taylor revolutions

Alan Taylor’s book suggests that Trumpism might be less an aberration than the latest expression of long established traits of American political culture


Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton, 2016), 681pp.

In 1798, the fifth United States Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, empowering the President to imprison and deport any alien deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States”, making it more difficult for immigrants to become citizens and criminalising the making of “false” statements that were critical of the federal government.

War provided both context and justification: escalating diplomatic tensions between newly independent America and revolutionary France had resulted in French seizures of American merchant ships trading with the British. Without declaring a formal war, President John Adams in 1798 sent warships to attack French vessels in the West Indies. In this situation, identifying and expelling enemy aliens while coming down hard on home­grown dissent could be presented as justifiable and necessary.

Yet, influential voices of the day suggested other factors might be at play. Welcoming the clamp­down, Noah Webster, a lexicographer and political writer who would come to be known as the “father of American scholarship and education”, insisted that “the country would be as prosperous and much more happy if no European should set his foot on our shores”. For leading Federalists, the draconian new laws offered a means to discredit domestic opponents while closing the door on Irish immigrants who tended to vote Republican. Actuated just 22 years after the Declaration of Independence, whose preamble had celebrated human equality as a natural right divinely ordained, the raft of punitive legislation indicated that, rather than being of universal application, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were to be conditional, provisional, and subject to arbitrary (and non­heavenly) curtailment.

Looking back at the circumstances in which the United States of America came into being more than two centuries ago might seem of marginal relevance in the Age of Trump, when the wrecking ball activities of the new administration demand immediate, concerted and thorough­going resistance. Yet, as Alan Taylor’s formidably researched and magisterial new study documents, America’s revolutionary beginnings merit the critical attention of everyone opposed to the current turn. Although published before last year’s presidential elections, Taylor’s dense volume is replete with warning signals; cumulatively, its scholarship suggests that Trumpism might be less an aberration than the latest, more­brazen­than­ever expression of long established traits of American political culture.

Taylor, currently Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is a multiple award­winning American historian specialising in early U.S. history. He is known for a forensic microhistorical approach involving the intimate and systematic scrutiny of court records, land records, letters and diaries, combined with a narrative focus that prioritises story­telling over grand theorising.

Pointing debate to new direction

Taylor’s new study contributes to an existing body of work challenging the mythology and shibboleths enswathing the American Revolution while pointing the debate in new directions. In line with his perspective, the historian seeks to tease out the multidimensionality, complexity and messiness of it all. Breaking free of traditional narratives, with their focus on America’s eastern seaboard, he argues for a continent­wide perspective capable of exposing multiple fault lines and neglected arenas of strife. Through microscopic engagement with the archives, he seeks to wrest the story from established “makers of history” (whether the “Founding Fathers” themselves or subsequent defenders and wielders of American power) and enable other players to add their voices. The result is a sprawling, sonorous canvas, teeming with restless, often violent activity across a vast geography: as distant as it is possible to get from the sanitised capsule history which, enshrined in films and schoolbooks, reinforced through annual commemorations and parroted from the pulpits of Washington, continues to offer Americans a soothing, self­justificatory story about their nation’s origins.

One by one, Taylor demolishes the core elements of this construct. He shatters the notion that the American Revolution was orderly and restrained when compared with its counterparts in France and Russia, arguing that during the Revolutionary War, Americans “killed one another over politics and massacred Indians, who returned the bloody favours…. The dislocated proportion of the American population exceeded that of the French in their revolution. The American revolutionary turmoil also inflicted an economic decline that lasted for fifteen years in a crisis unmatched until the Great Depression of the 1930s” (page 3).

Competing interests

Nor was the story one of fearless nationalist spirit, united in its resistance to foreign domination. For Taylor, to argue thus is to invert cause and effect, for in reality the colonists were “reluctant nationalists” and the revolution constituted not the culmination of a process of nation­building but simply its start. He highlights the increasingly violent divisions among the colonists, split broadly between “Patriots” (supporters of independence) and “Loyalists” (opponents of it), but with “many more people waver[ing] in the middle”.

Erupting tensions took the shape not so much of a proto­nationalist uprising as of a full­fledged civil war that scythed through families and communities while laying waste the land. The third revisionist element in Taylor’s study is geographical. In making his case for a multiplicity of revolutions, the historian opens up frontiers, wrenches our gaze away from America’s eastern seaboard and the Atlantic, and invites us to survey the revolutionary war’s continental sweep. His particular interest lies in events and processes taking place beyond the Appalachian Mountains: the West as it was then understood. Without ignoring the familiar story of the growing crisis over British taxation, from the Stamp Act of 1765 through the Boston Tea Party and beyond, Taylor argues that conflicting visions of the role of the West, held by the British on the one hand and American settlers on the other, were an equally potent source of strife. Attempting to balance the scales, he links “western conflict with resistance to parliamentary taxes as equal halves of a constitutional crisis that disrupted the British Empire in North America”.

Matters were brought to a head by British victory in the Seven Years War with France, sealed by the 1763 Treaty of Paris. This burdened the winner with a vast national debt along with expensive new responsibilities. Hence the need for new sources of revenue—and for a constraining hand on American colonists whose impetus to press westwards was bound to provoke costly wars with Native Americans (Taylor uses the term “Indian” throughout). In October 1763, a royal proclamation ordered settlers to stay east of the Appalachians and barred colonial governors from granting western lands to speculators. This shocked colonists who, after helping to conquer Canada, “had expected the British to help them dispossess the Indians in the West”. Subsequent changes in imperial land policy incensed the colonial gentry by blocking their plans to speculate in vast tracts of land acquired for paltry fees as part of their westward expansion into Indian territory.

The locking of horns between British imperialism and American colonial elites represents one axis of class conflict highlighted by Taylor’s research. While eschewing the terminology of class analysis, he has a great deal to tell us about the social divisions of the day and the devastation that war wrought on the lives of ordinary people. As he notes, the post­1776 Continental Army “belied the myth of heroic citizen­soldiers putting down the plow to pick up their muskets and win the war. In fact, a small regular army of poor men sustained the Patriot cause by enduring years of hard duty and public neglect.”

Desertion was rife and mutinies struck with ever growing frequency, encouraging communities to thrust military duty on marginal men: apprentices, transients, beggars, slaves and indentured migrants abounded among the new recruits.

Taylor’s excavation of the archives also brings us face­to­face with the gory, stomach­churning reality of the revolutionary war: less a sequence of heroic battlefield encounters than an unending orgy of looting and slaughter: “Desperate for fodder and food, both armies stole from civilians, ruining hundreds of farms and impoverishing thousands of people…. The worst looting and killing derived from the vicious competition of irregular partisans. Rarely paid, they sought compensation in plunder…. They assassinated foes, executed prisoners, and looted and burned the homes of civilians caught in the middle” (page 245).

Consequences for Indians and slaves

For two categories of Americans—Indians and slaves—the revolutionary war would have particularly savage consequences. For Native American tribes and nations at the sharp end of the colonists’ remorseless westward drive, the war was experienced as successive shock waves: the disruption of trading routes; an epidemic of smallpox which “halved the native population of the Great Plains between 1779 and 1783”; above all, a thoroughgoing, genocidal assault on their right to exist. The “empire of liberty” was in fact premised on the ability of white settlers to obtain private land by taking it from Indians; on the frontier, the War of Independence became “racialised”, generating a white nationalism that viewed all Indians as enemies ripe for destruction.

Slavery, already well entrenched in the American colonies before the outbreak of hostilities (Taylor notes that during the 1760s, the colonists imported 3,65,000 slaves, more than in any preceding 10­year period), also played a crucial role in unfolding events. Whether in the Deep South, where the highest concentration of slaves was to be found, or in the “enlightened” North, slave­owning Patriots viewed their human stock as part of the property their revolution sought to defend. In addition, slavery served as a distinguishing marker.

Patriots argued that if compelled to accept imperial taxes they would become a subject people, “as tame and abject slaves as the Blacks we rule over”, as George Washington put it. The disconnect between the language of liberty in which Patriots set out their goals and the ground realities of enslaved existence provoked some slaves to throw in their lot with the British: Taylor cites the example of the royal governor of Virginia who, in 1775, offered freedom to any slave who joined the ranks of his army. By contrast, a Patriot­enacted Virginia law enticed white recruits with the promise of a hundred acres of land—and a slave.

In the northern colonies, some slaves gained freedom by enlisting in Washington’s army, but others found themselves rebuffed. Far from withering away after the revolution, slavery became more powerfully entrenched: by 1820 the number of the enslaved had doubled to 1.5 million, rendering the Old South the largest slave society of the modern world, one whose lucrative plantation economy, fortified by the arrival of cotton, was fuelling America’s capitalist development.

At times, the ambitiousness of Taylor’s book threatens to overwhelm the reader; the plethora of detail can be both daunting and distracting, making it difficult to parse the material presented and draw conclusions. Further confusion is created by the accommodation of a broadly chronological narrative history within a structure defined by thematically titled chapters (“Colonies”, “Rebels”, “Wests”, “Shocks”, and so on). While the final chapter, “Legacies”, attempts to draw the multiplicity of threads together, a more concentrated effort in this direction would have been helpful, especially for lay readers wary of the book’s more than a hundred pages of notes and references.

The strange is also familiar

Such quibbles apart, Taylor’s colossal engagement with this complex, slippery and much mythologised slice of America’s history is to be celebrated and put to democratic use. From its pages, crowded with detail and noisy with the passions of the day, the lived reality of the revolutionary war leaps out at us, enveloping us in its disorder, dislocation and chorus of contradictory voices. At times, too, the strange transforms into the familiar. Could it really be that, back in 1800, Republicans, led by wealthy Virginia plantation owners, were already seeking votes by combining dog­whistle racism with a “commitment” to the economic betterment of poor white men? Through his heroic efforts in the archives, Taylor has the evidence to prove it and has made it available to all of us.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.