For colonial Americans, their revolution was in many ways a very English affair. From 1764 until the eve of independence in 1776, the colonists contended for their rights as English people. They argued that Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689) – as well as the custom and precedence that formed an equally important part of the English constitution – protected them from the claims of the Westminster parliament, in which they were not represented. Their own legislative assemblies, they believed, were the local equivalents of parliament, and had the same powers to raise taxes and pass laws affecting the people within their jurisdiction.
The epicentre of this revolution, which provided the most consistent and often forceful resistance to parliamentary authority, was New England, which was the most ethnically English of all the colonial regions. The vast majority of its settler inhabitants in 1776 could trace their origins back to the great Puritan migration of 1629–40.
Stripped down to its essentials, the revolution can be seen as a struggle between two different conceptions of what it was to be a subject of the crown. The colonists clung to the 17th-century view that English communities across the Atlantic basin were linked by a common allegiance to the same monarch but enjoyed a significant measure of local self-government. British politicians, however, for the most part thought less in terms of Englishness and embraced a more modern (or 18th-century) concept of Britishness, which took account of the rise of parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 and emphasised the obligation of the king’s subjects to obey all the central institutions of the British state, parliament as well as the crown.
A not-so-English affair?
But if the revolution’s origins lay in competing versions of what it was to be the king’s subjects and English people, the war that secured American independence involved many more people than just the English and their colonial cousins in North America. Most famously, the British government hired large numbers of German auxiliaries to help put down the colonial rebellion. Known generically as the Hessians, because many of them came from Hessen-Kassel and Hessen-Hanau, other contingents came from principalities across Germany – Waldeck, Anhalt-Zerbst, Ansbach-Bayreuth, and Brunswick.
While these German troops did not in the end enable the British to win the war in America, they at least made it possible to deploy a substantial field army in 1776 and 1777, when the American rebellion might conceivably have been suppressed by a show of overwhelming force. The downside, from the British point of view, was that these German soldiers exemplified the American argument that their opponents were bent on crushing liberty and imposing an authoritarian regime. The fact that these German auxiliaries came from states without strong representative institutions but with powerful and autocratic rulers seemed to prove the despotic intent of ministers in London.
A depiction of the conscription of German soldiers for service in America. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Americans, for their part, relied from 1778 on French help to fend off the British. The French navy almost immediately altered the dynamics of the war in North America when it became involved, and in 1781 played a crucial role in the defeat of a major British field army at Yorktown, Virginia. But French involvement, and later that of the Spanish and finally the Dutch, helped the Americans more by diverting British military and naval resources to other theatres: to home defence, as the British Isles became threatened with invasion; to the West Indies, to the Mediterranean, to West Africa; and even to South Asia, where the British, French, and Dutch East India Companies were rivals.
For the British, the war that started in the rebel colonies as a struggle for control of North America morphed into a very demanding global struggle against an array of European enemies, which greatly helped the colonies to eventual independence. From 1778, North America became one theatre among many, and not the most important in British thinking. With limited military and naval resources, defending the home islands naturally took precedence over North America, with the West Indies (believed to be vital to British power and prosperity) not far behind the British Isles in the list of priorities.
French intervention Europeanised the war, as had the British state’s employment of German auxiliaries from 1776. But almost from the moment that the first shots were fired, both sides sought to mobilise human resources that made the conflict seem far from an internal English struggle. The British army’s own expansion relied not just on hiring German auxiliaries, but on recruiting Highland regiments in Scotland, even amongst clans that had tried to depose the Hanoverian monarchy and restore the Catholic Stuarts just 30 years before in the 1745 rebellion. The British government even encouraged Catholic enlistments in Ireland, who in earlier 18th-century wars had been regarded as potential allies of external enemies. Opponents of the coercion of the Americans (on both sides of the Atlantic) rapidly pointed to the use of Scottish Highlanders and Catholic Irishmen as a sign (much like the use of German auxiliaries) of the British government’s despotic intent – ministers were calling on the traditional enemies of the English constitution to suppress the good Protestant English people of the colonies.
Even before formal French intervention, the American war effort had been heavily dependent on outside help. Some contemporaries pointed to the disproportionate presence of recent Irish Protestant migrants (mainly Presbyterians from Ulster) in Washington’s Continental Army. Richard Montgomery, an Irish-born former British army officer who threw in his lot with the Americans, died leading colonial troops against British-occupied Quebec in the last days of 1775.
William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling, a Scotsman who fought for America during the Revolutionary war. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Scotsmen were to be found in the American forces, too. A notable example in the officer ranks was William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling. In general, however, recently arrived Scots in North America tended to be loyal to the crown rather than side with Congress; several of the loyalist units raised to help the British army contained significant numbers of Scotsman, and one – the Royal Highland Emigrants – was explicitly Scottish in character.
The main external assistance for the Americans, however, came from beyond the British Isles. Even before the French forces became formal participants in 1778, the French, Spanish, and Dutch had been clandestinely supplying the rebel colonies with munitions and money. It seems little exaggeration to say that American resistance would have been impossible without this foreign aid.
The fighting capacity of the Continental Army owed much, meantime, to the expertise provided by a significant number of European officers. Count Pulaski, a Pole, served in the southern campaigns until he was killed in October 1779. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, another Pole, brought the skills of a military engineer to the American forces. Charles Armand, Marquis de la Rouerie, a French officer, commanded American light cavalry units. Most important of all, perhaps, was Baron von Steuben, a German who trained the Americans to fight in the way George Washington wanted them to fight – like European soldiers.
A 19th-century engraving depicts General George Washington standing with Johann De Kalb, Baron von Steuben, Kazimierz Pulaski, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Lafayette, and other officers during the Revolutionary War. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)
Washington not only believed that European methods were needed to prove American credentials as a new member of the international order, but also that the war should be fought under his close command, European style, rather than become a decentred struggle largely conducted by local militias over which he would have very little control. To this end he encouraged the recruitment of foreign officers like Steuben, who could help turn his dream into reality.
Some of these foreign officers may well have been inspired by the principles of the American Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette, a French officer who served in the Continental forces before formal French intervention, liked to present himself in this light, as an ideological friend of the Americans. But for every Lafayette there must have been many more European officers for whom service in America represented professional opportunity rather than political commitment.
The Marquis de Lafayette, a French officer who served in the Continental forces before formal French intervention. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
A good example is Heinrich Lutterloh, a major in the Brunswick service who ended up with a more senior position in the Continental Army. Perhaps he had ideological sympathy with his new employer, but it seems more likely that he was simply trying to get on within his profession and was willing to serve wherever the chances of advancement seemed greatest. The same Heinrich Lutterloh, we should note, had no qualms about profiting from both sides: at the beginning of the war, before he joined the Americans, Lutterloh contracted with the British government to provide its under-strength regiments with German recruits. He is probably best seen as a military entrepreneur, happy to serve wherever he could make the most money.
Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Pole who served for American during the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
A multi-national war
That both the British and the Americans were able to draw on manpower and expertise beyond their state boundaries should not surprise us. The British state had the money to buy in external help and impecunious German princes were only too willing to provide the manpower required by hiring out regiments from their own armies.
Indeed, a well-established international military labour market centred on Germany existed long before the American Revolution. European volunteers who joined the Americans were also following a well-travelled route to advancement through a period of service in another army. The aristocratic officers in European ancien régime armies were perhaps particularly inclined to see national frontiers as no barrier to their professional progress.
But trans-national soldiering was not simply an 18th-century phenomenon. War, though it often stimulates national sentiment, is rarely fought with purely national resources. Armies and navies are nearly always multinational in composition, even if they act as instruments of state power and represent, in the minds of their peoples, the embodiment of the nation.
Professor Stephen Conway teaches history at University College London and is the author of A Short History of the American Revolutionary War (I.B. Tauris, 2013). He teaches courses on British history, and Colonial and Revolutionary North America.