In Our First Civil War, historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands brings to life the families, communities and tribes torn apart by opposing beliefs during the American Revolution.
Our First Civil War is a concise history of the American Revolution told largely through first-person accounts from letters, diaries and memoirs written by the Founders, prominent Loyalists and other lesser-known participants. Why did you take that approach? Were any of the documents difficult to find and research?
I myself am most engaged by primary sources: the words of the men and women who lived and made history. So it comes naturally for me to write history that way—and indications are that my readers like it.
As for documents, as the digital world expands, historical research becomes easier. There was almost nothing I wanted to see for this book, by way of letters, diaries and the like, that wasn’t available online.
You wrote The First American about Benjamin Franklin 20 years ago. Why have you now come back to the American Revolution, in a book that again looks closely at Franklin, among others?
While recently writing about the Civil War (of the 1860s), I remembered how divisive the Revolutionary War had been. And with the civil war model in mind, I took a new look and discovered how apt a model it is for viewing that earlier conflict.
You devote a considerable amount of the book to Franklin’s evolution from believing in a transatlantic British empire to his firm advocacy for independence. How was he pivotal to the Revolution’s ultimate success?
No single person is indispensable in something as large as the American Revolution. But Franklin comes close. He was a great fan of the British Empire until the people who ran that empire treated him like a foolish and venal provincial. He then concluded there was no future for people like him within the empire. George Washington had a similar experience. They were both unlikely revolutionaries, but British folly provoked them beyond forgiveness.
Some readers may be shocked to learn that Franklin’s son William was not only a prominent Loyalist but also someone who instigated what can be seen as a Loyalist terror campaign late in the war. Why did he take such a different path from his father?
Benjamin Franklin had revolted against his own parents and against the theocrats who ran Boston when Ben was young. William Franklin came to his independence of mind honestly. In addition, where Ben was abused by the British authorities, William found his honor and honesty called into question by American rebels. From his position, loyalty to Britain was the only possible course.
You write about how people of relatively similar backgrounds and early beliefs, like Franklin and the Loyalists Thomas Hutchinson and Joseph Galloway, ultimately developed sharply different positions on independence from Britain. How much of their divergence was ideological, and how much derived from personal experience? I think, for example, of Hutchinson losing his home to the vandalism of a Patriot mob.
Every decision for or against independence was deeply personal. In some cases it was ideological, too. In almost no cases was it simply ideological. To put your life on the line in revolt requires a powerful emotional commitment.
Historians who want to examine the role of women in the Revolution often focus on Abigail Adams. In contrast, you tell us about a Philadelphia Loyalist named Grace Growden Galloway. Why was she interesting to you?
Grace Galloway suffered grievously as a Loyalist in Philadelphia, primarily from the Patriots, who confiscated her property, but also from abandonment by her Loyalist husband, who had to flee for his life to Britain. Yet Grace discovered in her sufferings and abandonment a personal freedom she had never imagined.
George Washington and Benjamin Franklin wrote often about how the British were treating Americans no better than “slaves”—obviously a sore point for both. But neither seemed to address the existence of slavery in the colonies, including, in Washington’s case, his own possession of enslaved workers. Did they really not see the contradiction between their beliefs and the injustice in their own system?
Both recognized the injustices of slavery, but they didn’t see enslaved people as their social and political equals; almost no white people at that time did. In any case, they believed that before enslaved people could be freed, the United States would have to win its freedom from Britain. The revolution in rights that they were waging wouldn’t be won all at once.
How does your focus on Mohawk leader Joseph Brant address the Native American side of the Revolution’s story?
Brant and the Mohawks faced the same question everyone did at that time: Which side will you choose? Brant had good relations with the British and leaned in their direction. He also supposed his tribe and the larger Iroquois Confederacy would have an easier time dealing with Britain than with an independent United States. Some of his fellows agreed with him; others did not. The war split tribes just as it did families and communities among white Americans.
Among the other fascinating but lesser-known characters in the book are two enslaved men on different sides of the war, Boston King and Jeffrey Brace. Why would enslaved people have fought for either side?
Boston King accepted the British offer of freedom to those enslaved by rebel masters if they crossed lines and came to the British side. He took a gamble: that the Patriots wouldn’t capture him, that the British would win, and that they would honor their promise at war’s end. Although the side he chose—the British—lost the war, King won his freedom and evacuated to Canada with the British at war’s end.
Jeffrey Brace went to war on the Patriot side because his enslaver did and took Brace along. Brace noted the irony of fighting, enslaved, for his master’s freedom, yet didn’t see an appealing alternative. The Patriot side won, with Brace still enslaved, but his master decided Brace had earned his freedom and let him go.
At times in the book, it seems like Washington was desperately trying not to lose to the British until Franklin had negotiated an aid treaty with France. French ships were crucial to the outcome at Yorktown. Did the French really win the American Revolution for us?
French help was crucial, but France was fighting not for American independence but to weaken Britain. For a time, the interests of France and the United States coincided. Franklin and Washington capitalized on that coincidence, to America’s benefit.
Another surprise for some readers will be how restive and even mutinous the Patriot army was, to the point that the safety of Congress was under genuine threat. What was Washington’s role in turning that around, and how was that important for the nation’s development?
Mutiny—its threat and its actuality—was a real danger during the Revolutionary War. Many other generals have taken it upon themselves to assume political power when the civil government seems feckless, as the Continental Congress often did during the Revolution. But not Washington. His authority compelled the mutineers to stand down. Quite possibly no other person could have accomplished that feat. Had he not done so, the United States might have gone the way of revolutionary France, into dictatorship.
What do you hope contemporary readers learn from this book, and how might it help them see our current political divisions in a different way?
As worrisome as the current divisions in American society are, this country has survived much worse.
Your 30-some books on American history are incredibly wide-ranging in their subjects, from capitalism to foreign policy, American presidents and recently John Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Is there a period you haven’t yet explored that you want to tackle?
I’m thinking about something on World War II.
Author photo by Marsha Miller.