J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Reviews of American Revolutions

Probably the biggest Revolutionary War book out this year, in terms of its scope and the professional status of its author, is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. Here are extracts from four reviews I’ve seen.

Matthew Price in the Boston Globe:
Stretching from Nova Scotia to New Orleans, Taylor’s account proceeds chronologically through a series of themed chapters (“Colonies,” “Partisans,” “Slaves,” and so on) showcasing the author’s mastery of the period. He has synthesized work old and new, especially scholarship from the last 30 years that reflects his interest in Native American history and the role of slaves and women in the period. . . .

The last third of Taylor’s book details the political maneuvering that followed the peace settlements of 1783. There was little unanimity in what course to follow, and the new nation’s leaders were bedeviled by the same problems that proved unmanageable to British authorities. For one, to pay off war debts, they had to enforce higher taxes. (Loyalists, the so-called losers of the war, enjoyed lighter taxes in Canada, where the British instituted reforms to show up the upstart republic to the south. There is a suggestion throughout that the empire, typically caricatured as tyrannical, was more enlightened than its rebel offspring.)
Eric Herschthal at Slate:
As long ago as the Progressive era, historians argued that the Founding Fathers’ war against Britain was waged not for lofty democratic ideals but rather to suit their own material interests. In recent decades, academic historians have exposed the critical role women, blacks, and Native Americans played in the War of Independence, as well as the larger imperial struggles of which the Revolution was just a bit part. In American Revolutions Taylor synthesizes this more recent scholarship but astutely combines it with the Progressive-era argument about the way the Founding Fathers manipulated populist anger to their own ends. Written with remarkable clarity and finesse, this will be the gold standard by which all future histories of the period will be compared. . . .

Taylor rightly underscores that slavery—its protection and extension—was a central fact of the Revolution and its aftermath. But he tends to downplay the simultaneous restructuring of black life that happened in the war’s wake. As he notes, enslaved blacks in the North, often with the help of white allies, petitioned their new state governments to ban slavery. Elizabeth Freeman, enslaved in Massachusetts, used the new state constitution’s language, which stated that “All men are born free and equal,” to sue for and win her freedom in 1781. Her victory set the precedent that abolished slavery in Massachusetts, and by the end of the century, all the Northern states would abolish slavery. In focusing on the contradictions, indeed the hypocrisies, of the white Patriot elite, Taylor inadvertently overshadows this quieter revolution in freedom that that was growing up alongside it. The truth is that when we talk about liberty and equality for all today, we mean it in the way these black founders meant it, not the Patriot elite. It is a point worth emphasizing.
Brendan Simms in the Wall Street Journal:
Britain’s attempt to tax the North American settlers without their consent did indeed play a major role in the rise of a revolutionary spirit, but so did the western question, too often overlooked in its full significance. Building on recent work by historians such as François Furstenberg and Paul Mapp, Mr. Taylor places the 13 colonies within a “continental” context, in which the French most of all—but also the Spanish, the Russians (briefly) and of course Native American tribes—battled with British colonists for supremacy in the vast territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. . . .

What infuriated the settlers, as much as London’s proposed taxes, was the British government’s determination not to provoke the French and Spanish or the Indians. The policy was encapsulated in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade the colonists to move beyond the Appalachians. The British settlers perceived that some of the money extracted from them by the crown would be used to enforce this line of demarcation.

Insult was added to injury when London tried to appease the Catholic French-speaking colonists of Canada by awarding them considerable autonomy through the Quebec Act of 1774. This law horrified the colonists not only because it promoted the toleration of Roman Catholicism (inherently tyrannical, in their view) but also because it awarded a vast tranche of the western lands to the province of Quebec. In effect, though Mr. Taylor does not quite put it this way, the colonists were threatened by ideological and geopolitical encirclement. Mr. Taylor rightly speaks of the revolution having “western roots”: The imperial crisis was a product of “western land as well as eastern taxes.”
The 1763 Proclamation was not a big issue here in New England because New York (and, for Connecticut, northern Pennsylvania) already claimed the land to the west. But the Quebec Act was a very big deal, given the region’s fundamental anti-Catholicism. Which makes the pivot to the French alliance all the more striking.

Gordon Wood in the New York Times Book Review:
In a prodigious display of historical research, Taylor has drawn on nearly a thousand books and articles, listed in his 55-page bibliography. Because he has expanded the chronology of the Revolution into the 19th century and has included so much beyond the well-known headline events, he has some difficulty fitting everything in. He often packs so many incidents into each paragraph, with actions succeeding and crowding in upon one another, that there is no space to expand and develop any one of them. Consequently, they tend to get bunched up and leveled, and the narrative often comes to seem unusually compressed and flattened.

Insofar as anything is highlighted in Taylor’s narrative, it is the many Patriot hypocrisies and contradictions. Southerners, Taylor suggests, engaged in the Revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” The Patriots’ talk of liberty was very limited. They “defended freedom for white men while asserting their domination over enslaved blacks.” Occasionally the Patriots were not very patriotic. Following the surrender of the American forces trying to take Quebec in 1775, “a quarter of the captured Patriots switched sides to enlist with the British.”

Sometimes Taylor’s emphasis on irony and contradiction slips into anachronism. Because the colonial legislatures denied women, free blacks and propertyless white males the vote, he concludes that “colonial America was a poor place to look for democracy.” But where in the 18th century was there a better place to look for democracy? Despite restrictions on the suffrage, the colonies still possessed the most democratic governments in the world at that time.
But isn’t the question whether the state and national governments that followed the American Revolution were more democratic? Or were they just better designed to serve the “ordinary white men” whose “bad behavior” Wood says Taylor emphasizes?

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