Alan Taylor has a new book out on the Revolution.

Historians in the News
tags: Alan Taylor, American Revolutions

Gordon S. Wood’s edition of “John Adams: Writings From the New Nation 1784-1826” was recently published by the Library of America.

In this volume, [American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Alan] Taylor seeks to set the American Revolution in the broadest possible context — not only involving it in all the struggles of the rival European empires in the New World, but making the native peoples and the African slaves more important, indeed, even central, to it….

Insofar as anything is highlighted in Taylor’s narrative, it is the many Patriot hypocrisies and contradictions. Southerners, Taylor suggests, engaged in the Revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” The Patriots’ talk of liberty was very limited. They “defended freedom for white men while asserting their domination over enslaved blacks.” Occasionally the Patriots were not very patriotic. Following the surrender of the American forces trying to take Quebec in 1775, “a quarter of the captured Patriots switched sides to enlist with the British.”

Sometimes Taylor’s emphasis on irony and contradiction slips into anachronism. Because the colonial legislatures denied women, free blacks and propertyless white males the vote, he concludes that “colonial America was a poor place to look for democracy.” But where in the 18th century was there a better place to look for democracy? Despite restrictions on the suffrage, the colonies still possessed the most democratic governments in the world at that time.

In his account Taylor tends to stress the bad behavior of ordinary white men, especially in their dealings with people of other races. Ignoring government officials and their own genteel leaders, they pursued their selfish interests without any scruples whatsoever. In the west, where fighting between settlers and Indians was especially bloody and vicious, whites tended to run amok and slaughter Indians freely in pursuit of their “genocidal goals.” They wanted land and respected governmental authority only when they needed its protection from the Indians. “Only fear could trump greed on the frontier.” In the end Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty” inevitably “favored white men at the expense of Indians and blacks.”

In Taylor’s Revolution there aren’t many heroes. Washington was one at Trenton, but even he, in secretly buying land in violation of the law, shaded the truth in pursuit of his self-interest.

Read entire article at NYT

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