Becoming Men of Some Consequence – Book Review
The rebels fight, sniffed one British officer, for “the prospect of acquiring property and becoming men of some consequence.” Although the quip was a gross understatement of the Revolution’s causes, Professor John A. Ruddiman sees in it a kernel of truth. Using a comprehensive sociological approach, he traces broad outlines of the men who joined the Continental Army over the war’s eight years. His book is a needed look at the “grassroots” of the American Revolution, a view of the rebellion through the eyes of men who can claim to be founding fathers just as much as Washington and Jefferson.
When fighting began in 1775 the colonies were swept up in rage militaire. The first army surrounding Boston was a cross-section of New England society, the “yeoman farmers” and fatherly minutemen who are still celebrated to this day. Yet as the war wore on year after year, the men with families and farms were less inclined to serve, and so the soldiers became younger and poorer.
In the 1770s, young men who were in their late teens and early twenties found themselves in an odd circumstance. To be considered a true man one had to be married and with a household of his own, working either at farming land in or a profession in the growing cities. Yet the growing North American colonies for the most part still followed the laws of primogeniture (where the eldest son inherits everything); disinherited younger sons, and the sons of poor men, were legally constrained from westward expansion by Britain’s Proclamation Line. Military service could provide an expedited track to manhood with monetary gains in the form of pay, promised land bounties, and glories won in battle to impress potential wives.
Becoming Men Of Some Consequence is broken up into five chapters; why men decided to join the army, military life, interaction with civilians, the decision to leave the army, and post-war life. Although the focus is on the Continental Army, the book also provides insight into the societal backgrounds of militia troops and Tories.
In laying out his work the way he does, Ruddiman guides us step-by-step through a soldier’s life. The author is careful throughout to differentiate between the several stages of the war. For example, late in the war everyone knew of the hardships and the lack of pay soldiers suffered; thus the men who joined at this point were almost desperate to improve their lives.
With patriotic hindsight it is easy to ignore the tensions that existed between soldiers and civilians. In the Colonies there was political distaste for standing armies, and there was a commensurate social distrust of men who would join them. The attitude “better a dog than a soldier” was prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic. Mister Ruddiman’s chapter on the relationships between citizens and the men ostensibly fighting for them is an eye-opening high point of the book.
Equally well-handled is his treatment of desertion. Far from the cowardly shirkers usually presented in accounts, the author provides a greater context within which we can at least understand (if not forgive) their actions. Late in the war, as mutinies spread, it is easier with this book to view the mutineers’ actions as the honest anger of men who felt cheated, rather than the selfishness of armed brats as it is sometimes played out in contemporary and modern histories.
Although in some places a dry, scholarly read—if I never hear the phrase “life course” again I’ll be a happy man—Becoming Men Of Some Consequence is overall a readable and engaging book. Everyone interested in this period would do well to buy this volume for the perspective it provides. It certainly adds to my understanding of the period, and to my appreciation of the sacrifices of the soldiers in the war.
Sean Michael Stevenson is a Pittsburgh native whose interest in Colonial History was formed by the Bicentennial. He is working at a small bookstore while waiting to celebrate the Tricentennial later this century.