Thomas Slaughter takes the Founding Fathers' claims about the Revolution seriously

Historians in the News
tags: Founding Fathers, American Revolution



Toward the end of his long life, John Adams famously defined the "radical change" that constituted "the real American Revolution" as the loss of "an habitual affection for England." Large numbers of colonists had deserted their legitimate government and established in its place a loose confederation of republican states: "Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had ever before effected," Adams said. Well aware of how easily that revolution might have gone awry, he asked, Whence unity out of diversity?

Thomas P. Slaughter, the most recent in a long line of talented men and women who have taken up the challenge posed by Adams, seeks an answer in a return to basics. He takes seriously the words of the North American colonists who left the British Empire in 1776. Readers will find little in his new Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution (Hill and Wang) about republican ideology, consumer culture, slavery, native peoples, Atlantic trade, or other topics that have preoccupied recent historians. Slaughter, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, appreciates that scholarship. But he does not see how it explains why 13 clocks struck at once.

Overriding the remarkable diversity and disconnectedness of the colonies, he writes, was a shared political discourse refined in more than a century of frustration among the colonists about their status within the empire. Slaughter devotes the first part of his book to (overly) detailed accounts of political disputes from the 17th century on, all of which make the same point: English-speaking colonists had always celebrated independence as an exercise of "limited autonomy," while the British saw colonial assertiveness as "an attitude, a swagger, a presumption" that bordered on defiance and begged for discipline...




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