America's founding myth: the Revolution revisited


New York: Knopf. 347 pp.


WHAT enabled the American colonies to prevail against the powerful British Empire? As founding myth, the Revolution remains a source of pride for Americans; as history, it remains a subject for reinterpretation. In ``The March of Folly,'' Barbara Tuchman traced the path by which the British lost America. In ``The First Salute,'' she gives a fuller ``view of the American Revolution,'' illuminating the various roads that converged in the victory at Yorktown.

The book is a tightly woven narrative, ingeniously structured. It is not a blow-by-blow account of the conflict; familiarity with issues and events is assumed. Instead, Tuchman takes a specific incident and through it elucidates the course and outcome of the war.

On Nov. 16, 1776, a vessel bearing the flag of the Continental Congress sailed into port at St. Eustatius, a Dutch island in the West Indies, and fired a salute. The governor ordered that the salute be returned.

The salute, Tuchman observes, ``was of no great importance except for what it led to.'' As symbol, it was the first official recognition of ``the sovereignty of the United States of America.'' It was also a message to Britain that Eustatius would continue to supply the rebels with guns and powder.

What followed - in summary - was that British-Dutch tensions increased; that in 1780 Britain declared war on the United Provinces of the Netherlands; that in 1781 Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney captured Eustatius; and that Rodney, delaying in the West Indies, failed to pursue the French on their way to America, where they became a critical factor in the British defeat.

Around this saga, Tuchman has organized her narrative.

From the first, the incident establishes the Revolution's international setting, and through it Tuchman analyzes the European rivalries that influenced the American war. In her description of Holland - its ``long intimate and cranky'' relationship with Britain and its history - Tuchman builds, through a discussion of the Dutch revolution, a framework for the American struggle. Comparing the Oath of Abjuration and the Declaration of Independence, William the Silent and George Washington, she makes it clear she believes that both wars were just and that success in each case was linked to a leader who, by perseverance, total dedication, and extraordinary ``strength of character, came to focus and personify the revolt.''

Through a portrait of Rodney, Britain's ``ablest naval officer,'' Tuchman moves to an analysis of the Royal Navy during this period. It is a sorry tale of ships inadequate in number and condition; leaders chosen for political rather than professional reasons; officers uneducated in naval strategies - or in anything else; and practice dominated by ``the paralyzing dragon known as `Fighting Instructions,''' a ``tyrannical document'' whose specified maneuvers, rigidly adhered to, cost Britain many battles, including the Battle of the Bay. Complacency, planlessness, ignorance of the colonies and their war characterized both the British Navy and government, says Tuchman. Moreover, if government ``never took seriously the possibility of the Americans winning,'' opposition believed that the war was neither just nor winnable - adding to Britain's problems a perhaps-fatal dose of ambivalence.

In two final chapters, Tuchman depicts Rodney's critical error and, on American soil, the consequence.

``Last Chance - the Yorktown Campaign'' is a gripping account of Washington's extraordinary 500-mile march south, the Battle of the Bay siege. Tuchman shows on the British side discord, misjudgments, lack of strategy, and eerie lack of will. The British merely watch as Washington marches south; Clinton clings to New York, even when it is clear the battleground will be Chesapeake; he repeatedly promises Cornwallis aid he never sends.

In these final sections, the lines of this tightly structured narrative coalesce. Tuchman's view of the forces that enabled the Revolution to succeed is broad rather than reductive: British failings, Washington's leadership, French commitment, Dutch aid, luck - all are acknowledged. What emerges perhaps is a sense that the British lost the war more than the Americans won it. It is a sense to some degree reinforced by weak elements on the American side - as Tuchman relates, the lack of popular support, an army riddled by mutinies and deserting soldiers - raising the question whether they would have won against a better-organized force.

Yet Tuchman does not quite conclude, as she did in ``The March of Folly,'' that ``The American Revolution, given its own errors and failures, cabals and disgruntlements, succeeded by virtue of British mishandling.'' Here, responding to ``the accepted view that inadequate naval force was the primary reason for Britain's defeat,'' she says it is an open question whether ``the persistence and will of the enemy in such men as George Washington ... and the geographical logistics of the American continent ... would not have made the war unwinnable by the British anyway.''

Tuchman's admiration for Washington - ``who inspired a touch of worship merely by being'' - is immense. In her epilogue, she observes that his vision of America as a ``nation peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity ... a nation which would have a meliorating influence on all mankind, '' is ``heartbreaking'' today, as we face a more ``sombre story'' of injustice and inequality. She concludes with a salute for all that America has achieved, and a deep sadness for all that it hasn't.

Gail Pool teaches English at Emmanuel College.

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