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That Damned Tom Paine!

Common Sense for Common Soldiers

by CLANCY SIGAL

It’s 4th of July! We Minute Men who stand and fight at Lexington and Concord are the Taliban of our day.  Scum-class terrorists, we are, in the eyes of “mad” King George 3rd and his generals who treat us with contempt as an unwashed mob of amateurs.  Dirty unscrupulous amoral cowardly vicious American backwoodsmen. We New England and South Carolina guerrillas don’t fight by the formal rules of European warfare, spit-and-polish ranks advancing toward each other across open ground in perfect order bayonets gleaming with drums and fifes playing. Blinded by aristocratic stupidity, an inherited genetic disorder, the King and his advisors never come cloaw to understanding our Patriot culture or psychology.

We’re 3000 miles away from London’s bowing and curtseying, and it takes weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic.  By the time a murderous royal command is given it’s way too late for the Redcoats to act on it.  Oh, blessed distance!  Thank heaven for the storm-tossed sea.

What drives the British invader-occupiers really crazy is that we American militia, mainly small farmers and artisans, won’t stand erect and fight, “like men”, but snipe and ambush from behind stone walls and trees.  Shoot and vanish.  Like ghosts.  The Redcoats and their German mercenaries complain that we “uncouth militia” let the forest do our fighting as practiced by the Green Mountain Boys and Morgan’s Rangers.  George III chooses to believe only what his imperial fantasies tell him and not real reports from the field.

Civil wars, which wars of liberation tend to be, are savage and bloody. (See Syria, see Gettysburg.) Set-piece colonial battles like Bunker Hill and Saratoga give way to barbaric, terrifyingly personal hand to OR Book Going Rougehand combat in murky woods with axes, pikes, bayonet, fists…no mercy given or asked. We slaughter our prisoners and so do the Redcoats.

Ours is a fraternal civil war because Americans loyal to the king fight us Americans inflamed by Tom Paine’s best-selling, anti-monarch “Common Sense”, “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”. Neighbor betrays neighbor, Mohawk Indians fight Oneida Indians, and British and American officers (like the brave traitor Benedict Arnold) change sides for the money.  More black slaves fight for the Crown than for slave-holding George Washington because the British promise freedom to bondage men and women who come over to their side.

A secret to our success is that we home-grown American militia don’t go “bowling alone”. We know and trust each other from years of living and working together in small, tight-knit communities. Some of us have fought shoulder to shoulder in the 7 Years (French & Indian) war. Officers are elected by their men, at least at the beginning of our revolution.   Democracy runs amok, which greatly worries Gen. Washington who likes things kept in the hands of the propertied elite. That Tom Paine has a lot to answer for!

Unspoken is an underlying class tension between our Continental army officers and we shoeless, shivering, starving rankers at, for example, Valley Forge. While we suffer in freezing makeshift tents, Gen. Washington and his top officers eat well and sleep comfortably in warm houses.  We resent privilege but fight on because we aim to be free and independent Americans, and anyway we’re paid a bounty to re-enlist.  Fighting as a unit with our own close neighbors makes all the difference.  We hope it never comes to pass that only a tiny fraction of the American citizenry will do all the fighting.
Another civil war, between us American back country poor and eastern seaboard merchant class, the same class that signed our Declaration of Independence, won’t surface until after the British surrender and we get our independence. Look up “Shay’s Rebellion”, the Occupy movement of its time.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.