Memory  /  Book Review

The Paradox of the American Revolution

Recent books by Woody Holton and Alan Taylor offer fresh perspectives on early US history but overstate the importance of white supremacy as its driving force.

Overall, Holton is divided about the Revolution. At one level, he writes, it demonstrated “the desire of Americans—of every race, rank, and gender—to breathe free.” At the same time, he thinks that the revolutionary elite frustrated those desires among the less privileged, making the vast majority of Americans victims as much as victors. “For the founding generation,” he concludes, “the American Revolution produced more misery than freedom,” in large part because that generation failed to abolish slavery outright. Put aside, though, the fact that the Revolution produced a society and polity that, with all of its horrific contradictions and oppression, was more democratic and inclusive—and, in the North, more actively antislavery—than any other in the world as of 1787. Put aside, as well, whether the success of any of the great modern revolutions ought to be judged on its immediate effects or on what it helped achieve (or destroy) over time. Holton’s conclusion still begs a basic question, particularly concerning slavery: What might have happened had the British won the Revolutionary War, or had the Revolution never happened at all?

One powerful interpretation holds that the loss of the American colonies, as well as the rise of antislavery politics in America, stimulated the emergence of an authentic abolitionist movement in Britain.

Equally important, it is virtually inconceivable that had Britain, with its domination of the Atlantic slave trade, its lucrative sugar colonies in the Caribbean, and its cotton factories at home, retained the colonies that became the United States—soon to become home to the slavery-driven cotton kingdom—it would not have become a slaveholding leviathan. Had that happened, the antislavery cause would have been set back indefinitely.In short, although slavery became more entrenched and the slaveholders more powerful in the new United States after the Revolution, the success of the Revolution greatly hastened, directly and indirectly, the overthrow of slavery in the Anglo-American world. Holton’s hidden history of the Revolution, with all of its richness of detail on popular egalitarian politics, does not admit of that paradox. To understand the paradox fully, though, requires a closer examination of the decades that led to the Civil War.

Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is a preeminent historian of early America, the author of ten books, and the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes. His new book, American Republics, is the final installment of an impressive trilogy that began in 2001 with a sweeping survey of colonial America and was followed fifteen years later by a sequel on the Revolution. Now comes his volume covering the era from the Revolution to 1850.