All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1991

The Great American Epic

Mr. Keeler is a lawyer who lives in Menlo Park, California.

Why is it that the Civil War seems to be the great American epic? Why isn’t it the American Revolution? The winning of the West was an epic deed, but it stretched over so many years and had such a shifting cast of characters that it may lack the focus needed for a great tale. But does the story of the Revolution have some similar shortcoming?

It is a story of disparate peoples who left their ancient homes in search of freedom, crossed a perilous sea to live in an unknown wilderness, and came together to cast off the yoke of a great power and establish a nation that was to become the shining hope of mankind. This is not skimpy material to work with.

The problem can’t be dialogue, for this was a highly articulate bunch, who have left us a great mass of eminently quotable tracts, sermons, speeches, documents, pronouncements, and declarations, many of which are models of English usage.

True, the Revolution included a lot of people wearing powdered wigs and knee breeches, and sitting around on spindly furniture. But is this a fatal flaw? Is the late 18th century simply too far away for our imagination?

The answer, I suspect, is that the Civil War has two things going for it that the Revolution can’t match. For one thing, there are the characters. Washington may be admirable, but he never wanted to be lovable, and in that, as in most things, he succeeded. The rest of the popular leaders fought only locally, and none carried through the entire war in the way Grant, Lee, and Joe Johnson did.

On the British side there were some interesting characters—Tarleton was a dashing rogue, “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne was able to recover across the supper table most of what he had lost in the field, and Cornwallis had an interesting career, though unfortunately not in America—but our history has never paid much attention to them, and certainly never painted them as courtly gentlemen fighting for a lost and noble cause.

Probably more important is the Lost Cause. The Revolutionary generation saw the world in the dispassionate light of Enlightenment reason, but the Civil War came at the height of Victorian sentimentality and acquired an emotional charge that has stayed with it ever since. There was, further, the practical necessity of romanticizing the Civil War and granting nobility to the defeated, in order to heal the nation’s wounds. In contrast, by the end of the Revolution the most determined loyalists had been exiled or had chosen to emigrate, and there was no such need of national reconciliation.

Another problem with the American Revolution lies in its definition. Was the war the Revolution? John Adams wrote that the Revolution was over in 1775, that the war wasn’t a part of it. By this he meant that the revolution in the minds of the people rejecting the legitimacy of British rule had already occurred, and the fighting was simply to ratify that change. After 1775, a British victory was impossible: a military victory would have only delayed realization of the change in political philosophy that already had taken place.

This change came to a head at the end of the French and Indian War, when the British Parliament decided to tax the colonists for the military protection they were receiving from the mother country, and imposed, in 1765, the famous Stamp Tax. This tax, on its face not unreasonable, became the catalyst of long-standing complaints against both the substance and form of British rule. In the decade that followed, these complaints, expressed in the prevailing philosophical language of the natural rights of man, led through a series of confrontations to a complete rejection of British rule. Thus, when Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he wasn’t seeking to convince an uncertain nation, but was, as he claimed, merely setting out the widely held political beliefs of the colonists.