The American Revolution through British Eyes: A Documentary Collection
Edited by James J. Barnes and Patience P. Barnes. Kent State University Press, 2013. Two volume set, Cloth $250.00; ISBN 978-1-60635-111-6; total of 1304 pp., 6-1/8 x 9-1/8.
Use primary sources, they say, If you want to cut through the biases of other historians and get to the bottom of what was going on in another era, understand the mindset of the time period, then read the writings of the people who were there, who lived it, who faced the real consequences of decisions and events. But “the primary sources” aren’t a singular entity that’s easy to get at. That’s why it’s particularly helpful when someone makes the effort to create a compilation that brings together a large quantity of material in a single, easily-accessible place.
That is exactly what The American Revolution through British Eyes does: brings together a substantial number of primary-source writings, carefully selected for the information that they provide. The editors put a great deal of effort into assembling not just first-hand accounts, and not just British accounts, but documents (or portions thereof) that offer insight on the conduct and progress of the war. This frees the reader from having to wade through the often-mundane content of diaries, journals, letters, newspapers and other sources in order to find the useful bits that contribute to interpretation and understanding.
The material is arranged chronologically within sections focused on the major phases of the war. The documents chosen span the range of influence from diplomatic correspondence from the King and government officials, to military correspondence from senior generals to junior regimental officers. Through the words of participants, we can follow the arc of the war, from institution of policies and reactions to behavior of the American colonists, through initial optimism that the rebellion could be quelled and confidence that it was localized and fomented by a minority, to dismay at the tenacity of the rebels and the unexpectedly low level of loyalist support. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of material concerning the navy as well as the army, resulting in a balanced look at the operational concerns of conducting a largely coastal war on the opposite side of an ocean from the sources of policy, strategy, finance and supply.
The editors made the expeditious but questionable choice of drawing largely from published sources. This is a bit disappointing for those who already have a substantial library of British primary source material; for those who have already researched this perspective on the war, the two substantial volumes of The American Revolution through British Eyes might provide little new material. The arrangement of the material, however, is liable to be easier to use than the books from which they are compiled, making this new collection valuable even though not novel.
The documents presented are drawn heavily from the famous compilation Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 by K. G. Davies, and some other widely-available published collections. In at least one case, the editors chose to draw from another compilation rather than the published complete manuscript – passages by Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment are drawn from The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants edited by Henry Steele Commager and. Richard B. Morris, rather than from the more comprehensive John Peebles American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadiery 1776-1782 edited by Ira D. Gruber. All are cited properly but introduce the possibility of repeating errors made by previous editors. It also makes it challenging for the reader wishing to verify the transcriptions or other aspects of the original documents, requiring the previous published source to be consulted in order to find the manuscript source. This is better, though, than the practice of “leapfrogging”, that is, consulting the published source but citing the manuscript source.
These criticisms are minor and affect only the researchers with very specific needs; for the majority of readers and researchers, The American Revolution through British Eyes is an extremely useful and highly usable collection. Besides offering the best passages from a wide range of sources, the editors have included brief biographies of each of the writers, greatly improving the utility of the book without overburdening it with footnotes or editorial narrative.
American literature on the Revolutionary War is often deficient in presenting the British perspective – there’s a tendency to reduce a conflict into terms of “good guys and bad guys,” but in reality both sides are doing what they believe to be right. Just as important, each side included those who believed wholeheartedly in their side’s policies, and those supported those policies even though they didn’t agree with them. To fully understand a conflict, it is essential to appreciate the diversity of perspectives on all sides.