BOOK REVIEW: Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

by Thomas P. Slaughter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Pity the poor high school teacher of American History. They have so much required material to cover, along with an assortment of topics mandated by various outside agencies, that they cannot possibly cover everything, much less make what they do cover interesting.

I know from my own education (way back in the Mists of Time – the 1980s, to be precise), that when it came to American history we were briefed on the colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth – and then suddenly it was a century and a half later, and the Revolutionary War was starting in Boston. Slaughter attempts to rectify this omission.

It’s not a completely straight chronological history, but rather a look into that era to find the origins of the colonists’ greivances. It’s a bit of a mix; he tries to keep it all in some sort of rough chronological order as he bounces around from Massachusetts’ undeclared war against the French Canadians in Nova Scotia, the mess of land claims resulting from the unification of West Jersey and East Jersey into New Jersey, the rivalries between the various religious sects, to the corruption in the various revenue agencies of His Majesty’s Colonial Governments – you get the idea.

It was England’s basic policy of “salutary neglect” that laid the seeds for the Revolution. In the early 1600s, England figured that the best way to help the colonies prosper was to pretty much let them alone. As time went on, that meant that in practice, certain trade regulations and taxes would only be loosely enforced in the colonies. But after the East India Company seized control of India for the crown in the late 1750s, and Canada was taken from France, England felt it was time to be an Empire and bring everyone into line. No more bribing the costoms agent; no more hiding from the tax man, no more selling war materials to the French while England’s army was beating them up in Canada on your behalf…

At this stage in the narrative, having laid the groundwork, Slaughter goes to a straight chronology of events. There’s a heck of a lot of detail to cover, and he keeps it all in order. He doesn’t just give the Colonial point of view; he spends time in Parliament with the debates over how to treat the uppity colonies. Unfortunately for England, the more clueless members won out.

Slaughter makes it fairly clear that during this time, all the talk of “independence” did not necessarily mean the colonies wanted out. For the most part, they’d have been happy to stay as royal subjects as long as they were allowed to run their own governments. Fair representation in Parliament would have been OK, too, if a bit complicated by the travel times across the Atlantic. Even up until the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April, 1776, it was not out of the question that a reconciliation could have been achieved. Once the shooting started, though….

This is a rather “dense” work, in that there’s a massive amount of information and detail presented. But it’s never boring; Slaughter keeps things moving along. It’s helped by a lot of quotations from personal letters, pamphlets, and newspaper articles that allow us to directly comprehend what people were thinking.

You’re not going to get any great revelations about American history from this. But you will get a better understanding of just what it was we fought for, and why.

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