Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Book Review: The American Revolution: A History By: Gordon Wood

Growing up as school children here in the United States we spend a great deal of time learning about the American Revolution.  We hear about the Stamp Act, the Tea Party, “1 if by land, 2 if by sea”, the battles of Lexington and Concord, and the founders and their heroics.  What we do not get very much of however, is an unbiased look at the events surrounding and within the revolution itself.  They say history is written by the victor, and that victor often is more interested in telling “his story” than “history”.  Gordon Wood is one of a few rare historians able to almost completely cut through that, giving us an unbiased look at the real history of the American Revolution.

As perhaps the leading historian in the world on the time period, Wood is uniquely qualified to write a book like The American Revolution.  In it, he reviews not only the actual events leading up to the revolutionary war, but the attitudes, the general public feeling, and the real reasons behind not only many actions by the British, but perhaps the real reason for the war itself as well, which I believe had little to do with taxes.  Without completely eliminating any reason for you to read the book yourself, I’d love to share a few of these with you, so (spoiler alert!) here you are:

The Stamp Act and other Taxes

Growing up, we are all taught that a major motivating factor behind the revolution was taxes, specifically the colonists being taxed without representation.  This certainly WAS an issue, however I would argue that the implementation of these tax laws was the real problem.  British royalty certainly had legitimate reasons for needing to tax; with the costs of keeping up troop levels on the western border of the colonies to protect colonists from increasingly violent Indian attacks.  The crown had already been taxing British citizens beyond normal means, having to militarily enforce a cider tax in the apple growing counties of England at one point just to keep up with inflating costs as the population in the colonies kept growing and growing, pushing the borders farther and farther out, and resulting in more conflict with the natives.

These taxes certainly were decided without any colonial input, however they were justified.  When one wants to gain a benefit such as military protection from the natives of a land you’re slowly trying to conquer, they must pay for that benefit in some way.  As colonists began to revolt against the taxes being implemented, boycotting products and destroying others, the crown had to think outside the box and come up with new ways to cover the cost of housing their soldiers.  Which brings me to my next point...

The Quartering Act of 1765

As a kid in school, growing up here in America we learned that the British forced colonists to house their troops.  It was insinuated, if not taught outright that the purpose behind this was some kind of control during the revolution itself.  This could not be farther from the truth, the facts are as follows:
While colonies hadn’t had a problem contributing to the military effort of the British during the French and Indian War (in some places better known as the “Seven Years War”) during peacetime they were not as forthcoming with funds for the armies.  Despite that, as discussed before the armies were still necessary.  As such, the Quartering Act of 1765 was written, requiring colonies to put the soldiers up in public housing, inns, and the like in order to offset the costs of the military being stationed there against Indian attacks.
In 1765 the Revolution was not underway yet, but it was becoming clear that the colonies were outgrowing British rule, and the attitudes of the colonists were growing to match.  They did not like this quartering act, and refused to adhere to it, keeping troops on their ships in the harbors even, as opposed to finding them any kind of living quarters.  This lead to some adjustments in the Quartering Act of 1774, which was even less well received.  By 1774 the ship had pretty much sailed on the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies regardless of the quartering act.  This act seems to have been implemented with slightly more sinister intentions than the previous one, particularly as tensions grew and war grew more likely.

The Tea Party
Lastly, a major event in American history: The Boston Tea Party.  On December 16, 1773 the “Sons of Liberty” in Boston, Mass infamously boarded a British merchant ship in their harbor, and in action rebelling against the Tea Act, began throwing the tea into the harbor.  In reaction, Parliament passed a series of laws that later earned the label “the Coercive Acts”, in an effort to reestablish authority over the colonies.

Colonists were enraged at the Tea Act, it was viewed as a means by which to force the colonists to pay British taxes that were voted on without any colonial representation.  See, the Tea Act granted the East India Trading Company the exclusive rights to sell tea in the colonies.  While the colonists viewed it as a direct attack on them, the reality of the act is that Parliament wrote it into law for the sole purpose of saving the East India Company from bankruptcy.  Ironically one can surmise that the bankruptcy was probably at least in part due to the trade wars the colonists had been waging against the crown for the decade or so prior to the Tea Party itself.

The Real Reason for the War?

These are the kinds of stories that Wood tells us about the revolution and the times surrounding it, and people involved in it.  This teaches us how often things can be about perspective, about something simple as communication.  The American side talks about taxation without representation, but they were hardly the only large group of Englishmen not represented at all in Parliament.  At the time Parliament was a mess of tradition and history, with several of their largest cities not represented at all (such as Manchester and Birmingham-both budding cities at the time) while other towns continued to send representatives to the House of Commons despite the fact they no longer even existed (such as Dunwich, a community which had “long since slipped into the North Sea”).

I think that more than the actual act of taxing, it was the execution of the acts, the arrogance with which they were exercised that lead to the revolution.  Surely Americans would have seen the sense in boarding troops to protect them against Indian attacks, or paying taxes that would pay for those troops’ room and board at least.  However, instead of explaining THAT to them, the British government decided to focus primarily on explaining why they had the power to tax the colonies and the colonists didn’t have the right to say anything about it.  While the revolution itself was almost inevitable-a continent could never really be ruled by an island-the driving motivating events and laws behind it were often misunderstood, misconstrued, or twisted in a way that was politically misleading and advantageous for one side of the other.  

Wood shows us how people weren’t too different back then, and when they saw a power vacuum that needed filling they did so, exploiting the fears of colonists by twisting the words and misinterpreting (intentionally or not) the intentions of Parliament.  It stands to reason that those who drove the biggest wedges between the colonies and British rule, found themselves in the highest positions in the new government, richly rewarded for their efforts.  It’s an interesting twist of perspective on an incredibly important time in American history, forcing the reader to put the book down at the end with an entirely new view of their education, and our country’s history.