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. 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, 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.
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.
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.
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. Their successes are slighted or even ignored. 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, 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, it was not abolished in the rest of the empire until 1833. 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”).
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. 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.
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.
 Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton and Company, 2016).
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 William Grimes, “Edmund Morgan, Historian Who Shed Light on Puritans, dies at 97,” New York Times A24 , July 9, 2013.
 Slavery Abolition Act (1833) citation 3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73.
 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.
 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.
 Gordon Wood, “How the American Revolution Worked Against Blacks, Indians and Women,” New York Times BR12, September 6, 2016.