T.H. Breen

  • The First Salute by Barbara Tuchman
    Joseph, 347 pp, £15.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7181 3142 8
  • Sister Republics: The Origins of French and American Republicanism by Patrice Higonnet
    Harvard, 317 pp, £19.95, December 1988, ISBN 0 674 80982 3
  • Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America by Edmund Morgan
    Norton, 318 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 393 02505 5

‘Revolutions,’ Barbara Tuchman writes, ‘produce other men, not new men. Half-way “between truth and endless error” the mould of the species is permanent. That is the earth’s burden.’ Edmund Morgan and Patrice Higonnet are less pessimistic. They see the great ideological transformations of the 18th century as a continuing challenge. To be sure, those who dreamed of creating a genuine liberal democracy may have failed to achieve their immediate goals, but they issued a powerful invitation to establish the sovereignty of the people. This dynamic concept, Morgan writes, ‘has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters. The presumption that social rank should convey a title to political authority was only the first casualty in its reformations, and we have not yet seen the last.’

Barbara Tuchman possessed a marvellous gift for narrative, and even when the facts about which she was writing were familiar, she was able to tell the story with freshness and excitement; but individual portraits were not what she did best. Political and military leaders at a moment of crisis, sometimes sensing that they were not quite up to the challenge, sometimes intolerably bound by bureaucratic rules not of their own making, received sympathetic treatment from this woman, who insisted that history was about persons capable of affecting ‘destiny’. Academic historians sometimes grumbled about her research or her interpretative framework. She countered that she was just as ‘professional’ as anyone who taught in the universities, and at the time of her death early last year the New York Times carried a laudatory account of her life in which Tuchman is quoted as having said: ‘If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.’ This may seem excessive, but there is no question that Tuchman could be a brilliant writer. Against her ‘faculty’ critics she could always claim that ‘to be a best-seller is not necessarily a measure of quality, but it is a measure of communication.’

By these standards, The First Salute is a success. The book takes its title from an obscure event that occurred on 16 November 1776. An American ship, the Andrew Doria sailing out of Maryland, put into the Dutch Caribbean port of St Eustatius. The vessel flew the flag of the Continental Congress, and instead of being turned away as the British had demanded – St Eustatius was a notorious source of contraband arms – the Andrew Doria received an official salute. By recognising American independence, a self-serving Dutch colonial governor triggered a major confrontation between Britain and the Netherlands. The British authorities badgered the Dutch, but since the Dutch had allowed their once-formidable Navy to decay, they were in no position to defend national honour. Such military weakness, especially in a country whose economy depended on long distance trade, strikes Tuchman as odd, even contemptible. In a long, leisurely review of two centuries of Dutch political history, she attempts to explain why Britain’s great commerical rival of the 17th century had deteriorated to second-class status by the mid-18th.

Her answers amount to an account of missed opportunities, of rulers who lacked the will to power, and of citizens who refused to pay the financial price of greatness. It is a didactic exercise in which Tuchman occasionally displays her own national colours. ‘In general,’ she announces, ‘the Americans, facing many of the same decisions of statehood as the Dutch, came to more sensible solutions, no doubt because they were fortunate in the sensible and sophisticated political thinkers to whom their constitution is owed.’ Lapses of this sort are rare, however, and Tuchman’s broad international perspective serves as a salutary reminder that American statehood depended upon personalities and histories over which the rebels had almost no control.

In any case, it is clear that traditional political history does not hold much attraction for Tuchman. She shifts her attention to Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, a man who if luck and events had gone his way might have crushed the American Revolution. She depicts Rodney as an ambitious, though frustrated naval officer, a person who put on a good show at the gaming tables and ran up huge debts that nearly drove him to distraction.

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