American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804

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Most of us understand the American Revolution as “the Good Revolution.” Led by selfless demigods and fought for the highest ideals, the American Revolution is the story of a ragtag force of citizen-soldiers who defeat an invading army of ruthless professionals and mercenaries. We are proud that, somehow, the Revolution avoided the ideological and violent excesses of revolutions in Europe and insurrections in the colonial West Indies. In his new book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Alan Taylor replaces these cherished and often self-serving myths with a new and vital vision of the American Revolution. From its origins in the imperial rivalries of interior North America to its culmination in Jefferson’s expansive “empire of liberty,” Taylor’s revolution is a continental event. Sparked by conflicts over Indian land, imperial power, and the authority to tax, the Revolution gave birth to a fragile, deeply divided nation whose constitutional credo, “We the People,” was at the time a useful fiction. Taylor’s fresh, surprising narrative restores the Revolution to its actual foundations, shorn of retrospective myth and fully connected to the history that would lead to civil war.

In the wake of conflicts with the other great European colonial powers, the British Crown established itself in 1763 as the dominant power along the east coast of North America and much of the Caribbean. It was an enviably lucrative position and one that the British wished to stabilize through a system of political deals with Native American nations in the American interior and through the maintenance of an armed peace in the tropics. Unfortunately, the Crown’s own subjects refused to cooperate. A mix of land hunger, racial superiority, and desire for personal liberty fueled the drive to expand into Indian lands: from large-scale land-grabs by local governments and speculators to the anarchic spread of fiercely individualistic pioneers. The conflict between these local ambitions and British international policy drove a wedge between the mother country and her colonies. Most colonists viewed themselves as typical British citizens, deserving of British support and protection. They resented British restrictions on western expansion and British attempts to raise revenue in the colonies through tax and trade policy. Elites in the coastal cities mobilized crowds that turned these resentments into bitter clashes about the political and economic position of the colonies.

The imperial crisis deepened the divisions in American society. For Patriots, the perceived overreach of the British government destroyed the sacred freedoms ensured them by the British Constitution, freedoms they meant to secure through revolution. For Loyalists, continued allegiance to the Crown was the only defense against the bloody tyranny of mob rule. For white frontiersmen, British alliances with Native American peoples not only thwarted their personal quest to live free but amounted to a monstrous betrayal of racial solidarity that left them at the mercy of savages. For enslaved Africans, fighting against the rebellious colonials offered them both freedom and a measure of vengeance. With battle lines running throughout the cracks of colonial society, the Revolutionary War was not restricted to the battlefield. While the Continental Army and state militias engaged British forces, vicious guerilla-style campaigns spread terror across the western frontier. Mob violence for and against independence convulsed the cities of the East, as Americans eager to be on the winning side took to the streets in response to the latest news about the fortunes of the Revolution. The Revolution was America’s first civil war. Hungry and undersupplied armies ravaged farms and homes as they seized what they needed. Countless Americans suffered under martial law or at the hands of self-appointed revolutionary vigilante committees. Through epic perseverance, tireless diplomatic maneuvering, and the timely intervention of military and financial allies, the Patriots defeated the British; but the battle scars, shattered loyalties, and resentments of the war lived on in the coming political battles about the form and future of the new nation. The Constitution was a patch to these divisions that ultimately could not hold.

American Revolutions gives readers new insight into the revolutionary generation, taking a fresh look at the heroic and dangerous, hopeful and tragic times they shaped and were shaped by. In brisk prose that seamlessly combines historical insight with human-scale detail, Taylor brings the stories of foot soldiers and diplomats, slaves and refugees, heroes and traitors to vivid life. But, even more important, Taylor shows how the tangled and often vicious realities of a violent revolution marked the nation from birth. Connecting the lived experience of the Revolutionary War to ideals and compromises that created the American vision of democracy, Taylor not only recasts how we think about out past; he shines a light on the obscure roots of the deep divisions that we wrestle with today. Hardcover, 704 pages.

Alan Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His work has garnered two Pulitzer Prizes, one of which was awarded to his most recent book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832, which was also a finalist for the National Book Award.
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