The other side from the other side of the Pond

Okay, so I’m fascinated by the American Revolution.  And it’s no secret that I think that the way the American Revolution, and the Revolutionary War, are taught and thought of today are based on some broad assumptions and biases that are, basically, wrong.  Probably the major reason for this slant in perception, I’d argue, would be that historians of the American Revolution are overwhelmingly American, and almost never British.

This tends to warp the historiography in two ways.  First, there’s the simple fact that only one side of the story gets told.  I think we can all agree that that’s always going to bias the account.  The bias isn’t even really conscious; it’s just that, as no one pushes back against it for generation after generation, writers about the Revolution simply don’t notice it’s there.  It’s exactly this source of bias that Fred Anderson pushes back against in my favourite book about the Revolutionary (and pre-Revolutionary) era.  That’s a general principle that would apply to any instance of only one side ever getting told.

Second is more about the specific instance of the American Revolution: Americans have a serious emotional investment in the story of the Revolution.  At times, preserving that story, and preserving the heroism of its protagonists, can take precedence over accuracy.  That’s certainly not to say that I think the American writers about the Revolution are more interested in myth than facts; the legitimate historians among them certainly aren’t.  But much of their readership is, even if they’re not aware of it, and pushing too hard against those myths gets distinctly unpleasant for them.  As one small example of this, there’s the continued iconic status of Paul Revere, a man whose fame derives entirely from an intentionally inaccurate poem written in 1860 (which ascribes to him heroic deeds done by other men), and who faced the British in combat only once, during which he showed, in the words of Artemas Ward, “unsoldierlike behavior tending to cowardice”.

(Trips to the history section of the bookshop would also seem to indicate that someone has discovered there’s something of a market for American history books that quite explicitly provide the “true, un-PC” version of events, by which they of course mean they defiantly reassert only the myth as actual fact, but those books aren’t written by actual historians and I don’t know that they really affect the study of actual history.  The ones aimed at children really trouble me, though.)

So for a long time, I’ve wanted more British scholarship on the Revolution and the Revolutionary War (or, as it’s called in Britain, the American War of Independence).  That would balance the American biases and provide a broader perspective of both the revolution and the war.  They’d be able to examine the British government’s perspective in the conflicts and crises that led up to the outbreak of violence, to see the war as a civil war within the British Empire rather than as a war between Britain and America, to explore the global aspects of the Revolutionary War that had nothing to do with the Americans.

So I’ve been really thrilled to see a trend of British historians coming to the Revolution and the Founding Fathers in the last few years.  Over the past couple of months I’ve come across five such books:

By George Goodwin, there’s Benjamin Franklin in London, a biography of the two decades (1757–75) Ben Franklin lived in the imperial capital, for all but the final year of which he was a revered and well-liked member of the British social elite and the most enthusiastic advocate of Britain and America’s imperial partnership.

By Nick Bunker, there’s An Empire on the Edge, looking at the Boston Tea Party and the final crises that touched off the Revolutionary War through the eyes of the British government rather than the Patriot leaders.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaugnessy (who really is British, even with such a name) has two: The Men Who Lost America, biographies of ten men who directed the British war effort from London and in America, and An Empire Divided, examining Britain’s Caribbean colonies and why they stayed loyal when the colonies to their north revolted.

And by Brendan Simms (who’s actually Irish, not British), there’s Three Victories and a Defeat, in which the American Revolutionary War (the defeat, obviously) is treated in the context of being the latest in the chain of five other wars Britain had already fought against the French & Spanish alliance over the previous ninety years.  This is perhaps the perfect example of where I think Revolutionary War scholarship would benefit from more British input; it’s inevitable and entirely appropriate that for American historians, the war will be a war that was fought in America by American forces.  But after 1778, it was also fought in the West Indies, in Spain and in India, where it had no involvement from Americans at all—but if we ignore those theatres, we’re left with an incomplete understanding of the war.

I can’t get to these books right away, but I’m very much looking forward to when I do get to them.

I

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