Originally Posted: June 29, 2017
BY: Edward Countryman is University Distinguished Professor in the Clements Department of History at Southern Methodist University, where he teaches colonial and revolutionary America. He is working on a book called “Distinctive Nation: The Uncertain Colonial Order, an Ambiguous Revolution, and the Troubled American Republic,” for Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
For historians, the American Revolution has become a hot topic. We have learned a vast amount since the last great burst of public interest, at the bicentennial. Let me share a few things that I think are really exciting.
First comes American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton, 2016) by two-time Pulitzer winner Alan Taylor. Taylor shows how the Revolution caught up everybody — great and obscure, northern and southern, native and settler, free and enslaved, loyalist and patriot — in the whole huge area that became the United States. The Revolution’s great heroes have their place within this story. But what they did and how they did it only makes sense if an enormous cast joins them on an enormous stage. Taylor shows that whole cast, and all that its members did.
Next, comes American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by the late Pauline Maier (Knopf, 1996). Maier zooms in on the Republic’s founding document during the intense period when Thomas Jefferson and his fellow members of the Continental Congress wrote it. She, too, has a huge cast, people all over the colonies who realized that it was time to part with Britain. She goes deep into how the document took shape, including Jefferson’s failed attempt to include slavery as a reason to fire the king. What he wrote was bad history (colonists had wanted slavery, which did not exist in England), bad logic (blaming the king for encouraging slaves to rise against masters who were in rebellion), and terrible writing. But it did show that slavery had become a problem that would have to be solved. With that understood, Maier also presents one of the great American and world documents in its historical fullness. READ MORE