When we read the Declaration of Independence, what tends to jump off the page are the lofty propositions concerning natural rights. Yet over a third of the brief document is taken up with a set of charges aimed at George III, many of them relating to war - whether the maintenance of standing armies, the lack of civilian control over the military, or the forced quartering of troops who enjoyed judicial immunity. The King, it blared, ‘has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people’.
Two hundred and forty-four years on, historians of the Revolution are still grappling with a durable foundation myth that is focussed on ideas and leaders, and projected through plays and musicals. What that obscures is the sheer violence of the late 1770s, a decade defined by conflict in a century of more or less constant war. Historians of slavery and Indigenous America have been filling in corners of the picture, but we still know less than we should about individuals who found themselves defined as the rebellious subjects of the King and out of his protection. In Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), Donald F. Johnson takes us inside colonial towns occupied by the British. For ordinary people, many of them neutrals, the conflict was intensely local and mundane. It was about day-to-day survival, and the negotiation of allegiance within a revolution that was, in reality, a civil war.
Donald F. Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at North Dakota State University.
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull (UK), where he co-leads the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster. His latest publication is Settlers in Indian Country (Cambridge University Press).