Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolutionary Song
by Russell Shorto

The past is not as far away as we think.

Shorto is an interesting historian whose previous books have leaned heavily towards how ideas help shape history.  He is most well known for his history of New Amsterdam and the dawn of freedom of religion in the Flushing Remonstrance, The Island at the Center of the World.  In that volume, Shorto related the political battle between Adriaen van der Donck and Peter Stuyvesant that culminated in the Flushing Remonstrance - the first document to declare freedom of religion a part of the American experience and the first time ordinary citizens challenged government and won.  The book makes an excellent case to think of New York/Amsterdam rather than Puritan Boston as the birthplace of American ideals.

In his new book, Shorto builds a complex transAtlantic view of the American Revolution by weaving together 6 biographies:  George Washington (the only one that needed no introduction for me); George Germain, a British aristocrat and cabinet member responsible for the strategies behind George III's war effort; Abraham Yates, a fiery patriot who becomes one of New York's leading representatives on various rebel committees; Cornplanter, a Seneca Indian who tries to lead his people through the complex political and military thickets thrown up by the war; Venture Smith, an enslaved African who is brought from his native Guinea to New England and works to free himself; and Margaret Moncrieffe, the strong-willed daughter of a British officer who tests the limits of the new ideas about freedom by applying them to her own life.

The war itself becomes a complicated battle of ego and idea, with loyalty and self-interest, ideology and adventure all impacting people's lives.  The flatter and more generic ideas of freedom and rebellion that generally inhabit our discussion of this period become lively and vital.  Each character is both sympathetic and hard-headed and the legacy of the revolution is deepened immeasurably.  Shorto does a fine job of enlarging our view of the period to include race and gender issues that rarely get this kind of sustained treatment.  Most importantly, he has not set Venture Smith, Cornplanter or Margaret Moncrieffe apart to create a competing Black or Native American or Woman's History, but showed their stories woven into the fabric of the standard history.   This is an American Revolution for all Americans.

While Shorto has the incredible capacity to gather and synthesize information that one expects of a historian, it is his writing that is the real strength of this.  Each of the biographies becomes a page turner and as I moved from the life of Ms. Moncrieffe back to Washington my excitement to catch up with George was tempered by being a little sorry to leave Margaret for a few pages.

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