The American Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles)
Gordon S. Wood
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“An elegant synthesis done by the leading scholar in the field, which nicely integrates the work on the American Revolution over the last three decades but never loses contact with the older, classic questions that we have been arguing about for over two hundred years.”—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers
A magnificent account of the revolution in arms and consciousness that gave birth to the American republic.
When Abraham Lincoln sought to define the significance of the United States, he naturally looked back to the American Revolution. He knew that the Revolution not only had legally created the United States, but also had produced all of the great hopes and values of the American people. Our noblest ideals and aspirations-our commitments to freedom, constitutionalism, the well-being of ordinary people, and equality-came out of the Revolutionary era. Lincoln saw as well that the Revolution had convinced Americans that they were a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty. The Revolution, in short, gave birth to whatever sense of nationhood and national purpose Americans have had.
No doubt the story is a dramatic one: Thirteen insignificant colonies three thousand miles from the centers of Western civilization fought off British rule to become, in fewer than three decades, a huge, sprawling, rambunctious republic of nearly four million citizens. But the history of the American Revolution, like the history of the nation as a whole, ought not to be viewed simply as a story of right and wrong from which moral lessons are to be drawn. It is a complicated and at times ironic story that needs to be explained and understood, not blindly celebrated or condemned. How did this great revolution come about? What was its character? What were its consequences? These are the questions this short history seeks to answer. That it succeeds in such a profound and enthralling way is a tribute to Gordon Wood’s mastery of his subject, and of the historian’s craft.
From the Hardcover edition.
lawyer John Dickinson, in his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767–68), the most popular pamphlet of the 1760s, rejected all parliamentary taxation. According to Dickinson, Parliament had no right to impose either “internal” or “external” taxes levied for the sole purpose of raising revenue. He called for the revival of the nonimportation agreements that had been so effective in the resistance to the Stamp Act. Following Boston’s lead in March 1768, merchants in colonial ports again
whom heaven has favoured with an opportunity of deliberating upon and choosing forms of government under which they should live.” And they aimed to make the most of this opportunity. During the summer of 1775, Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts, together with the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress led by Richard Henry Lee, worked out a program for independence. They made plans to negotiate foreign alliances, to create a confederation or union for common purposes, and, most
battle, his troops actually spent a good deal of time skirmishing with the enemy, harassing them and depriving them of food and supplies whenever possible. In such circumstances the Americans’ reliance on amateur militia forces and the weakness of their organized army made the Americans, as a Swiss officer noted, more dangerous than “if they had a regular army.” The British never clearly understood what they were up against—a revolutionary struggle involving widespread support in the population.
the Federalists were continually compelled in the ratifying debates to minimize, even disguise, the elitist elements of the Constitution. And in fact the Federalists of 1787–88 were not rejecting democratic electoral politics; nor were they trying to reverse the direction of the republican Revolution. They saw themselves rather as saving the Revolution from its excesses, in Madison’s words, creating “a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.” They shared a
incredibly dynamic world. No doubt by mid-century many British officials had come to realize that some sort of overhaul of this increasingly important empire was needed. But few understood the explosive energy and the sensitive nature of the people they were tampering with. The British Empire, Benjamin Franklin warned, was like a fragile Chinese vase that required delicate handling indeed. REFORM OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE After 1748 various imperial reforms were in the air. The eye-opening