July 29, 2005


I'm concerned about the quality of history teaching at Stanford. David Kennedy's piece likening the current American army to the Hessians is, simply, completely uninformed on the topic of Hessians:

"THE United States now has a mercenary army. To be sure, our soldiers are hired from within the citizenry, unlike the hated Hessians whom George III recruited to fight against the American Revolutionaries. But like those Hessians, today's volunteers sign up for some mighty dangerous work largely for wages and benefits - a compensation package that may not always be commensurate with the dangers in store, as current recruiting problems testify."

It has been pointed out elsewhere that the current limited American military franchise hardly equates to mercenarism. (And that Kennedy's accusation of mercenarism directed at any soldier who works "largely for wages and benefits" would logically include nearly every professional military person in any non-conscripted army.) But even if you stipulate to Kennedy's point on that, he still has obviously done next-to-no previous reading on Hessians.

The fact is the historical Hessians who served in the American War of Independence on the British side were not exactly mercenaries, at least not as we would understand the term today. Even for their time, they were rather atypical.

There were lots of mercenary units in 1770s Europe, of course: the French army alone had Irish, Scottish, Walloon and Swiss-speaking units, generally comprised of independent volunteers from those regions. The British would also use true mercenary units in the Napoleonic wars, particularly German and Swiss outfits. But the units of the German principalities that served with the British army in the 1770s were different. They were military units recruited by the states (Hesse-Cassel, Brunswick, etc.) and sold BY THE GERMAN PRINCES to the British crown. This is something of a key distinction... the soldiers themselves had been enrolled under the same conditions any soldier in a national army would have been enrolled... it was the whole unit itself that was then auctioned off for the prince's personal profit. The individual soldiers themselves were never given the choice to become mercenaries, as recruits for the French Foreign Legion, or the Gurkhas, or Blackwater today, are given. The Hessians were, in a sense, indentured or coerced soldiers, practically the exact opposite of mercenary contracting as it's traditionally understood.

More historical yammering follows:

As Edward Lowell, the first and most influential of the Hessian historians puts it, the Hessian princes were frowned upon even in the Europe of their day for openly trading in men:

"The action of these princes was opposed to the policy of the empire and to the moral sense of the age: but the [Holy Roman] emperor had no power to prevent it, for the subjection of those parts of Germany which were outside of his hereditary dominions was little more than nominal."

The Hessians received the same pay and benefits as British soldiers. It was the princes who received an additional stipend for each body they delivered. Lowell again, on the specific terms in the case of the Brunswickers (the second-largest "Hessian" contingent):

"The King of England agreed to pay to his Most Serene Highness [The Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg], under the title of levy-money, for every soldier the amount Of 30 crowns banco, equal to 7 4s. 4 1/2d. He was to grant, moreover, an annual subsidy amounting to 11,517 17s. 1 1/2d. from the day of the signature of the treaty so long as the troops should enjoy his pay, and double that amount (viz., 23,035 14s. 3d.) for two years after the return of the troops into his Most Serene Highness's dominions."

The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, whose large contingent gave the whole German corps in America its common name, received roughly twice as much per head.

Contemporary military leaders respected the Hessian soldiers, but openly equated their princes to slave-dealers. Frederick the Great wrote to Voltaire: "Had the Landgrave come out of my school he would not have sold his subjects to the English as one sells cattle to be dragged to the shambles... Such conduct is caused by nothing but dirty selfishness. I pity the poor Hessians who end their lives unhappily and uselessly in America."

Napoleon agreed. "The House of Hesse-Cassel has for many years sold its subjects to England. Thus have the electors gathered such great treasures. This vile avarice now overthrows their house."

Of course, to have a slave-seller, you need a slave-buyer, and the English practice of buying soldiers en masse did not endear that country to either philosophes or revolutionaries, either. The American revolutionaries were rightly outraged with a British government that was perversely using foreign, purchased, soldiers to suppress a revolt by those it was still claiming were its own citizens: it seemed the English pamphleteers' concerns about the standing army taken to the next level. It wasn't popular in Britain, either: Lowell's account of the English Parliamentary debate shows the depth of Whig opposition feeling on this issue.

The Hessians themselves were hard fighters, although their reputation for cruelty on the battlefield seems overblown... the English and Scottish soldiers seem to have bayonetted surrendering Americans about as frequently, although it's true in general that the language difficulties would have made surrendering to the redcoats appear a slightly less risky proposition. Nor is there any real evidence they were any less restrained in their conduct with American civilians than British soldiers were (not that that would have seemed a particularly high standard if you were an American farmer in the path of their foraging parties). George Washington wrote, before Trenton: "One thing I must remark in favor of the Hessians, and that is, that our people who have been prisoners generally agree that they received much kinder treatment from them than from the British officers and soldiers."

In short, Kennedy's use of Hessians as a shorthand term is at best unilluminating. Calling all soldiers mercenaries glosses over the probably more significant concern in Iraq of the extensive use of legally unaccountable "military contractors," which in many cases are certainly comparable to the historic mercenary outfits (although they really don't resemble the peculiar Hessian circumstances above, either). I can only presume that the professor was trying to evoke all those deep concerns about the standing army as an instrument of civil repression that had deep roots in pre-revolutionary republican literature, culminating in the famous Declaration of Independence lines, " He [George III] is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation." It's easier to say "Hessians," I suppose, than to try to summarize the fears behind the 1628 Petition of Right.

In a sense, of course, Kennedy has mangled the facts so badly that he has ended up still being sort of correct. The current American army is comprised of professional soldiers in the service of their country. So, in their own way, were the Hessians. By saying "all professional soldiers are mercs," and then "the Hessians were mercs," he's basically got two wrongs making a right there.

Interestingly, the closest contemporary comparator to the Hessians would be a country that joined a "coalition of the willing" solely for national economic gain... one could argue that some of the Eastern European military participation in Iraq would fit that bill, as would much of the participation in United Nations peacekeeping by developing world countries such as Bangladesh.

Agreed: any country with a military participation rate lower than its current military needs potentially has a problem. And adding soldier-surrogates who are outside the chain of command and civilian oversight (whether those be mercs/"contractors" or Hessian-style foreign auxiliaries) only compounds that problem. But rather than addressing that important issue with a clear argument, Kennedy has only muddied the waters here.

PS: Kennedy's description of the adventurism of Napoleon as an example of the threat posed by standing armies is historically illiterate, as well. Surely he knows that it was Revolutionary France's pioneering use of levees en masse (the historical analogue to the drafting of his Greatest Generation in the middle of the last century) that allowed Napoleonic armies to venture beyond French borders at all. If Napoleon had contented himself with a professional standing army as the English and American pamphleteers would have understood it a century previously, he would not have been half the threat. If anything, the Napoleonic period shows the dangers to the world of countries that mobilize their entire citizenry, which is what Kennedy appears to be arguing for.

UPDATE: About 5,000 Hessian veterans remained in North America after the war (another 17,000 returned home). Some settled in the United States, but many others took up land in the Canadian colonies, as part of the original 35,000 white Loyalist refugees. Indeed, the province of Upper Canada (now Ontario) was formed in 1791 from the four Western Quebec districts of Mecklenburg, Luneberg, Nassau, and Hesse, which had been so named, partly perhaps in reflection of their large numbers of German-speaking Loyalists, in 1788 (It wasn't just the Hessians: the Loyalists also included veterans of more conventional British mercenary-based units like the Rangers and the Royal Americans, which also had a German (voluntary) recruiting base). Even more had settled with the pre-existing German community in the western part of Nova Scotia, part of the reason it was severed off and renamed "New Brunswick" in 1784. So theirs is a Canadian story, too.

Posted by BruceR at 12:07 PM