American Revolutions: A Continental History

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!)


Book review: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016).


Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale of a young Englishman seeking the favor of his wealthy relation in colonial America opens Alan Taylor’s new book on the American Revolution.[1]  Instead of encountering his prosperous relation presiding peacefully over his dominion and enjoying the deference to which his status naturally entitles him, though, the young man instead finds him being brutally tarred and feathered by an angry mob.  One of the mob’s members, face painted half red and half black, inquires of the young hopeful “may not a man have several voices … as well as two complexions?”

Taylor, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and professor at the University of Virginia,[2] is determined that his account will indeed speak with several voices, aptly entitling it American Revolutions (plural).  For this is not the Revolution as experienced by Patriots, but by African Americans (free and slave alike), women, Native Americans, Loyalists and the other imperial powers that inhabited the Caribbean and North America as well. By his own terms, it is a continental history of the Revolution and its aftermath.  Emphasizing its nature as a civil war, Taylor’s American Revolution is a darker, far more violent clash than he asserts has been portrayed to date.[3]

While the bibliography is comprehensive with works old and new, it is the latter that seem to get the most work in the footnotes, and the book dazzles with the latest scholarship in many fields.  Women expand their roles and exercise power and authority outside of the regular political channels, but in a very real way nonetheless.  Native Americans shrewdly play their hands best they can, exercising a sort of “balance of powers” strategy to keep the most dominant continental power at any one time in check, much as the Europeans would practice on their own continent a century later.  Loyalists or even merely those who did not ardently support the Patriots’ cause run considerable risks to not just property, but life or limb in many cases.

Taylor’s work also demonstrates other strengths in addition to adding these often-neglected voices.  It places issues of import to westerners on equal footing to those traditionally described in the development of what he rightly calls the “constitutional crisis” that disrupted the Empire. This leads him to reassess the importance of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which restricted settlement west of the Appalachians, as a factor in the rebellion and place it on par with easterners’ concerns over the imposition of new taxes.  Combined, these measures had the effect of reducing the colonists to “second class citizens” in their lights, rather than full Englishmen with political rights on par with those in the mother country.[4]

Taking his starting point back more than a decade from the traditional embarkation point of 1763 allows Taylor set the stage more fully.  He spends fifty pages on the colonial history and clash of empires in North America.  Britain’s ultimate victory in the Seven Years War (what Americans would call the French and Indian War) plays a vital role in his account as it would eventually result in the imperial overreach that led to British taxes and restrictions on settlement that would eventually arouse the Americans’ ire past the breaking point.[5]

But all of this additional perspective in a book only 480 pages long (exclusive of bibliography, notes and index) comes at a price and Taylor must necessarily exclude many traditional aspects of the Revolution story.  Leading Patriots are not introduced, and rarely appear.[6]  Their successes are slighted[7] or even ignored.[8]  Their frustrations and views are not given the full range accorded in previous accounts, which can make it harder to answer one of Taylor’s principle questions regarding how such a diverse group could eventually come together and form a new nation.  But the reader must accept that this is not their story.

More problematically, Taylor seem to feels the need to label and editorialize frequently throughout his narrative, almost as if he doesn’t quite trust his reader to come to the correct conclusion.  In so doing he often chooses to look at the actions of his eighteenth century actors from a twenty-first century viewpoint.  But if the ideal of writing history, as Edmund Morgan said, is to give the reader a vicarious experience of living in another place at another time,[9] Taylor’s judgmentalism can instead create barriers to understanding.

For instance, Taylor is quick to point out the many deficiencies of democracy in colonial America.  The electorate was severely limited by race and gender, and even those not disenfranchised by virtue of not being white and male could still find themselves shut out if they didn’t own enough property.  Noting that two-thirds of Virginia’s elections were uncontested one year, he concludes that “Colonial America was a poor place to look for democracy.”  But if there were better places, or even equal ones, he doesn’t say.

Similarly, when it comes to the laws of coverture, the practice of slavery and the slave trade, and the treatment of Natives, Taylor doesn’t seem interested in comparing the American colonists to other societies, which would have been more enlightening.  But coverture remained the norm in English speaking countries until the nineteenth century.  While slavery was outlawed in the British Isles in 1772,[10] it was not abolished in the rest of the empire until 1833.[11]   Rather than assessing the Americans in this light, Taylor seems content condemning them for not being good twenty-first century citizens.

Illustrative of his technique is his chapter on the interactions of Native Americans, which deals not only with the English colonists but the French, Spanish and each other during this time, and is one of the best chapters in the whole book.  A riveting and complex portrait emerges as they vie for power with and against one another.  Yet he concludes with an observation which doesn’t follow from the chapter’s substance (that “Patriots meant to create an ‘empire of liberty’ premised on the ability of common whites to obtain private property by taking land from Indians”).[12]

Another problematic oddity can be found in Taylor’s use of anecdotes, which can serve to distort more than enlighten.  Typically we read about wealthy whites cheating poorer ones.[13]  Poor whites steal the Natives’ land while treating them savagely.  Patriots molest Tories and even those who try to stay neutral.  While Taylor is careful to mention that there were plenty of examples of wrongdoing on each side of these divides, his choice of anecdotes leaves the reader with a distinct sense that wealthy white Patriots held a complete monopoly on violence, cruelty and unfairness in these struggles, and never acted worthily.  As one reviewer noted, it’s hard to appreciate Taylor’s conclusion that such a Revolution ultimately served to inspire future generations to fulfill its worthy premises.[14]

As a general history of the Revolution itself, then, Taylor’s work lacks the depth necessary to comprehensively portray and comprehend the actions and motivations of its main drivers and therefore leaves inadequately explored many of its chief conundrums.  But for the reader who looking for a broader comprehension of what the Revolution meant, particularly to those more on the periphery of power and influence, Taylor nicely brings together recent decades of academic research and neatly packages it for a more general readership.


[1] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016).

[2] Taylor won his first Pulitzer (and a Bancroft Award) for William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (Knopf, 1995) and a second with The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia: 1772-1832 (W. W. Norton, 2013).

[3] In Taylor’s view, “Historians and politicians often miscast the American Revolution as the polar opposite of bloodier revolutions elsewhere.  They recall the American version as good, orderly, restrained, and successful when contrasted against the excesses of the French and Russian Revolutions;” Taylor, American Revolutions, 3. A consistent practice throughout is such blanket statements regarding how others portray or understand some aspect of the Revolution without citing these authors or works, opening him to charges of battling straw men at different points.  Other examples of this practice include his assertion that the Colonists were not anywhere as united as commonly understood, the supposed view of some that the Constitution was “perfect,” and what he calls the myth of yeoman farmers.  It may be true, but citing precisely the conclusions of other scholars would help clarify his own points.

[4] This framework of a constitutional crisis has been fleshed out at great length in the work of scholars such as Jack P. Greene, who emphasize the role that differing viewpoints regarding the “Imperial Constitution,” or the division of power within the Empire, played in generating conflict.  E.g., Jack P. Greene, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2011) provides a good summary of this line of thought.

[5] Not ALL of the colonies in America of course.  Taylor does a very nice job in explaining the politics of Canada and the Caribbean colonies and why they chose a different course than those on the eastern seaboard.

[6] Samuel Adams is barely mentioned by Taylor.  George Washington’s two inches in the index pales in comparison to the coverage he receives in the works of Robert Middlekauff or John Ferling.  The same can be said of virtually any other Founder.

[7] E.g. Henry Knox’s historic transportation of the cannons captured at Ticonderoga to the siege of Boston, which convinced the British the city was no longer tenable, is mentioned only in passing.

[8] When George Washington appears, he’s usually hunting for an escaped slave.  In contrast, Taylor’s description of the Yorktown campaign utterly fails to mention Washington’s brilliant campaign of deception that allowed him to focus his entire force on Cornwallis while pinning Clinton in New York leaving the reader to believe it was just dumb luck.  See, e.g., John Nagy, George Washignton’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster (St. Martin’s, 2016).

[9] William Grimes, “Edmund Morgan, Historian Who Shed Light on Puritans, dies at 97,” New York Times A24 , July 9, 2013.

[10] Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499

[11] Slavery Abolition Act (1833) citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73.

[12] Another comment that “Colonists longed to crush and dispossess native peoples, if only the British would get out of the way,” is surely too vulgar and simplistic a characterization of an immensely complicated and tragic relationship.  Similarly, he makes the blanket statement that the colonists weren’t committed to a free press, citing an example of a mob smashing a loyalist press.  This practice of anecdote followed by sweeping generalization can become common to the point of irritation.  On the other side, the labels given the Patriots are almost invariably negative.

[13] An interesting question that Taylor doesn’t address is how the British policies embodied in the Proclamation Act exacerbated the situation between wealthy and less wealthy settlers.  By artificially restricting land, one would think its effect would be to drive prices up to the detriment of the latter and causing unnecessary conflict.  We might expect to see wealthy eastern settlers supporting such measures knowing that it would inflate the value of their own holdings and increase the labor pool.

[14] Gordon Wood, “How the American Revolution Worked Against Blacks, Indians and Women,” New York Times BR12, September 6, 2016.

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  • I have not read Taylor’s latest, but was a little surprised to see that he did not get a full blown 10 HUZZA! But coming from a fellow attorney absorbed in Rev War legal issues (enjoyed the Rutgers v. Waddington review, which led me to buy the book), I guess I’ll have to begrudgingly consider that assessment as accurate.

    I started with Taylor back when he did American Colonies and Divided Ground (a wonderful book), moving on to his Colonial America and War of 1812 and I have to say I am spellbound by his research and writing. When I stumbled across a journal article he did on the Maine frontier it totally opened my eyes to some important legal issues surrounding land and it significantly influenced the direction of my master’s thesis on Rev War period Vermont law.

    To my eyes, Taylor rates right up there with some of the most important historians of this time period and I am looking forward to reading his most recent work.

  • Gary, I’ll level with you – the point off was really because the book lacked deckle edges.

    Seriously, it’s a tremendous work but I felt it could leave an inaccurate picture in some readers’ heads. For someone like you well versed in the AmRev story, that’s not likely, but I couldn’t recommend it to someone who was looking to get an initial grounding either because of (a) what he choose to leave out and (b) the heavy emphasis on the AmRev’s faults is only counterbalanced with the reading of traditional works such as Middlekauff’s, et. al.

    It’s not so much that he gets things wrong per se. Some will object highly to some of his characterizations of the Patriots’ conduct, which seemed to me gratitous and even somewhat contradicted by what he wrote. It’s almost like a grad student scribled a few blurbs here and there, and somehow the printed included them, thinking they were supposed to be the author’s edits.

    For you I wouldn’t hesitate to read it though. Despite what I think are some flaws I learned a tremendous amont and looked at familiar events through much different eyes, which I always appreciate.


    • Thanks, Alec, I appreciate your evaluation and look forward to reading the book myself. I tend to be pretty forgiving in the decisions that authors make on what to include and not, and which affects the depth of analysis and discussion of certain topics; particularly one that spans five decades. For me, there can never be enough details, but I understand that is something the general public probably does not want and would otherwise make the work unwieldy. In the end, it sounds like you are describing something akin to the River Platte, a mile wide and an inch thick!

      I’m glad to see your reference to Jack Greene, a true path breaker.

  • After noting the rating of “9” on the “Fie -Huzza” scale, I was expecting a rave review – particularly given the acclaim that Dr Taylor was enjoyed in the past. I was therefore puzzled that the balance of the review contained caveat and quarrel. Taylor typically writes for an informed audience, so there is some presumption that readers have knowledge of the founding father’s role in the 60 year period he covers. Still the review indicates Taylor wags an unbalanced finger of blame. The review seems contradictory to the 9 “Huzza” rating. I’ll wait for the library copy…

    With respect; the statement that Somerset v. Stewart outlawed slavery in Britain is incorrect (Somerset – negro slave, Stewart – Jamaican/Virginian owner). Sadly, it did not, despite modern attempts to re-colour English slave history. The five abolitionist attorneys hired to represent Somerset argued on both contractual and moral basis, and Stewarts attorneys argued it as a matter of property law. In deciding the case Judge Mansfield (William Murray, Earl of Mansfield) went out of his way to construe a very narrow finding based on Writ of Habeus Corpus. A great many modern commentators selectively focus on Mansfield’s personal commentary regarding slavery and ignore the heading of the decision: “On return to an habeus corpus, Requiring Captain Knowles to shew cause for the seizure and deteniure of the complainant Somerset, a Negro.” Mansfield repeats but broadens that charge in the opening of his bench review, stating “The question is, if the owner had a right to detain the slave, for the sending of him over to be sold in Jamaica.” Mansfield acknowledges the legality of slavery in Britain, stating “contract for the sale of a slave is good here; the sale is a matter to which the law properly and readily attaches…”. “But,” Mansfield says, “here the person of the slave himself is immediately the object of enquiry”. Mansfield’s decision is rendered on habeus corpus – the right of one person to detain another; and in background the case must be read in the context of a time when transportation to the colonies was a form of judicial punishment in Britain; and the labor of a transported convict could be sold to a private citizen. But a sentence of transportation and hard labor could only be imposed by the courts. In his final decision (22 June 1772) he says “I shall recite the return to the writ of habeus corpus, as the ground of our determination…”. In reviewing the writ, Mansfield found that Knowles detention of Somerset, for the purpose of transportation to Jamaica to be sold, was an “act of dominion” which “must be recognized by the law of the country where it is used.” Mansfield concludes that there was no “positive law” in Britain that permits a private person to detain another, against his will, for the purpose of transportation. Despite Mansfield’s personal comments on the morality of slavery, his ruling was solely upon the writ of habeus corpus and bore no impact on the legality of slavery. Mansfield consistently reinforced the narrowness of his Somerset decision; for example in 1785 during the case of “R v. Inhabitants of Thomas Ditton” Mansfield interrupted an attorney by stating that his Somerset “determinations go no further than that the master cannot by force compel him to go out of the kingdom.”

    Because the Captain did not have the right to detain him, Somerset was released; but released to what status? Although not forcibly returned to his owner, neither was he decreed to be free. Mansfield’s decision did not state that Somerset was no longer a slave or grant manumission… and if Somerset left England, he was subject to be returned to slavery under British-approved colonial laws (even 55 years later, in 1827, in the case of “The Slave Grace”, The British court confirmed the ruling of an Antigua court which held that an Antigua slave who had resided in England for several years who voluntarily returned to Antigua, was a slave under Antiguan colonial law as approved by the Crown).

    Mansfield’s decision, being so narrowly interpreted, had little to no immediate impact on the status of slavery in Britain. It had the limited effect of allowing a slave, having been transported to England from abroad, to refuse to depart the country. It did nothing for slaves who lived in Britain, and nothing for slaves outside of Britain who were never brought there. It was but an arrow in the abolitionist quiver, who continued to selectively quote Mansfield’s “Somerset” ruling in efforts to ban slavery. Abolitionist appeal to morality lacked popular support in the public or Parliament in 1772, only gaining gradual effect over time. It wasn’t until 25 years later in March, 1807, after abolitionist’s two-year dedicated public opinion campaign, that Parliament passed Britain’s first law curtailing slave practices. The “Slave Trade Act” prohibited transportation of slaves to Britain on British owned ships. But that did not outlaw slavery in Britain, nor prohibit the ships of other nations from transporting slaves, nor internal slave commerce in Britain, nor transport of slaves in British ships to other parts of the world. Newspaper advertisements and a multitude of other documents confirm that slaves were bought and sold in Britain right up to the implementation of Parliament’s passage of the Slavery Abolition Act by in 1833, which abolished slavery in the home isles (the 1833 act did not ban slavery in certain plantation colonies, exceptions that were not eliminated until 1843).

    In providing the balance your review criticizes, on the western side of the Atlantic, John Graves Simcoe signed the Canadian act banning slavery in 1793. The United States passed the first Slave Trade Act in 1797, prohibiting any transportation of slaves on US ships; followed by the Slave Trade Act of 1800, which prohibited American ownership of slave ships flagged in other nations. The US Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was passed on March 2, 1807 (the USA passed its anti-transportation act before Britain did, but it was not effective until 1 Jan 1808, the first day it was constitutionally allowable). These acts criminalized slave trading in America although the means to police the law were lacking. Both in Britain and America powerful financial interests continued offshore investment in the slave trade, particularly to Brazil, until after the conclusion of the American Civil War.

  • Thanks for taking the time to read Jim.

    I’m sure that my characterization of Somerset is a little bit simplistic, not being the focus of the review (indeed, I think your summary is longer than my entire review).

    Frankly, I wrestled with this volume, which I found both very informative but also occasionally irritating. I will say MANY readers, particularly academics, will take the view that my criticisms are misplaced and his characterizations perfectly valid.

    Other readers who prefer a more traditional interpretation may find them offensive to the point of not reading any further.

    For myself, I just decided to set them aside and soak up the very rich portrait he paints featuring those who generally figure much less in the AmRev story. When I took it as “the other story” rather than try to understand it as a comprehensive narrative the problem largely resolved itself and I was able to enjoy it for what it added to my understanding, which is why I give it the number I did.

    But at the end of the day, the number to me is much less important than giving a reader a sense of whether they will want to spend their time and money on it rather than passing judgment, so I hope you found it useful in that respect.


  • I opened this book in the bookstore, and the first thing I saw on the page I opened to was the old chestnut that the Dunmore Proclamation was what brought the southern colonies into the war. You can choose to believe that, but it would require you to ignore everything else that happened in the southern colonies in 1775 – the overthrow of royal provincial governments, sabotage and sedition, suppression of loyalists in the coastal cities and backcountry, surrender of large loyalist armies and loyalist leaders captured or sent fleeing, conflict between patriots in the cities and the British ships lying off the coast, etc. But if you want to push the theme that everything the southern colonies did was because of slavery (rather than actual concern about the British threat), then you pretend Dunmore’s Proclamation was what really set everything in motion.

    The historians who have made the argument that fear of slave rebellion was the overriding cause of southern involvement in the war usually use a few specific documents that are available in SC, NC, and GA archives. They try to tie specific slave rebellions (or rumored slave revolts) to key events in the history of the Revolution in the south to show that the former motivated the latter. The problem is, factors of space and time mean that the Patriots responsible for those key events could not have heard of these actual and rumored slave revolts in time for them to have inspired or motivated their action. The two are unconnected. I’ve seen several prominent historians that use these documents to prove connections that don’t exist between fear of slave revolt and Patriot action in the south (some use them incorrectly, others just cite the earlier historians out of confirmation bias).

    I realize this book is something I’m going to have to read given Taylor’s stature in the field. I’m just not in any rush to do so.

    • Interesting point Dan. I’m not nearly versed enough to comment, but I will say that I found a number of Taylor’s comments to be unsupported or in some cases even contradicted by his narrative. One would read page after page of a rich, fascinating treatment only to run into an anecdote followed by a sweeping generalization.

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