The Dark Side of the American Revolution

John Trumbull’s The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Alan Taylor demolishes the fiction of happy warriors united in a righteous cause against ruthless overlords.

September-October 2016

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 704 pp., $37.50.

ALAN TAYLOR’S American Revolutions demolishes the fiction—deeply ensconced in the country’s national mythology—of happy warriors united in a righteous cause against ruthless overlords. If the American Revolution was noble and just, it was also brutal and morally compromised. If it was inspiring and grandiose, it was also dispiriting and parochial. It is this story—of America’s initial civil war, with many sides involved in the gruesome fighting—that Taylor aims to tell in his new book.

Alongside Gordon S. Wood and Joseph J. Ellis, Taylor is one of America’s most prominent scholars on the revolutionary period. His 1995 book, William Cooper’s Town, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize, but it is that book’s successor, American Colonies, which shares an obvious kinship with American Revolutions. His earlier work was notable for offering a multinational, multicultural approach to the colonial period. From 1400 to 1820, the “Americans”—those descended from the British—were only one segment of the population living in the area. There were, in addition to the Yankees and the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Portuguese and many Indian communities. These peoples overlapped and interacted, and their behavior was deeply shaped by the actions and circumstances of the others. Telling the story of one of those actors necessitates telling the story of the others.

Taylor’s new book applies the same wide-lens approach to the revolutionary period. It takes nothing away from it to say that this approach is less exciting or ground breaking here than in American Colonies, because the years in which George Washington became a household name are more familiar. Those years have simply been far better studied by scholars and better portrayed by storytellers than the preceding centuries. This is a magisterial work, but it is one that relies heavily on other sources: the work of Wood, Peter Onuf and Eliga Gould, in particular.

What his new effort lacks in novelty, it makes up for in comprehensiveness. It is fair to say that no other book offers in a single volume as much appropriate detail about as many players from as many vantage points in the revolutionary era. Separate chapters are devoted to slavery, international alliances, naval warfare, the Constitutional Congress and other subjects. At the same time, some sort of chronological order is imposed, with a background chapter on the prerevolutionary period opening the book and a chapter on the postrevolutionary period concluding it. There are more than a hundred pages of endnotes, with virtually every paragraph ending with a note directing the reader to several books and journal articles. American Revolutions reflects a lifetime of scholarship, which makes it both learned and dense. It can often read like a textbook, albeit one with some novel perspectives. Readers will profit from Taylor’s work, but they won’t always enjoy it.

Although it forms a cohesive narrative, American Revolutions somehow omits interesting characters from what was a world-shattering epoch. Though the core of the book acknowledges the traditional actors—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—they do not monopolize center stage. In fact, there is no center stage here, because all the players are constantly shifting around. The plural use of “revolution” in the title is indicative of the book’s perspective. Taylor warns that he “emphasizes the multiple and clashing visions of revolution pursued by the diverse American peoples of the continent.”

It is not only humans who influence the course of events in these pages. “Most interpretations of the revolution’s causes subordinate western issues, treating them as minor irritants less significant than the clash over new taxes,” writes Taylor. Geography may not be destiny, but it is formative. In this case, the existence of the trans-Appalachian West had unforeseen consequences on all players who came into contact with it. The British made promises to protect indigenous inhabitants from the Patriots that they couldn’t keep, revealing unreliability to the former and weakness to the latter. (Taylor refers to supporters of independence as Patriots and the English partisans as Loyalists, underscoring his perspective that all were then Americans.) The Patriots discovered that settlers couldn’t be dissuaded from conquering new lands and had to be pacified. Whereas the British tried to restrain the settlers, Washington and Jefferson felt obliged to encourage them, knowing they were incorrigible. It’s a form of history from below, but of course the settlers weren’t the lowest on the totem pole.