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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Scars of Independence: No Revolution Is Ideal

My undergraduate major was history specializing in the 18th century.  I got through that program still believing that the American Revolution should be considered a shining example of a revolution that was true to its ideals.  Oddly enough, it was fiction that put me on the road to discovering that the implementation of the American Revolution's principles was flawed.  I'm not talking about current day America.  I mean that there were signs that the revolution was not proceeding completely as intended during the struggle, and that there were abrogations of liberty and justice during the initial founding years of the republic.

The novels that I would particularly like to mention in this context are the Hannah Trevor historical mysteries by Margaret Lawrence which begins with Hearts and Bones.  They showed me that ordinary people didn't necessarily reap the benefits of independence and that the violence of the period was really quite horrifying.   I would also like to bring up the duology with the overarching title The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T. Anderson which forcefully brought home to me that African Americans had no reason to celebrate American independence.  This was an obvious conclusion that was obscured for me by white privilege.

So the historical study Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock was not as earth shattering for me as it would have been if I had never encountered books that challenged the idealized perspective on the American Revolution that I imbibed during my years of schooling.   Yet I still consider it illuminating.  I received a digital ARC for free from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.


It occurs to me that the excesses of the American Revolution represent the self-perpetuating cycle of abuse writ large.  The revolutionaries were either persecuted in England, or were descendants of people who fled England due to persecution.  From these experiences, they learned to persecute others such as the Loyalists who were a larger proportion of the American population than I had imagined.

On the other hand, James Rivington, who is mentioned  by Hoock only as a victim of violence against his Loyalist newspaper, played a more complex role in the American Revolution.   Since I am interested in the history of journalism, I did some research on Rivington.  I discovered an article in The Journal of the American Revolution here by Todd Andrlik which discusses some good contemporary evidence that Rivington passed crucial intelligence to Washington that was highly instrumental in achieving the American victory at Yorktown.  So apparently Rivington did change his loyalties.  I recognize that Rivington's espionage is outside the scope of Scars of Independence which deals with violence during the American Revolution.   So I didn't expect Hoock to deal more fully with Rivington.

 Yet Hoock did present me with a more complete portrait of George Washington in this book. I was glad to learn that Washington was very scrupulous about the treatment of POWs in the American Revolution, but Hoock reveals that he wanted to redeem himself. His reputation had been tarnished during the French and Indian War when his Native allies tortured and killed French prisoners including a French diplomat.  Washington was later faced with signing an agreement with the French without knowing any French.  He discovered afterward that he'd signed a confession of guilt for the death of the French diplomat.  This incident shows Washington as a fallible human being who made mistakes and had limitations.

 I was aware of escaped slaves who were freed as a result of fighting for the British, but I found out from this book that about half of them were re-enslaved by bounty hunters after the revolution. Yet 9,000 African American former slaves left America as free Loyalists.
 I also discovered African American slave James Armistead who spied for the Continental Army working under the Marquis de Lafayette. His Wikipedia article says that he delivered information about Benedict Arnold and the plans of Cornwallis, the British General who commanded at Yorktown.  Despite this significant assistance to the cause of the American Revolution, he was returned to his master, and was only freed at the request of Lafayette.  James Armistead added Lafayette to his name in gratitude.

Below is a public domain image of James Armistead Lafayette based on a painting by John B. Martin that is located at the Virginia Historical Society.


Hoock also deals with the portrayal of the American Revolution in later periods.  What stood out for me most was the fate of The Spirit of 76, a film that was released during WWI.  It was seized and the filmmaker was arrested for including British atrocities during the American Revolution.  Apparently,  U.S. censors were very conscious of any criticism of an ally during WWI.  I know very little about the U.S. during this period, so I found this harsh reaction to a historical movie eye opening.

My conclusion about this book is that violent means to achieve a worthwhile end will always detour the struggle so that it may not achieve the intended goals.  I think that this has been the trouble with revolutions throughout history.



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