Thursday, July 27, 2017

What We’re Reading: American Revolution, Grim and Vivid.

America’s origin is a subject of perennial interest to historians; they return to it because it is a story central to our sense of national identity. We trace from those seminal events a continuity in our ideas and ideals about the nature of government. The story we tell ourselves defines us, it expresses what is unique about us as Americans, and it is this story that is the foundation of what Americans have long viewed as their destiny and their exceptionalism among nations. It informs our present-day ideas about our sense of who we are in the world and how we should act. So history that challenges our conventional and emotionally vested understanding of the American Revolution has important implications.

We have long thought of the American Revolution as a conflict that was in its way less disorderly and violent than other revolutions, both those that preceded it and those that followed. In our retelling, we have shadowed the violence of the American Revolution, fashioning a romantic story of our national origin, one that is primarily a story about men of democratic character and high ideals engaged in reasonable—and often eloquent—debate. We talk of the noble ideas that animated the drive for independence. Why? Hoock argues that the violence of the revolution was part of what was in fact an internecine conflict, a civil war. We have left out of the story the huge numbers of colonial Loyalists who either stood aside during the conflict or actually took up arms with the British imperial forces, and we have forgotten the violence and terror that was directed by both Patriots and Loyalists against each other—as if it was merely incidental to what was a philosophical and political disagreement. Hoock argues that this was a necessary part of both reconciliation and national identity. It reflects the way Americans thought about themselves and the way they wanted the world to see them, as a people more humane and civilized in their conduct of war than their enemies, and thus worthy of the respect and esteem of other nations. The Patriots wanted the world to think of them this way, and as Americans we have made that claim ever since. And while the violence of British troops against colonials was long a part of the national narrative of the Revolutionary War (and the subsequent War of 1812) that memory too faded away in the interest of building the Anglo-American alliance of the 20th Century.

The dashing Banastre Tarleton was a British soldier who lead
a Loyalist cavalry notorious for their slaughter of soldiers
and prisoners in the fighting in the Carolinas
(detail from a portrait by Joshua Reynolds).

It is perhaps inevitable, given the available sources, that any history attempting to uncover the violence of the American Revolution is going to have the feel of a miscellany. It will be a collection of the more well documented, bloody, and lurid episodes—those that were investigated or recorded. Scars of Independence often has that feel: The more notable examples of especially violent encounter are presented as representative of the nature of the conflict as a whole. But they are supported by a wealth of research and detail here that certainly will leave readers convinced that our ideas about the gentlemanly or restrained nature of the conflict at America’s birth is illusory. Alan Taylor's fine books on the Revolutionary era (American Revolutions: A Continental History 1750-1804 and the Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832) will have prepared some readers for the grim account of war between Patriots and Loyalists in the Southern states. In Scars of Independence, however, the violence of the American Revolution is the central subject and theme. This is the first book to have done that.

John Trumbull's 1831 painting, The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 5, 1777.
British bayonets and atrocities using bayonets were the great terror of Patriot soldiers.

William Franklin, the son of
Benjamin Franklin, was British
governor of New Jersey and a
Loyalist, much to his father's
Hoock’s purpose is to end our blindness to the violent nature of the war for American independence, to have us understand that such violence and its repercussions are the nature of war between proximate and in some cases familial antagonists. But perhaps the more interesting parts of this chronicle of violence, the ones that give us some relief from the litany as well as much to ponder, is his explanation of how the American Revolution can give us—when its true character is rightly acknowledged—important insight into the strategic issues surrounding the application and escalation of violent force. As Hoock has taken care to demonstrate, “An effective narrative of victimhood helped the Revolutionaries legitimate their rebellion, stir national sentiment, and rally support—even and especially when they suffered defeats. By contrast, the British were hampered both by divisions over what forms and degrees of violence to deploy, and by an unwillingness or inability to match the Americans in the war of rhetoric.”

But Scars of Independence is not just a powerful and detailed chronicle of Revolutionary War violence, and not just a polemic about the political dangers of the use and escalation of violence. Above all it is a poignant story about those caught up in the violence, ordinary farmers and merchants, immigrants and frontiersmen; the families that had to make often fatal choices, as they witnessed their livelihoods destroyed, their homes and farms plundered and laid waste by armed Patriots, Loyalists, and the British Army. It is a story, sadly, unexceptional in the annals of war, no matter who might be waging it.

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