The Colonial Melting Pot
Six very different people in a war of liberation
By T. H. Breen
December 4, 2017
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.
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T. H. Breen is a James Marsh Professor at large at the University of Vermont. His most recent book is George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation.