americans were “a despicable people” -- 9/18/23

Today's selection -- from George Washington: The Wonder of the Age by John Rhodehamel. The French and Indian War (1754 to 1763), the pivotal precursor to the American Revolutionary War, gave the British a view into what their American colonists were like. They were not impressed:

“If the French and Indian War was the best school Washington attended, it also provided an education for many others -- Britons and Americans alike. The lessons the two peoples believed that they had learned about each other were not happy ones. Some Englishmen came away from the war with a bitterly gained conviction that the colonials were a despicable people -- hardly worthy to call themselves the king's subjects. Their cowardice in battle was boundless, their greed and dishonesty no less conspicuous. Americans were so wedded to their own little provinces, so jealous of their neighbors, and so addicted to making money that they were incapable of working for the good of the empire as a whole. The various colonies often seemed more enthusiastic about feuding with rivals than fighting the French. (Many thoughtful Americans might have agreed with Benjamin Franklin's estimation that, without the superintending hand of Britain, the colonies would soon be at war with one another.) 

“English leaders accepted that Americans were a common, lowborn people. There was no native aristocracy and no true gentlemen to lead the whining, mutinous rabble they called soldiers. They were all a ‘parcel of scoundrels,’ Washington’s commander General Forbes told Secretary Pitt. ‘A few of their principal Officers excepted, all the rest are an extream bad Collection of broken Inn-keepers, Horse Jockeys, & Indian traders, and the Men under them, are a direct copy of their Officers, nor can it well be otherwise, as they are a gathering of the scum of the worst people in every Country.’ General James Wolfe, the martyred victor of Quebec, swore that ‘there was never a people collected together so unfit ... dilatory, ignorant, irresolute and some grains of a very unmanly quality and very unsoldier-like and unsailor-like. The Americans are in general the dirtiest, the most contemptible, cowardly dogs you can conceive. There is no depending on 'em in action. They fall down dead in their own dirt and desert by battalions, officers and all.’ The colonies might be rich and populous, but a sweeping disdain for all things American gave His Majesty's ministers and generals a confidence that there was little risk in bullying them. Franklin remembered a British general who said ‘within my hearing’ that ‘with a Thousand British Grenadiers he would undertake to go from one end of America to the other and geld all the Males partly by force and partly by a little Coaxing.’

Washington arriving in Boston on July 2, 1775, to take command of the Continental Army

“Many Americans reciprocated the animosity. The colonists had not encountered many British soldiers or officials before the war. Now they saw the redcoats acting like an occupying force in an enemy land. Franklin observed of Braddock's army that ‘from their landing till they got beyond the settlements, they had plundered and stripped the inhabitants, totally ruining some poor families, besides insulting, abusing, and confining people if they remonstrated.’ Soldiers would never have dared to disregard so flagrantly the rights of the king's subjects in Britain.

“Living among the colonials, the British revealed to them how rigidly their society was ruled by a caste system that simply had no counterpart in America. Army discipline was horrifyingly brutal, and the officers were arrogant and abusive. It was not that colonial America was a paradise. The colonies were not republics, far less democracies, and hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were held in ancestral bondage. But white colonial society was freer, more prosperous, and more fluid than the English example. The Americans became conscious of their distinctiveness. They gloried in it. They began to believe in their own moral superiority."



John Rhodehamel


George Washington: The Wonder of the Age


Yale University Press


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