Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom by Russell Shorto; Norton, 640 pp., $28.95
Russell Shorto’s engaging new book appears at a moment when basic concepts of rights and equality are routinely disparaged. As if in response to our troubled political culture, he invites readers to return to the American Revolution to understand better how an 18th-century commitment to freedom took root and became a fundamental, unifying value in our nation’s history. The winning of independence, he notes, involved “a promise of freedom, and that promise was only partially fulfilled with the end of hostilities in 1783.” Indeed, Shorto argues, the original revolutionary demand for greater freedom continues to this day.
Even a gifted storyteller can find it hard to organize a coherent narrative around a belief in freedom. Put simply, during the Revolution, freedom lacked clear definition. The meaning of the term was almost always a matter of perspective, usually a product of an individual’s interaction with other people. One person’s sense of freedom often struck others as intolerable oppression. However well intended the appeal for freedom may have been, it generally exposed deep and enduring divisions over class, race, and gender. Slaveholders, for example, insisted that freedom was bound up with the ownership of property. Not surprisingly, slaves seldom shared that opinion.
Shorto appreciates the complexity of the interpretive challenge. For him the problem is not research; he has examined the relevant archives and taken into account recent studies of the American Revolution. He has accomplished this and still produced a compelling work that reads almost like a good detective story. That he has done both will inspire envy among many academic historians. The difficulty for Shorto, however, is that the historians upon whom he relies are no longer sure what to make of the basic principles that we associate with the Revolution. The issue is relatively new. Historians once told a coherent story about Founding Fathers, revered figures who sacrificed personal comfort for rights, freedom, and liberty. Their beliefs were enshrined in familiar documents like the Declaration of Independence. As Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the Revolution, declared, “At mid-century a new generation of historians rediscovered the constitutional and conservative character of the Revolution and carried the intellectual interpretation of the Revolution to new heights of sophistication.”
This account of shared values soon drew critics. Historians such as Alan Taylor and Colin G. Calloway pointed out that too many people had gone missing from the traditional story of the American Revolution. Absent were Native Americans, African Americans, and women. They, too, participated in the creation of a new political order. Taylor’s recent American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 restores human diversity to the story of our national origins. From this complex human perspective, the Founders’ demands for freedom sound hollow, even hypocritical. Taylor and others have also extended the revolutionary time frame well into the 19th century. They have likewise advanced a broad comparative interpretation of the American experience, and by placing it within the context of a wider Atlantic world, they have avoided the celebratory character of earlier scholarship. Freedom must be understood within a conversation that includes countries such as France and Haiti.
Shorto is aware of these developments. Indeed, he tries to accommodate the various contending perspectives. On the one hand, he praises a traditional value—freedom—while on the other he introduces readers to a diverse cast of characters whose lives were transformed by the revolutionary experience. As he explains, “My objective is to offer not just an account of the era in which the American nation was founded, but a sense of what it felt like.” Shorto traces the experiences of six strong characters from the time of their births in the mid-17th century to their deaths well after the end of the American Revolution. They all responded to the “Revolution Song” of freedom in very different ways.
The cast includes a woman, an Indian, an African American, and three white men whose conflicting ambitions put them at odds over the meaning of the Revolution; we are introduced to George Washington, a familiar figure who comes to see his personal honor as bound up with national independence and unity; George Germain, an English aristocrat of limited abilities who fails spectacularly to defeat the Americans; Abraham Yates Jr., a self-made man who owed his political prominence in Albany to claims that a self-empowered class of wealthy New Yorkers wanted to undermine American democracy; Venture Smith, an African brought to America as a slave who defied pervasive racism to achieve success as a Connecticut farmer; Margaret Moncrieffe, the daughter of a British officer who found her dreams of personal independence crushed by a series of brutish, feckless lovers, including her husband; and Cornplanter, a Seneca warrior who witnessed the destruction of his people by forces he never quite understood. Shorto does not argue that these figures somehow represented larger social groups. As he states, “They were gorgeously themselves.”
What makes the experiences of these six people worth recounting is their shared devotion to freedom. But however sincere they may have been, the detailed stories of their parallel lives do not hold together. The concept of freedom that informs Shorto’s narrative is too broad and too personal to provide useful insights into why so many ordinary Americans of very different economic and ethnic backgrounds decided to risk their lives resisting the British Empire. For Washington, freedom involved gaining national independence. Germain believed that the British constitution, though unwritten, guaranteed freedom to all the king’s subjects. Yates defined freedom in terms of class interests. Moncrieffe wanted freedom not only to choose the men she lived with, but also to purchase consumer goods that she could not afford. Venture Smith and Cornplanter just wanted their neighbors to leave them alone, something that other freedom-loving Americans refused to do.
Shorto deserves praise for reminding us of the complexity of freedom’s claims. For some Americans, freedom means doing whatever one likes without consideration of the needs of other people. Freedom can also involve a shared belief that basic human rights require mutual responsibility to neighbors and strangers. Americans must decide at this critical moment in their history which kind of freedom they want to defend.
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