Resistance to drafting was widespread in Revolutionary America. Almost all of this opposition to conscription came from Patriots…
Farmers have never fared well by historians. As T.H. Breen has complained, farmers frequently have been falsely depicted “as simple rural folk.” Nor were the common people in the countryside a “sodden peasantry.” Nonetheless, some scholars have asserted that farmers were apathetic during the Revolution or that their opposition to military conscription showed their “apolitical discontent.” This essay will delve into anti-draft incidents in rural Virginia to find out what was behind them. Also discussed will be a Virginian military expedition—commanded by George Rogers Clark—that stirred up hostility to conscription in western Pennsylvania.
Already by the time of the American Revolution, forcing men to undertake military service had a long and checkered history. The ancestry of the militia system itself extends well before the Norman Conquest. During the sixteenth century, the English militia was supposed to be peopled by stout yeomen, but when soldiers were wanted, the draftees were usually the jobless, criminals, or “tavern riffraff.” Drafts seemed to be merely a purge of undesirable elements. Shakespeare’s horrendous image of the English militia and the men chosen to fight is borne out by the facts. The English militia was all but useless by the early seventeenth century.
In the American colonies, conscription from the militia varied in both success and usage. The Southern militia, like its English counterpart, had decayed to the point where only riffraff were seen as suitable for drafting. When the number of soldiers required outstripped the supply of seemingly useless individuals, strong resistance developed to militia drafting. During the Seven Years’ War, an attempt by Virginia’s colonial officials to draft men brought forth stiff resistance, rioting, and eventual failure. But when a substantial bounty for volunteers was offered, the ranks were quickly filled.
Massachusetts handled matters differently. While the Southern colonies struggled to find men to serve, the Bay colony’s forces were mostly composed of volunteers with only a comparative handful of conscripts. Even this small use of drafts was made more palatable by the substitution rule. (In early America, a drafted man could buy his way out of military service either by paying a fine or hiring a replacement). When a draft was necessary in Massachusetts, the officers who made the selections often picked well-off individuals who could easily afford to hire a substitute. Sometimes, the officers drafted far more men than actually required, allowing a larger number of less-wealthy inhabitants to split the cost of procuring a substitute among themselves. These strategies lessened the impact of conscription. Such expedients worked during the colonial wars because of the small number of soldiers needed. But the Revolution—with its far greater demands for manpower—meant that such convenient techniques had to be largely abandoned, even in Massachusetts.
Thomas Jefferson was under no illusion about how Virginians felt about conscription, “the most unpopular and impracticable thing that could be attempted.” Yet drafting, the “last of all oppressions,” was resorted to in the Old Dominion. During 1777 and 1778 drafts (or levies) met stiff resistance throughout the state.
Ironically, the most serious opposition to the draft occurred when Jefferson himself was governor. Those years witnessed a British movement into Virginia, necessitating much conscription, and with it much trouble. For example, on December 5, 1780, the county lieutenant of Lancaster County told Governor Jefferson that a “mob” took all the officers’ weapons and seized documents essential for a draft, stopping the process before it began. By May 1781, Baron Von Steuben complained to the governor that few soldiers had been drafted because of evasion, “neglect,” and sometimes open resistance.
The frequency of the draft seems to have sparked intense opposition in Virginia, especially late in the war. Between October 1780 and April 1781, every militiaman in Rockbridge County had been conscripted for duty once already and some were chosen a second time during April. One group of Bedford’s militia was especially unlucky. While they were stationed for ninety days near Portsmouth, everyone else in the county had been drafted in other calls. When the men near Portsmouth at last returned home, they were promptly drafted again. This exasperating use of conscription seems to have been common. In February 1781, Jefferson recommended that men still serving from an earlier levy not be drafted again until the previous duty was completed.
Virginia’s officers knew and understood what their men were going through. “I do my utmost endeavours to silence their murmurs,” declared Colonel Charles Fleming, “and to impress them with a sense of the necessity of their continuing in service.” But he could “by no means continue a Stranger to their complaints.” Thomas Nelson pointed out that, because the militiamen “have been so much harassed lately,” they would be willing to pay “nearly half they possess…rather than be subject to the Distresses they feel at leaving their Plantations and Families.” Exhaustion hit the militia, which was not apathetic to the Revolution. In Virginia’s New Kent County, Colonel William Clayton assured Governor Jefferson that it was because of his militiamen’s frequent and recent service that they could not turn out during March 1781 in their usual numbers. “No men in the state are better inclined to respond to the calls of the Country,” he added.
Such frequent duty was a serious hardship for Virginia’s farmers, and apathy was not a factor. The circumstances of war had dictated that many farmers had been drafted in 1780, which forced them to sow a smaller crop. Then, called again in April 1781, their spring planting was also disrupted, which meant, as Jefferson was reminded, that “it must Ruin a number of those whose lot it is to march at this time.” Discontent was especially prevalent among the poorer farmers. With no slaves to do the work, the conscripts were apprehensive that their absence meant “the utter ruin and Starvation of their families.” In February 1781, one officer feared a rebellion by such poor men then serving if they were not released in time for the spring planting. During April, Colonel Thomas Read of Charlotte County wrote the governor that the remaining younger and single militiamen not then serving had just volunteered; those other men staying had to work their farms “for a prospect of bread the ensuing year.” By July 1781, farmers were deserting so they could harvest their crops. Trying to find a solution to this problem, Jefferson suggested that other men left behind take care of the farm work unfinished by draftees, but so many poorer farmers were conscripted that the plan seemed unworkable.
The threat of starvation was not the only problem for Virginia’s draftees. The state had been careless about paying some of them for their military duty during 1780. Also, once drafted militiamen were immediately conscripted again because their duty guarding horses “was too easy.” Furthermore, conscripts were not well equipped. Colonel William Davies observed: “Many men have not a remnant of cloathing [sic] larger than a good napkin to cover their nakedness, and a number of these are dependent upon others for a part of a blanket to shelter them at night from the cold.” Another officer described his men as not only suffering from a shortage of clothes: “They are lousy, dirty and ragged, and from these circumstances become every day more sickly.” Such conditions help to explain why Virginians hated the draft.
Still another explanation behind hostility to conscription was that Virginians wanted to avoid service in the Carolinas. During July 1781, Colonel William Preston of the frontier county of Montgomery explained how his men thought about serving in South Carolina: “If the Fate of the United States was to depend on this draught being complied with on the part of the private men of our Militia, they would not go.” This reluctance was not generated by apathy but by what another officer called “The horrors of the Southern climate” being “so strongly magnify’d,” a concern that was surely expressed in the summer months. The long march in the summer heat through the Carolinas could only have worsened their fears. The privates were not alone in their distaste for the climate farther south. In 1776, a Continental general discovered that the summer in South Carolina was dangerous to his health. The summer months also brought Indian attacks to Montgomery County, a fearful circumstance that made the draftees even more hesitant to march southward.
For all these reasons, drafting was very unpopular in Virginia. An often used method of dealing with the many drafts was for an unhappy conscript to desert. In March 1781, a recent levy was estimated to have brought with it two desertions of draftees for every one who actually joined the army. Such incredible desertion inspired fears of a huge horde of malcontents and also desperate plans to apprehend them. One officer suggested that the state return to an earlier practice—that any man who turned in a deserter be credited as having served with the militia, thereby protecting the captor himself from being drafted for military duty. The idea’s advocate insisted, “It will make a man take his Brother or even his Father, or a father his Son—for says he if I do not take him, somebody else will.”
Desertion, however, was tolerated by those militiamen who had not been drafted. On the other hand, Virginia’s officers often chose to look the other way as well. The officers had been affected by the sufferings that the draftees endured—sufferings that were beyond the officers’ ability to soften. “Many” captured deserters, when they tried to defend their action, declared “that their Officers countenanced their deserting and gave them leave.” This charge of “Rascally Behaviour” by officers is probably truthful. In addition, some officers seem to have been remiss in preparing the paperwork identifying the draftees who had actually joined the army.
But tolerating desertion was not the only way that officers could help their militiamen avoid the draft. Each militia captain was supposed to eliminate the names of “Invalids”—those who for varied health reasons could not serve—from the rosters from which soldiers were drafted. All too often, the captains left such men on the rosters and the invalids were drafted but rejected by the army. This way, a captain’s conscience was soothed. Although there was still a draft, few of his men had to suffer with the army. “Unless some mode is fallen upon to prevent it,” complained an army doctor, “and we should stand in need of more Drafts, we shall have blind men sent for soldiers.”
Naturally enough, not all officers or local officials were willing to subvert conscription. And sometimes, hostility to the levy erupted against officials who were trying to draft militiamen. Some of these outbursts of anti-draft sentiment occurred in Northampton and Accomack Counties, which are separated from mainland Virginia by Chesapeake Bay.
These two counties had been cut off from the rest of the state due to British activities for most of the end of 1780. When, at last, in December communications with Virginia were restored, the people of Accomack and Northampton learned of taxes that were to be imposed on them. Quite likely, they also were informed about a serious uprising against a draft for the Continental army in Northumberland County, on the other side of Chesapeake Bay. There, on September 14-15, armed men prevented drafting from being undertaken. Practically everyone in Northumberland “was inflaim’d” against conscription.”
The example of Northumberland was not followed, at least immediately. The farmers of Accomack grumbled that their staples, such as corn, were not accepted as payment for taxes although tobacco was. But, in April, 1781, another draft was scheduled to be made for the Continentals. In Northampton, the levy was prevented from taking place. Colonel George Corbin, the county lieutenant of Accomack, learned that resistance was planned when that county had a similar levy on April 23. He brought in a cannon to the drafting site, hoping that would discourage any obstruction of the draft. The gun, however, seems to have produced the opposite effect. Corbin started the draft, but a gathering of at least 150 men seized the draft lists. Trying to calm the rioters. Corbin did not use the artillery piece. Still, the draft was stymied and he was “denounced for having manned a piece of Artillery on the occasion.” With no alternative, Corbin delayed the draft until April 25.
When that date arrived, the situation had not changed. The armed draft resisters seized the county courthouse, where the levy was to take place, and even guarded its entrance. Corbin tried to reason “moderately” with the anti-draft force to no avail. They insisted they would “oppose the Draft at the hazard of their lives.” Seeing no other course of action, he cancelled the draft. Then the most amazing thing happened. Corbin announced that those responsible for this rebellion had to be punished and he “requested them to give in their names to a person appointed to list them.” Despite their being armed and in complete control, the revolt went no further. About twenty of the draft resisters signed the list to be punished. Already by the next day some of them were tried, but the resisters had gained a victory—the draft had been stopped. No one in Accomack County was conscripted until August 1781.
The farmers of Accomack and many others had a special animus against being drafted into the Continental army. Part of the Whiggish country party ideology of England that Americans had absorbed so readily was a strong hostility to what was called a “standing army.” In sharp contrast to the militia, a standing army was composed of professional soldiers and was feared as a tool of corrupt tyrants. Since the Continental army was a standing army—if a weak one—good Whigs were frightened by it and resented being forced to serve in an institution that threatened their freedom. In 1782, one Virginian declared that “there is a general disgust…for what bears the name of a Regular.” To say that America’s farmers were influenced by Whig ideology is not to suggest that the draft resisters in Accomack and elsewhere all had dog-eared copies of Oceana or Cato’s Letters. Rather, all this means is that Whiggish ideas had circulated in America for so long that they had become part of colonial Americans’ psyche; Whig ideology was not just part of the mindset of elites.
American farmers must have been very receptive to the ideas of the Whig country party. This ideology had been expounded by political outsiders who were far from the corridors of power in London. Certainly, many farmers, especially those on the frontier, were just as distant from political power and could identify with the complaints of the English Whigs. In fact, the isolation of Accomack and Northampton counties from mainland Virginia probably contributed to their acceptance of Whiggish ideas and to their resistance to a draft for the Continental army.
One trait of the country party ideology, especially relevant to potential draftees, was its basic “libertarian assumptions.” The English Whigs were concerned about liberty, and what could be less suggestive of liberty than compulsory conscription? Shortly before the resistance in Accomack and Northampton, on March 16, 1781, Colonel Isaac Avery chose to resign as county lieutenant of the latter county. He felt that the draft required in Northampton was wrong. Conscription, he declared, “hath been always the subject of a great complaint and which I myself have held both publicly and privately, to be inconsistent with Liberty and free Government.” The authors of Cato’s Letters would have agreed with the colonel: “It is Madness in Extremity to hope that a Government founded upon Liberty, and the free Choice of the Assertors of it, can be supported by other Principles; and whoever would maintain it by contrary ones, intends to blow it up, let him allege what he will.”
Whiggish ideas may be behind another aspect of the problems in Accomack. After the draft resisters had stopped the levy, James Arbuckle and other tax collectors there discovered that the protest had spread to their field of interest. “Gentlemen from whom better things might be expected,” the collectors complained to Governor Jefferson, “have gone so far as to tell the people they have no occasion to pay the Two p[e]r[cent] Tax.” This tax was intended to raise funds for a bounty payable to draftees and those willing to enlist in the Continental army. Why did a bounty run afoul of Whiggish thought?
Quite simply, a bounty was a special payment to encourage a man to join the army. Not surprisingly, some soldiers enlisted because of the bounty; they sought this financial gain. William Smith, a prominent colonial Whig, suggested the Whiggish complaint against such practices when he called hired substitutes “Mercenaries.” Historian James Titus has also used the word “mercenaries” to describe the takers of a bounty. English Whigs, with their historical knowledge of Venice and other European states, were especially opposed to mercenaries, or “soldiers of fortune” as James Harrington dubbed them. Using mercenaries, he felt, was “making war upon the penny,” a dangerous thing to do. A mercenary force was not a dependable friend of liberty, only personal gain. Harrington believed that a republican army should be made up of “citizens at their vocations or trades,” not professionals who sought payment. When a Virginian in 1781 wrote that “few go out with the militia, that make the pay any way an object,” he was insisting that most of the soldiers were good Whigs without mercenary impulses. By refusing to pay the two percent tax, the farmers of Accomack were demonstrating their opposition to recruiting mercenaries for a standing army.
Accomack was not the only center of major resistance to the draft in Virginia during 1781. The state’s frontier also bubbled over with opposition to conscription. The three counties of Berkeley, Frederick, and Hampshire had a reputation for having “good Western militia” and, because of their rifles, these frontiersmen were highly prized soldiers. However, Berkeley, Frederick, and Hampshire all became hotspots of anti-draft feeling on the frontier.
Governor Jefferson’s problems with these three counties began on December 24, 1780. Needing soldiers for a military mission led by George Rogers Clark (which will be discussed later). Jefferson turned to these frontier counties and to others nearby. More easterly counties were already occupied battling British forces. The drafted militia were to gather at Fort Pitt, which became a grievance. In 1779, militia from the three counties had marched to Fort Pitt and they clearly did not relish going there again.
During later January and early February 1781. Jefferson received bad news from the frontier. The militia officers of Berkeley County informed him that, with this new demand, half of their militia would be on duty in various places. But Clark’s expedition was too much for their men to accept. Marching to Pittsburgh, “little less than a thousand miles” (at least to the potential draftees), made this duty unbearable. The officers felt that the conscripts would “suffer any punishment rather than obey our orders for their march.” Nor did the officers fail to explain to the governor that “So general an Opposition…from such a number” during Virginia’s “crisis” was extremely serious. The news from Frederick County was little better. Although a draft was made there, the conscripts had an equal aversion to the expedition.” Given the vigorous activity of the British in the state, Virginia’s government decided to cancel the draft for Clark in Berkeley, Frederick, and Hampshire as well to avoid “commotion.”
A commotion, though, was on the way. Hampshire so far had been quieter about drafts than its two neighbors. A levy from Hampshire had served in the Carolinas during November, 1780. Then on March 27, 1781, the Virginia Council decided to draft more men from Hampshire to relieve other soldiers; some of the new levy may have been intended for duty in the Carolinas too. The need for conscripts from Hampshire was immediate and it is possible, although not certain, that an express rider was sent there to inform the county lieutenant about this demand for Hampshire’s manpower. The timing of the news’ arrival is important because a levy for the Continental army was scheduled for April. Perhaps the news of a second draft in April sparked an anti-tax and anti-draft revolt there.
In any event, Garret Van Meter, Hampshire’s county lieutenant, soon had a major crisis on his hands. At the start of April, a tax collector was going about collecting contributions toward a tax meant to obtain clothing and food for the troops. But resistance developed and the collector had “to desist from any further” exactions. The planned levy for the Continentals was also of concern to potential draftees. As Van Meter explained to Jefferson, “A certain John Claypole said if all the men were of his mind, they would not make up any Cloathes [sic], Beef or Men, and all that would join him should turn out.” The half-dozen or so men with Claypole “Got Liquor and Drank King George the third’s health, and Damnation to Congress…Hampshire’s sheriff, with a force of 50, soon arrived but discovered that Claypole’s band had now grown to about 70 armed men. No clash occurred although Claypole did not back down—the sheriff chose not to challenge this ‘superior force.'”
On April 3, a spokesman for most of Claypole’s group, Josiah Osburn, apologized for “their Conduct” and asked to be “forgiven, as a great part of it was occasioned by Liquor.” Admitting that “our behaviour was not Discreet,” they promised to pay their taxes and obey other “Laws,” presumably the draft. However, their conduct became even less discreet. The draft resisters increased in number to about 150, and they seemed to be hiding deserters. According to Van Meter’s intelligence of April 20, the anti-draft band “swear fidelity to each other. Their principal object is to be clear of Taxes and Draughts.”
Governor Jefferson was disturbed by the Hampshire insurrection. “Laws made by common Consent must not be trampled on by Individuals,” he reasoned. Concerned that the resistance be suppressed, the governor advised Van Meter to raise a special group of mounted militia to deal with such troubles; such elite troops had been employed successfully elsewhere in the state. Jefferson went on, even suggesting how these special troops should proceed:
Their best way…perhaps is not to go against the mutineers when embodied which would bring on perhaps an open Rebellion or Bloodshed most certainly, but when they shall have dispersed to go and take them out of their Beds, singly and without Noise, or if they be not found the first time to go again and again so that they may never be able to remain in quiet at home.
Such special techniques were not needed to quell the Hampshire revolt. A force of militia, led by General Daniel Morgan, entered the county. General Morgan had thought the draft resisters were “a dangerous body.” But the insurrection ended almost without a struggle when Claypole “gave himself up to the laws of his country.” Those draft resisters who ran away from Morgan’s militia were eventually brought back by pardons.
However, Claypole and some others were tried for their role in the insurrection. They sought pardons too, which led Morgan to learn more about their leader. Looking into Claypole’s behavior before and after his opposition to the draft, the general discovered that it was “uniform and good.” Morgan would write in Claypole’s behalf as late as February, 1782. Other people added that Claypole was of “good standing” and a “Honest Peacable well meaning man.” Despite the toast to the king, which does seem to have been brought about by alcohol, Claypole and his anti-draft band were not Loyalists. In part because of their Whiggish characters. Claypole and the others were set free.
If these men were Whigs, then why did they cause such trouble? When Claypole and others wrote to Governor Thomas Nelson of Virginia seeking a pardon, they gave some excuses for their actions. Claypole and his colleagues insisted that they lived “in an obscure and remote corner of the State…precluded from every Intelligence of the State of affairs, either by Public Papers or from Information of Men of Credit and Veracity.” Or, to say it more simply, they were “Ignorant” country bumpkins. They then declared that they had been misled by “wicked Emissaries or pretended Emissaries of the British.” But Claypole and his followers could not have been simple bumpkins. Their petition gave specifics as to what had upset them: various tax laws, the Continental Army bounty, and the draft law. Furthermore, they complained that these laws were “unjust and oppressive,” a rather Whiggish stand for supposed bumpkins. As for the British agents, their existence cannot be disproved. However, in October 1780, some frontiersmen received pardons for their activities after claiming to be ignorant bumpkins misled by British agents. Apparently, Claypole and his group were using an approach already proved successful.
On the other hand, Claypole’s petition is suggestive. When listing the laws they objected to, the petitioners mentioned that all these taxes came “at the same time” as the draft. Therefore, they had to pay “enormous” taxes and were forced to do military duty concurrently. When writing to Morgan in May 1781, Claypole declared that he had not “had any ill design” when he led his anti-conscription insurrection, “only I thought our Burden Seemed too heavy.” For a man like Claypole, with “a wife and fourteen children, chiefly small—who depended—on him for subsistence,” the heavy taxes and frequent drafts were too much to bear. No doubt those who joined with him felt equally burdened. Once again, the great frequency of drafting—and not apathy—led to resistance.
The draft for the Continentals that so exasperated the Hampshire militia was just as irksome in other frontier areas. In Greenbrier County, Indian attacks and Clark’s expedition were suggested as excuses for postponing it. Another frontier county, Augusta. which had complained about drafts as early as 1777, went beyond delaying tactics. At the battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, the Augusta militia had had its ranks thinned by deaths and men being captured by the British. Then, on April 30, not even two months after that considerable sacrifice, more of the militia were to be conscripted into the Continentals. As the levy started, the men seemed “very uneasy and much out of humour.” The militiamen offered to “pay the fines” the officers would be hit with if they did not draft anyone. This offer was refused and the officers tried reasoning with their troops. Suddenly, “armed men” rushed into the meeting place and seized “Every paper on the table that they thought” was needed for the draft. Conscription could now not take place. To explain their actions, the militiamen “complained they were Imposed upon and Said they were Cheerfully willing to Spend their hearts blood in Defence of the Cuntery [sic]. Yet they would Suffer Death before they would be Drafted 18 months from their families and made Regular Soldiers of.” Militia service was one thing, Continental service quite another. This Augusta revolt was a Whiggish one.
Augusta’s example was infectious in Rockbridge County, also on the frontier. The officers began to prepare the draft for the Continentals. The militiamen, who knew what had happened in Augusta, spotted one of the colonels collecting the various rosters. Realizing what that meant, one hundred of the militia entered the courthouse and spied the rosters on a table, which they “carried… off in a Roiatous [sic] manner.” They declared “they would Serve as Militia for those months and make up the Eighteen months that way, but would not be Drafted for Eighteen months and be regulars.” As in Augusta, these good Whigs of Virginia knew the dangers posed to liberty by a standing army.
Another Virginian, George Rogers Clark, had his own problems with draft resistance. These difficulties have been glossed over by many earlier historians, who were too concerned with writing “romantic” accounts of Clark’s exploits.
For 1781, Clark planned a military strike at Detroit, the chief British base in the Northwest. Seizing that enemy stronghold had very positive potential effects for the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania. With Detroit in American hands, the Indians would have difficulty receiving British support. His chances for success were lessened when the militias of Berkeley, Frederick, and Hampshire counties in Virginia were dropped from the expedition, as has already been discussed. The Kentucky counties of Virginia, though, did manage to drum up support for him. Despite Kentuckians’ fears of being attacked by Indians—”those Execrable Hell hounds”—drafts provided men for Clark’s foray, which likely would turn the enemy’s attention away from Kentucky. At the same time, Kentucky officials used this assistance for Clark to save their counties from a draft for the Continentals, an exemption that Clark supported.
As Clark was short soldiers because of the defection of the anti-draft Virginians, he had become dependent upon the frontier counties of Pennsylvania, which were supposed to help this Virginia expedition. Relations between the two states had been strained due to a border dispute going back to the colonial period. In 1779, a compromise was reached, but the boundary was not surveyed until after the Revolution.
Clark was no stranger to this dispute. In 1778, he had experienced some of the ill effects caused by this rivalry between the states. But in 1781, everything seemed fine to Clark. When he arrived in frontier Pennsylvania, its residents were “Buoyed up at the thought of my carrying out an Expedition that promised them peace.” Even a prominent person from Pittsburgh was positive. There was “Great Incouragement [sic] given by Most Persons of Note” in western Pennsylvania, Clark informed Jefferson. In February 1781, there seemed “no danger” that militiamen would refuse their services.
February’s optimism had faded by June. In that month, Clark was warned that the areas of Pennsylvania once claimed by Virginia would resist a draft carried out by officers who had supported Virginia’s claim. A still hopeful Clark thought “the Pennsylvania Gentlemen” would lend their support to a levy. Meanwhile, on June 12, “a Mob” in Monongalia County, which was still part of Virginia, stopped Clark’s conscription there. And the draft was stymied in Pennsylvania as well though some leaders in Westmoreland County did what they could to help Clark. Nevertheless, Clark’s expedition was over before it had begun.
Without a doubt, the old animosity between Pennsylvania and Virginia helped doom Clark’s mission. However, another reason helps to explain why the Pennsylvania frontier, in Clark’s words, “calls aloud for an Expedition wishing me to put it into Execution but so strangely Infatuated that all the methods I have been able to persue [sic] will not draw them into the field; we have made draughts to no purpose.” 
Starting in 1776, these frontier counties of Pennsylvania had been suffering from Indian attacks. Anne M. Ousterhout calls it “almost continuous warfare.” By June 1781 the Pennsylvania frontiersmen were exhausted. They liked what Clark wanted to do, only they wished that someone else would be drafted to help him. Clark himself suspected that the men of Pennsylvania would refuse to be drafted “affraid [sic] I believe that they will be led on to something too desperate for their Delicate stomacks [sic].”
The Pennsylvanians were just as exhausted by the war as the Virginians. On November 19, 1780, British general Alexander Leslie, who had just evacuated Portsmouth, Virginia, insisted, “The People in general seem tired of the War and wish for their former Ease and Comforts.” For once, a British officer had correctly surmised the mood of the populace. Most of the men in Leslie’s controlled area saw the occupation as a respite from militia service. The drafting during 1781 made the Virginians’ exhaustion even more severe.
Throughout America, it seems, there was great resistance to being forced to serve. In Virginia, even teamsters who were impressed to deliver supplies dumped their cargo out anywhere and deserted. A way had to be found, declared one officer, to convince teamsters to serve “willingly” and not by “oppressive” methods. Similarly, drafting militia seemed wrong-headed to John Adams. What was needed, he asserted, was “a permanent Army”—a standing army of professionals. In May 1777, Adams insisted that conscription was “a dangerous Measure,” which should only be used “in great extremities, even by popular Governments.”
Resistance to drafting was widespread in Revolutionary America. Almost all of this opposition to conscription came from Patriots. Draft resisters were exhausted Patriots, not apathetic rural folk. Perhaps it is time to say of the common people of that era what Henry S. Commager observed about their leaders. He cautioned, “When we study our history in a vacuum, or in isolation, as we so commonly do, we exaggerate differences and minimize similarities,” a trait that is far more prevalent today than it was when he wrote that in 1961. Despite the many arguments the lower sort had among themselves (as well as with their leaders), “the things that divided them were inconsequential, and the things that united them were fundamental.”
Reprinted with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History (Spring 1998).
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1. T.H. Breen, Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution (Princeton, 1985), 20; Ralph Lerner, “The Constitution of the Thinking Revolutionary,” in Richard Beeman and others, eds., Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (Chapel Hill, 1987), 68; Adele Hast, Loyalism in Revolutionary Virginia: The Norfolk Area and the Eastern Shore (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1982), 154. For examples of the apathy or apolitical approach, see Philip Ranlet, “Who Avoided the Draft in the Revolutionary War? New York and North Carolina as Test Cases,” Continuity (Spring 1997), 20. For conscription as an example of ageism, see Allan Kulikoff, The Agrarian Origins of American Capitalism (Charlottesville, Va., 1992), 160-62.
2. William L. Shea, The Virginia Militia in the Seventeenth Century (Baton Rouge, 1983), 1-3, 136: Stephen J. Steams, “Conscription and English Society in the 1620s,” Journal of British Studies, 11 (1972), 1, 5, 22; Lois G. Schwoerer, “No Standing Armies!”: The Antiarmy Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Baltimore, 1974), 14-15.
3. James Titus, The Old Dominion At War: Society, Politics, and Warfare in Late Colonial Virginia (Columbia, S.C.. 1991), 64, 103, 117-18; John K. Mahon, History of the Militia and the National Guard (New York, 1983), 27; John Whiteclay Chambers II, To Raise an Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America (New York, 1987), 17-18; Richard Buel, Jr., “Samson Shorn: The Impact of the Revolutionary War on Estimates of the Republic’s Strength,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds.. Arms and Independence: The Military Character of the American Revolution (Charlottesville, Va., 1984), 146; Shea, Virginia Militia, 137.
4. Chambers, To Raise an Army, 15-16; Fred Anderson, A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War (Chapel Hill, 1984), 41-42; John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, May 26, 1777, Julian Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950- ), II, 21; Robert J. Taylor. ed., Papers of John Adams (Cambridge, Mass., 1977- ), V, 204n.
5. Jefferson to Adams, May 16, 1777, Jefferson Papers, II, 18; John E. Selby, The Revolution in Virginia, 1775-1783 (Williamsburg, Va., 1988), 132, 135-36.
6. John Taylor to Jefferson, December 5, 1780, William P. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (Richmond, 1875-1893; rpt. New York, 1968), I. 394 (cited hereafter as VC); Steuben to Jefferson, May 28, 1781, Jefferson Papers, VI, 30-31.
7. Steuben to Jefferson, December 16, 1780, Jefferson Papers, IV, 213-14; Jefferson to Washington County Lieutenant and others, February 15, 1781, ibid., 614; Samuel McDowell to Jefferson, April 20, 1781, VC, II, 55; James Callaway to Jefferson, June 4, 1781, ibid., 144.
8. Col. Charles Fleming to Jefferson, January 17, 1781, Jefferson Papers, IV, 385-86; Thomas Nelson to Jefferson, January 22, 1781, ibid., 427; Col. William Clayton to Jefferson, March 16, 1781, VC, I, 575.
9. Col. James Innes to Jefferson, February 21, 1781, VC, I, 532; Callaway to Jefferson, March 11, 1781, ibid., 567-68; Col. Thomas Read to Jefferson, April 4, 1781, ibid., II, 12-13; Col. George Skillem to Jefferson, April 14, 1781, ibid., 42; Col. William Call to Jefferson, April 14, 1781, ibid.; McDowell to Jefferson, April 20, 1781, ibid., 55; General Robert Lawson to Jefferson, May 1, 1781, ibid., 79-80; James Barbour to Jefferson, May 2, 1781, ibid., 82; Skillem to Nelson, June 26, 1781, ibid., 183; Lafayette to Nelson, July 1, 1781, Stanley J. Idzerda, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790 (Ithaca. N.Y.. 1977- ), IV, 228; Lafayette to Nathanael Greene, July 4, 1781, ibid., 233; Jefferson to Callaway, April 16, 1781, Jefferson Papers, V, 464-65.
10. Daniel Morgan to [Virginia Council?], n.d., Myers Collection, no. 969, New York Public Library; Col. William Davies to Jefferson, January 25, 1781, VC, I, 462; Innes to Jefferson, February 21, 1781, ibid., 532; Col. Arthur Campbell to Jefferson, June 4, 1781, ibid., II, 143; Campbell to Davies, October 20, 1781, ibid., 559.
11. Col. William Preston to Jefferson, April 13, 1781, VC, II, 35; Lawson to Nelson, July 26, 1781, ibid., 252-54; Preston to Davies, July 28, 1781, ibid., 266; Preston to Nelson, July 28, 1781, ibid., 264-65; John Armstrong to John Hancock, August 12, 1776, Papers of the Continental Congress, Item 162, pp. 249-51, reel 179, National Archives.
12. Steuben to Jefferson, December 16, 1780, Jefferson Papers. IV, 213-14; Davies to Jefferson, March 18, 1781, VC, I, 579; Col. R. Wooding to Davies, July 21, 1781, ibid., II, 234; Albert H. Tillson, Jr., Gentry and Common Folk: Political Culture on a Virginia Frontier, 1740-1789 (Lexington. Ky.. 1991), 120.
13. Steuben to Jefferson, December 16, 1780, Jefferson Papers, IV, 213-14; Edward Stevens to Jefferson, ibid., 81-82; Col. Rawleigh P. Downman to Col. V. Brooking, February 25, 1781, VC, I, 540; Major Thomas Posey to Davies, October 2, 1781, ibid., II, 521.
14. Peter Wagener to Jefferson, April 3, 1781, VC, II, 7; Matthew Pope to Davies, November 16, 1781, ibid., 607.
15. Hast, Loyalism, 154; Col. Thomas Gaskins to Jefferson, February 23, 1781, VC, I, 534-35; Gaskin’s proclamation, September 18, 1780, ibid.
16. James Arbuckle and others to Jefferson, May 15, 1781, VC, II, 97-99; Col. George Corbin to Jefferson, May 31, 1781, ibid., 134-35; “Proceedings of a Court Martial for the trial of John Custis….” September 27, 1781, ibid., 496-97; Hast, Loyalism, 152-54.
17. Arbuckle and others to Jefferson, May 15, 1781, VC, II, 97-99; Corbin to Jefferson, May 31, 1781, ibid., 134-35; Col. John Cropper, Jr. to Nelson, August 25, 1781, ibid., 360.
18. In Campbell to Davies, March 13, 1782, VC, III, 98-99; Edmund Randolph, History of Virginia, ed. Arthur H. Shaffer (Charlottesville, Va., 1970), 193; Schwoerer, No Standing Armies, 190-91, 195, 197; Chambers, To Raise an Army, 21; Lawrence Delbert Cress, Citizens in Arms: The Army and Militia in American Society to the War of 1812 (Chapel Hill, 1982), 36; Jonathan Smith, “How Massachusetts Raised her Troops in the Revolution.” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 55 (1921-1922), 369.
19. Hamilton J. Eckenrode, The Revolution in Virginia (Boston and New York, 1916: rpt. Hamden, Conn., 1964), 252; Hast, Loyalists, 154.
20. Schwoerer, No Standing Armies, 3; Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill, 1979), 67-69; Col. Isaac Avery to Jefferson, March 16, 1781, VC, I, 574-75; David L. Jacobson, ed.. The English Libertarian Heritage From the Writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon in The Independent Whig and Cato’s Letters (New York, 1965), 217.
21. Arbuckle and others to Jefferson, May 15, 1781, VC, II, 97-99; Hast, Loyalism, 154; Jefferson Papers, V, 654n-655n.
22. William H.W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs From 12 July 1776 To 25 July 1778 of William Smith, (New York, 1958; rpt. 1969), 366; Titus, Old Dominion, 140-41; James Harrington The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), in J.G.A. Pocock, ed., The Political Works of James Harrington (New York, 1977), 36; Harrington, The Prerogative of Popular Government (1658), ibid., 445; Harrington, The Art of Lawgiving in Three Books (1659), ibid., 641, 682-83; Lawson to Nelson, July 26, 1781, VC, II, 252-54; Schwoerer, No Standing Armies, 17.
23. Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, September 13, 1780, Jefferson Papers, III, 643; Jefferson to Lafayette, May 14, 1781, ibid., V, 644.
24. Jefferson to county lieutenants of Hampshire and others, December 24, 1780, ibid., IV, 229-31; Jefferson to George Washington, June 19, 1779, ibid., III, 6¬7.
25. Col. Philip Pendleton and others to Jefferson, January 25, 1781, VC, I, 461; John Smith to Jefferson, February 9, 1781, Jefferson Papers, IV, 573; Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, February 19, 1781, James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers (Springfield, Ill., 1912-1926; rpt. New York. 1972), I, 507-08; Clark to Jefferson, March 27, 1781, ibid., 517.
26. “Recapitulation of Tours of Duty Performed by the Virginia Militia,” March 1781, Jefferson Papers, V, 310; Jefferson to county lieutenants of Berkeley, Frederick, and Hampshire, March 27, 1781, ibid., 254; Jefferson to George Weedon, March 31, 1781, ibid., 308-09.
27. Garret Van Meter to Jefferson, April 11, 14, 1781, VC, II, 28-29, 40.
28. Josiah Osburn to Van Meter, April 3, 1781, ibid., 40-41; Van Meter to Jefferson, April 14, 20, 1781, ibid., 40, 58.
29. Jefferson to Van Meter, April 27, 1781, Jefferson Papers, V. 566; Emory G. Evans, “Trouble in the Backcountry: Disaffection in Southwest Virginia during the American Revolution,” in Ronald Hoffman et at., eds., An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution (Charlottesville, Va., 1985), 198, 204.
30. Daniel Morgan to governor of Virginia. February 10, 1782, VC, III, 57-58; Don Higginbotham, Daniel Morgan: Revolutionary Rifleman (Chapel Hill, 1961), 160; Eckenrode, Revolution, 246-48.
31. John Claypole to Morgan, February 5, 1782, Myers Collection, no. 840, New York Public Library; Benjamin Harrison to Morgan, February 23, 1782, ibid., no. 884; David Jameson to Morgan, February 27, 1782, ibid., no. 894; Morgan to Virginia’s governor, February 10, 1782, VC, III, 57-58; “Petition of Citizens to the Executive,” n.d., ibid., II, 683; Higginbotham, Morgan, 160-61.
32. Petition of John Claypole and others to Gov. Thomas Nelson, n.d., VC, 682-83; Jefferson Papers, V, 354n; Petition of Jacob Brake and others, n.d., VC, II, 686; Evans, “Trouble,” 190, 193-94, 204-05.
33. Petition of Claypole and others to Nelson, n.d., VC, II, 682-83; Claypole to Morgan, May 31, 1781, Myers Collection, no. 839; Morgan to Virginia’s governor, February 10, 1782, VC, III, 57-58.
34. Andrew Donnally and others to Jefferson, January 29, 1781, VC, I, 468-69; Col. George Moffett to Jefferson, May 5, 1781, Jefferson Papers, V, 603-04; Freeman H. Hart, The Valley of Virginia in the American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Chapel Hill, 1942), 112; Tillson, Gentry, 121.
35. McDowell to Jefferson, May 9, 1781, Jefferson Papers, V, 621-22.
36. Reuben Gold Thwaites, How George Rogers Clark Won the Northwest and Other Essays in Western History (Chicago, 1903; rpt. Williamstown, Mass., 1978), 65.
37. Anne M. Ousterhout, A State Divided: Opposition in Pennsylvania to the American Revolution (Westport, Conn., 1987), 269; Col. John Todd. Jr., to Jefferson, April 15, 1781, VC, II, 44-45; Clark to Jefferson, March 27, 1781, Clark Papers, I, 517; John Floyd to Jefferson, April 16, 26, May 22, 1781. ibid., 529-34, 544, 558; Joseph Reed to Clark, May 15, 1781, ibid., 550.
38. Ousterhout, State Divided, 247-48; Peter S. Onuf, The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787 (Philadelphia, 1983), 57-60.
39. Thwaites, Clark, 19; Clark to Jefferson, February 10, 1781, Clark Papers, I, 504; Clark to Reed, August 4, 1781, ibid., 579-80.
40. Hugh H. Brackenridge to Clark, June 4, 1781, Clark Papers, I, 560; Clark to William Fleming, June 12, 1781, ibid., 565; Clark to Inhabitants of Monongalia County, June 18, 1781, ibid., 567; “Plan of Defense of a Committee of Westmoreland County,” June 18, 1781, ibid.; “Agreement on the Part of Some…Inhabitants of Monongalia County to Submit to Future Military Orders,” June 19, 1781, ibid., 568; Clark to Reed, August 4, 1781, ibid., 579-80; Ousterhout, State Divided, 269.
41. William Croghan to Davies, August 18, 1781, Clark Papers, I, 588-589; Clark to Jefferson, August 4, 1781, ibid., 577-78.
42. Clark to Fleming, June 12, 1781, ibid., 565; Ousterhout, State Divided, 4-5, 254-55.
43. Alexander Leslie to Sir Henry Clinton, November 19, 1780, British Headquarters Papers, no. 3155, New York Public Library.
44. Major Richard Claiborne to Davies, September 15, 1781, VC, II, 439; Adams to Elbridge Gerry, December 31, 1776, Adams Papers, V, 56; Adams to Jefferson, May 26, 1777, Jefferson Papers, II, 20-21.
45. Henry Steele Commager, “Leadership in Eighteenth-Century America and Today.” Daedalus, 90 (1961), 657.