Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Puzzling Over the Glorious Cause

Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 left me scratching my head for at least three reasons. First, it’s a long book, and Middlekauff had me wondering a few times how I was going to finish the book without putting my yearly schedule behind (again). More importantly, he leaves out strange information, as if he’s merely organizing a review outline for readers who already know everything. There are no strategic maps, for instance. He might just casually mention that the British troops are headed toward Ninety-Six, as if (a) I know that Ninety-Six is a town, (b) I know where that town is, and (c) I know why any army would want to march there. Curiously and to my great confusion on at least two occasions, he refers to a subordinate officer named James Washington by last name only. (At least I think it was James: I can’t remember since the author didn’t use his first name often enough!) A reference to “Washington” in a book about the American Revolution raises exactly one monumental figure in any reader’s mind, and any other officer unfortunate enough, historiographically speaking, to share that surname should find compensation in having his first name constantly in attendance on his last. And he dismisses Benedict Arnold’s treason, surely an important part of the story of the Revolution, to a subordinate clause: “Arnold, who had defected to the British . . . .”

But the biggest head-scratcher is that this volume in the Oxford History of the United States accepts unquestionably the epithet “Glorious Cause,” a phrase used by Washington (you know which one!) in accepting the leadership of the Continental Army. Loyalists simply could not see the “inevitable conclusion,” Middlekauff states without nuance, that Britain’s policies were intolerably destructive of liberty. My response: if taxation without representation makes subjects into slaves, then the District of Columbia is full of slaves. Well, OK, I actually sort of believe that that’s in fact the state of DC. But their condition is not intolerable to the point that those citizens have been driven to any “inevitable conclusion” of rebelling against the national government that operates in their city. Loyalists, then, were not so blind as Middlekauff would make them. And yet he offers nothing from diaries, correspondence, or journalism that might help the reader examine the motives of those who stayed true to their King.

I set up my calendar this year so that I would read another account of the American Revolution just after finishing Glorious Cause, the second being the fictional presentation by Kenneth Roberts called Rabble in Arms. Roberts’s view of the complicated struggle is much more to my taste. Here are good people tainted with evil spots and rotters with redeeming qualities. Here are the weak American generals and the mercenary militiamen and the Continental soldiers who have doubts about any cause other than protecting their homes and plenty of law-abiding Americans who just sit on the fence because they don’t want their children to be hanged as traitors by whichever side wins. In other words, this is a story about realistic human beings trying their best to make their way through a crazy world. Roberts believed in liberty as much as the next American, but he had no illusions that those who fought on the side of Independence all marched with a vision of the Glorious Cause before their eyes while the British could only field inept generals who tortured their captives every chance they got.

And Roberts has the courage to portray Benedict Arnold, before changing sides, as a great and heroic leader whose actions on Lake Champlain in 1776 probably saved the Glorious Cause for “Patriots” like General Horatio Gates, who literally ran away after losing a battle somewhere in the Carolinas (close to Ninety-Six, for all I know). Arnold’s name is synonymous with “traitor.” He is considered such a pariah that Middlekauff only follows a long tradition of minimizing his presence in history books. But surely we’re past an American historiography that must avoid Arnold’s name like the Tetragrammaton. Ours is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. But the Conceivers and Dedicators were humans, not angels, and they didn’t enjoy a monopoly on liberty. From Oxford Press, I expected a history that let people be people, with both nobility and baseness shared all around, engaged in a conflict with not just two sides – the Right and the Wrong. But I had to turn to fiction for the vision I wanted. And now I’ll just have to hope for better things from the next volume in the Oxford series: Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty.

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