Current read: A Short History of the American Revolution, by James L. Stokesbury

I love history. I hate much recent history writing.

Some years back, I landed work writing a series of US history articles. My collegiate studies focused on ancient Western civs; I only took one US history class, and it wasn’t a highlight. In prep, I went out looking for a balanced survey of the subject–and found none. What I found was two enormous packs of agenda-driven crap: A Patriot’s History of the United States, and A People’s History of the United States. Both were repulsive; the first more so, because my long-ago undergraduate advisor helped perpetrate it, but the answer to was that no balanced survey was readily available.

One may not write about US history, it seems, unless one begins with a conclusion (Murrica is wonderful and perfect, Murrica has never done a single decent thing) and then distorts the evidence to sustain the conclusion. That’s not history.

History is when one looks at the evidence, puts the context into perspective, and tells the story as an honest broker. Nowadays, this is not much done. Nowadays, it’s not just the journalists who write garbage history, though you can tell when they’re doing it. Big names write garbage history. I watch people deify Howard Zinn, and I despair. But it’s not all bad.

The War of American Independence, or the American Revolution, is a favorite subject of mine. It conflicts me. On the one hand, I consider our rebellion a symbol of the national pathology. On the other, even I–the least nationalistic American citizen most people will ever meet–find myself stirred by the exploits of the Rebel militia, the forlorn Continental Navy, and so on. There is an odd pleasure in reading of how a ragtag army, which spent much of its time going home after expired enlistments, stood in there with some of the elite armies of Europe and won by not quitting. It is inspiring to have some distant sense of connection with it, even if my own forebears were nearly all on the other side. But in the United States, one is almost not allowed to consider the Revolutionary War with any objectivity. Only two stances are tolerated: “we were right,” or “we were lunatics.”

My own reading of the history suggests that one may credibly split the difference, here as in so many other cases. Yeah, it was the act of a bunch of whiners who resented helping to foot the bill for their own defense, a war spurred by the rich and fought by the poor. But it is just as true that the Crown was enormously out of touch with colonial life and reality, and dealt with the colonies in such pigheaded and ham-fisted ways as to bring about armed rebellion. Not often do I see history that examines events not in light of what we know now, or what mythology we have spent eleven generations creating, but in light of what the participants understood or could know.

This is why I am enamored with the subject book. Its only fault is that it is short on maps (in particular, it needs one for the Saratoga campaign). It credits the colonials where due, and the British where due, and takes one ever back to the context of the times. Why did the British not carry the war through to a finish in 1776? Because a healthy segment of British thought misunderstood the colonial sentiment, and hoped to bring the strays back into the fold. Because nationalism was rather a new thing; a war in which taking the enemy capital did not result in a settlement with concessions was a new thing. Because colonials would resent beyond all expectation the mother country enlisting Native Americans and German mercenaries to put down the rebellion. Stokesbury always takes us back to the vital question: what did the participants know and think, at the time, and without our modern hindsight?

It sounds so obvious, yet is the first thing many seem to forget. Take Japan in December 1941. Today, it seems bizarre that Japan imagined that Pearl Harbor and blows against the British and Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies would force the United States to accept the Pacific status quo. They understood us as poorly as we understood them. And yet, without that thinking, the actions of the times make little sense. Insight into the contemporary mindset is vital to historical understanding. That, dear reader, is where Stokesbury delivers. His account positions the events, impartially presented, in the context of what those of the day knew and understood, while pointing out that which they did not yet realize.

That is how you teach history. Prof. Stokesbury passed away two decades ago, but if this is a fair sample, he was a loss to the discipline of history. If you’d like to understand the Revolutionary War without the modern partisan crap, and without 20/20 hindsight, this historian has delivered.


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