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book review

Were colonists united during Revolution? Nope, says a new history

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don’t look to this panoramic new history of the Revolutionary War era and its aftermath for paeans to the cause of American independence. The spirit of 1776, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian Alan Taylor argues in “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804,’’ was nasty, brutish, divisive — and remarkably diverse in the issues that animated various factions.

Taylor is too hardheaded, too unsentimental, to see much luster in the events he describes. “A plundered farm was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge,” he writes. Taylor goes far beyond the familiar tale of Redcoats vs. Minutemen, showing how what unfolded was really a multisided civil war within a larger imperial struggle over the fate of the North America.

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Stretching from Nova Scotia to New Orleans, Taylor’s account proceeds chronologically through a series of themed chapters (“Colonies,” “Partisans,” “Slaves,” and so on) showcasing the author’s mastery of the period. He has synthesized work old and new, especially scholarship from the last 30 years that reflects his interest in Native American history and the role of slaves and women in the period.

The scale here is indeed “continental.” As Taylor shows, the 13 colonies were but one player in a larger contest between the French, Spanish, and Indian tribes for the lands west of the Appalachians. This, as much as disputes over taxation, was a determining factor in the outbreak of conflict. The British triumph in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) touched off a contentious battle for control of western territory. Land hungry speculators and poor settlers looked west, but the British government, looking to maintain a delicate balance of power with Indians and the Spanish, checked their incursions.

Colonists found this outrageous, and the imposition of new taxes and duties in the 1760s added to their grievances. (Still, the colonists had it good, Taylor reminds us; their tax burden was actually quite low.) The ensuing wrangle lurched to outright war in fits and starts. Some wanted to work with Britain. Others, who Taylor dubs “Patriots,” brayed hard against London as they forged a new governing system. He views them as little more than a thuggish pressure group who tried to silence and intimidate their opponents.

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Taylor views some events and individuals with a peculiar skepticism bordering on cynicism. For instance, when George Washington took command in 1775, he was appalled by the disorder he found and whipped his troops into shape. Taylor’s take? “[I]n the name of liberty, he had to compel men to forsake their freedom and individuality to become regimented cogs in a military machine.” That is one way of looking at it.

Still, his sections on the war of independence are vivid and convey the full scale of an upheaval that divided families and pitted neighbors against one another. He is empathetic in his treatment of the vilified loyalists, who deserve better from posterity. He is particularly good on the irregular warfare that ravaged the countryside outside New York City, where bandits and troops from both sides raided farms for food. Atrocities were common, though it was British armies whose reputation suffered more.

Taylor also superbly conveys the lot of “alienated neutrals” who “wanted neither to pay taxes to Parliament nor submit to Patriot boycotts, new oaths, militia service, impressed livestock, and depreciating money.” Taylor notes how provisional choices were, how the “ebb and flow of victory and defeat in a long war flipped many people from one side to another and sometimes back again with sojourns along the way in the broad ranks of the wavering.” “American Revolutions’’ is distinguished for such trenchant observations.

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The last third of Taylor’s book details the political maneuvering that followed the peace settlements of 1783. There was little unanimity in what course to follow, and the new nation’s leaders were bedeviled by the same problems that proved unmanageable to British authorities. For one, to pay off war debts, they had to enforce higher taxes. (Loyalists, the so-called losers of the war, enjoyed lighter taxes in Canada, where the British instituted reforms to show up the upstart republic to the south. There is a suggestion throughout that the empire, typically caricatured as tyrannical, was more enlightened than its rebel offspring.)

The shadow of war and the fear of chaos hung over the debates. The Articles of Confederation were not an answer. The resulting Constitution was a battle-scarred document designed to rein in the ambitions of states clamoring for too much authority. Some figures, like Noah Webster, even called for a limited monarchy. Others, like James Madison urged, as he put it, a “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government.”

Taylor views all of the high-flown “We the people” rhetoric with a grain of salt. Like other historians of his generation, he is preoccupied with the question of slavery and how the founders rationalized its existence. Contradiction is his muse. “American Revolutions’’ is an impressive, if doubting, book about America for a doubting time in America.

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Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.