Thursday, November 17, 2016

What We're Reading: A New History of Revolutionary America

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, by Alan Taylor

Alan Taylor has earned a reputation as perhaps our most important contemporary historian of early America. Among many other honors, he has twice been recognized with the Pulitzer Prize, for William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier in 1996, and The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 in 2013. Whether Taylor writes a book that explores a small town  or region or one that describes the dynamics of life in a broad hinterland, the effect of his work has been to greatly expand our sense of the scope and complexity of life on the North American continent during the years of the American colonies and the early American Republic. In particular, he has made what was happening in the early American West, the western regions of the original 13 colonies, a vibrant and essential part of any complete understanding of early America.

You cannot read Taylor and retain your schoolboy notions of the American Revolution, the picture of a united American citizenry battling an external British force, pursuing its aims by reasoned argument and proceeding by ordered consensus and compromise to a terminus apparently destined. Instead, we get from Taylor a portrait of early America as a place seething with conflicting interests and implacable enmities, a place of not just a single revolution but of many revolutions unfolding simultaneously--revolutions political, social, economic and religious that all came to bear in the historical moment. It was also a place where acquisitiveness for land was a rampant and unbridled force, where the worst crimes and cruelties were excused--dispossessing Native Americans of land and enslaving African Americans to work the land--and it drove colonial politics. White equality in early America was built upon the inferiority of others. Taylor explores, as well, the relationship between the evangelical revolution and the rise of a new society based on individualism and voluntary association.

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, 1774.
A British propaganda print that depicts
the tarring and feathering of Boston
Commissioner of Customs John Malcolm
There were divisions in colonial society between farmers, large landowners, merchants, and those who claimed status and political deference as educated and wealthy colonial elites. There was a large number of moderates, and a substantial population of loyalists. Many took up arms to support the British and lost everything in the end. Taylor gives us a detailed portrait of the loyalist community, something not generally found in books written about the American Revolution. We get a characterization of the Patriot “mobs” that Patriot colonial elites sought to control and bend to their purpose: American Revolutions begins by revisiting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great short story about a mob tarring and feathering a wealthy suspected loyalist of the community in "My Kinsman Major Molineux."  Rather than a war that featured formal engagements between large armies--an impression left by standard narratives--Taylor argues that the Revolutionary War could be more properly characterized as a war of innumerable small raids and ambushes on both sides. There was no certainty about what kind of nation, if any, might emerge in this landscape of violence and anarchy. Peace with Britain and independence did not put an end to that uncertainty, as America remained fractious and in the throes of a number of unfolding political and social revolutions.

 A mocking American print by Elkanah 
Tisdale that shows a British foraging party
attacking cows, 1795

Taylor gives us a critical overview of the Federalist project--the U.S. Constitution--and explains its largely conservative nature. It was, he argues, a means by colonial elites and “gentlemen” of putting the brakes on the march to unqualified democratic rule, a circumstance often equated with “mob” rule among Federalists, as witnessed in the outbreaks of the so-called popular “regulator” movements on the frontiers and rural areas of the colonies (such as Shay’s Rebellion). He offers an astute account of how the Federalists, although a minority in the newly independent colonies, were able to successfully manage the creation and adoption of the U.S. Constitution. American Revolutions contains an astute analysis of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Taylor explains the reasons why it so resonated politically and became so influential. American Revolutions also explores what was happening during the conflict in the foreign territories that surrounded the colonies--the British, Spanish and French possessions on the continent and in the Caribbean--giving us an overview of the proximate context of the American Revolution.

The destruction of the the statue of King George at Bowling Green in lower
Manhattan during the Revolutionary War, from a print by William Walcutt
made in 1854..
All of these demonstrate virtues of Taylor’s work: the mix of novel topics, and the reexamination of received notions that leaves  the reader with a larger view of things.  And American Revolutions does not fail to deliver on the other delights of Taylor’s work, the iconoclasm--you will not forget the short shrift given John Paul Jones, the venerated founder of the U.S. Navy--and, as always, the extraordinary knack Taylor has for unearthing unfamiliar and apposite original source quotations. Those quotes, entirely fresh and unexpected, leave you wondering what else the canonical narratives have missed. It’s all part of the package of surprises that makes Taylor’s work reliably original and exciting scholarship.

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