STARRED REVIEW
September 2016

A fresh look at America’s beginnings

By Alan Taylor
Our understanding of history does not always match the documented evidence. The American Revolution was not as orderly and restrained as we sometimes think. American colonists who remained loyal to the king and those wanting to break away often treated one another inhumanely. A plundered farm, the target of small raiding parties, was more common than a battle charge. After the war, 60,000 Loyalists became refugees.
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Our understanding of history does not always match the documented evidence. The American Revolution was not as orderly and restrained as we sometimes think. American colonists who remained loyal to the king and those wanting to break away often treated one another inhumanely. A plundered farm, the target of small raiding parties, was more common than a battle charge. After the war, 60,000 Loyalists became refugees. 

In his excellent American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor gives us a wide-ranging view that draws attention to the multiple empires clashing for land and power. The result, based on the latest scholarship, is a fresh and authoritative interpretation of the complex series of events that led up to the war and the many problems the new nation faced in the years immediately following.

Taylor emphasizes the crucial role played by the western expansion of settlers despite British efforts to restrict them. This expansion is essential to understanding both the causes of the revolution and the republic’s growth after the war. Between 1754 and 1763, the British and their colonists claimed the West as far as the Mississippi River. The colonists already here expected to share the fruits of victory. When that did not happen—instead, the British tried to protect Indian lands from settler expansion, made unexpected concessions to Francophone and Catholic subjects in Canada, and then imposed new taxes on the colonists—dissatisfaction began to stir.

Taylor’s focus on a larger area of North America gives us a more realistic understanding of the struggle. He shows “that relations with the native peoples were pivotal in shaping every colonial region and in framing the competition of rival empires. Enslaved Africans now appear as central, rather than peripheral, to building the colonies that overtly celebrated liberty.” 

Near the war’s end, black soldiers were one-tenth of the Continental Army. Women were also crucial to the Patriot war effort, running the farms and shops, keeping families together. Nevertheless, Patriots defended freedom for white men while continuing their dominance over Indians and enslaved blacks.

Taylor’s masterful account is consistently compelling whatever the focus—on diplomacy, religion, warfare, culture or slavery. Everyone interested in early American history should read this book.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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American Revolutions

American Revolutions

By Alan Taylor
Norton
ISBN 9780393082814

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