“Excellent . . . deserves high praise. Mr. Taylor conveys this sprawling continental history with economy, clarity, and vividness.”—Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal
The American Revolution is often portrayed as a high-minded, orderly event whose capstone, the Constitution, provided the nation its democratic framework. Alan Taylor, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, gives us a different creation story in this magisterial history. The American Revolution builds like a ground fire overspreading Britain’s colonies, fueled by local conditions and resistant to control. Emerging from the continental rivalries of European empires and their native allies, the revolution pivoted on western expansion as well as seaboard resistance to British taxes. When war erupted, Patriot crowds harassed Loyalists and nonpartisans into compliance with their cause. The war exploded in set battles like Saratoga and Yorktown and spread through continuing frontier violence.
The discord smoldering within the fragile new nation called forth a movement to concentrate power through a Federal Constitution. Assuming the mantle of “We the People,” the advocates of national power ratified the new frame of government. But it was Jefferson’s expansive “empire of liberty” that carried the revolution forward, propelling white settlement and slavery west, preparing the ground for a new conflagration.
Taylor, professor of history at the University of Virginia and Pulitzer Prize winner for The Internal Enemy, further cements his reputation with this comprehensive analysis of an American Revolution that was anything but the relatively decorous event of popular myth. The revolutionary era was a time of divisions and uncertainties. "Turmoil persisted after the formal peace treaty," Taylor writes. But that upheaval inspired political and cultural creativity that enabled a nation to emerge from "much cruelty, violence, and destruction." Stressing the importance of the trans-Appalachian west, Taylor suggests that the conflict between land-hungry settlers and restrictive British polices was just as important to sparking revolution as the resistance to taxation that inflamed the Atlantic coast. This expanded perspective frames Taylor's presentation of George Washington's understanding that "victory hinged on who could endure a long, hard, bitter struggle." Taylor analyzes "the cycles of invasion, exposure, and suppression" that convinced most Americans that "a Patriot victory offered the best prospect for restoring peace and stability." He also highlights the "broad and anarchic borderland" where "Patriots fought... to suppress the independence of native peoples" in the name of creating an "empire of liberty." Provocative and persuasive, Taylor's fine work demonstrates that on a continent "riven with competing allegiances and multiple possibilities," the newly independent U.S. by no means faced a secure future.