'Independence' tells in rich detail how the American Revolution grew

Among the colonists, rebellion began early and ran deep.

Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, by Thomas P. Slaughter, Hill and Wang, 512 pp.

When were the seeds of the American Revolution sown? History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Some suggest that real rebellion began with the bloodletting at Lexington and Concord, Mass., in 1775; others credit the Boston Massacre of 1770; while still others argue that it was the Stamp Act of 1765 that set the revolution in motion. No less an observer than John Adams said Americans waxed rebellious as early as 1760.

But in Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution, Thomas P. Slaughter sets it back further still, across the Atlantic, back to England and Ireland, where fiercely independent East Anglians and Scotch-Irish chose danger and the unknown over the imperfect haunts of their ancestors.

Slaughter, a history professor and the author of five earlier books, posits that future Americans were fed up with the mother country well before they disembarked at Plymouth or Jamestown. They wanted religious, economic, or social freedom – or all three – and were willing to risk their lives to acquire them. In fact, the British spoke early and often about the likelihood of a transatlantic divorce. It takes an empire to know an empire on the make.

Yet however disgruntled and independent-minded they may have been, the colonists still considered themselves loyal citizens of Britain, right to the bitter end. They served dutifully in Britain’s serial wars with the French, doing battle with their rival colonists from Canada.

But a long-distance relationship is inherently problematic, and there was always the issue of control. The British wanted the Americans to trade only with them and to stop encroaching on Indian lands. They also insisted that colonists pay for their keep through taxes. And after Britain’s triumph over France in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) added Canada and India to its colonial portfolio, a cash-strapped London leaned heavily on its expanded empire. In pursuing this policy, Slaughter writes, the Parliament and the king “did not consider the American colonists’ opinions any more seriously than those of Hindus of Bengal or West Indian slaves.”

That was a grievous error. It required a great and ongoing misunderstanding, says Slaughter, to push two groups of people with so much in common to violence: “Colonists continued to strive for independence within the empire, while British administrators continued to believe that the colonists were aiming at independence from the empire.”

Slaughter’s treatise is richly detailed – sometimes excessively so. The reader, for example, will learn more than enough about colonial campaigns in Cape Breton and differing accounts of the 1747 Knowles Riot in Boston. Keeping track of voluminous particulars can be a challenge.

However, nitpicking aside, Slaughter contributes greatly to our understanding of the depth and complexity of revolutionary thought and feeling in Colonial America. Even after July 4, 1776, Slaughter points out, only about half of all white Americans supported the cause. And while some have argued that the American Revolution was largely an aristocratic affair, fomented by plantation owners such as Thomas Jefferson and literate professionals such as John Adams, Slaughter makes clear that it required a hearty class mix to carry the day. George Washington deemed the actions of the original Tea Partyers appalling yet Slaughter credits their “strong arms and aching backs” and notes: “Without them there would have been … no army to fight if it came to that.”

Slaughter is an ambitious researcher and writer and “Independence” encompasses much – sometimes too much. But readers eager for a fresh and expansive view of the way that independence came to the 13 Colonies will find this a stimulating and engrossing read.
David Holahan regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.