‘The Glorious Cause’

With Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 I’ve now read six of the ten published volumes of the Oxford History of the United States and I have to say that it’s just a really excellent series. These kind of broad surveys are most helpful when dealing with a period you don’t know anything about, and Middlekauff is covering the relatively familiar terrain of Revolution and Founding so it doesn’t stand out quite as much as, say, the Wood or Howe books on the early 19th century. But it’s still quite good. In particular, though America is kind of soaked in information about the personalities of the era the predominant form is the biography, which winds up obscuring all context. The wider view gives you a better sense of what’s actually going on.

The main theme is the ways in which America changed over the course of a struggle that, though certainly not a “social revolution” was nonetheless a prolonged political and military undertaking that entailed mass participation and naturally involved substantial changes. The war was fought in part because people had a sense of their own identities as Americans and the rights that entailed, but the process of fighting for those rights, and then for independence, and then to create a workable system of government also brought that consciousness into being. Middlekauff remarks that the American Revolution is remarkable for seeming so inevitable in retrospect while simultaneously having been so unforeseen at the time.

The disappointment of the book is in terms of what it doesn’t cover. As a volume in a History of the United States it’s very focused on what the Revolution meant for America and Americans. That means that in terms of the war qua war you get scanty treatment of the global strategic situation and the thinking in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Madrid. The war was substantially unleashed in parliament, where there was no willingness to renounce taxing power over North America, and it was won there as well when English elites decided that pouring more resources into trying to establish that principle didn’t make sense. That said, a book can’t be everything and this is a good one.