American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution by Walter R. Borneman (ISBN 978-0-316-22102-3; 470 pages) concentrates on the months from late 1774 to Washington taking command in July, 1775. It is printed in an easily readable font with a few illustrations inserted in the middle and ten maps spread throughout. The chapters are broken down into shorter sections that flow together well and give the reader numerous places to conveniently put the book aside and pick up later. The text is well-documented with extensive endnotes, a good bibliography, and a detailed index. Physically, the book is a quick and easy read.
In his preface, Mr. Borneman outlines his belief in the use of primary source quotes in his writing—that seeing history as the participants saw it “before two centuries of interpretation clouded their words” provides power and insight for the reader. He also promises to give voice to people other than “white males in three-cornered hats”—in particular, women, loyalists, and African Americans. He closes the preface with the question, “Who were those at risk in the spring of 1775?” With the hope that this book would look at the period through the eyes of the common person, I turned the page anticipating a fresh approach to describing the very beginnings of the Revolution.
For much of the work, Mr. Borneman is true to his word. Indeed, he includes many quotes from primary sources and makes use of material written by individuals other than white males. However, the use of such items diminishes once the book has progressed and, at times, their inclusion almost seems gratuitous. In general, they do not add significantly to the points being made. The meat of the book still relies on white male primary and secondary writings.
At its core, American Spring is an old-school interpretation of the story with little new information or conclusions. On the American side, John Hancock and Samuel Adams (to his great credit, Mr. Borneman does not call him “Sam”), particularly the latter, are firebrands and key to getting things done. Little or no credit is given to anyone else for what happened in the months leading up to the outbreak of war. Thousands of rebelling Americans remain faceless and act only upon direction from Adams and Hancock.
Samuel Adams is presented as perhaps the most influential person of the period. For example, the questionable story that he used code words during a speech to activate the Boston Tea Party is presented as fact. The author also suggests many of the letters of support for Boston signed by individuals and published in newspapers may actually have been written by Adams. That Adams served as the mainspring of the rebellion culminates in the author’s comment about the British move towards Concord: “the signal event that might spark the open and irrevocable break with Great Britain that he [Adams] had been planning for more than a decade was likely at hand.” Historians in the 19th– and early 20th-centuries built the American mythology by using this great-men-creating-great-events approach and placing those men on a pedestal. The common person is left as part of the unthinking mob acting only when directed by a very few autocrats. Ironically, this presentation is precisely what anti-rebellion writers claimed at the time the events happened.
In another parallel to the old-school interpretation, most British are presented as inept bad guys. The book refers to spies within Boston as doing it for “British sterling” and gives no hint that they might believe their position to be the right one and that of the rebels as traitorous. The British soldiers in the ranks are portrayed as having little discipline and apt to do what they please. There is little to indicate that the British had arguably the best army in the world at the time—a condition unattainable with units full of ne’er-do-wells. Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith is referenced as having an “ample girth” half-a-dozen times—a condition with no bearing on his abilities. The only British officer regularly presented with any degree of sympathy is General Thomas Gage and even he is shown as rather slow to act, incompetent, and with a wife who may have passed on information to the Americans.
There are some miscues in the book. The author makes references to wet boots—the men did not wear boots—and “Royal Marines”—British marines did not add “Royal” to their title until the early 1800s. On page 146, he comments on the quick pace of Smith’s column but mentions an “unhurried pace” on the very next page. He spends time commenting on problems resulting from brigading together light infantry and grenadier companies from different regiments. He clearly did not know the British army commonly combined those companies.
Of a more significant nature, Mr. Borneman makes some claims about the American militia that are debatable. In writing about the election of officers, he says that the men would have “voted for military experience over popularity.” While such experience may well have had some influence, social and political standing within the community played a more essential role in the decision.
The author also states that many of the men had gained considerable military experience by service in the French and Indian War while it seems that is not the case. For example, the Lexington Training Band had 140 men but only twenty-eight had served during the earlier war and those few did not include Captain John Parker as the author claims. Far fewer men—nineteen out of 340—in the Essex County, MA, companies can be shown to have been in the French and Indian War. Even those who had served probably did not see any combat. Most men served for only a few months over the course of the war.
The claim that the militia were well-trained and inured to woods warfare by fighting Indians is also spurious. Following the French and Indian War, the effectiveness of militia drill sessions had fallen off dramatically. Only in late 1774 had most companies begun to drill in earnest. Even with the drilling, practicing on the field does not guarantee a disciplined performance when there is lead in the air from an enemy. There are numerous instances throughout the Revolution where supposedly well-trained militia did not stand and fight. As for fighting Indians, coastal New England for many miles inland had been a well-developed region for many years. Any native peoples had long since moved north or west or had become acclimated to European ways and did not display any hostile behaviors.
In spite of the above negative aspects and even though 1775 (Kevin Phillips) and Bunker Hill (Nathaniel Philbrick) covered the same ground, American Spring does have a value. It is a quick and easy read and Mr. Borneman does present a good overview of the flow of events of those few months. It would probably be quite interesting and informative to someone with a limited background in the Revolution but I would hope the novice would read some other works to get a broader presentation and more current interpretation of the period. For someone familiar with the period and up-to-date interpretations, it can serve as a refresher course and the bibliography might provide some new primary sources to researchers. But, someone looking for a cutting-edge book using the latest research to offer new interpretations on the beginnings of the Revolution best look elsewhere.
 The information on the militia comes from Alexander Cain’s We Stood Our Ground: Lexington in the First Year of the American Revolution (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2004) and conversations with William Clemens and Richard Trask (Danvers, MA, town archivist) who have been researching militia for many years.  Cain, 45.
The British were all spies, Sam Adams started the Revolution, we know it to be true, handle the truth good sir! Whoever stood against liberty was a coward!
Good review. I’ve seen it in the store, but my main question has been what it adds (though I’m a big supporter of any history that both gets more things right than wrong and targets the widest possible audience). I’m glad he at least grapples with primary sources. That was the biggest drawback to 1775, particularly with the vast amount of primary source material on the American Revolution available even just on the internet these days.
I do, however, think we run the risk of taking the shift away from “white male elite” a bit too far. I can’t speak to the northern theater, but in the south, the Provincial Congresses and Council/Committees of Safety were firmly in control of events as they unfolded, at least beginning in 1775. They had many of the protests and tar and feather incidents scripted to minute detail. In one instance, two South Carolinians were tarred and feathered for expressing their hopes that the British would arm Indians and slaves to fight the colonists. The General Committee (or committee of intelligence, I can’t remember which off the top of my head) ordered that the two men be tarred and feathered, and placed on a boat to be banished. One of the men was to be offered the opportunity to repent, but the other would have no such opportunity. And this is exactly how the event unfolded. This whole event is often treated by historians as the work of “the crowd,” an example of the chaos that characterized the near-civil war environment in the South in 1775, but it was actually almost entirely the work of white elites on the various committees.
Furthermore, there are specific individuals from the revolutionary leadership in each of the southern provinces that always happen to be present at each of the supposedly spontaneous gatherings of “the crowd.” The most noteworthy example is Joseph Habersham of Georgia, who finds himself in the middle of *every* key revolutionary event in that province in 1775-1776. Every one.
It’s also fascinating to see the level of control the committees and councils had over the inhabitants of the province. Far from anarchic environment of civil war and score settling, these bodies orchestrated unrest when it was in service of their strategy to isolate Loyalists from British government officials and the British army, but tamped down on any sign of disorder that would undermine their own authority or their strategy – and they were obeyed. After William Campbell, royal governor of South Carolina fled Charleston for the safety of a British ship in the harbor, two locals broke into Campbell’s house and stole a number of items that they claimed was repayment for debts owed to them by Campbell. The Council of Safety ordered that they return all the items, and if they had a debt to collect, they go through the Council to do so. The two men returned the items, made an appeal to the Council of Safety, and then received permission to go collect items from Campbell’s house to satisfy the debt, all within a matter of days.