Book Review: The American Revolution: A World War, edited by David K. Allison and Larrie D. Ferreiro, (Smithsonian Books, 2018).
For most students of the American Revolution, the dispute between England and the thirteen colonies occupies center stage. International involvement, such as alliance with France, is similarly viewed through the lens of the British-American dichotomy. While it seems natural for Americans to emphasize the events that led to their nation’s founding, this perspective undervalues the global impact of the Revolutionary war. The American Revolution: A World War is an illustrated collection of twenty-two essays that examine different aspects of the Revolution through a global lens. The theme present throughout is that only through a broadened context can the American Revolution, both as contemporaries understood it and how it is remembered today, be understood.
Recent scholarship continues to make strides in expanding and undermining the loyalist-patriot grand narrative that dominated studies of the American Revolution for decades, illuminating the true complicated nature of the Revolution. These essays similarly complicate the traditional grand narrative but within a worldwide context. The decentralized role of the colonists on the road to independence may be jarring to many Americans, particularly in the way tenets of American historical memory are challenged and uprooted. This does not, however, mean that the American story is diminished; rather, this book provides context apart from which America’s journey to nationhood cannot be fully comprehended.
The book is a companion volume to the Smithsonian National Museum of History’s current exhibition of the same name. Split into three thematic sections, the essays focus on the network of conflicts and alliances among major European powers and suggest that events unfolded as a result of a larger global conflict between Europe’s superpowers. The topics covered include economic disputes, European diplomacy, the fight for naval supremacy, and the worldwide interests of the British Empire. As the contributing scholars demonstrate, international involvement, including the French alliance and support from the Dutch, reflected the struggles in the power balance between nations and their relationship with England more so than outright support of the American cause.
The first section, “Major Powers,” sets the stage for the global lens and examines the British, French, and Spanish strategies in the war. Alan Taylor explores the roots of the war in the preceding global war—called the French and Indian War in America and the Seven Years War in Europe—which informed Spanish and French support and strategy as they united against England. While the stances of European nations grew out of relationships developed or destroyed during this preceding conflict, an essay by Andrew Lambert further contends that the British did not base their strategy on a desire to hold the thirteen colonies. Rather, he asserts British strategy developed in response to trade and to threats the French presented. These and their accompanying essays underscore how the events unfolding in America developed as a response to Europe’s global endeavors.
The second section, “At the Edges,” builds upon this foundation and explores the impacts of the Revolution around the world. While most consider Yorktown the final battle of the Revolution, Richard Sambasivam’s essay pinpoints the final battles that occurred in India, another theatre in which the struggle between the British and the French played out. Although North America’s gulf region is not typically a focus in the Revolution, Kathleen DuVal demonstrates that the international struggle on the fringes on the North American continent proved pivotal to the Revolution’s outcome. Readers may be surprised to find that the Revolution was perceived as a global war both within the colonies and internationally. How, then, how did the Revolution evolve from this to the simplified British-American struggle with which most are familiar? The final section of the book, “Legacy,” visits this issue and its roots in the war’s resolutions and the subsequent formation of historical memory. Particularly thought-provoking are essays by David Allison and Larrie Ferreiro that explore of the purposeful crafting of historical memory through artwork, historiography, and American pedagogy.
Designed in such a way that it is extremely accessible, the format reflects its effort, along with the exhibition which it accompanies, to encourage a shift in America’s popular understanding of the war. The book is rare in its accomplishment of combining accessibility and serious scholarship within a visually satisfying journey. Topical sidebars offer additional information and keep the essays grounded in the overarching theme. Even as the Revolution’s 250th anniversary draws near, these scholars show us that there are new avenues awaiting exploration and encourage a reevaluation of the way the American Revolution is remembered.
While touted as a companion to the book, the Smithsonian museum exhibit “American Revolution – A World War” is focused on the Franco-American Alliance and Yorktown. Despite its name, the Smithsonian presentation does not depict the wider conflict outside of North American.
However, visitors have the opportunity to see several fascinating objects including the pistol given to George Washington by the mortally wounded British General Edward Braddock, an almanac provided by French General Rochambeau to his troops, and two French paintings depicting the battle of Yorktown.
Good stuff, but an opportunity lost to present a wider picture of the global aspects of the Revolution.