You Say You Want a Revolution

In my experience, students and fans of history tend to have a favorite era. For my friend Eugene it’s the American  Civil War, a period that never much interested me because I couldn’t keep all those Bull Runs and Antietams straight. For others it might be the Bourbon or Tudor courts. For me it’s the American Revolution.

Actually  my fascination is more particular than that. I wrote a thesis on the intellectual underpinnings of the US Constitution and the ideas continue to fascinate me. At this point I seek out primary sources but everyone has to start somewhere.

That brings us to today’s volume.  This primer presents a solid overview of the military, diplomatic and political goings-on of the period. Gordon S. Wood is an established historian who has been working this vein a long time. His best known work is The Radicalism of the American Revolution but he’s also written on Benjamin Franklin, the development of our republican form of government and edited a few volumes of works bu major figures of the period for the Library of America.

In this book Wood is not breaking any new ground, just covering what one ought to know about the struggle for American Independence. He methodically works through the developments  from the French & Indian War of the 1750s through to the ratification of the Constitution after its 1787 drafting. Approached like that it’s an almost 40-year period, which ought to make one pause.

Impatience–an American virtue or curse depending on your viewpoint–is never more evident than in a presidential election cycle. Sometimes it seems the current belief is that human events ought to take place on the same time scale as a video game. This is a sense I have, not a fact. One  friend recently suggested that old movies were unwatchable because te pace isn’t fast enough. If a 90-minute film isn’t fast enough then that 40-year or thereabouts revolutionary period might strike some as glacial .

Perhaps it’s just  a more human pace. It’s certainly harder for things to escalate as quickly as they can in the age of e-mail. Consider some dates:  the Albany Congress was in the 1750s, the Stamp Act was passed in 1765, the Intolerable Acts in 1774, Revere’s Ride and the Battle of Lexington and Concord took place in April 1775 and the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776. The war didn’t end until the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 and the  Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. By comparison, World War II, atomic bombs and all, lasted 44 months.

I have a deep respect for the Founders of the American Republic. At times it runs to the maudlin and sentimental. I’ve spent so much time in their heads through their writings that I feel I know them. I’m literally reduced to tears in the Old Central Burying Ground on Tremont Street in Boston. And it shocks me when I hear the nonsense that people think about the form of government we have or are supposed to have.

So I’ll end with a suggestion. We’ve done an awful job teaching what used to be called civics. It would be a good idea to fill in the blanks. This quick, enjoyable read is a great place to start.


If my friend is right about pace, then a book may take too long. So as a public service here’s the best 3 minute long lesson in how te US government works. Fans of presidential power take note:


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