grew up on the “history,” lore and mythology of the United States. My father grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and so got a very specific, and I’d argue somewhat inaccurate, story of his country from his pre-university education. He passed that on to me in what he told me but also in his numerous books – many partially illustrated – about American history, which he gave me, many of which were published when he was a child or teen.
As I got older, I read books that were a little more critical. But even the history of the US I read in my 20s, and the history of the War of Independence I read around the same time (by the great Barbara Tuchman) were what you might call “celebratory.” They weren’t necessarily myth-making enterprises, but they both had the goal of convincing the reader that the events they were covering were mostly good, for the best, and for the betterment of the world.
Through other histories, Wikipedia, and osmosis, I of course knew that the War of Independence wasn’t entirely a positive thing. (I should probably mention that some of my ancestors were likely United Empire Loyalists, so I definitely knew this.) But I really was not prepared for the sheer chaos depicted in this particular story of the war, its causes and its legacies.
In my 20s, I may have sided with the Patriots. But, I have to say, in my 40s, I think I would have sided with the Loyalists. Really, neither side was right. From this distance I can say that the only side that has any moral authority on it are the natives, who did very little to deserve any of this. But, if I were a living adult at the time, of European ancestry, I feel like I would have been a Loyalist. The Patriots were often unhinged and many were extreme hypocrites. (The idea that the minor taxes they paid were somehow akin to slavery is bonkers.)
We continue to have annoying, interminable debates about “free speech” in North America, and especially in the US. And I wish that the supposedly “pro free speech” crowd would read more about the behaviour of the pro-freedom Patriots during the revolution. Just as now, it’s free speech for me but not for thee. So much of what is irritating and contradictory about American politics today appears to have had its germ in the Revolution.
The gist of this is is that I’m very happy to have read this book but far happier to have not lived through this time. Though the end result was much better for a certain portion of the population of North America, there was a lot of harm and loss to get to that point.
And the early Republic was an absolute disaster as a society, seemingly much worse than the colonies that proceeded it. (Higher taxes! notably.) I have long been aware of the motivations of the Founding Fathers in the creation of the second version of the Republic that ultimately prevailed. But I’m not sure I was truly aware of how self-serving it was. I’ve read The Federalist Papers and The Anti-Federalist Papers years ago, but I read them as political theory, not as the motivated reasoning of particular people. This is a useful corrective for me, because these arguments were not so much lofty, well-meaning political philosophizing, but rather, in part, arguments in favour of systems that would benefit the authors and their friends.
Having just read American Colonies, this book is a little repetitive in parts. But it’s still a pretty great history of this extremely important time in world history, that pays more attention to the losers than any other history of this time that I have read.
Read my reviews of the first and third book in the series: