In 1913, Charles A. Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. His central thesis was that the American Revolution, and the Constitution that enshrined its victory for the colonists, was at bottom, in reality, more about the parochial economic and class interests of the protagonists than the struggle for liberty or self-governance. George Washington was a wealthy landowner—probably the wealthiest in the colonies—and he (said Beard) wanted to be sure that his personal investment in the war was repaid.
Beard’s was a rich if (his phrase) “frankly fragmentary” stew of a book. Although not exactly Marxist, its subordination of political ideals to matters of economic interest guaranteed that it would find its most ardent admirers on the Left. It caused a great stir—hostile as much as admiring—when published and has endured as a model of revisionist history: bold, disillusioning, forever looking behind professed motives for the low-down on the great movements of history. To adapt Lincoln’s phrase, for those who like that sort of thing, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution is the sort of thing they like.
So is Alan Taylor’s 2016 book American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. Although Taylor is a more beguiling writer than was Beard—the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner is careful to tell a story as well as advance a thesis—I often felt the shadow of Beardian polemic as I made my way through Taylor’s book. The sequence is familiar—Taylor begins around the time of the French and Indian War and ends with Thomas Jefferson’s second election in 1804—but the territory seems somehow different because he has taken a series of less-travelled routes.
Taylor has two primary goals. One is to rescue the stories of populations that are submerged by most conventional histories. As is absolutely de rigueur in the academy today, the presence and the plight of women, slaves, and American Indians figure very prominently in his account, as do the stories of French and Spanish interests on the American continent. Most accounts of the American Revolution are focused on events and personalities inhabiting the eastern seaboard. Taylor casts a much wider net.
His second goal is to disabuse us of the traditional picture of the American Revolution as a largely beneficent, idealistic project. The phrase “We the People,” he says, may open the U.S. Constitution, but it was always but a “useful fiction” deployed to provide a veneer of unity over a deeply divided nation. American schoolchildren, back when they were taught American history, were battened on the image of the American Revolution as a noble, almost antiseptic affair. Just as the Second World War was “the good war,” so was American Revolution the “good revolution,” unlike those unfortunate episodes in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917.
Taylor is determined to undermine that gauzy picture. The American Revolution, he says, was a far grubbier affair than is usually acknowledged. “Only by the especially destructive standards of other revolutions,” he writes, “was the American more restrained.”
During the American Revolutionary War, Americans killed one another over politics and massacred Indians, who returned the bloody favors. Patriots also kept one-fifth of Americans enslaved, and thousands of those slaves escaped to help the British oppose the revolution. After the war, sixty thousand dispossessed Loyalists became refugees.
If the American Patriots “established ideals worth striving for,” Taylor never lets us forget how far they often fell from achieving those ideals. He does not cite Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, but I get the sense that he would be impatient with her invocation of “the miracle” of the American Revolution in comparison to the French and Russian varieties. Bernard Bailyn’s classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) makes it into Taylor’s bibliography but is nowhere quoted by him. Ditto for Gordon Wood’s magisterial The Creation of the American Republic 1776–1787.
These accounts of the American Revolution and the forging of the American republic devote plenty of space to the issue of slavery, but they nevertheless present the emergence of the republic as a success story. Taylor leaves us with a more conflicted picture. “Rather than generate clear resolutions,” he concludes, “the revolution created powerful new contradictions.” Slavery was of course prominent among those contradictions (how can you say that the proposition that “all men are created equal” is “self-evident” while you nevertheless support chattel slavery?), but I suspect Taylor overstates things when he says that “save for the Quakers” colonists had accepted slavery as “timeless and immutable.” Some did, but many were frankly and eloquently appalled by the institution, as Bailyn details in Ideological Origins.
Alan Taylor’s new book specializes in looking behind the lofty rhetoric of the American Revolution (“We hold these truths,” “We the People”) to a less edifying reality that informs, motivates, and complicates the rhetoric. Taylor knows an immense amount about the period and is an entertaining and informative writer. But I closed the book thinking about Hegel’s response to the old saw that no man is a hero to his valet. “Possibly,” said Hegel, “but not because the man is not a hero but because the valet is a valet.”