Thursday, July 02, 2009

Five Books of the American Revolution

Independence Day is Saturday, when I am otherwise occupied. Here, then, two days early—in order to give you time to read them before Saturday—are the five essential books for learning about the American Revolution. Of course I wanted to include some historical fiction, but except for Esther Forbes’s “young adult” novel Johnny Tremain (1943), which remains readable, there is little or nothing of note. Neither The Spy nor Israel Potter is anywhere near James Fenimore Cooper’s or Herman Melville’s best novel. Winston Churchill’s 200,000-word Richard Carvel can be read at Project Gutenberg, if you have the patience. (That’s the American novelist Winston Churchill [1871–1947], by the way, and not the immortal Sir Winston.) Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a 400-page romance called Tory Lover (1901), which Henry James hated and begged her never to repeat. Robert Graves wrote a 1940 historical novel—again, one of his weaker efforts—called Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth in England and Sergeant Lamb’s America over here. And that’s about it.

The historians command the field. Luckily, this is one of those times when being an outsider is an advantage, making it easier to reduce a swaying stack of books to a mere five. As always, literary considerations have been nearly as important—if not quite as important—as intellectual qualities.

(1.) Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922). The subtitle is not quite right. For Becker’s is almost as much a literary study of the Declaration as a history of its ideas. His account of Jefferson as a writer is matchless. (More literary scholars should consult it.) As a history of the liberal ideas behind the Declaration, though, Becker’s 87-year-old book remains fresh and engaging. Arthur M. Schlesinger said that it provides the best account of “the unfolding of American constitutional theory, 1763–1776,” ever written.

(2.) Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763–89 (1956). At the age of ninety-three, the emeritus professor of history at Yale and student of Perry Miller published his eighteenth book earlier this year. This is his “standard” work, a 150-page book that remains the best place to begin reading about the Revolution. As a frankly introductory study, The Birth of the Republic aspires after balance rather than hawking a thesis. But its commitment becomes clear rather quickly. Morgan believes the revolutionaries were right to go to war in defense of property in addition to life and liberty, but as they stoutly maintained their rights against the crown, they happened into the principle of human equality.

(3.) Forrest McDonald, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic (1965). McDonald began his career by debunking the economic interpretations of American history spawned by Charles A. Beard. With this work, he offered an alternative interpretation, rooted in a deep admiration for the Framers. The question that faced them, he says, is this: “Would the United States be politically one nation?” The answer is yes, and the credit goes to the Framers, especially in Virginia and Massachusetts, who were able to restrain the disunifying forces of revolution they themselves had unleashed. McDonald is particularly good at overturning the received ideas of Revolutionary history, and his character sketches of the historical players are sharp and memorable.

(4.) Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). Although its prose is at best clear and serviceable, Bailyn’s book remains unsurpassed. The Revolution was not a struggle for social change, Bailyn argues, but a highly ideological fight for political freedom. The Americans saw themselves as freedom’s last line of defense. It is impossible to read Bailyn’s book, especially its concluding chapter on the democratic vision, without a permanent alteration in your conception of America—a nation founded upon an idea.

(5.) Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution (1976). That’s people’s not as in “People’s Republic,” but as in “ordinary reader’s.” The founding provost of Cowell College at UC Santa Cruz, Smith was known as the most outspoken advocate of narrative history—honest storytelling as opposed to scholarly disputation—among professional historians. This two-volume work is his masterpiece, and was also the best book to come out of the Bicentennial.


Anonymous said...

In the area of fiction dealing with the American Revolution, you left out several of the novels of Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957). He was a journalist who wrote a series of books, eventually leaving journalism to concentrate completely on writing books. He wrote a half dozen historical novels, most published in the '30s and '40s, involving events in the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. Most notable are "Arundel" and its sequel "Rabble in Arms" which follows, through a fictional character's narrative, the early war service of Benedict Arnold; "Oliver Wiswell" in which the title character, a Loyalist, chronicles his service on the *other* side during the Revolution; and "Northwest Passage" which is about the French and Indian War, but is still notable because the author resurrected Robert Rogers and his Rangers in the late 1930s. When the U.S. Army created what we'd now call "Special Forces" a few years later at the beginning of World War II, and they were looking for a name for the unit, someone had seen the movie version of Roberts' novel, and suggested the name "Rangers" and of course they carry this designation even today...