"Rethinking the Rage Militaire": Colloquium with Westminster's Jon Chandler


In a letter written to Seven Years’ War hero and Crown Governor of Virginia Jeffrey Amherst during the early stages of the American Revolution, a British commander known only as Capt. M personified the colonies as “hurried on” toward war “by a spirit of enthusiasm.” As Westminster College Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor in British History Jon Chandler noted in introducing his March 17 talk at the Kinder Institute, these kinds of primary source descriptions are central to Charles Royster’s notion of the rage militaire—the popular zeal for war—that animated the not yet United States immediately prior to and during the conflict with Great Britain.

It is true, Chandler conceded, that the wartime colonies certainly did not want for expressions of patriotic gusto when it came to the Revolution—though in instances like Israel Putnam throwing aside the plow to take up the sword, we do, perhaps, have to question how blurry the line between circulated myth and reported reality was. That said, even if we take some zeal for granted, Chandler proposed that there are still certain components of the relationship between emotion and social/political change that go unaccounted for in Royster’s telling. For one, far from a North American phenomenon, an “Age of Feeling” had in fact been shaping political decision making in Europe for some time before the rise of revolutionary frenzy in the colonies: there was the tale, for example, of Robert Jenkins producing his severed ear before Parliament as part of a contingent seeking a way to drum up popular and governmental support for a 1739 war with Spain (affectionately known now as the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”). Throughout the eighteenth century, then, interests were very much inseparable from emotion. In addition, Chandler argued that studying the flow of information concerning wartime fervor in the colonies shows that a crucial actor is largely missing from Royster’s theory. Specifically, we have to take into consideration how many of the accounts of the rage militaire—of a population that had lost control during the act of arming itself—were produced by North American loyalists for a mostly British audience. If we do, Chandler explained, we see how these kinds of un-complimentary stories of an unregulated people who were now supported by France were not so much instances of deliberately incendiary wartime correspondence but instead reports from the front that were intentionally designed to help citizens across the Atlantic process the depression that accompanied imperial crisis. Which is all to say, he concluded, that even if we narrow our view to the American Revolution, our analysis of the substantive interconnectedness of emotion and politics cannot be limited to examining colonial enthusiasm but must be broadened to include a study of British melancholy.

Jon Chandler received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in History from University College London. He has held lecturer positions at UCL, Queen Mary University of London, and Brunel University, and he comes to Westminster from University of Surrey, where he served as a widening participation and outreach officer, helping to develop educational programs for disadvantaged groups in southeastern England. He was a research fellow at the Library of Congress during 2016, and he is currently at work on a monograph on soldiers and society in colonial and revolutionary North America.