America’s Revolutionary War is so encrusted in myth and preconceptions that there always seems room for another angle. Three new histories take only sidelong glances at the war itself, instead examining such aspects as motivation, political maneuvering and the significant people who never achieved the status of “Founding Fathers.”
FROM THE GROUND UP
T.H. Breen’s American Insurgents, American Patriots argues that without the anti-royalist groundswell that occurred throughout the colonies following Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts in 1774, the men now acknowledged as our Founding Fathers would have constituted no more than a debating society. The Coercive Acts were Britain’s tough response to the Boston Tea Party. In showing its willingness to punish the people of Boston indiscriminately, Britain simultaneously revealed the danger it posed to the freedoms of all colonials. Responding to that perceived danger, towns and villages from New Hampshire to Georgia began forming militias and “committees of safety” to resist imperial heavy-handedness. They used newspapers and pamphlets to advance their arguments and keep abreast of each other’s activities. Their collective pressure, Breen notes, made the First Continental Congress, which convened in Philadelphia in September 1774, far more radical in its outlook than it otherwise would have been. These local resistance units were manned by volunteers in the months leading up to the war; but as other histories have shown, volunteerism waned dangerously as the war progressed. Filled with anecdotes about citizen hyperactivity, Breen’s book is a valuable addition to Revolutionary War scholarship.
OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE
Jack Rakove’s Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America delineates the political realities Americans faced from just before the war began until the ascent of George Washington to the presidency. He does so by chronicling the political evolution and interactions of dozens of activists, among them the firebrands John and Samuel Adams; the moderates John Dickinson, Robert Morris, James Duane and John Jay; Washington as a military leader; Tom Paine as the supreme propagandist; George Mason as a constitutional theorist; and Henry and John Laurens as ambivalent anti-slavers. In the post-war period, Rakove dissects the uneven contributions of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison (“the greatest lawgiver of modernity”) and Alexander Hamilton. While Rakove’s research traverses well-worn territory, he presents an excellent overview of intricate Revolutionary politics and the role personality played in shaping them.
TRUTHS AND MYTHS
William Hogeland’s Declaration takes the reader inside the nine weeks of wheeling and dealing—May 1 to July 4, 1776—that culminated in the passage and signing of what is now called the Declaration of Independence. (Originally, it had no title.) Although America was fully embroiled in war at that time, sentiments still ran high in some of the colonies—particularly in Pennsylvania, where the Second Continental Congress was meeting—to reach a resolution with England that did not involve actual separation from the mother country. Hogeland describes how Samuel Adams and his faction, which burned for independence, conspired successfully with working-class radicals to turn Pennsylvania around. The author also shreds some myths about the Declaration, noting, for example, that it isn’t a legal document but an explanatory one; that it didn’t flow fully formed from Thomas Jefferson’s pen but was picked apart by other delegates before it was agreed on; and that it was not signed by the delegates on the day of passage (July 2, not July 4) but over a period of six months. Declaration is immensely readable and entertaining—almost like being there.