How the Revolutionary War created a nation - and divided its citizens

OUR FIRST CIVIL WAR: PATRIOTS AND LOYALISTS IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by H.W. Brands, Doubleday, 486 pages, $32.50

H.W. Brands, best-selling author of biographies of American heroes and villains, has earned a much-deserved reputation as a writer of narrative history. In Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution, Brands offers a fast-paced, often riveting account of the military and political events leading up to the Declaration of Independence and those that followed during the war. He tells his story through the eyes of familiar patriot figures — among them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams — and perhaps less-familiar loyalists: Thomas Hutchinson, William Franklin, the Howe brothers, Joseph Brant. This focus on individual experiences and actions allows a reader the comfort of revisiting old friends whose life histories are twice-told tales, while also providing introductions to less well-known but equally interesting men.

Brands starts the story not in 1763, when the earliest signs of a major shift in Britain’s colonial policy appear, but in the 1750s, when the battle for dominance between Britain and France escalates into what historians call the Great War for Empire. Brands uses Washington’s experience with the British army to demonstrate the first signs of an alienation that will lead to the Declaration of Independence. The author deftly narrates the military action of the Great War for Empire and then offers a vivid account of the protests against the new, harsher British colonial policies that end in revolution. While there is little new in his account, he tells the story well.

Brands peppers his narrative with anecdotes that sharpen his portraits of the book’s leading figures and events. With a single quote from a letter by Alexander Hamilton to his fiancée, the author captures the shock and dismay of continental officers at the betrayal by Benedict Arnold. Stopping in mid-sentence, Hamilton wrote, “In the midst of my letter, I was interrupted by a scene that shocked me more than anything I have met with — the discovery of a treason of the deepest dye.” Brands demonstrates the wit and diplomatic skill of Franklin with an exchange in 1775 between Franklin and the sister of Lord Richard Howe, a British naval officer. As the two played a very competitive game of chess, his opponent turned the conversation to politics, asking, “What is to be done with this dispute between Britain and the colonies?” Franklin, who knew full well that the colonies were on the brink of independence, replied, “They should kiss and be friends.”

But, in the end, Brands’ heavy reliance on the perceptions and actions of leading figures of the era leaves much of the story untold. Since the 1980s, the form of “top down” history he has chosen to deploy has been effectively challenged by a call for history “from the bottom up,” a challenge that has deepened and broadened the story that must be told about the revolutionary era. The memoirs of enlisted soldiers show us the anger and disillusionment they felt as the civilian population and civilian governments proved unwilling to make sacrifices to support the continental troops. The rich correspondence of White women reveals the sudden, radical rise of female political consciousness that led them to ensure the success of the boycotts of the 1760s and 1770s, and prompted many to risk their lives as spies, saboteurs, messengers, and even soldiers during the long war for independence. And a crisis of loyalties divided enslaved communities into those willing to abandon the familiar for the hope of a better future and those who preferred the predictable to the uncertain. Washington, Franklin, and the other elites who reside in our pantheon of heroes were not the only Americans shaping our nation’s founding.

Brands’ top-down approach may explain his failure to answer the central questions he asks in his prologue: “What causes a man to forsake his country and take arms against it? What prompts others, hardly distinguishable in station or success, to defend that country against the rebels?” Many social historians before him have recognized that the revolution was more than a war between mother country and colonies; it was a war that set colonist against colonist, dividing families and communities and pitting one class or race against another. Brands, however, does not parse this civil war as finely as other historians have done. He does not distinguish between rebels — or loyalists — motivated by ideology and those motivated by material or economic interests. He does not distinguish between Northern loyalists, whose careers or businesses tied them to the apron strings of Britain, and the many Southern loyalists whose goal was revenge against an elite planter class who had refused them a voice in colonial politics for decades. The bloody civil war in the Carolinas and Georgia began not in 1776 but in 1775, when these same backcountry farmers, weary of taxation without representation imposed by their colonial legislatures, rebelled against the planters we call patriots. It was not love of Britain but hatred of homegrown oppressors that drove these farmers to join forces with a British army they saw as liberators. If many Northern loyalists were hardly distinguishable “in station or success” from the Franklins and Adamses of the colonial world, the Southern loyalists were surely cut from a humbler cloth.

In Our First Civil War, Brands does his readers a service by reminding them that division, as much as unity, is central to the founding of our nation. One wishes he had limned that division with a sharper pen. ◀

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