This is a book review of Novelist, Thomas Fleming's book "1776 the Year of Illusions"
Mr. Fleming's novelistic rendition of one year of the "so-called" American Revolution, is simply beautifully written. And despite its forgivable flaws, not the least of them being that by restricting the revolution to a single year, he ensures that the rich indispensable geopolitical context of the time would be left out. It nonetheless makes a valuable and unforgettable contribution to American history generally, and to revolutionary literature in particular.
As he gingerly tiptoes past all the land mines that typically face an American historian, trying to set the record straight about the causes of the war without stepping on any sensitive toes, he at the same time exposes the soft tender underbelly of the young nation's rationale for the need to go to war. Which, if the full truth were ever to be told, had little or nothing to do with any lack of freedoms on the part of the colonists, and everything to do with the main issue of the day, slavery. Arguably, the freedom the colonists were most concerned about was the freedom to continue the practice of slavery, in perpetuity.
According to this author, the accepted rationale does not quite pass the smell test. In short, it does not quite add up to a necessary or sufficient reason for going to war. To wit: the historically much ballyhooed Boston tea tax was minimal (about a $1.20 a year if one bought only British tea on a regular basis). This tax had been in place in Boston for at least 60 years. Plus, there were at least three cheaper (and some at the time would have argued better) alternatives to British tea: French, Dutch, and Danish tea. All of these other teas (L500,000 worth per year), were smuggled in under the radar of British trade tariffs, so they not only went untaxed, but had no duty to pay on their freight costs either.
Plus, the colonies were thriving. Only Poland had a lower tax rate than British America, which with all taxes taken together, amounted to barely 3%.
As for the "taxation without representation" claims. The author declared them to be bogus as well. They certainly were not quite like what is still the case in the District of Columbia today, for most non-British Americans did not want representation in the British Parliament, and even those who did want it (about 50% of the colonists were British subjects), could have had it simply for the asking.
And while it is true that the British became a bit heavy-handed in policing their colony by the end of the Seven Years' War, it is also true that not only did they have good cause, but also, as this author argues, this was due as much to the edginess and testiness of the American settlers, as to British overreach. As the author carefully points out, to their credit, the British recognized the potential volatility of these situations, and with rare exceptions, quickly backed off.
Perhaps more importantly, many colonists, both British and non-British, shared the belief that the colonies owed the British some recompense for having rescued them from the blanket of threats that surrounded them before the war.
Readers certainly will recall that the colonial situation was rather dire leading up to the war. As the young nation faced on all its borders, threats from Indians and Europeans, plus Indians in combinations with both Europeans and Africans, as well as Europeans in combination with each other., and with both Indians and Africans.
Even taken singly, each of these components represented a barely manageable threat that would tax the survival capabilities of the young nation. However, taken all together, and without British help, most unbiased historians would have to agree that the ability for the American colony to survive was at the very least, in serious doubt. The combination of three European powers roaming the country egging for a fight, vying for dominance, and in serious coalition with Indians and Africans on the continent, providing them advance weaponry, etc., was the most serious of existential threats that a young nation could have had.
By rescuing them, the British relieved the tremendous existential pressure from all sides, allowing the colonists to breathe a collective sigh of relief, a relief that undoubtedly in large part accounted for the colony's rapidly rising confidence and its even better economic fortune, during and immediately after the war.
By being allowed to "game" the war economy -- i.e. by smuggling, dodging British tariffs, jacking-up prices, and being able to sell to both friends and foes during times of war -- the American colony had grown fat and healthy even as all of the European competitors on the continent, including the British, became economically prostrate as a result of the War.
The best answer the author could come up with for why the American Settlers actually wanted to go to war in the first place, in my view was a pretty lame one. It was, as he states on page 29, because "there was a conspiracy by men in England to deprive America of her freedom, step by step."
His own feelings about this rather lame excuse, is enshrined in the title of the book. He thought it was an illusion fashioned out of the conspiracy mongering rampant during the day, that the British had "designs to take over" a colony that they already owned? (Come again?)
The author's explanation of course raises more questions than it answers, especially given the lack of preparations for war exhibited by the colonists, and by the the utter ineptness of colonial soldiers -- including their not so illustrious General George Washington. Washington was so inept as a General in fact that the author concludes that he should have been killed in battle at least half a dozen times were it not for repeatedly being "given a pass," twice, by among others, British General Howe.
But even before one has had the chance to get his mind around how little reason the thriving colonies had for starting a war, and how ill-prepared they were, they had already attacked Quebec. And of course, they were quickly sent scampering back South with their tail tucked beneath them.
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