Enter Hamilton

Eric Foner

  • American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor
    Norton, 704 pp, £30.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 393 08281 4

The racism, xenophobia and violence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is widely seen as an aberration, as if reasoned debate had been the default mode of American politics. But precursors to Trump do exist, candidates who struck electoral gold by appealing to exaggerated fears, real grievances and visceral prejudices. Among Trump’s predecessors are the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the 1850s, white supremacist politicians of the Jim Crow era, and more recent hucksters and demagogues including Joe McCarthy and George Wallace. Not to mention more respectable types such as Richard Nixon, whose ‘Southern strategy’ offered a blueprint for mobilising white resentment over the gains of the Civil Rights movement. (That ‘respectable’ and ‘Nixon’ can be included in the same sentence illustrates how far our political standards have evolved since the 1970s.) Violence isn’t unknown in American political history. The 19th century saw fistfights in Congress and riots at election time in major American cities. Until well into the 20th century, Southern blacks who wanted to exercise the right to vote faced violent retribution from the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups.

Where does all this originate? In American Revolutions, Alan Taylor offers a surprising answer: the struggle for independence itself. Racism, violence, scurrilous attacks on opponents: all, he argues, were part of American political culture from the outset. Taylor breaks decisively with a trope of Cold War propaganda which has worked its way into historical scholarship: the idea that unlike the ‘bad’ French and Russian Revolutions, which degenerated into violent class conflict, a united American people rebelled against British overlords with restraint and decorum. In fact, as he makes clear, the American Revolution was a bitter, multi-sided conflict that pitted Loyalists against Patriots and white Americans against blacks and Indians. Hence the plural in his title.

Taylor rejects the common view of the colonial era as essentially a prelude to independence. In the 18th century, he points out, colonists throughout British North America were drawing closer to the mother country, not further away. They ‘rejoiced in the British constitution’, celebrated military victories over France and idealised the king as their champion against Catholic enemies. Economically, too, they became more and more closely tied to Britain while leaders of different colonies had more contact with London than with one another. When the First Continental Congress convened in 1774, John Adams reported that the delegates were ‘strangers’, unfamiliar with each other’s ideas and experiences.

What then explains the road to independence? While most accounts of the coming of the Revolution focus on protests in eastern cities against British efforts to tax the colonies and to elicit greater obedience to imperial authority in general, Taylor is more interested in what was happening in the West (in the colonial era, this meant the region beyond the Appalachian mountains). Victory in the Seven Years’ War led to the end of the French Empire in mainland North America and gave Britain control of the trans-Appalachian region. It was quickly followed by the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited settlement there in order to avoid constant warfare with Indians. Instead, London urged colonists who wanted land to look to other areas acquired from France and Spain: Canada, East and West Florida, and a number of islands in the Caribbean. Few Americans were interested. The colonists ‘expect now to do as they please’, one British official wrote in 1768. By 1774, 50,000 settlers lived beyond the Proclamation line, and violence between settlers, Indians and land speculators was endemic. The British found themselves in an impossible situation, inviting opposition to their supposed tyranny by attempting to stop settlement and contempt for failing to enforce the policy and seeming to side with Indians who resisted white intrusions onto their land. By 1775, Taylor writes, ‘the British Empire had lost all credibility and influence’ among Western settlers.

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