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The Glorious Cause
The American Revolution, 1763-1789
Robert Middlekauff
read on August 1, 2012

In part of my continuing quest to broaden my general knowledge base and learn at least a little history, I figured it would be a good idea to beef up on my American history. After thinking about it a bit, I realized I didn't know anything (and that's pretty much a literal anything) about the revolutionary war. Obviously, I had some really shallow pop-culture knowledge of it, but nothing deep.

Turns out it was pretty damn interesting. Most surprising bits for me were:

  • 1776. For some unknown reason I always assumed that the war must have ended in 1776. It just made sense to me that that's when we would have considered ourselves free, and I assumed that's when Washington assumed the presidency. Soooo far from the truth. We declared in '76, which kicked off the war (which didn't end until '83). Then we putz'd around for a few years trying to figure out how to govern ourselves, and then George was elected president in the late '80's.
  • The French helped us massively in the war. They mainly did so to piss off the British - but they were a serious ally and we essentially have them to thank for our independence.
  • Founding fathers were young. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the declaration. Crazy.
  • Philadelphia was our first capital city. I guess it makes sense it wasn't "Washington", right? This one I did kind-of know before, but it hadn't actually sunk in until I was reading about the first continental congress having meetings there.
  • Not everyone wanted to be independent. I guess this makes sense. There were a bunch of British loyalists that didn't really see the big deal.

The book contextualized the revolutionary period very well. It takes a very ex-ante point of view, and describes well the conflicting sentiments among colonists regarding their relationship with the British crown. I haven't read much history since high school, but recall "history" always presented very much ex-post. E.g., 'This is what happened, and this is why it happened'. When presented like that, the lesson very often becomes 'This was the only possible outcome to this series of events'. It's much easier to see now as an adult that that obviously is not the case, but it's still surprising to be reminded that history could have worked out very differently.

To that end, it's embarrassingly difficult for me to imagine the 1760's as anything other than a pro-revolution mob and "Americans" fighting tooth and nail to rid themselves of their British tyrants - but really it was a bunch of loyal British colonists who often felt very torn about the issues of the day. The American Revolution was not a foregone conclusion - and I feel like this book does a particularly good job of explaining and illustrating that. My biggest takeaway here wasn't any lesson on the American Revolution, but one on history broadly.

Author Bio:

Robert L. Middlekauff (born 1929) is a professor emeritus of colonial and early United States history at UC Berkeley. He is perhaps best known for The Glorious Cause, a history of the American Revolutionary War. He was the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Professor of American History in 1996-7.