Lacroix on Herrmann, 'No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution'
Rachel B. Herrmann. No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 296 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-1611-9.
Reviewed by Patrick Lacroix (Acadia University) Published on H-War (February, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54744
Many of us who teach or have taught early American history consistently come back to Albigence Waldo, the Revolutionary-era surgeon who wintered with the Continental Army at Valley Forge. His diary carries the perspective of an “ordinary” participant in the struggle for independence. Faced with sickness and scarcity, Waldo insisted that philosophy is powerless “to convince a man he may be happy and Contented if he will, with a Hungry Belly.”
As historian Rachel Herrmann shows in her landmark contribution to food history, Waldo may not have grasped the profundity of his own remarks. The lofty ideals expressed by leading men in Philadelphia would come to nothing without the means to carry the revolutionary enterprise to fruition—most crucially, food.
This is quite different from the old, trite observation that “an army marches on its stomach.” Herrmann, a lecturer in modern American history at Cardiff University (Wales), looks beyond the logistics of military conflict—and beyond the Revolutionary War—to study food resources, scarcity, and hunger as essential factors in the asymmetrical relations between white colonizers, indigenous nations, and people of African descent.
Herrmann insists on each group’s “power to shape food policies of hunger prevention and creation” as a condition for political autonomy and self-determination (p. 3). During the Revolutionary War, she argues, Native Americans and freed blacks wielded considerable leverage and shaped their own destinies through their role in the food economy. By the 1810s, this apparent resurgent power among nonwhite peoples had been eroded by the American and British empires; indigenous and black populations “had to flee further afield if they wanted to survive” (p. 200). These groups could find political contentment, even independence, while they managed hunger, but, for all of their struggles in the Revolutionary War, it would be the Waldos of the continent who would win the greater conflict for food security.
Through methodical and wide-ranging research, Herrmann challenges easy declension narratives and argues that the Revolution was not instantly disastrous for groups often portrayed as subaltern. No Useless Mouth thus injects the period’s conventional narrative with refreshing contingency. Only with sustained “victual warfare” and “victual imperialism” after 1790 (and some convenient rewriting of history, as Herrmann shows with Timothy Pickering’s diplomatic efforts) did American westward conquest become inexorable. Our author explains that “Indians could not lose their land to settler colonists until they had lost the fight against hunger with the federal government” (p. 6). That moment came under the US Plan of Civilization, with the imposition of a way of life that created near-inescapable dependence.
The author seems most in her element in her perceptive discussions of food diplomacy and victual warfare during the War of Independence. She reminds us that indigenous nations did not see food merely as physical nourishment, or as a symbolic aspect of their foreign relations. The Six Nations placed themselves willfully in a position of temporary dependence on rations to test British resolve; they also destroyed their own European allies’ food infrastructure as a means of projecting power. In the South, after 1780, the failure of both American and British agents to harness the potential of food diplomacy led to an enduring cycle of retaliation.
The story of black Loyalists, whom Herrmann follows to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, fits a different mold. The author’s three-part narrative, “Power Rising,” “Power in Flux,” and “Power Waning,” seems ill-equipped to address freed people’s pursuit of self-sufficiency. It is telling that the formerly enslaved are not meaningfully addressed under “Power Rising”; the small window of opportunity that appeared during the Revolutionary War quickly closed as black Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia. Their experience had little relation to Natives, who had an ancestral claim to their land, constituted foreign nations from an Anglo-American perspective, and were far less reliant on the concessions of well-placed white authorities.
Additionally, as the narrative moves to Nova Scotia, food loses some of its explanatory weight in the face of new ecological conditions and the financial limits of post-Revolutionary largesse. As with the US government, which struggled to provide rations to settlers on the New York frontier, British colonial authorities expected the permanent settlement of black Loyalists to put an end to their own victual responsibility. In other words, the case for victual imperialism becomes less cohesive as we leave the nascent United States. The book traces two distinct paths, which together serve a larger story about food’s relationship to power, but which also coexist uneasily, as the roughly alternating chapters on these two groups suggest.
Herrmann provides historians with a useful theoretical toolbox; it remains to be seen whether food history will develop into its own field or enrich conceptually existing areas of study. (We could say this of the history of emotion and other conceptual innovations.) As Herrmann pitches it, food history holds a promise that superficial classroom discussions of Albigence Waldo (“hunger was a problem”) do not. On the other hand, with due regard for her extensive research, Herrmann travels on well-worn roads—from Dunmore to Tenskwatawa, many of her vignettes will be familiar to early Americanists. Her chronology echoes the Native American storyline offered by Richard White’s and Alan Taylor’s “blockbusters.”
Herrmann hints at new interpretive insights—but also at the potential pitfalls of a nascent field. There is a risk that scholars will simply write food into existing narratives. At the very least, by connecting food to power and insisting on victual strategies as drivers of military and political events, Herrmann’s work points researchers in constructive directions. There is reason to believe that No Useless Mouth will become a standard introduction to food history.
Graduate students are often deterred from undertaking ambitious projects that compare different ethnic groups or nations or that span long periods—especially when tackling the Revolutionary Era. Herrmann deserves high praise for attempting this expansive study and, what’s more, with limited conceptual guidance. She deserves yet more for completing this significant contribution to our understanding of power relations in a turbulent period in Atlantic-world history.
. Albigence Waldo, “Valley Forge, 1777-1778: Diary of Surgeon Albigence Waldo, of the Connecticut Line,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 21 (1897): 310. Italics in original.
. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
. Works that may be classified as food histories did appear sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, but Herrmann fairly points out that a genuine scholarly conversation has only begun much more recently. The creation of a peer-reviewed journal, Global Food History, in the last decade and a recent series on the group blog The Junto, co-edited by Herrmann and Carla Cevasco (Rutgers University), underscore some of those growing exchanges.
Citation: Patrick Lacroix. Review of Herrmann, Rachel B., No Useless Mouth: Waging War and Fighting Hunger in the American Revolution. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54744This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.