The staggering ignorance of American history displayed by students at prestigious institutions of higher learning, in recent surveys, is reason to fear for our country. You can’t very well understand or appreciate the value of the freedom we enjoy, and the price of obtaining it, without a thorough grounding in the American Revolution. But there are painless ways to start, and one is this volume which, in a remarkably concise hundred pages or so, rushes us through the long, bloody slog, including the long train of abuses that forced the Americans into a fight for independence, and the efforts to found a lasting republic when the fighting was through.
Robert Allison, professor of history at Suffolk University in Boston, fills his few pages with essential quotes, lively vignettes, and apt observations. He brings onto these pages the people too often left out of this history—women, Native Americans, slaves—without sacrificing the roles of the leading American and British men in the struggle. Altogether, this is balanced, straightforward, and refreshingly bracing popular history. He notes, for example, how lonely and isolated our 13 colonies were at the start of the conflict: There was “no formal communication system joining them except through London. Post roads linked Boston with Philadelphia, but most transit was by water, and few Americans had visited the other colonies.” George Washington had once sailed to Barbados, but John Adams did not set his eyes on Philadelphia or New York until he was nearly 40.
One of the great achievements of the colonists was, thus, sharing information and getting news and opinion into print about British attempts to erode their liberty and impose taxes on them without representation. By 1766, Sons of Liberty groups throughout the colonies were actively fighting the tax on documents, known as the Stamp Act, to the point that customs agent John Robinson reported that tax officials felt the fury “not of a trifling Mob, but of a whole Country.” In London, Benjamin Franklin warned that British attempts to force the Americans into compliance would be disastrous: “They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one,” he observed shrewdly. When the British actually did send troops to Boston, Franklin warned that the act was as foolish as “setting up a smith’s forge in a magazine of gunpowder.”
For a time, British oppression seemed to work. “If it were not for an Adams or two, we should do well enough,” declared Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts. But those pesky Adamses, Samuel and John, refused to leave their ostensible masters alone, rallying Americans to defend their liberty, as the British ratcheted up the pressure. The Adamses well understood how to move public opinion by keeping on message while resisting the temptation to imitate the worst abuses of their adversaries. “Put your enemy in the wrong, and keep him so, is a wise maxim in politics as well as in war,” Samuel Adams advised. And soon after the first shots rang out, another powerful voice entered the fray, through a pamphlet entitled Common Sense. Thomas Paine recognized from the start this was about more than a mere political battle: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote. And that is what the Revolution did, by unleashing the explosive force of ordered liberty.
The American Revolution follows the long, brutal war, which sorely tested America’s faith in itself and in its greater leader, General Washington. Along with strategy and battles, Allison offers us such memorable vignettes as the fundraising drive by the women of Philadelphia, who raised the staggering sum of $300,000 to assist the troops. As part of their contribution, the women wished to give each soldier two dollars—a move the pragmatic Washington blocked, fearing that his men would spend it on drink. The women chose, instead, to present each soldier with a shirt. Once they were no longer fighting for their country’s survival, the men would have greater freedom to make their own choices.
It’s hard to explain the meaning of the Revolution without discussing its aftermath, and Allison offers a brief recounting of the Constitution’s crafting and ratification, and Washington’s first acts as the first president. Of course, a book such as this bears a certain resemblance to the “Classics Illustrated” comics I devoured as a kid: You get the general idea of great literature, but not the flavor. At the same time, if it encourages further reading, this volume is doing its job. In these pages, Allison rockets us forward all the way to July 4, 1826, and the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—50 years to the day after the country’s birth through the publication of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had hoped that the Fourth of July would serve as a signal to the world, “arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
Of course, many are still determined to bind themselves, through ignorance and superstition, to forms of government by which elites make decisions that belong to every human being. Transplanted to the Middle East, at the moment, the American Revolution is an ongoing fight, as a new generation seeks to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.