Book Review: Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom by Russell Shorto (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017)
That the Revolution produced winners and losers is hardly news. Factors such as geography, ethnicity, race, religion, and political inclination were central to any individual’s response to the upheaval. Studies examining how such elements influenced personal or group decisions are many, and appear likely to continue as long as the Revolution draws interest. Russell Shorto’s recently published Revolution Song. A Story of American Freedom, is a new contribution to the subject.
Shorto, author of the acclaimed Island at the Center of the World, approaches the subject of disparate experiences and outcomes through the stories of six individuals ranging from the upper levels of British society to a manumitted slave. In between are a Virginia planter, a street-level Albany politician, a Seneca Iroquois chieftain, and a scrappy young girl tossed about in the tumult of the era. In telling the story of their Revolution, Shorto also tackles the question of what the Revolution did or did not do, or even what it could or could not do.
At the highest decision-making level of the British empire, Shorto focuses on George Sackville, later Lord Germain. For Germain, the contest with the contumacious colonies offered a chance of redemption following the shame of being labelled a coward in the Seven Years War. Germain pressed for a hard-line policy as a showdown with the colonies approached in 1775. The king and his ministry adopted his proposals, and appointed him effective Secretary at War to implement them.
It was Germain who decided to hire the armies of small German principalities, and to enlist the Iroquois and other Indians into the British cause despite the opposition of British commanders in America. He also devised the “southern strategy” adopted by the British after Saratoga. He was eased out of office after Yorktown and given the consolation prize of a peerage. Dying shortly after in comfortable retirement, he did not suffer the personal losses that defeat meant for many, but he had failed in his primary objective of imposing top-down government on the empire with himself as key overseer.
If George Washington was the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, he is also the inevitable one for historians, and Shorto selected him as Germain’s counterweight. Determined to rise from the insecure ranks of minor planters, Washington sought honor, rewards and recognition. He achieved some of these during the French and Indian War which he had helped ignite, but was frustrated by the British refusal to reward him, or any colonial, with regular rank. Like many southern planters he came to believe the imperial system was rigged against the colonists, and he entered public life as an opponent of British tax and land policies. Though well told, the book’s sections dealing with Washington will seem familiar to most JAR readers.
Such is not the case with Abraham Yates, an Anglo-Dutch shoemaker turned politico in Albany, New York. Nursing grudges against the local landholding elites, Yates developed a political following based largely on class interests. Like Washington, direct experience with the British army during the French and Indian War left him disillusioned and resentful. Imbibing the politics of John Locke and John Wilkes, he became a passionate defender of individual liberty, especially for the middling classes.
Aligned with the “True Whigs” who pushed more reluctant New Yorkers to independence, he was ever vigilant to guard against aristocratic influence whether British or American. Instinctively anti-Federalist following the war, he nursed a special loathing for fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, and was stunned and chagrined when the Constitution was ratified. For Yates, the Revolution was only partly successful. It had thrown off one form of despotism, but the country had not freed itself from the dominance of wealthy interests. Had he lived, he would likely have cheered Jefferson’s victory in 1800, but he died in 1796 relatively content among family and friends, and hopeful the Bill of Rights would spare the people from control by aristocratic manipulation.
Shorto’s other subjects possessed no legal political rights, so their quest for liberty during the Revolution took on a more personal cast. Cornplanter, a rising leader of the Seneca nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, bent his efforts to preserve the freedom Iroquois had within their own territory. He urged neutrality at the onset of the Revolution, but the Mohawk sachem Joseph Brant convinced most of the Iroquois to side with the crown. Bowing to the majority, he joined Brant in the Wyoming and Cherry Valley raids in 1778. Such devastating attacks provoked Washington to order the Sullivan-Clinton expedition, a campaign which anticipated Sherman’s “March to the Sea” by eighty-seven years.
Flabbergasted by Britain’s abandonment in the Treaty of Paris, Cornplanter counseled acceptance and negotiation to protect remaining Iroquois territory. Two personal meetings with Washington provided some respite to further encroachments, but after 1815 pressure from settlers and questionable land purchases reduced the Iroquois holdings further. In his last years, Cornplanter renounced contact with whites and urged a return to Iroquois traditions. For Cornplanter and his people, as for most Indians everywhere, the Revolution ended in betrayal, dispossession and, sometimes, virtual extinction.
Venture Smith began his American odyssey with even fewer options than the Iroquois. A member of the Fulani tribe in the African savannah, he was captured by African slave traders, who sold him to a British slaver, and he ultimately arrived in Connecticut. Through calculation, intelligence, work, and luck, he was able to purchase his freedom, acquire land in East Haddam, and amass a substantial holding for himself and his family. He avoided politics and stayed aloof from the Revolution, though one of his sons served in the Continental Army. Smith’s memoirs, dictated in 1798, offer a unique account of African-American life in the eighteenth century.
For a woman’s perspective, Shorto turned to the life of Margaret Coghlan, nee Moncrieffe, whose tribulations he views as emblematic of the strictures and discrimination facing women of the time. The daughter of a Brutish officer, she was caught behind enemy lines as the British invasion forces prepared their assault on New York in June 1776. Exhibiting the spunk and verve that characterized her life, she contacted Gen. Israel Putnam and asked him to arrange for her to cross over to British lines. Putnam complied, and in the process the fifteen-year-old Margaret had the unique experience of dining with both Washington and Gen. William Howe within a matter of weeks where her bold toasts raised eyebrows in both camps.
While still in rebel-held territory she met, and became infatuated with Aaron Burr, and declared her intention to marry him. But when united with her father in the British Army, she found he had other plans. Despite her youth, he forced her to marry John Coghlan, a boorish and abusive fellow officer, a union she later described as an “honourable prostitution.” When Coghlan took her back to Britain, she fled his home and soon began a career as a courtesan—a high end mistress. Her lovers were primarily upper-class men of money and fame, including the pro-American radical Charles Edward Fox. Her attempts to achieve stability and financial security ultimately failed, and she fell into debt and debtor’s prisons. Hoping to recover financially, she wrote a memoir filled with prominent people and salacious tidbits, but it failed in its purpose. Desperate and ever-bold, she petitioned the king for money, citing the military contributions of her father and abandoned husband. The petition was ignored, and Margaret vanished from the public record. Shorto believes she sank into poverty, squalor, and early death. One wishes some image of this intelligent and determined woman had survived. But for her, the Revolution was a backdrop to her personal struggle, to choose her own husband and life.
Shorto is a seasoned writer whose prose carries the reader through his subject’s lives smoothly and lucidly, while his organization succeeds in presenting the lives and circumstances of very different people in a coherent chronological fashion. He also has an eye for the crux of the matter, especially in well-trodden areas such as the military history of the war. Regarding the Battle of Long Island, for example, he describes it as a contest in which “one general’s inexperience was pitted against another’s excessive caution” which explains the outcome quite neatly.
The book benefits from extensive research and documentation. References are organized into separate sections for the subjects, e.g. sources for Venture Smith are in one section, those for Abraham Yates in another, and so on. Shorto does not use numerical citations, instead excerpting key phrases from the text and linking them with the sources in the endnotes section. The method seems cumbersome, and makes it harder to document everything that merits it. Many readers might appreciate the source of Shorto’s relating that Washington once sent off to his London agent for four ounces of the “aphrodisiac Spanish Fly.”
At times, Shorto indulges in presentism. In discussing the refusal, or inability, of the Constitutional Convention to take steps to eliminate slavery, Shorto states, “Liberty was an inalienable right for all people. But economic considerations crimped the leaders’ moral beings … [the] finely wrought words to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and Posterity’ had a distinctly hollow ring.” But not to the majority at the time, then focused on the proper balance within a federal system, and the survival of the nation itself. The debate over slavery would grow increasingly fractious in the decades after 1788, and, to modern sensibilities, failure to send it on the road to oblivion in 1788 seems immoral and mistaken. But it is projecting backwards to assume that was the prevalent view at the time.
Such reservations aside, Shorto has delivered a solid work delving into the experiences of individuals drawn from several key levels of society. Their stories provide a taste of how debate, resistance, war and its consequences spread their effects unevenly across the populations involved.
I’m glad you mentioned presentism in this work. It is a common practice, going back decades, among books on the Revolution