So Memorial Day, which is all about history for me, has caused me to reconsider some long held assumptions about our most important national event, the American Revolution.As anyone who has read this blog knows, I normally despise what I consider revisionist history, i.e., the typical modern claptrap of ethano-gender hash that tries to postulate that women wrote the Declaration of Independence or that the Constitution was appropriated from the Iroquois. However, if one is to be intellectually honest, most history is biased one way or the other, and the trick, as I tell my tutoring students, is to understand as much as possible the bias of the author. Good historians, of course, recognize and acknowledge their own biases and inform their readers.
SO, with that in mind, I have been reading two really outstanding books on the American Revolutionary period.
Now both of these books would be considered revisionist in nature, as they offer a very different perspective on the traditional understanding of the American Revolution.
Although some would consider their views that our Founding Fathers were a bunch of racist, greedy, misogynists to be validated by these books, I would strongly disagree.
Unfortunately, our history has turned our Founders into some sort of mythical figures, without acknowledging that they were men, with all the flaws and vices that men have. While many of them were certainly slaveholders, and most of them had a somewhat condescending view of common farmers and and laborers, they nonetheless tried to establish an enduring form of government that was certainly not only more egalitarian than anything then in existence, but more importantly, able to change in a non-violent (mostly) and methodical way to suit the mores and needs of the people.
The first of the these books by Alan Taylor looks at the American Revolution across a more sweeping time period, from right before the French and Indian War to the re-election of Thomas Jefferson.
The author examines a number of under-studied themes, including women, slavery, Indians, and, well greed, as contributors and factors in the forming of America.
He does so without too much polemic and with a generally balanced view of not only the sometimes less than honorable motives of our Patriotic Founders, but the blunders of the British that could have, with only a few small reversals, changed the entire course of the Revolution.
The other interesting narrative is the not well understood history of the Revolution as a global conflict when the French, Dutch, and Spanish enter the war on the colonists side, requiring the British to divert significant resources that could have been brought to bear during the critical last couple years of the war.
Finally, the author shows that even after peace was concluded with Britain, the survival of the democratic experiment called the United States was far from certain. Broke, angry, and bloodied, the colonies nearly split apart and it may not be too far to call it a miracle that they held together long enough for our Constitution to become the law of the land.
The second book by Holger Houck is far darker, but nonetheless a story that needs to be told and understood. Now even I was brought up on stories of the American Revolution as primarily a military affair of brave colonials holding out against the might of the British Empire. Well, clearly that is not the entire story. The American Revolution was a strange amalgam of an insurgency in the classic sense of the word. In fact, it would be a fascinating case study to analyze the Revolution as a successful insurgency, or, from the British perspective, of a COIN operation gone wrong.
Moreover, the American Revolution was in fact, our first civil war, pitting Patriots against Loyalists in often bloody, nasty conflicts that saw widespread terror and atrocities across the colonies, from the practice of tarring and feathering, to throwing Loyalists into prison without trial, to brutalities against women on both sides, and other things that traditional histories chose not to cover.
This author wonders down the typical liberal polemic in his introduction, but not too far, as he has to acknowledge that America had no guillotine, but it was not a clean war to be sure.
I might not start a comprehensive study of this time with these two books, I think John Ferling has some far better books for new students to this topic, but for the more experienced reader, these are very thought-provoking books that are very worthwhile.
They will definitely make you think and re-consider what you thought you knew---and that, after all is not revisionist history, but good history that goes deeper and challenges conventional wisdom.
That is history that I like.