Revolution: Home Front

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Revolution: Home Front

Two fundamental circumstances shaped the lives of civilians during the Revolutionary War. First, while Britain enjoyed unchallengeable military superiority at sea, it lacked the power either to conquer or to control effectively more than isolated outposts and a few cities on the American mainland. This made for a prolonged, inconclusive war. Second, the persistence of regional-colonial economies in North America during the war denied the Revolutionaries the benefit of an integrated, national economy while the struggle lasted.

the eighteenth-century colonial economy

Colonial economies produce surpluses for distant, overseas markets in exchange for imported goods not available in their home markets. Throughout the seventeenth century, such long-distance exchanges suffered because the value of American exports was low in relation to their volume while the value of desired imports remained high in relation to theirs. That made it difficult fully to load vessels in both directions. Since the overhead on each voyage remained the same, American producers met the added cost by foregoing some imports they might otherwise have consumed.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, four gateway ports emerged that addressed this inefficiency. Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston encouraged British merchant capitalists to fill vessels carrying European merchandise to the colonies through the extension of credit. Besides providing a range of local services like safe harbors, wharfage, warehousing, and low prices for refits, wholesale merchants saw to distributing imports to the interior and assembling return cargoes. All four gateways also served as the judicial centers of their provinces and thus facilitated the collection of local debts. Finally, the gateways encouraged specialization in the West Indian trade, thus diminishing the inefficiencies of the triangular trade in seeking remittances on Europe, by providing a site where the two trades were integrated. The rising standard of living enjoyed by Americans during the first three quarters of the eighteenth century derived principally from the gateways' success in making their respective regional economies more efficient.

Though the Chesapeake Bay region possessed tobacco, the most valuable staple produced in North America, it lacked a gateway because British merchants controlled its marketing in Europe. The merchants valued decentralization because it preserved the distinctive qualities of the leaves grown in each of the bay's estuaries. Tobacco exports also more than balanced the Chesapeake's demand for European goods during much of the colonial period. Only after 1750 did Norfolk and Baltimore start emerging as commercial centers to market the expanding wheat production of Maryland and Virginia in the West Indies and southern Europe. By the Revolution, the Chesapeake was moving in the direction the other regional economies in the colonies had already taken.

the revolutionary economy

The colonists initially hoped to bring Britain to terms by denying it the benefit of their trade. When hostilities broke out in 1775, the British navy replaced Congress's Continental Association as the principal barrier to contact with overseas markets. In addition to blockading choke points along the coast like the mouth of the Delaware River and the Virginia Capes at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay, Britain's sea power eventually enabled it to seize all the continent's gateway ports. After being driven from Boston in March 1776, the British held New York from September 1776 until the end of 1783 together with at least one other gateway for most of the rest of the war. Overseas trade never entirely ceased because Americans proved adept at bypassing both the gateways and choke points and the British navy lacked the resources to blockade the entire coast. But the increased risks and costs involved in maintaining contact with overseas markets adversely affected the production of domestic surpluses and dramatically inflated the price of the few imports that continued to trickle in, discouraging the production of domestic agricultural staples still further.

Congress sought to cushion these economic dislocations by issuing continental bills of credit. It hoped a common currency would create a national economy to replace the regional ones. But the means proved inadequate to the end. Britain's navy also threatened the coastal trade, the principal avenue for national economic integration. Even had it not, paper credit instruments by themselves would have experienced difficulty in overcoming the geographic impediments standing in the way of the emergence of a truly national economy. The bills also lost value at the first hint that the debt they represented might not be paid. Since Congress lacked the authority to tax and the state governments were reluctant to do so, there was no way individuals could secure the value represented by the bills besides exchanging them for domestic produce. This raised the price of supplies that the army and urban residents depended upon and forced Congress to issue more bills for progressively less return. The resulting runaway depreciation led to the creation of a nominal debt by 1779 that exceeded anything Americans could conceivably pay. In 1780 Congress repudiated 97.5 percent of it in an effort to retain a remnant of its former credit.

Chronic shortages began plaguing the army well before the currency repudiation and persisted through much of the war. Most civilians also experienced a severe reduction in their standard of living. While some contractors and privateersmen prospered, the vast majority endured economic privation. Few perished from want—North America's poor were more likely to succumb to the winter's cold than to die of starvation—but the moral tone of civil society declined dramatically as civilians competed with the army and among themselves for a shrinking quantity of goods.

farm life

During the first year of the conflict, disease affected agricultural production more than the diversion of manpower into the army. In the absence of an effective hospital department, the army sent unseasoned soldiers who sickened in camp back to their homes, thereby communicating camp fever to the civilian population. The larger military mobilizations of 1776 and 1777 cut more directly into agricultural production, but prewar surpluses delayed the full impact of the resulting shortages until 1778–1779. Civilians fared better than the army because labor shortages never threatened subsistence, and families could support their members in the ranks by forwarding supplies through networks of camp visitors. Such assistance was less available when the army was mobile or when detachments embarked on distant expeditions like that launched against Quebec in September 1775. Most men taking part in the early operations of the war, however, benefited from the support of their families and communities.

In an effort to minimize the costs associated with rotating large numbers of short-term recruits through the ranks, Congress decided in September 1776 to raise a permanent army in 1777. This improved its health, though at the expense of its connection with the society from which it was drawn. Efforts by state legislatures to assist families whose principle breadwinners had enlisted failed either to temper the emerging gulf between the army and society or to sustain enlistments. During the last four years of the conflict, the Continental Army shrank steadily in response to adverse economic conditions. After 1778 the collapse of market incentives proved more significant than labor shortages in limiting agricultural production. The brief revival of the grain economy in Philadelphia's hinterland during 1780 and 1781 demonstrates the point. This expansion in production was a direct response to Spain's opening the Cuban market to North American grain imports during the summer of 1780. That revival in turn insured a grain harvest in 1781 sufficient to sustain the concentration of French and American forces around Yorktown that forced Lord Cornwallis's surrender. However, the British navy quickly put an end to this bonanza in 1782 once British officials realized what had happened.

Congress hoped foreign intervention would relieve Americans from their economic difficulties. But initially the French alliance aggravated Congress's currency problems by forcing it to behave in a fiscally irresponsible way to meet the demands of combined operations. The inconclusive results of the campaign of 1778 left Americans embroiled in a conflict they were powerless to extricate themselves from without additional foreign aid. France intervened more effectively in 1780 when it committed Rochambeau's expeditionary force to North America. Provisioning this force provided some economic relief to New England. But despite the military assistance and generous financial subsidies of 1781, France failed to provide a naval umbrella under which America's overseas trade might have recovered. France did supply most of the capital for the Bank of North America, but the tight British blockade of the Delaware River during the first half of 1782 compromised that institution's ability to revive the Patriot economy.

urban life

The capture of gateway ports by the British provided local residents with powerful motives for migrating to the countryside. The British brought disease, especially smallpox, with them, making the cities they occupied far less healthy than they had previously been. Smallpox presented a greater danger to Americans than it did to Europeans because residence in the New World diminished one's exposure and therefore one's resistance to the affliction. Most urban residents had kin in the countryside with whom they could seek refuge, so only the need to protect substantial property or strong political commitments persuaded them to risk health and compete with unfriendly soldiers for housing and fuel in the occupied cities. Because those fleeing a British occupation had many more options than Loyalists fleeing Patriot regimes, New York City's out-migration was more than balanced by Loyalist immigration. If refugees lacked a taste for serving as recruits in Britain's armed forces, they could still find economic opportunity on privateers or in occupations that served the British forces. African slaves fleeing their masters from near and far flooded the city and were formed into a Black Brigade.

Fire partially destroyed New York City in September 1776 and again in August 1778. However, it suffered less of a decline during the war than Boston, Charleston, and Philadelphia experienced. Charleston, occupied from May 1780 to December 1782, had little time to recover. Boston and Philadelphia experienced shorter occupations but failed to recoup their prewar prosperity because of the anemic state of overseas trade. Urban refugees often hesitated about returning from the countryside to dependence on a diminished urban market. As the command center of British operations, New York fared better than the other ports because it was constantly receiving fresh infusions of supplies both locally and from abroad and enjoyed a hard money economy throughout the war.

irregular warfare

The inability to hold more than limited amounts of territory plagued the British and Revolutionaries alike. Though Patriot regimes claimed control over most of the continent, neither they nor their army could defend the civilian population near British bases. Even the armies could only protect themselves from surprise by each other by taking positions of natural strength that were sufficiently distant from enemy bases to allow ample warning of impending assault. That left the population in between largely at the mercy of marauders. The British occupation of New York entailed prolonged suffering for the inhabitants of modern Westchester County and northeastern New Jersey. In addition to being subject to periodic forages by both armies, rival militias vied inconclusively for control of the terrain while outlaw elements plundered the inhabitants. Connecticut's shoreline fared only slightly better after of the formation of the Associated Loyalists in 1780. Long Island then became a staging area for refugee raiders bent on seeking compensation for choosing the wrong side.

While irregular warfare often led to lethal violence in the neutral ground of New York and New Jersey, in Connecticut it yielded an epidemic of kidnapping. Long Island, only nominally under British control, was more vulnerable to Patriot retaliation than Manhattan and its environs, while Long Island Sound lent itself to a thriving illicit trade that the chaotic violence closer to New York City would have threatened. The coast of Maine resembled the Connecticut shoreline after the British seizure of Castine in 1779. Though local Loyalists used it as a base for plundering coastal shipping and conducting an illicit trade with Patriot communities, it failed to spawn conflict of any intensity.

Instead, the most virulent irregular warfare of the Revolution emerged in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, where the dispersed demography of the interior precluded the development of significant commercial exchanges that might have restrained the violence. Dispersion also obstructed the exercise of political control. The British, sensing military opportunity in the region's large slave population, had tried unsuccessfully to seize Charleston during June 1776. Another attempt, begun with the invasion of Georgia in the winter of 1778–1779, finally succeeded in May 1780. Leading Patriots then accepted British protection in exchange for the promise to remain neutral. But the British wanted more than a passive submission, and on 3 June Sir Henry Clinton ordered all enjoying the king's protection to swear allegiance to the crown. Many thought Clinton had released them from their paroles. When the British subsequently treated them as rebels, it initiated an escalating cycle of murder and revenge. Cornwallis's attempt to eliminate Nathaniel Greene's southern army by chasing it through the backcountry magnified the mayhem. By adroitly maneuvering his smaller force, Greene prevented Cornwallis from giving the Loyalists of South and North Carolina the kind of support they needed. After a pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781 forced Cornwallis to retreat to the coast, Greene was able to assist the insurgencies that Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion had organized in Cornwallis's rear. The Patriots then eliminated British outposts in the Carolina backcountry and Georgia one by one. Only when this task was completed did the chaos in the Deep South begin to subside.

Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania fared better than their northern or southern neighbors. The British army found Philadelphia, which it occupied from September 1777 to June 1778, a far less secure position than New York City, though Pennsylvania's frontier suffered from British-sponsored Indian raids as much as New York's did. Maryland fared best, being only briefly visited by a British force in 1777 as it made its way toward Philadelphia. During 1782 Loyalist remnants like those based around New York pillaged the state's commerce and even defeated the Maryland navy in pitched battle, but otherwise Maryland's grain and stock remained in high demand among allied forces throughout the war. Virginia survived its first taste of war in 1775, when its last royal governor summoned the slaves to rebel against their Patriot masters, relatively unscathed. After that the state was spared more than an intermittent blockade of the Virginia Capes until the British raided inside the bay during 1779. Convinced that Virginia was powering the American war effort, they returned again in 1780 and 1781. Virginia's dispersed demography hampered defense against enemy penetrations, and in June 1781 Jefferson narrowly escaped capture by an enemy force operating seventy miles from its base. But most of the state was spared the virulent partisan warfare that afflicted the Carolinas and Georgia.


The prolonged traumas experienced by the civilian population during the Revolutionary War remained part of the social memory of American society for several generations and complicated the approach of the successor generation to a second war with Great Britain in the early nineteenth century.

See alsoBritish Army in North America; British Empire and the and the Atlantic World; Chesapeake Region; City Growth and Development; Continental Congresses; Currency and Coinage; Economic Development; Foreign Investment and Trade; Revolution as Civil War: Patriot-Loyalist Conflict; Smallpox; Taxation, Public Finance, and Public Debt .


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Richard Buel Jr.

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Revolution: Home Front

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Revolution: Home Front