THE HISTORIAN who undertakes another history of the American Revolution, at this date, needs to be as brave as the men who fought in it. The mountain of written histories and the inexhaustible archives of the period present a problem of compression and selection upon which there are bound to be as many opinions as there are readers. The story of the great conflict must be cut to its very essentials if it is to be of manageable length. The broad option is to either tell all the twice-told tales; or to attempt a sensational revision that distorts most of them. The author of this volume has declined the revisionist role. He is almost as brave as the men about whom he writes, and almost as successful.
He has constructed a solid and readable volume from the great written resources on the American Revolution now available. He has drafted a synthesis of what has been published in the best of the earlier works, an incredible number of which are obviously as familiar to him as household words. His narrative account goes along at a fast pace. He moves with agility from profound political and philosophical disputes of the period to the scenes of battle and the problems of military strategy.
The chapters leading up to Lexington and Concord are very thoughtful appraisals of circumstances in England and in the Colonies. They convey an understanding of why British politicians and parliamentarians wished to reform colonial administration, but still leave unexplained the folly of how they attempted to do it. The picture of colonial America before the Stamp Act is a portrait of a people with more freedom than any people anywhere in the world of the 18th century. Their well- being helps explain their quick resistance to change--to change trespassing on their local prerogatives of government, their property rights, their conception of their rights under the English constitution. They believed with Locke that "slaves are those who are obliged to labor and toil only for the benefit of others; or what comes to the same thing, the fruit of whose labor and industry may be lawfully taken from them without their consent, and they justly punished if they refuse to surrender it on demand, or apply it to other purposes than those, which their masters, of their mere grace and pleasure see fit to allow." Because of such beliefs in the Colonies, says Middlekauff, "disquiet at the stamp tax becomes understandable." He notes that this "unease" was "transformed into a constitutional position during 1765-1766, a position maintained intact until just before the Continental Congress declared independence."
He rightly adverts to another first principle of colonial America, dating back to the parliamentary struggle against the centralizing tendencies of Charles I. He might have emphasized this vestigial remnant of 17th- century English thinking. T.H. Breen has pointed out that "the towns and churches of Massachusetts were shaped by Charles I's ill-advised attempt to increase his authority by attacking local English institutions." The king made arbitrary attempts to dominate county and local affairs, to assert his influence "in matters his predecessors had wisely left alone." This gave impetus to the emigration of the people who accompanied John Winthrop to America. A profound sense of the relation between property rights and freedom, and a deep political and religious commitment to localism still colored colonial views.
The extent to which American views were pervaded by a sense of conspiracy against American rights is properly emphasized by Middlekauff. Some have found this view extravagant, and slightly paranoid, but it had a basis that he explains.
The events from 1763 to 1775 are recounted in this work with clarity. The text induces a kind of anguish as the British fumble their way into revolution with the loss of empire.
This account of Lexington is not as satisfactory as some other battle accounts. The Provincial Congress did not disseminate an official version of the April 19 battle until in July it distributed the slightly tabloid version that Isaiah Thomas printed in the Massachusetts Spy. Subsequent retellings vary some. In outline they agree: some 600 or 700 British soldiers under the command of Major John Pitcairn marched to Lexington where they confronted 70 men under Captain John Parker. Pitcairn commanded the militia to lay down their and disperse. Parker ordered his men to fall out. They began to leave with their weapons. Pitcairn shouted to them to lay down their arms. Someone fired. Pitcairn tried to stop it but did not succeed until eight militia were dead and 10 wounded. Middlekauff's narrative rests mainly on Christopher Ward's History of the American Revolution.
American historians Bancroft and Fiske say Pitcairn fired. Bancroft says he fired his pistol. Pitcairn denied this until the day of his death at Bunker Hill. He said the colonials fired first. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, believed Pitcairn did not fire but that the first shot came from the British ranks. Captain Parker, in an affidavit on April 25, said he and his men had met on the common and "concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult us; and upon their sudden approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse and not to fire. Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon and killed eight of our party, without receiving any provocation therefor from us."
The reader of Middlekauff's account will read that: "Among the wounded--he died--was the aged Parker, who had stood his ground, fired his weapon, and then was struck by a bullet in the second volley." Since "the aged Parker" is not identified, the language leaves the impression that it was Captain John Parker, but it was Jonas Parker, the captain's aged cousin. Captain John Parker, after the skirmish, reformed his men and marched toward Concord.
One could wish that Middlekauff had taken a little more time on the Battle of Lexington, given its importance. Perhaps that importance can be exaggerated, of course. Probably the British force, sooner or later, would have fired on the Americans and started the Revolution, whether at Lexington, or at Concord, or elsewhere. Still it did happen at Lexington and the incident is worth all the time it would take to tell the story as completely as the evidence permits.
Middlekauff's story marches forward smoothly from battle to battle, from Lexington to Yorktown. His estimate of George Washington as a military commander is high and it is not colored by any revisionist derogation. His estimate of the army also is high--he cites a statement of General Nathaniel Greene that the army held the country together--an interesting contribution. His picture of Washington in the Yorktown campaign is highly laudatory. He cites his logistical skill, his coolness under fire, his use of terrain, his skill in the diplomacy of an allied force.
Moving to the postwar period, he clearly pictures the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the government's inability to cope with finance and commerce. He deals deftly with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in a marvel of compression covering ground that whole volumes could not fully describe.
The Middlekauff story on the peacemaking in Paris has an omission of some importance. He credits Richard Oswald, a Scotch merchant Lord Shelburne sent to the American commissioners as his personal representative, with bringing Shelburne to the point of acknowledging and treating with "the United States." This was for months the sticking point on which George III could not be moved. Richard B. Morris, in The Peacemakers, relates the story of how Benjamin Vaughan, Shelburne's confidential secretary, persuaded the prime minister to issue a commission to Oswald authorizing him to deal with the commissioners of "The United States of America." Vaughan had brought from Paris to London John Jay's letter on the subject, and he returned to Paris with the commission Jay had sought. Morris relates that "the papers of Shelburne and Townsend disclose that it was the private papers from Paris, presumably brought by Vaughan, which impelled Shelburne to take this forward step." Says Morris: "Vaughan's presence seems to have precipitated the decision . . ." "Mr. Vaughan greatly merits our acknowledgements," Jay reported home. Later, Vaughan came to the United States and settled at Hallowell, Maine. He corresponded, over the years, with six American presidents.
The military account in this volume curiously omits entirely any mention of the Penobscot expedition of 1779 against Castine. The amphibious operation against the British-held Penobscot fort failed, chiefly due to the delays of Admiral Richard Saltonstall who was cashiered when the whole Massachusetts fleet was destroyed by a British squadron from Halifax. Lost were 19 armed vessels and 24 transports.
The narrative suffers from some unaccountably awkward sentences, as on page 26: "Distance from England and the slowness of communications helped keep the ties, those 'political bands' Thomas Jefferson was to mention in the Declaration of Independence, slack." Putting the "slack" after the word "keep" would have clarified this verbiage. And on page 487: "He was more discreet in a letter to Clinton asking for instructions, though the letter, with its reproachful declaration that he was 'totally in the dark as to intended operations in the summer," laid out a plan." A few moments with the pencil would have sharpened up some of these sentences and the editors might have performed that service. It is presumably now acceptable to refer to Grasse and Estaing as this text does, but it is safe to say that Washington never referred in this manner to Comte Jean Baptiste Charles Henri d'Estaing or Comte Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse.
The Glorious Cause is a welcome addition to the history of the Revolution and with the other 10 volumes being brought out in the Oxford History of the United States under the editorship of C. Vann Woodward should reflect and summarize the scholarship of this generation of American historians.