The University Record, February 27, 1996

Impact of war largely ignored, says historian Shy

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

 

Wars have long excited public and academic interest, noted military historian John Shy, but the focus has tended to be on battles; the aftermath of war---its impact on economic, political, ideological and cultural affairs---has largely been ignored.

By the impact of war, said Shy, who delivered the 20th Distinguished Senior Faculty Lecture, "The Revolutionary Impact of War, 1780," to a packed Rackham Amphitheater Feb. 20, he meant "what happened as a result of the war that woul dn't have if it hadn't occurred."

Identifying the impact of a war is a difficult judgment to make, said Shy, who is professor emeritus of history. Scholars have asserted both that the Civil War accelerated U.S. economic development and that the war retard ed it. Others have drawn contrasting conclusions about the effect of World War II on U.S. racial relations and on the role of women in society.

Shy, himself, argued 30 years ago that the American Revolutionary War, in which 200,000 Americans in a population of three million fought for eight years, "must have drawn soldiers into more active public life," made Americans more interested in revolutionary ideals and gave "the Declaration of Independence more concrete meaning" to citizens.

But two years ago, South Korean historian Song Bok Kim, who, like Shy, is a veteran of the Korean War, told Shy that he found Shy's assessment of the American Revolutionary War too positive. The Korean scholar said he had seen the "traumatic effect" of the Korean War all around him---on his country's moral, political and economic life. Many Koreans saw the war as a scourge on their society and withdrew into private life. Kim also pointed out that many Americans in Westchester County, New York, where the British and Americans traded control throughout the fighting, had dropped in disgust all interest in public life once the war was over.

This view opposing his own intrigued Shy, and he decided to reinvestigate the question by focusing on "what is certainly known" about the impact of the Revolutionary War in 1780: the nation was bankrupt, currency was almost worthless, prices shot up 100-fold, Congress had no credibility and was unable even to collect taxes.

What caused this? Was paper money at fault, as conservative economists tended to argue? Shy wondered. Was there a labor or food shortage? Shy established that neither of these factors explained the crisis. Paper money had worked throughout the war and manpower and foodstuffs were plentiful throughout.

What had collapsed as a result of the war, he found, was the ability to distribute goods. The war was fought up and down a 1,000-mile deep corridor that extended only 150 miles wide from the Atlantic shore west. The British navy controlled sea routes and offshore roads, forcing the Americans to move supplies over extremely rough, muddy inland roads crossed by numerous poorly bridged rivers.

"Draft animals, wagoneers and wagons were in short supply," Shy said, and the cost of back-country transport skyrocketed. "Agents bid against each other for horses, wagons and teamsters. [Continental] armies seized animals and equipment. People hid their animals and supplies." The effect over eight years was to ruin money, weaken federal power and increase the power of state governments. State governments, in turn, engaged in "lots of corruption, bribing, price-gouging and profiteering" in efforts to gain means of transportation.

Shy examined Congressional budget figures and found that by 1780, transportation costs were 40 percent of the total, higher than food (33 percent) and pay (10 percent). Transport costs rose two times faster than food costs from 1777 to 1780, and 10 times faster than pay costs.

Shy suspects that the economic crisis spurred by transport shortage diminished the public's enthusiasm for state power and set the stage for voter acceptance of the Constitution in 1787. But the public's approval of federal authority may have owed more to demoralization and anxiety at the crisis traceable to the states than to enthusiasm for founding a model democracy, he suggested.

Despite the overall positive impact of the Revolutionary War on public life, Shy said his research indicated that the impact of the Revolutionary War on the mood of the American public was closer to what his Korean colleague had suggested than Shy had originally suspected .