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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 1st, 2005


 

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789

by Robert Middlekauff

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

First released twenty-three years ago, this book, just published in an expanded and thoroughly revised edition, remains the best one-volume history of the American Revolution, and among the best narrative American histories of the past half century. Those who are drawn to the current bunch of flaccid and overrated lives of the Founders should turn instead to this masterpiece. It's more briskly and smartly written (Middlekauff's sentences advance swiftly and surely from point to point; his pithiness invigorates every paragraph), and readers will learn from it that large and complex political, ideological, and military issues can be compellingly elucidated in narrative form without being reduced to biography. This 735-page book, which covers the period from the Stamp Act crisis to the ratification of the Constitution, is a feat of concision. In addition to writing an authoritative account of the battles and campaigns, and of the political maneuvering and debates in the colonies and London that precipitated and defined the conflict and determined its aftermath, Middlekauff adeptly dissects subjects ranging from British political culture to eighteenth-century infantry tactics to public finance to the relationship between the revolutionaries' Protestant heritage and their conceptions of rights and politics. Although most of the material Middlekauff has added relates to social history, this remains an unabashedly old-fashioned work, with the focus squarely on politics, constitutionalism, and war (in fact, Middlekauff's most important addition is his synthesis of the current research on the British "fiscal-military state"). This work in its revised form embodies the scholarship of two generations and demonstrates a mastery of the historian's craft that is from all evidence extremely rare. This was the first book to appear in a projected eleven-volume series, The Oxford History of the United States, begun more than forty years ago. When the series was already far behind schedule its editor forecast that it would be finished by 2000, but only three other volumes have been published since Middlekauff's. Not one of the titles will have been written by the historian to whom it was originally assigned. (By the way, in this revision Middlekauff draws heavily on an even better narrative historical synthesis—Paul Langford's breathtaking and brilliant A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783, a volume in The New Oxford History of England.)


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