During the bicentennial era, study of the American Revolution burst open. Debates got fierce. In retrospect, though, almost the entire argument turned on one problem. This was political society, meaning relations of power among people who had it and people who found a chance to claim it during a time of upheaval, breakdown, and construction. I am not diminishing the tremendous gains that scholars made about people who were not white and/or male, just suggesting that public power remained central. Then the topic of American Revolution went cold, abandoned to retellers of familiar tales and biographers of “great men.” Now it is alive again. Conferences, anthologies, monographs, and the very recent joint issues of the William and Mary Quarterly (74, no. 4 [October 2017]) and the Journal of the Early Republic (37, no. 4 [Winter 2017]) all demonstrate as much. So does Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804. Taylor brings the bicentennial scholarship together, including all its gains about people who were not white and/or male. But he goes beyond it, addressing a big absence in just about all the bicentennial-era work, and expanding the terms in which the Revolution needs to be understood. Taylor’s account can stand comparison to another ambitious attempt at large understanding, Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991). Both books stretch revolutionary time, Wood from George II to Andrew Jackson, and Taylor from the onset of the Seven Years’ War to the first Jefferson administration. Wood stretches the Revolution conceptually, with his three-part invention of monarchy, republicanism, and democracy. Taylor, following on his own continent-spanning American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001), stretches revolutionary space, all across the eastern half of North America and in some ways beyond it. Many more characters than Wood’s gentlemen and plebeians stalk Taylor’s pages. All acted in terms of both their own situations and the large issues. Taylor also fills in a gap that yawned across most of the bicentennial scholarship: that regarding the era’s wars. That had almost seemed a separate subject, despite the sophisticated work of John Shy, Piers Mackesy, Don Higginbotham, Charles Royster, and a few others. John Adams, who famously observed that the Revolution was over before a shot was fired, and Benjamin Rush, who thought that the war might be over but the Revolution had barely begun, would have agreed. The title, American Revolutions (note the plural), summarizes Taylor’s point. The main story does remain destroying an empire and building a republic. But Britain’s attempted reforms emerged from a general imperial problem, not just from its war debts. The reforms provoked a full imperial crisis rather than a mere tax revolt. White colonists had to realize that their presumed proud Britishness was turning into an insoluble problem. Indigenous people had to face rapidly deteriorating relations with colonizers who wanted their land, with agents of a distant empire, and among one another. People were expanding liberty as an idea, a goal, and a set of practices. Slavery, mostly of Africans but still ensnaring indigenous people, pervaded the colonized world. In 1776 South Carolina leader William Henry Drayton told settlers that if they beat the Cherokees they could have their land, and enslave them too. But slavery began to crack open, both among enslaved people who found a chance to act and on each side of the imperial conflict. That crack would not close. An entire system, or set of systems, failed. Both the era’s wordy disputes and its bloody wars were about basic issues. Taylor’s people lived through transformations that spanned half a century, and that changed the terms of life across more than half a continent. War that sprang from the breakdown of imperial institutions and identity merged with indigenous/settler-colonizer war that imperial institutions could not resolve. The era’s intertwined wars did not begin at Lexington and Concord and did not end at Yorktown. In all of this rich discussion, Taylor does not reduce anybody’s motives to any single-factor explanation. Nor does he diminish the creativity of people’s thought as they dealt with a failing empire and turned ramshackle post-empire polities into a republic that has endured. But he does address how the white, newly imperial republic inherited all the problems of the continent-spanning colonial situation, resolving only its problems of political society in a permanent, acceptable way. Recently Taylor and Wood shared an end-of-conference platform. Wood noted then that, for all their gains, historians of the Revolution have not reached a larger public. By bringing the war back into the Revolution, Taylor addresses one reason for that apparent lack of interest. Lay readers still equate the Revolution with the Revolutionary War. So what was the warfare all about, in the midst of everything else? Wood also raised a larger problem: no Revolution, no civil war. How was that so, beyond banal chronology? Taylor shows how the Revolution emerged from and altered, but did not end, a colonial order that was much larger than the thirteen colonies. What did not end continued, haunting the republic until its institutions, like Britain’s, choked, and it became a failing state. Taylor presents the Revolution as exploding from the colonial world as historians now can see it. He shows how people faced situations beyond their previous imaginations. The enormous scope of his understanding also points toward linking together the republic’s troubled origins, its huge achievements, and its eventual collapse. That connection needs making in terms as rich as what Taylor shows about the link between the many “American colonies” of his previous synoptic book and the separate but connected American revolutions that he presents here. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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