Probably due to our technologically focused society, we tend to think mostly about military power when it comes to wars. Yet, as the propaganda and morale efforts of the 20th century show, the spirit of the people is often critical to success on the battlefield.
Even in recent history, we’ve seen weaker military powers eventually best superior forces ultimately due to the strength of their spirit. Think about the U.S. loss in the Vietnam War or the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Even the U.S.' recent foray into Iraq may be seen as a failure of spirit as there can be no doubt about our military superiority.
As many know, the American revolutionaries were not exactly a military powerhouse. Aside from a few early skirmishes that proved victorious for the Americans, much of the War for Independence was spent running away from the superior British. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the aid of the French, the war would have likely been lost.
But it wasn’t. The weaker Americans managed to keep the war going for eight long years (1775-1783), a reflection of the strength of their spirit. It was that spirit, that change in the “hearts and minds of the people” that John Adams believed was the real American Revolution, the revolution that enabled the eventual success of the American pursuit for independence from Great Britain.
In an 1818 letter to a friend, H. Niles, John Adams shares some of his reflections on when the American Revolution was really won:
“The American Revolution was not a common event. Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease?
But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy, according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good; but when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the continental congress and all the thirteen State congresses.
There might be, and there were others who thought less about religion and conscience, but had certain habitual sentiments of allegiance and loyalty derived from their education; but believing allegiance and protection to be reciprocal, when protection was withdrawn, they thought allegiance was dissolved.
Another alteration was common to all. The people of America had been educated in an habitual affection for England, as their mother country; and while they thought her a kind and tender parent, (erroneously enough, however, for she never was such a mother,) no affection could be more sincere. But when they found her a cruel beldam, willing like Lady Macbeth, to “dash their brains out,” it is no wonder if their filial affections ceased, and were changed into indignation and horror.
This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
The rest of the letter is well worth the read, and I’d recommend doing so if you have the time. Adams gets into the finer details of what set the American Revolution in motion. For instance:
“It was not until after the annihilation of the French dominion in America that any British ministry had dared to gratify their own wishes, and the desire of the nation, by projecting a formal plan for raising a national revenue from America, by parliamentary taxation. The first great manifestation of this design was by the order to carry into strict executions those acts of parliament, which were well known by the appellation of the acts of trade, which had lain a dead letter, unexecuted for half a century, and some of them, I believe, for nearly a whole one.
This produced, in 1760 and 1761, an awakening and a revival of American principles and feelings, with an enthusiasm which went on increasing till, in 1775, it burst out in open violence, hostility, and fury.”
While many today want to forget or dismiss the actions and thinking of these dead, white men, they cannot be ignored. They are the foundation of our America and interwoven into our very character.