If the politics of passion is left unbridled, it could lead to the ruin of our experiment in republican self-government.
Eventually, there might be an entire popular history of America available through an H.W. Brands box set. The University of Texas professor has tackled antebellum politics, Westward expansion, Texas, the California Gold Rush, the Gilded Age, the murder of Jim Fisk, the 1890s, American finance, entrepreneurial capitalism, the Cold War, the Truman-MacArthur confrontation, and post-war America, in addition to biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Aaron Burr, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, and Ronald Reagan. Now comes the Revolution.
As we race toward the 250th anniversary of American independence, we can be sure that academic and popular historians will be crowding the bookshelves with new perspectives.
One of America’s most prolific (“frighteningly prolific” in the words of one scholarly reviewer) academic and popular historians, Brands, has beaten the competition to the punch with Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution.
The idea that the Revolution was a family affair is not new. It is interesting, though, to juxtapose the contention that revolution was civil war against the idea examined by Allen Guelzo in his new biography of Robert E. Lee that secession was revolution. American independence was a secession of the American colonies from the British Empire. Like the secession that followed fourscore and five years later, it was anything but a peaceful family spat.
Brands starts with the family working together—George Washington’s mission to the Ohio country on behalf of Britain in 1754 that provided a spark for the French and Indian War—and works through the major political and military events of the next 30 years in a briskly written 444 pages (plus a scant 20 pages of endnotes).
Lexington and Concord come and go in a page. Paul Revere isn’t mentioned at all in the text (his print of the Boston Massacre appears in the photo section). Nathan Hale gets one belated appearance (but is mysteriously absent from the index). For all those omissions, the focus is firmly on the well-known major players—Franklin and Washington, and to a lesser degree John Adams. This is a retelling, not a revision.
Brands’ twist is to buttress the “civil war” theme by zeroing in on the challenges faced by Loyalists, those in America who continued to consider themselves British rather than American, who rejected independence and remained loyal to the crown.
To that end, the author relies heavily on Franklin to carry the narrative forward. It’s in a letter to an English friend after Lexington and Concord that Franklin refers to “the commencement of a civil war.” Brands contrasts Franklin, the uber-American patriot, with his son William, the royal governor of New Jersey, who sided with his king over his father.
With the son in America and the father representing colonial interests in England, their correspondence remained polite but unambiguous. When the senior Franklin returned to America and at last relations broke off, they would not resume for almost a decade. But while they were still talking, the language of their letters revealed the different prisms through which they viewed the conflict. Benjamin Franklin referred to “the Misunderstandings between Great Britain and America.” William Franklin referred to “the present unnatural Dispute between G.B. and her Colonies.”
Eschewing analysis, Brands’ relentless narrative follows the fortunes of Washington’s army, British strategy, and congressional incompetence, squeezing 30 years of conflict into a relatively small space. With one exception, the battles are practically footnotes: Bunker Hill, Ticonderoga, Saratoga, Trenton, Monmouth Court House, and King’s Mountain fly by, as if Brands can’t wait to get back to telling us how the war is affecting one or another loyalist—Pennsylvania politician Joseph Galloway, his luckless wife Grace Growden Galloway, Iroquois leader Joseph Brant, and the ubiquitous William Franklin.
But where he lingers, Brands succeeds. The climax at Yorktown is given plenty of space, and he makes good use of it, detailing the travails faced by Washington as he waited on the French army’s Comte de Rochambeau and the navy’s Comte de Grasse to finalize plans to trap Lord Cornwallis in Virginia.
Absorbing Society’s Defaulters
Despite the claims of publishing house marketing departments, Loyalists have not really been ignored by historians. It might be more accurate to say they have been swatted aside by readers. Unlike the popularity of histories and biographies featuring the Confederacy, Loyalists have never garnered much sympathy from the reading public.
As trends in academic history have swerved toward holistic examinations of the “Atlantic World” and sharply away from sympathetic portraits of the Southern side of the Civil War, we have gotten a broader picture of how these pieces fit together. But the picture remains incomplete.
For one thing, although Loyalists came from every social strata, it was the more affluent who were much more likely to leave behind written records that found their way into archives for historians to consult. That gives us a somewhat skewed portrait of those who went into exile and leaves us wondering about the thoughts and feelings of the deplorables among the Loyalists. Brands offers nothing on that score in terms of narrative or analysis.
For a deeper dive than Brands presents, readers can turn to Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare and the Triumph of Anglo-America (which encompasses the English and American Civil Wars as well as the American Revolution); Mary Beth Norton’s 50-year-old classic, The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774-1789, which one reviewer at the time called “a profound analysis” (the same could be said of her more recent 1774: The Long Year of Revolution); and Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World.
Affluent Loyalists were also much more likely to be able to afford to flee to safety. An estimated 60,000 fled the new nation. For those who remained behind, the British effectively abandoned their allies to the Americans. While there was some retribution and shunning, time tended to heal wounds. Many former Loyalists and their descendants were eventually absorbed into the body politic. As Brands notes in his conclusion, that included some Native American tribes who, just a few years later, would have to decide all over again which side to take in the War of 1812.
But, as Guelzo observes in his Lee biography, most Anglo-Americans possessed “an instinct, running back to the Constitutional Convention, to err on the side of absorbing society’s defaulters rather than marching them to the scaffold.”
That would be true once again in the next American civil war.
Bridging the Chasm
Norton’s The British Americans was published just four years before the 1976 Bicentennial, a period that saw an explosion of titles focused on the founding. Brands’ book comes to us about the same distance from the Semiquincentennial and is certain to be part of a new explosion. Will the coming deluge enlighten us?
As we approach the 250th anniversary of independence in a time of bitter divisions, there is loose talk among the chattering class of the potential for a third civil war. Analysts and average citizens will seek to measure the divisions of the 1970s vs. the divisions of today, and against the divisions of the 18th and 19th centuries.
But what do our first and second civil wars have to say about the potential for a third?
Nothing today compares to the immensity of slavery or the colonials’ evolution from resistance to revolution. Modern historians might retroactively march Confederates to history’s scaffold, but no one calls the American Revolution the War of Patriot Aggression.
But in comparison to more recent times, we do face questions that are more divisive than the Vietnam War and, in some ways, just as foundational as those raised by the civil rights movement.
A significant difference between the Loyalists in the Revolution and the Confederates in the Civil War was that the British Loyalists did not consider themselves to be Americans, as shown in the different language employed by the Franklins as they saw and wrote about the conflict; the Confederates did consider themselves Americans, even arguing they were the true heirs of Washington and Jefferson. However incorrect that assertion might have been, however skewed was their view of the Founders’ intent, they did not reject the idea of the founding.
Today, we are divided between those who continue to honor the idea of the founding and those who reject it, who see America’s soaring aspirations and long evolution toward liberty as little more than cant, much as the Garrisonians of the antebellum and Civil War eras rejected the Constitution as a bargain with evil.
That division is not as substantive a challenge as slavery. But it is an ideological chasm as wide as the one that separated Patriot and Loyalist, and it might be impossible to bridge.
The late British historian Ian Christie wrote that the “loyalists’ concept of the Revolution was based to a high degree on a conspiracy theory and there was a blank incomprehension of the considerations which had led other Americans to opt for independence.” Lincoln argued that between North and South, the extension of slavery was “the only substantial difference between us.”
Lincoln did not have a “blank incomprehension” about the South, but he underestimated the cultural, social, and economic differences that had grown between the sections across the republic’s first eight decades. His whiggish faith in the future blinkered his perception of the cynicism of the fire eaters.
Then as now, the opposing sides were talking past each other, lending no credence to the concerns of those they considered their enemies. Today we talk faster and louder, amplified by social media, 24-hour news cycles, and instantaneous worldwide communication. That might not be a difference in kind, but the difference in degree is great enough to make it more difficult to strike those mystic chords of memory that once bound us more closely together.
In any event, more and better listening won’t resolve every dispute, and it wouldn’t have prevented the Civil War or stopped the American Revolution. But, as we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it’s good to have reminders, in Lincoln’s words, that we must not be enemies. Consider Our First Civil War a small contribution to the effort.