How Rank Can You Get?

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Americans highly regard the people who won our Independence during the Revolutionary War. Considering the accomplishment of surviving a war against the top power of its day, it’s understandable that when our first national myths were created the “Founding Fathers” would be in for a good deal of admiration.

By comparison, the British of the same conflict come off poorly. Their government is labeled tyrannical and its army continually (and unfairly) mocked as unable to adapt to American conditions. The very makeup of the army’s rank and file is libeled as the sweepings of the various communities: scum of the earth that could only be made to fight due to the fear of flogging.

An even worse sin was that the officers were not “true soldiers”. They are routinely depicted as an effete, snobbish bunch who ­scandal of scandals­ bought their commissions! Americans, naturally, were completely egalitarian; just a regular bunch of guys. Any rank or advancement was based solely upon merit.

These attitudes are not surprising considering how the United States took great pains to distance themselves from Britain. For all that, they were still inheritors of many British attitudes, particularly about authority and deference.

Notably, colonists had very strong notions of hierarchy and how the world ran. True, many had emigrated to escape what they felt was overbearing authority, but once ensconced in the New World the same groups blithely inflicted their authority on anyone they could.

Their ideas of authority came from a popular concept from the early modern period: the Great Chain of Being. Simply expressed, all creatures had a place in a hierarchy that stretched from God down to the lowest forms of life. It was divinely mandated, and proved useful to settle certain arguments about who would be in charge.

We might speak of “the accident of birth”, but to people at the time nothing was an accident. Everything had been divinely ordained and was not something against which one could argue. Peter might be born in a palace and completely inept at any task, while Paul was born in a pigsty and far more able, but Peter was ipso facto born to lead, and Paul born to follow. Paul might not be pleased by this reply, but he was up against divine will and best quit griping and remember his place.

An individual’s birth was held sway over who they might or might never be:

“The Distinction of Birth, however chimerical in itself, has been so long admitted, and so universally received, that it is generally imagined to confer on one Man an indelible and evident Superiority over another, a Superiority, which those who would imagine themselves equal in Merit cannot deny, and which they allow more willingly, because tho’ it be an Advantage to possess it, to want it cannot be justly considered as a Reproach…” Gentleman’s Magazine January 1743

If someone was, like our hypothetic Paul, born in a pigsty, his role would be there to reinforce the status quo. From the sound of things there wasn’t much else he could do. Paul and his ilk:

“[Possess] Mind[s] contracted by a mean Education, and depressed by long Habits of Subjection…“[They]…can only behold with Envy and Malevolence those Advantages [of birth] which they cannot hope to possess, and which produce in them no other Effects than a quicker Sense of their own Misery…[They]…have no other Sense of the Enjoyment of Authority than that it is the Power of acting without Controul [sic], who have no knowledge of any other Laws than the Commands of their Superiors…” Ibid.

“For this Reason [distinction of birth]…Men chearfully [sic] obey those to whom their Birth seems to have subjected them, without any scrupulous Enquiries into their Virtue or Abilities; they have been taught from their Childhood, to consider them as placed in a higher Rank than themselves, and are therefore not disgusted at any transient Bursts of Impatience, or sudden Starts of Caprice, which would produce at least Resentment, and perhaps Mutiny, in Men newly exalted from a low Station…” Ibid.

So the world of the 18th century can be summed up as those who will lead and those who will follow. Those below will (“chearfully”) defer to their betters, while those on top condescend towards their underlings.   People were born into a particular level of society, and mostly would end where they started.

Despite some wishful thinking by more recent observers, Americans at the time of the Revolutionary War followed this notion that birth decided who the leaders in society were. They looked to the same men to be also their military leaders in times of crisis.

However, the war certainly dislocated the gears of society. Things weren’t running quite as they had, and on occasion some usurper might try to push his way into the upper levels.

One such instance was duly noted in a letter from one Alexander Beall to the Maryland Council of Safety in 1776:

“…There are many young men in the company who are much better qualified, in every respect, and I believe as many so as in any company in the Province. Mr.Hamilton is a poor man, and has a wife and several children, and no person to work for them but himself, therefore cannot make the appearance that an officer ought to make; is a person of no education, neither is he qualified in any respect whatever to keep company with the other gentlemen officers, which is a material objection by the company, as they would not choose to serve under an officer who could not keep company with, and be looked upon by other officers, but more particularly, as he is esteemed a very improper person in other respects….”

Yes indeed the “Mr. Hamilton” really did not make the grade, as far as the other officers were concerned. Not only was Hamilton a poor man and uneducated, but he cannot make the “the appearance that an officer ought to make”. His would-be cohorts shun him for those same reasons. He would not be able to have the respect of the lower ranks; they expect leaders to be of a certain demeanor.

A far cry from the “Mr. Hamiltons” were those men who did serve as officers in the American army. They are “gentlemen”, and gentlemen would not serve to increase their wealth nor stature, but to play out the role expected of them. Like Colonel Philip Van Courtlandt noted in 1776:

“…The Generals under whom I served the preceding and present campaign, can testify it was not for ease, or to have an exalted commission, that brought me to the field. On the contrary, numbers of you, gentlemen, I flatter myself, know that I lived in affluence at home, and consequently I was not induced into the service with a view to the pay, as you must all be satisfied that it is not an object for a gentleman….”

This is not to say that the officers were effete, as noted by the address from several colonels serving under General John Sullivan in 1776:

“…It is true we can march with packs, in common with private soldiers; we can lodge upon the ground in our blankets, and furnish a table, spread under the open canopy, with meat, bread, and water….”

But although they serve and live alongside their troops, the same officers were not happy about it:

“…in short, we must divest ourselves of the character of gentlemen, and dishonour the rank we sustain….”

As with Colonel Van Courtlandt, they are expecting to do the duty of an officer but with the benefits of a being a gentleman:

“…Upon the whole, we are not desirous of reaping any particular advantages from the distressed situation of our injured country; we expect to feel a part in all its calamities; but are anxious to be considered as officers, supporting the character of gentlemen….”

General Washington himself made it clear what he considered the qualifications were for his officer corps:

“…It becomes evidently clear then, that as this Contest is not likely to be the work of a day; as the War must be carried systematically, and to do so, you must have good Officers, there are, in my Judgement, no other possible means to obtain them but by establishing your Army on a permanent footing; and giving your Officers good pay; this will induce Gentlemen, and Men of Character to engage; and till the bulk of your Officers are composed of such persons… have little to expect of them…..” 24/25 September 1776-

While American officers didn’t purchase their commissions, but the societies that spawned them made certain that “us that sells ale” would not be leading the charge.


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