Although more than two centuries have passed, the American Revolution remains a source of pride for many people, and with good reason. Who isn’t impressed by the iconic events that carried this country toward independence and democracy: the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, the winter at Valley Forge, the British surrender at Yorktown. It was, and remains, a glorious story.
Yet in his new book, “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804,” Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning historian Alan Taylor makes the familiar events seem shockingly, and thrillingly, new. Instead of treating the revolution as a series of discrete episodes in an inexorable march toward freedom, he puts the revolution in context. Its celebrated accomplishments become tiny threads in the vast tapestry of 18th-century geopolitics, economics and social transformation. Taylor seeks to convey, as he puts it, “the multiple and clashing visions of revolution pursued by the diverse American peoples of the continent.” The result is a completely new understanding of the revolutionary era.
To take one example, the name “War for Independence” would have seemed bizarre to most of the people involved. When open hostilities began in 1775, many colonists wished to remain British subjects. Even those who took up arms fought to secure “the rights of Englishmen,” not to stop being Englishmen. When independence became the issue, thousands of colonists joined the British side. And once the war was over, at least 60,000 of them became refugees, preferring to lose their land and possessions rather than their British citizenship.
There were additional thousands of American slaves who joined the British forces, guessing correctly that they would have a better chance of freedom in territories ruled by Britons rather than Americans. And there were the British colonies in Canada and the West Indies that chose not to revolt when the other 13 did. For all of these groups, and also for many Indians who fought for the British, it was a war against independence. Taylor’s theme is that these people, and others neglected by history, are as much a part of the story of the revolution as the Confederacy and its culture are part of the story of the Civil War.
The epoch has been covered by thousands of authors. But more than anyone I have read, Taylor shows the revolution in the round — how the events looked to the multiple constituencies that participated in or were affected by them throughout the Western Hemisphere, and the forgotten web of complex causes behind the few incidents we choose to remember.
Matthew C. Simpson is a visiting scholar at the University of New Mexico. Twitter: @mattcsimpson
By: Alan Taylor.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 681 pages, $37.50.