In which David Barton invokes the Revolutionary War

A few days ago, James Robison’s TV show featured court evangelical Robert Jeffress and David Barton.

Barton’s Rev War illustration has a few problems. (Shocking, I know.)

He notes that at the outset of the war in New England, “nobody contacted the national commander-in-chief and said, ‘Hey, we got the enemy coming.  What are you going to do about it?'”  That’s…not exactly inaccurate. But it wasn’t because the Revolutionaries intentionally bucked national authority in favor of local action.

Initially, there wasn’t really a “national commander-in-chief” to contact, since there was neither a national army nor a national governing body.  The Second Continental Congress didn’t convene until May 1775, weeks after the fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord.

Barton’s argument that local church congregations more or less shouldered the early war effort is likewise problematic.  The mobilization of New England militia in 1775 didn’t all boil down to ministers organizing their congregants into battalions. The pulpit and the pew bolstered Revolutionary mobilization, but Barton is engaging in quite a bit of overstatement and oversimplification—which is generally the case when he discusses the role of the church in American history.

Barton also says, “The reason we won the national battle was we won all the local battles.” Given his references to specific engagements like Lexington and Bunker Hill, I assume he means “local battles” literally. So did the Revolutionaries achieve final victory because they won these battles?

That’s not even close to accurate with regard to the war as a whole. It’s more tenable if you’re only referring to the war’s initial stages, although one wonders what “winning the national battle” would mean short of victory in the war.  (And even the statement that the Americans won the “local battles” early in the war would be debatable on one level, since Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one.)

In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what happened during Nathanael Greene’s campaigning in the South.  Greene himself did not gain a single clear-cut battlefield victory, although his subordinates did. But his campaigns nevertheless wrested control of the Carolinas out of British hands. Greene won the long game despite losing the individual battles.

Maybe Barton means “battles” metaphorically, and is speaking in political terms. In other words, the Revolutionaries succeeded because they laid the organizational groundwork on the local level. The Revolution is indeed a pretty good case study in the effectiveness of building local political momentum to generate a national movement. 

Local committees and provincial institutions helped shift American attitudes toward support for resistance and then independence, which Congress formalized in July 1776. But these local organizational efforts weren’t solely the work of churches, any more than military mobilization was.

Of course, I realize that all this might come across as pedantic.  The real purpose of Barton’s little history lesson isn’t to explain the Revolution, but to encourage local political action and promote his culture war.  History is just a means to an end.  But, hey, this is a history blog. And if you’re going to invoke history for political purposes, you should get your facts straight…or at least be precise enough to make it clear what you’re talking about.

Militia on the Revolutionary War’s first day. From A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885 via Wikimedia Commons.

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