balkan crises of 1908 or 1912–13. In the event it happened with the Sarajevo Crisis of 1914, but even if it hadn’t, well, Sarajevo was the fifth in nine years, so there’s no reason to think there wouldn’t have been several more such incidents in the next several years to light the touchpaper.
I don’t know if there’s a word to describe the opposite end of the spectrum from “overdetermined”; if not, I recommend overcontingent. An overcontingent event would be an event, not necessarily that was unlikely in real history (though many of them are), but rather that becomes unlikely to the point of impossibility when you change previous events.
It’s slightly harder to identify overcontingent events because we are human and therefore inevitably subject to confirmation bias—that is, we inevitably feel like most events, even the genuinely overdetermined ones, were more determined, to one degree or another, than they actually were. But I’ll throw out one possibility: the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, by which the United States conquered from Mexico about one third of the area of the contiguous forty-eight states (the presentday states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado).
The Mexican war only broke out because of series of events in Texan, Mexican and American history of the preceding decade, plenty of them producing fairly unlikely outcomes. This starts with Texas even managing to win its independence in the first place in 1836, which only happened because of a combination of a wise commander (Sam Houston) and an exceptional stroke of luck at the Battle of San Jacinto. Then you’ve got the defeat of Mexico’s one serious attempt to reconquer Texas during the next nine years (in 1842), despite outnumbering the Texan army by eight to one. There’s the death of President William Henry Harrison from pneumonia one month into his term, after insisting on delivering his two-hour inaugural address in the freezing rain; without succeeding Harrison as President, Vice President John Tyler would never have had the standing to make Texas annexation the major issue of the 1844 election, and the election would have been contested by two anti-annexationist candidates (Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren). And even with annexation as the election’s major issue, 1844 was still one of the closest elections in American history; give Clay only 2600 of his opponent James K. Polk’s votes in New York (out of half a million cast), and he wins the state and the presidency. Even once Polk won the presidency and annexed Texas, war didn’t become inevitable until he decided on pursuing his territorial ambitions against Mexico in the most brusque, aggressive manner he could.
Most people assume the American Revolution was an overdetermined event, and from time to time to time I’ve talked about why I think they’re wrong and that the Revolution was, quite the contrary, fairly overcontingent. I’d also give the Allied victory in the First World War as an outcome that, while not necessarily overcontingent, was at least contingent, in that it was a conflict where (unlike alternate history favourites like the Second World War and American Civil War) it was a fairly evenly balanced affair and the losing side had about the same chance to win it (by taking Paris in September 1914, by winning the Battle of Verdun in 1916, by not adopting a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, by taking Paris during Operation Michael in Spring 1918) as they did of losing it.
So I guess I’m curious what other people think, what other events people think are particularly overdetermined or overcontingent. What do you think was bound to happen, and will show up in timeline after timeline? What do you think was a fluke of history, and will take only a small tweak to abort?
My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.
Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.
I’ll start with the photographs. There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943. There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket. (I love it so much.)
There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:
And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender. He’s second from right in the fourth row back:
There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed. (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.) For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side. One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process. Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography. Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.
And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours. Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre. Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:
By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier. But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957. (I love it so much.)
And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals. One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.
They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“. The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father. (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.) But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”. My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name. I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.
But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online. (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long. I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something. I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long? I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)
Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him. And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did. I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.
One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant. The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940. But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s). His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium. Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.
Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland. It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.
In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John. So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.
There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.
What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued. The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:
This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.
. . .
It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.
So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”. (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)
I had no idea of any of this.
(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)
So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago. And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.
I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad. Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year. So I’ll close by repeating it here:
For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.
So, the question I’m pondering today: why does it never seem to have occurred to anyone—not the French, nor the British, nor apparently even the Quebecois—that France might have demanded the return of Quebec at the end of the American Revolutionary War?
Historiography of the Revolutionary War tends to concentrate solely on the fighting in mainland North America. This is understandable, inevitable, and completely appropriate—and, incidentally, just as true of British histories as it is of American. But it obscures how much of a global conflict France’s entry into the war in 1778 (and Spain’s in 1779 and the Netherlands’s in 1780) made it into.
The American Revolutionary War was fought in the Thirteen Colonies and Canada, but it was also fought in Florida, in the West Indies, in India, in Spain and in the English Channel. The Great Siege of Gibraltar was part of the war. The Second Anglo-Mysore War, in which the native state of Mysore came close to sweeping Great Britain from southern India, was part of the war. During the war, France picked off a series of British islands in the Caribbean Sea (the Revolutionary War is the only war of the last three hundred years during which the Royal Navy has lost its customary naval superiority) and Spain occupied the Bahamas, though Lord Rodney’s victory at the Battle of the Saintes prevented a Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica. The Franco-Spanish alliance’s attempts to launch an invasion of Great Britain in 1759 and in 1805 make it into all the history books, but their invasion of 1779, despite coming closer to success than either of the others (in that it actually put to sea and roamed around the English Channel), gets much less mention. (Though I’d like a citation for Wikipedia’s assertion that France intended to retain Portsmouth as a naval base after the war.)
Indeed, so much did the Revolutionary War take on the character of a European war to outside observers once France entered that when Spain entered a year later, she did so with an alliance with France but without signing an alliance with the United States or even recognising the United States as a legitimate, independent nation.
And the peace settlement at the end of war—while its most important provision was British recognition of American independence and cession to the United States of the Old Northwest—also involved the colonial and European territorial transfers customary between European states at the end of these things. Britain ceded Florida and the strategically vital Mediterranean island of Minorca to Spain, and Tobago to France; the Netherlands lost their Indian port of Negapatam to Britain.
And yet nowhere is there any mention of Quebec. I can understand why France would ultimately decide not to pursue the return of Quebec—it wasn’t particularly lucrative (in fact it was a money sink, even with its dominance in the fur trade), it was difficult to defend, it had what was guaranteed to be a hostile power on its southern border. But I don’t feel like I should have to assume that that was the thinking. I don’t like that there doesn’t seem to have been any actual thinking going on. I don’t like that I can’t find any evidence of French Canadian agitation for it after France entered the war—after all, in 1778, Quebec had only been British for fifteen years; anyone older than twenty-five could remember being a French subject, could remember the campaigns of invasion and conquest by armies of Britons and Americans.
Any attempt to Google about this gets swamped by results wondering why Quebec didn’t join the Patriots and become the Fourteenth State. That’s a perfectly reasonable question for those with only a casual understanding of the American Revolution to ask, but it’s also one with some fairly obvious answers once you start studying the subject and realise the mutual antipathy the French Canadians and les Bostonnais—their word for Yankees—felt toward each other. The Americans, particularly those of New England and New York, were so anti-Catholic that on Bonfire Night every year, the people of Boston burnt not Guy Fawkes in effigy, but the Pope; and they were so anti-French that when a French army arrived in New England in 1779 to help them win their independence from Britain, the people of Newport rioted and the Boston mob murdered a French officer. The British were plenty anti-Catholic and anti-French, too, but they had also given the French Canadians the Quebec Act 1774, guaranteeing the freedom of Roman Catholic worship and preservation of French civil law in Canada—an action the Patriots found so odious that it’s included in the Declaration of Independence as a justification for the Revolutionary War. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the Quebecois never mustered up much sentiment in favour of throwing their lot in with the Continental Congress.
(“Why didn’t Quebec become the Fourteenth State?” also swamps most results for another question I’ve wondered about from time to time: why didn’t Nova Scotia become the Fourteenth State? Nova Scotia, after all, was English and Protestant in population—the French colonists having been violently and forcibly deported during the French and Indian War, in an action by the British government that would qualify as a war crime under modern definition—and, indeed, most of the settlers in the province had emigrated there from New England, where Revolutionary sentiment was strongest. I did eventually find an answer to that question, albeit an unsatisfactory one.)
But just because the French Canadians found the British preferable to the Americans on their doorstep is still no reason why they’d have found them preferable to the actual French under whose governance most of them had been perfectly content. I can understand why France ultimately decided that retrieving Canada wasn’t much of a priority, but I have harder time believing there wasn’t anything to decide in the first place.
I’m continuing on with Crucible of War. I’ve reached the summer of 1758 and the siege of Louisbourg, but I want to head back and point out something from 1754.
The Albany Congress, a gathering in upstate New York of delegates from the northern colonies and representatives of the Mohawk. Its purpose was to achieve a treaty between Britain and the Mohawk, and to establish a basis for intercolonial cooperation in the war that everyone knew was coming with France for control of the Ohio Valley. It’s famous in American history because of the proposal put forth by a Pennsylvania delegate, one Benjamin Franklin, in conjunction with Massachusetts governor William Shirley, to create a political union of the British colonies. The Albany Plan of Union would have created a national legislature to which each colony elected representatives, with executive power vested in a President-General appointed by the Crown. In its support Franklin created America’s first political cartoon.
From Crucible of War’s chapter on the Albany Congress:
Of all those present at the congress, perhaps the least self-interested delegate was the leading commissioner from Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson was, in his way, as remarkable as Franklin: a gifted historian, Hutchinson was also rich, talented, as clearly marked for advancement in the administration of the empire as any American provincial could be. He had been only slightly less precocious in politics than in trade, a calling at which he had made a small fortune even before he graduated from Harvard at age sixteen.
Moreover he, like Franklin, was hardly indifferent to the prospect of taking a leading role in such a union himself. Thus Hutchinson worked closely with Franklin in creating the Albany Plan, but less to promote his own immediate interests than to forward those of his governor and his province. For Hutchinson also knew that the Bay Colony had borne the brunt of the fighting and the expense of King George’s War [the War of the Austrian Succession], and he wished to see the obligations of any future conflict shared more equitably among the provinces.
Crucible of War, then, here singles Thomas Hutchinson out as being—through a combination of his natural talents and his attitude of service to Massachusetts—the most praiseworthy individual present at Albany. I find this remarkable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because he gets that assessment in competition with Benjamin Franklin—and not just with any old Ben Franklin, but the Ben Franklin of the Albany Congress. This is Franklin venturing out of Pennsylvania into national and imperial politics for the first time; it is Franklin as the guiding force behind the first ever initiative to unite the British colonies under a common domestic government. It is, in short, the moment Ben Franklin became the United States’s first Founding Father.
Secondly, it’s because in American historiography, Hutchinson is irredeemably a villain—possibly he is the single great villain of the American Revolution (though that might be Sir Banastre Tarleton). And his specific villainy is that his support of the Intolerable Acts is viewed as him siding with Great Britain and against the people of Boston. Even Lord North, the British prime minister from 1770 to 1781, blamed him for increasing tensions between Parliament and the people of Massachusetts. But his description here firmly fixes him as a Massachusettsian (totes a word), and a loyal and devoted one at that; and by extension, an American, insofar as such a thing as an American could have been said to have existed in 1754. Yet find me the adaptation of Johnny Tremain that presents Hutchinson, who was born and lived his entire life in Boston, as speaking with an American rather than a British accent.
It is, of course, all a matter of context and perspective. Nowadays we might conclude that, when he had to choose, Hutchinson saw himself as more British than Massachusettsian, and so sided with Great Britain against Massachusetts. But maybe he didn’t see a conflict between the two.
In 1754, he partnered closely with Benjamin Franklin on the drafting of the earliest direct precursor to the United States Constitution. Because the influence of the Plan of Union is so clearly visible in the Constitution, and because the Plan is so closely associated with Franklin, we tend to see it as an early signal of a growing colonial maturity and nascent American national identity, and therefore as a signpost that the colonists were getting ready not to need British government anymore. But it’s important to remember that for the proponents of the Albany Plan, including Hutchinson and William Shirley and very definitely Ben Franklin, one of its great benefits is that they expected it to bring the colonies more closely under British control, which they thought would only be to the colonies’ benefit.
Twenty years later, Benjamin Franklin had changed his mind. Could it be that Thomas Hutchinson simply never did?
I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson. The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766. That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.
In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776. As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.
Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.
This immediately put me on my guard. I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.
But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that. That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years. But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s. For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.
When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it. We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.
To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire. When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory. (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.) When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance. When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.
Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:
Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War. Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution. No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period. By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.
(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)
Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent. “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”
This hits on something really important in history: perspective. It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.
This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history. Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering. But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.
The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms. By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.