THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: A WORLD WAR
Edited by David K. Allison and Larrie D. Ferreiro
Smithsonian Books, $29.95, 261 pages
Our Revolution wasn’t just about us? Say it isn’t so. Heresy thy name is globalism. The small-town boy marching down Main Street ahead of the brass band always thought he was leading the Fourth of July parade. Likewise, we all learned from grammar school onwards that the War for Independence was all ours, Davidic patriots felling the Goliath of Great Britain.
But from a wider perspective the American Revolution appears to be a sideshow. Britain abandoned our pesky revolt to make great gains elsewhere, pursue global goals and fight a world war, arguably history’s first. That is the straight-faced premise of this instructive book, which itself had an unorthodox genesis as the spinoff of an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
American monomania, the new normal in our age of galloping egotism, distracts us from learning from history. To view the Revolution egocentrically is to see a band of heroes battling a cohort of corrupt monarchists, a binary conflict, a board game. Instructively, the 18th-century world was complex and multi-valent, ever in a state of political and military flux. Britain, gaining strength, vied against muscular rivals, France and Spain, with imperial Russia lurking in the wings along with the Dutch Republic and Scandinavians, all competing for trade and/or territory in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Europe writhed in the throes of the Second Hundred Years War, which raged and choked from 1689 to 1815. One of this book’s principal editors, Larrie D. Ferreiro of Georgetown and George Mason Universities, notes that this marathon belligerence comprised eight distinct wars, and “Americans fought in every one of those wars” which, increasingly, were fought on American soil — with spoils elsewhere at stake.
The discrete conflict called French and Indian War here and Seven Years War (1754-1763) abroad, won Spanish Florida and French Canada for Britain but doubled its national debt. Now having to protect larger American colonies (which were the least taxed of all others), Britain paid more to maintain troops here. Thus the infamous new taxes on tea, stamps, etc. and the push-back they incited. King George’s loyal American subjects had fought alongside his Redcoats to beat the French, but now they repulsed him, claimed independence and courted foreign support. France, our old adversary, and Britain, our congenital defender, swapped roles; the alignments turned turtle. Talk about dynamic relations.
The issues that led to independence inflamed self-styled patriots (classically counted as about one-third of all Americans, while one-third were Tories and one-third didn’t care). But said patriots could pursue narrow ends while fighting one foe, Britain, and gain allies in the instant: France, which nursed ancient ambitions against England, and Spain, eager to reclaim recently-lost Gibraltar and Minorca. Our navy and privateers could ply Atlantic waters while England’s fleets had to guard the Channel against invasion, and defend sugar islands in the Caribbean, and supply Mediterranean bastions, and convoy merchants to Asia. If it wasn’t a “world war” for our Founders, it surely was for King George.
The book contains welcome surprises and nuggets. One chapter argues that to protect Mexico, Spain fought actions as far east as Florida and pushed north into California lest Russia move south from Alaska. Another argues that the Treaty of Paris ended our Revolution but was dictated by France and Britain to ease their hostilities pro tem. Another introduces a Muslim general in Mysore as “one of the most challenging opponents the British ever faced, ranking alongside Napoleon, Erwin Rommel, and George Washington.” (In India, Hyder Ali pioneered the weaponizing of rockets, which the Brits soon used in Baltimore, famously inspiring Francis Scott Key.)
This handsomely printed volume proves an expanding range for Smithsonian Books. Its dozen chapters were written by 17 academics who represent just about every nation involved in these wars. So perhaps inevitably the text lacks narrative cohesion and spark while coddling scholarly rhetoric. The bylined essays, grouped Gaulishly in three parts, all open with short abstracts inexplicably signed “Editors,” who might better have exerted other editorial efforts and deleted redundancies.
Overall, the text resembles a symposium’s “Proceedings,” albeit relieved by gorgeous illustrations as if recalling the companion museum exhibition (on view until July). With uneven relevance, the action pictures, documents, objects and iconic portraits include a delicious young Horatio Nelson — no matter that England’s future hero-of-heroes figures only in leading a failed raid in Nicaragua whence he was driven from the field by unheroic dysentery.
Quibbles aside, the big picture painted here is invaluable and timely in its bid to enlarge Americans’ myopic view of our Revolutionary War and how we won it. The Founders’ great achievement was not only of their own doing; it was crucially collaborative and occurred in the changing context of a dynamic world. More power to them. True greatness is never simple.
• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press Inc. in Chevy Chase, writes on history and culture.