Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 12

Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xiv + 736 pp.

            Robert Middlekauff’s 1982 contribution to the Oxford History of the United States was the inaugural volume of the series. It was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and was extensively overhauled in 2005 for an updated second edition. Middlekauff’s work has been a wonderful addition to any library that covers any part of the American Revolution. As with any event in history, the exploration of its roots are critical to understanding why it occurred and in the way it did. Middlekauff devoted the first third of the volume covering those roots and the years leading up to 1775 before the opening fight at Lexington and Concord. This is very important because there has always been a very large question concerning how quickly the American colonists changed from loyal supporters of the British crown and British citizens to disloyal rebels and American patriots. 

            The themes of pre-revolutionary American are explored along political, social, and religious lines as well as economic. How these themes converged to explode into the Revolution is to understand the ideology of the Revolution itself. This work came out during the years when historians like Bailyn and Wood were concerned with the political ideology and focused on the Republicanism that emerged from those colliding themes. Middlekauf did not devote many pages to social, cultural, gender, or class issues in the first edition, but did include them in the revised second edition which revitalized the book and refreshed it. As a result, the second edition retains its place as an outstanding contribution to Revolutionary history and has not become dated by newer historiography like so many other comprehensive works have become.

            Once Middlekauff arrives in the War for Independence the volume settles down to mainly political and military histories, although the second edition expands on women’s roles in the conflict and American Indians while also expanding on developments leading to the creation of the Constitution in 1787. I was a bit disappointed in the familiar assertion that the American victory at Saratoga had a direct impact on France signing the Franco-American Alliance treaty rather than the fact that the French had been preparing to enter the war as soon as they could convince Spain to join the alliance and they spent 1777 preparing the French fleet for war. However, this is a common theme in revolutionary history and one which historians often disagree. In any event, Middlekauff definitely highlighted the important role the French played throughout the Revolution.

            By this point of the war the British had began to realize that the conflict had become a global one which had major strategic problems for them. In hindsight it became obvious that their lack of planning and unwillingness to escalate the forces required for victory or understand the scale of the conflict had played major roles in their eventual failure to successfully resolve the situation. With France in the war, Britain regulated the North American colonies to a sideshow and focused on maintaining what it felt were more lucrative colonies in its empire. Middlekauff definitely points this out and how this new strategy completely altered the war’s aims. As many historians have pointed out, the results of the war were not inevitable and at any point had American forces not won some of the battles that they did win from 1778 onward, the results could have been very different from what did transpire.

            I was happy with the two chapters that were heavily edited for the new edition concerning inside and outside the campaigns. The role of smallpox in the war was often overlooked for years, but historians have concluded that inoculation of American troops may very well have been one of the most important decisions Washington made during the entire military phase of the war. In addition, Middlekauff painted an update picture of both that decision and how troops experienced the war. This is an expansion of the more modern bottom up view of the Revolution. I think this is important too because it helps negate the old interpretation that the Revolution’s outcome was a Providential event. By exploring the many small details that influenced the events of the conflict Middlekauff is able to show that the final outcome of the conflict had far more to do with logistics than with Providence. 

            There was no possible way for Middlekauff to explore in great detail every aspect of the period that he covered without writing several volumes and employing a small company of historians and researchers. The era is just too vast. However, as a volume that highlights the important themes and events that transpired in that time, he is able to deliver a fine body of work that should whet the appetite of anyone interested in the broader overview of the Revolution. At the same time, his sources can be used as a launching point to a greater exploration of particular interest for any reader. The volume is quite useful for a survey class on the subject and can form the backbone text for that class when supplemented by primary sources and additional readings to reinforce it. As such, it has found a home in my library and has been used in my own research on the period as a starting point on multiple occasions. It is a worthy entry and a handy reference.

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