American Revolutions, by Alan Taylor

The American revolution is one of the most significant events in modern history, and I have always felt too uninformed about it. Alan Taylor’s book offers a comprehensive yet accessible introduction. It reads like a novel and sticks like honey—I haven’t been able to put it down since I first picked it up.

Taylor’s take on the Revolution is chronologically ordered, but not strictly so; the book is divided in themes such as ”loyalties,” ”rebels,” and ”allies,” rather than time periods. The narrative thus unfolds successively from its historical depths, each chapter adding a new dimension to the same events.

I won’t account for the twelve themes of American Revolutions here, but I want to reflect briefly on four topics that especially caught my attention.

First, the American revolution started as a British civil war. The British colonies to the west of the Atlantic grew to become economic, political, and social forces which strained the Empire’s capacity to maintain global unity.

Second, American patriots did not seek freedom in the Berlinian sense—post-war taxes were higher than those before the revolution!—as much as independence from their British masters, i.e., republican liberty. Much of the revolutionary propaganda was phrased in terms of ”ending slavery,” which of course entailed uncomfortable intellectual exercises for American slave owners.

Third, although enemies on the battlefield, patriots and loyalists remained united in beliefs of white racial supremacy.

Fourth, after achieving independence the United States had to engage actively in nation building, reconciling internal divisions to form national unity. In Taylor’s words, ”[a]n American national identity emerged later, slowly, painfully, and partially. It would follow from [the] constitution rather than lie behind its creation” (p. 386).

Among the legacies of the Revolution are republicanism and moral individualism; ”[p]ostrevolutionary America was the first society premised on individualism […] Nowhere else did the culture so insistently judge everyone based on his or her individual choices—in religion, politics, and economics” (p. 477). Perhaps this made the French revolution possible, and with it also the political liberalism which came to dominate the 19th and 20th centuries in the West.

American Revolutions also holds memorable anecdotes. One is that of the enslaved Phillis Wheatley, whose poetry was so beautiful that her owner was pressured by critics to free her (pp. 116–7). Another is that of divided militiamen in a North Carolina county, who took side in the Revolution based on a fistfight between a loyalist and a patriot (p. 214).

In conclusion, Taylor’s book is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in political history. It is a literary work of art, and a brilliant scholarly achievement.

Taylor, A. (2016). American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. W. W. Norton & Company.