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Book Review: Independence

By (June 21, 2014) No Comment

Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolutionindependence cover

By Thomas P. Slaughter

Hill and Wang, 2014


Historian Thomas Slaughter’s new book Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution enters quite innocently into this summer’s War of the Wars on ground that would ordinarily be uncontested. Every year, American publishers schedule books centering around the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to appear in the summertime, so they’ll all be on the bookstore “new releases” table right around the 4th of July. But in this particular year, a rival idol has been raised up, because in July of 1914, the First World War began. For the last year, the Great War has been receiving anniversarian attention from popular historians, and that attention will only ramp up in the year’s remaining months.

Those bookstore front tables will therefore be of two minds this summer, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing; it throws all those 4th of July books back on their own resources, and since the majority of WWI historians take their business very seriously, many watery retreads of John Adams and George Washington will look every bit as sickly as they are. Luckily, Slaughter’s Independence is strong enough to take any amount of fair competition; it’s a major synthesis, as powerful a book on its complicated subject as we’ve had since Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a generation ago.

Slaughter takes the widest possible view of his subject. Where most histories of the “tangled roots” of the American Revolution only follow those roots to a fairly shallow depth (and only tend to untangle the American-British ones), Slaughter ranges his inquiry back nearly two centuries and draws a picture of dozens of quarrels brewing:

The war for American independence promised revolution after a century that had brought none. Americans expressed what they hoped for when they took sides, much as they had in previous contests – backcountry North Carolinians versus merchants and Tidewater slave owners; squatters and tenants against landlords in western Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey, and the Hudson Valley; frontiersmen against Indians, the Revolution being simply an occasion to fight the Indians again. But it was not always simple, or the sides and ambitions clear. Sailors fought against the Royal Navy, slaves against masters where they dared and the opportunity presented itself, and the urban poor fought for a better life and full employment. Settlers in Concord and all the New England villages that were kin to it, and other rural villages in other colonies, fought to recover a sense of community that they felt was slipping away from them; evangelical Dissenters in Virginia and the Carolinas fought for greater religious freedom and a stronger voice in state government and local affairs.

The central drama of Independence is the slow, interconnected rise in temperature of all these various quarrels; by Slaughter’s convincing metric, these quarrels over the course of 150 years eventually reached such a tempo that around the 1760s that if the British Empire hadn’t existed, the American colonies would have had to invent it in order to rebel against it. And as in all these accounts, there tends to be a locus to all that colonial discontent:

New Englanders did not welcome “interference,” nor were they cowed by saber rattling from London. And their republicanism translated into active participation in church affairs, often to the chagrin of their ministers, who balked at their pettiness and ungenerous interpretations of contractual obligations. They sued each other often and squabbled over such matters as how much firewood or food they owed the manse.

Slaughter has a scholarly, slightly ponderous writing style – this is a weighty book – but the narrative is also studded with neatly-phrased observations, as when he comments that “In May 1754, forty Virginia militiamen, minus seven lost in the woods, under the command of twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Colonel George Washington, fired an opening volley in the American Revolution.” And time and again he takes a very refreshingly elevated view of some of the Revolution’s most vexed little incidents, reducing decades of conjectural tilting to quick and masterful summation, as in the frequently-argued case of the Boston Massacre:

It mattered little that the facts were impossible to sort out – who shot whom; who, if anyone, gave the soldiers orders to fire and to cease firing; how much of the crowd spontaneously gathered an how much was orchestrated for political effect; what was the intent of anyone in particular; and who were the true victims that night. There are strong grounds for suspicions, but only clues and contradictory testimony on which to base them. A witness who swore that he was no more than two feet from Captain Preston heard him order his men to “fire.” Another swore that he heard Preston order the men to fire and then curse them for not complying more quickly. Others heard someone order the soldiers to fire but could not be sure who, whether members of the crowd, the corporal, or the captain; still others testified that Preston may have actually said “do not fire” or nothing at all.

Independence takes a searchingly comprehensive look at the factors that eventually culminated in all the things the US so gaudily celebrates on the 4th of July. It offers a wonderfully multifaceted new investigation of this oft-investigated subject – it deserves, in other words, a spot on the table.