Gordon Wood Reviews Mary Beth Norton's ‘1774’ for the Wall Street JournalHistorians in the News
tags: books, Gordon Wood, 1774
The 1619 Project, launched in August 2019 by the New York Times and designed to revise the teaching of American history in schools, claims that one of the primary reasons the Americans decided to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776 was to protect their institution of slavery. To back up this remarkable claim, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, where the project first appeared, cited the November 1775 proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, offering freedom to any enslaved person fleeing to the British army—a military expedient only. Then, to confirm the importance of this proclamation, the editor quoted the words of historian Jill Lepore from her recent history of the United States: “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.”
Mary Beth Norton, in her new book, “1774,” suggests otherwise. Her account of the long year 1774, from the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 to the outbreak of hostilities in April 1775, shows conclusively that the scales had been tipped in favor of independence long before Dunmore issued his proclamation. Ms. Norton, who is professor of history at Cornell and a former president of the American Historical Association, does not fundamentally challenge the traditional trajectory of events in that decisive year. What she does do is enrich the narrative, filling in the story with a staggering amount of detail based on prodigious research in an enormous number of archives. She doesn’t just tell us how many pounds of tea (“nearly 600,000”) the East India Co. placed on seven ships sailing to Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, S.C., in late 1773, but she describes the kind of tea that was sent: “1,586 chests of Bohea, 70 chests of Congou, 290 chests Singlo, 70 chests of Hyson, and 35 chests of Souchong.” Some readers might think this is specification run wild.