July 4, 2010


Lives lost for freedom (William M. Fowler, July 4, 2007, Boston Globe)

For their service, privates were paid less than $7 a month -- that is, if they received it. Chronically impoverished Congress quickly resorted to paying soldiers in Continental script, which rampant inflation devalued until the term "not worth a Continental" became synonymous for worthless.

Disgruntled soldiers complained of their shabby treatment. Washington pleaded with Congress to address the soldiers' grievances. It did not, and on several occasions soldiers mutinied and threatened to march on the government. Despite sympathy for his soldiers, General George Washington remained faithful to the principle of civilian control over the military. He kept command and held the loyalty of the army. At one fateful moment on March 15, 1783, when his officers were planning action against Congress, Washington stood before them and reminded them, "I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses." He asked them to be patient. He would personally present their case to Congress.

Washington fulfilled his promise and appealed for justice to the Congress. Politically weak, financially bankrupt, and more interested in ending the war than aiding the army, Congress failed to act. When news of peace arrived, Congress discharged the Continental Army. Since it had no money to pay the veterans, Congress offered them interest-bearing certificates to be redeemed in the future. Many soldiers viewed the certificates as another empty promise. In desperate need of cash, they sold the certificates to speculators for a fraction of their face value. After ratification of the Constitution, the new federal government assumed the obligation of paying off these certificates. To establish the new government's "full faith and credit," Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury, insisted that the certificates be redeemed at their face value plus interest. Unfortunately, the payoffs more often went to greedy speculators than to needy veterans.

Once home, weary veterans found their neighbors were nearly as indifferent to their plight as Congress. According to Harrison Gray Otis, a young lawyer in Boston, they returned "to the bosom of their country, objects of jealousy, victims of neglect." Eight years of war had drained the nation. The "Spirit of 76" was dead.

Folks used to claim that democracies were at a disadvantage when they faced authoritarians in war. Actually, we win the wars rather easily, it's the peaces democracies foul up. It seems to be an attention-deficit disorder.

[originally posted: 7/04/07]

Posted by at July 4, 2010 12:44 AM
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