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Contingency and Chance in Scottish and American History

Why did the Americans win and the Jacobites lose? The classic answer is that the Americans represented the future, a future of liberty, freedom, secularism, and individualism. The Jacobites were the past, reactionary and religious, the products of a hierarchical society motivated by outdated dynastic loyalty. This difference was supposedly reflected in their military methods, in a way that explained their respective success and failure. Thus the mass charge of the Scottish Highlanders was seen as anachronistic, bound to fail before the disciplined firepower of British infantry, while, conversely, the individually aimed shooting by American riflemen was seen as superior to the mindless, mechanistic methods of disciplined British and Hessian soldiers. This contrast reflects potent national myths, but it is flawed. It expresses an arrogant hostility to the Jacobites, and particularly the Scottish Highlanders, that is misleading. The analysis also adopts an inaccurate teleological reading of the American War of Independence.

A short article is not the place to offer a rewriting of two wars, but several comparative points are worth underlining. First, the 18th-century British state controlled a formidable war machine, arguably the strongest in the world at that point, and Jacobite failure is no more discreditable or evidence of anachronism than is George Washington's inability to regain New York. Britain controlled the largest navy...

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