The Dark Side of the American Revolution
Alan Taylor demolishes the fiction of happy warriors united in a righteous cause against ruthless overlords.
Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 704 pp., $37.50.
ALAN TAYLOR’S American Revolutions demolishes the fiction—deeply ensconced in the country’s national mythology—of happy warriors united in a righteous cause against ruthless overlords. If the American Revolution was noble and just, it was also brutal and morally compromised. If it was inspiring and grandiose, it was also dispiriting and parochial. It is this story—of America’s initial civil war, with many sides involved in the gruesome fighting—that Taylor aims to tell in his new book.
Alongside Gordon S. Wood and Joseph J. Ellis, Taylor is one of America’s most prominent scholars on the revolutionary period. His 1995 book, William Cooper’s Town, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, but it is that book’s successor, American Colonies, which shares an obvious kinship with American Revolutions. His earlier work was notable for offering a multinational, multicultural approach to the colonial period. From 1400 to 1820, the “Americans”—those descended from the British—were only one segment of the population living in the area. There were, in addition to the Yankees and the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Portuguese and many Indian communities. These peoples overlapped and interacted, and their behavior was deeply shaped by the actions and circumstances of the others. Telling the story of one of those actors necessitates telling the story of the others.
Taylor’s new book applies the same wide-lens approach to the revolutionary period. It takes nothing away from it to say that this approach is less exciting or ground breaking here than in American Colonies, because the years in which George Washington became a household name are more familiar. Those years have simply been far better studied by scholars and better portrayed by storytellers than the preceding centuries. This is a magisterial work, but it is one that relies heavily on other sources: the work of Wood, Peter Onuf and Eliga Gould, in particular.
What his new effort lacks in novelty, it makes up for in comprehensiveness. It is fair to say that no other book offers in a single volume as much appropriate detail about as many players from as many vantage points in the revolutionary era. Separate chapters are devoted to slavery, international alliances, naval warfare, the Constitutional Congress and other subjects. At the same time, some sort of chronological order is imposed, with a background chapter on the prerevolutionary period opening the book and a chapter on the postrevolutionary period concluding it. There are more than a hundred pages of endnotes, with virtually every paragraph ending with a note directing the reader to several books and journal articles. American Revolutions reflects a lifetime of scholarship, which makes it both learned and dense. It can often read like a textbook, albeit one with some novel perspectives. Readers will profit from Taylor’s work, but they won’t always enjoy it.
Although it forms a cohesive narrative, American Revolutions somehow omits interesting characters from what was a world-shattering epoch. Though the core of the book acknowledges the traditional actors—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—they do not monopolize center stage. In fact, there is no center stage here, because all the players are constantly shifting around. The plural use of “revolution” in the title is indicative of the book’s perspective. Taylor warns that he “emphasizes the multiple and clashing visions of revolution pursued by the diverse American peoples of the continent.”
It is not only humans who influence the course of events in these pages. “Most interpretations of the revolution’s causes subordinate western issues, treating them as minor irritants less significant than the clash over new taxes,” writes Taylor. Geography may not be destiny, but it is formative. In this case, the existence of the trans-Appalachian West had unforeseen consequences on all players who came into contact with it. The British made promises to protect indigenous inhabitants from the Patriots that they couldn’t keep, revealing unreliability to the former and weakness to the latter. (Taylor refers to supporters of independence as Patriots and the English partisans as Loyalists, underscoring his perspective that all were then Americans.) The Patriots discovered that settlers couldn’t be dissuaded from conquering new lands and had to be pacified. Whereas the British tried to restrain the settlers, Washington and Jefferson felt obliged to encourage them, knowing they were incorrigible. It’s a form of history from below, but of course the settlers weren’t the lowest on the totem pole.
TAYLOR IS particularly incisive on the ways in which notions of race shaped the parties involved, kneecapping the pleasant thought that those in favor of independence were purely motivated by a love of liberty. “Patriots regarded the British alliance with native peoples as a tyrannical obstacle to the colonists’ right to make private property from Indian lands,” he writes. “By allying with natives, Britons allegedly betrayed the racial solidarity of white men upheld by Patriots.” Seeing that they were on the losing sides over the long term, the Indians shifted alliances as best they could to protect themselves. In this, they did not succeed: “By serving as allies, eastern natives hoped to secure Patriot protection for their enclaves. Instead, they suffered especially heavy casualties, which emboldened white neighbors to grab more native land.” Taylor doesn’t hesitate in describing some of the actions of the settlers as genocidal, such as a raid conducted in a Delaware village that killed men, women and children. Whether by design or by oversight, he sidesteps the controversy over whether government policy, rather than the acts of individuals, was genocidal. It’s an important omission in a book largely devoid of them.
Taylor posits that the Patriots rebelled for fear of the British subjugating them as they did African Americans. “Living among growing numbers of slaves, masters could see the dreadful consequences of losing freedom,” he writes. “Patriots feared having the tables turned upon them by some combination of external taxation and internal slave revolt.” This take has appeal as a psychological explanation, buttressed as it is by a phrase mouthed by George Washington, who said that the British intended to “make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.” Another damning phrase came from John Adams, who warned the British, “We won’t be their negroes.” But ultimately, the link between the Patriots’ slave trading and desire for freedom proves unpersuasive. No actual research demonstrates anything resembling a correlation between proximity to slavery and support for the rebel cause.
Because Taylor wants to demonstrate the revolution’s effects, the book closes with Jefferson’s landslide reelection in 1804. It’s something of an arbitrary cutoff, but it permits him to dwell at length on the writing of the Constitution and the seminal 1800 victory of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans over John Adams and the Federalists. Taylor repeats the view that the Founders were very much elitists who wanted to inhibit, not nurture, democracy. Since a republic was very much a radical experiment at the time, one predicted by many Europeans to lead toward anarchy, most of the Founding Fathers had difficulty imagining that expanding the franchise to include anything but propertied white males would be a positive development. Madison adopted the Virginia Plan devised by the state’s governor, which he promised would provide “sufficient checks against democracy.”
As this view suggests, Taylor is no cheerleader for the Patriot cause. (In one footnote, he characterizes the best-regarded work on the war, Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause, as “a scholarly book that overtly celebrates the Patriot cause.”) Reading Taylor can feel unfamiliar—the Patriots in the blue coats are not heroes, and the Loyalists in the red coats are not villains. There are no heroes, or even many acts of heroism. There is only villainy and victimization of differing degrees. The British are clueless imperialists, the future Americans are slave-driving hypocrites, and African Americans and Indians get nothing but the shaft. The significance of the American Revolution to the entire planet—Marx later called the war “the first impulse to the European Revolution”—is almost entirely absent from this book.
At times, Taylor’s sense of irony is appropriate and stinging. “In New York City on July 9, Patriots toppled the great equestrian statue of George III and melted its lead to make 40,000 bullets to shoot at imperial troops.” But after that anecdote, which one might find in a children’s history textbook, arrives the kicker: “In that blow for liberty, the Patriots employed slaves to tear down the statue.”
FOR THE most part, however, the studied neutrality means that Taylor is evenhanded to the point of being cold-blooded. Two pages are devoted to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River in 1776, and they include lines like: “The victorious soldiers got drunk on captured rum until Washington ordered the hogsheads smashed to drain the liquor onto the frozen ground.” Whether one takes the side of the Loyalists or the rebels, surely the fact that military personnel were inebriated after warring is the least significant or interesting aspect of the battle.
Equally dyspeptic is Taylor’s description of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. He frames this historic moment as financially motivated:
“Independence would help Congress secure the foreign assistance needed to fight the mighty British. Visiting Philadelphia, French agents assured congressmen that France could provide little aid unless assured that the Patriots would break with Britain and form a union strong enough to provide a stable diplomatic partner.”
Moreover, he contends that the list of grievances Jefferson, Franklin and Adams compiled was dishonest, since by “dwelling on recent events generated by the war, that indictment slighted the issue that had started the whole conflict: Parliament’s attempt to tax the colonists.” The king was demonized for propagandistic purposes, and that was that. This, it must be recalled, is the document that Jefferson called (in a quotation not included in this book), “an instrument, pregnant with our own fate and the fate of the world.” He added,
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be . . . the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings of self-government.”
Those phrases give an indication of the stakes for which the Patriots felt they were fighting. Jefferson wrote them two weeks before his death. Within his lifetime, the Declaration of Independence he penned was imitated in one form or another by twenty countries, including nations in northern and southern Europe and the Caribbean. Today, more than half the countries in the world have founding documents, with many nodding at Jefferson’s Declaration. Such a document deserves better treatment than what it receives here—even if the war was bloodier than Mel Gibson’s The Patriot would have us believe.
Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the Kindle Single, Humanity: How Jimmy Carter Lost an Election and Transformed the Post-Presidency.
Image: John Trumbull’s The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.