November 2021

Our First Civil War

By H.W. Brands
Review by
The American Revolution wasn’t just a conflict between colonists and redcoats. It was an unforgiving brawl between neighbors.
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Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s house in Boston was destroyed by a mob. Benjamin Franklin’s son William was imprisoned for political reasons and wasn’t allowed to visit his dying wife. Grace Growden Galloway, a prominent Philadelphian, was forcibly evicted from her home when it was confiscated because of her husband’s beliefs.

Who were the miscreants who beleaguered these upstanding citizens? In all three cases, they were supporters of American independence from Britain—the very people we now think of as Patriots. The American Revolution wasn’t just a conflict between colonists and redcoats, as it turns out. It was an unforgiving brawl between neighbors.

H.W. Brands illuminates the intensely personal nature of early Americans’ ideas about independence.

In Our First Civil War, prolific historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands zeroes in on that neglected aspect of the Revolution in a narrative told mostly through the writings of those who lived through it. He ranges from the very famous, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, to the less familiar, such as two enslaved Black men who fought on different sides of the war and a Mohawk chief who chose the alliance least damaging to his tribe.

Much of the book is devoted to the evolution of Washington and Franklin from staunch Britons to unlikely leaders in the movement for independence. But Franklin’s sad family history is equally intriguing: He helped his son William achieve prominence as a colonial governor, then bitterly broke with him over their political differences. The two never reconciled.

Galloway’s experience is another of Brand’s poignant tales. After her Loyalist husband deserted her and fled to Britain, the Patriots seized her substantial property, and she was left in poverty. Her view of independence was not a positive one. But Brands also shows that the British were their own worst enemies, treating sincere compromise efforts with arrogant contempt, then ignoring informed advice from Loyalists over the war’s conduct.

Like all civil wars, it was a bloody mess. Some Americans achieved better lives, but others were utterly devastated. Brands shows how fraught and complicated it was for the generation that lived through it, a perspective well worth considering amid our current divisions.

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Our First Civil War

Our First Civil War

By H.W. Brands
ISBN 9780385546515

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