It’s the tendency of Americans, suggests historian and best-selling author H. W. Brands, to simplify the past, when in truth our history is every bit as complicated and divisive as the present. Working to shine light on overlooked complexities, Brands probes the intersections of individual lives and narratives — what he calls “little history” — with the overarching accounts of “big history.”
H. W. Brands holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. A New York Times best-selling author, he has written more than 30 books on U.S. history. The latest, “Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution,” was published by Doubleday in November.
With “Our First Civil War,” the big history is the American Revolutionary War and the little histories are the compelling stories of individuals forced to choose between forsaking their country and taking up arms, or remaining loyal to the British throne. In the end, Brands emerges from this retreat into the past with both “good news and bad news” for present day America. Brands recently spoke with Governing.com Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Governing: What led you to write “Our First Civil War”?
H. W. Brands: History is always more complicated than we think. We’re aware of the one-line description of the American Revolution, where the Americans get fed up with the British, declare independence and win the war. But it’s not as simple as that. People go to the past looking for simple answers that will support their preconceptions. I try to show that life in the past was just as complicated as life today. That makes it all the more interesting. The more layers to peel off, the better.
“What causes a person to forsake his country and take up arms against it?”
Rejecting the Status Quo
Rebellion and revolution are a rejection of the status quo, and the people who reject the status quo are usually people for whom the status quo isn’t working. In the case of Washington and Franklin, however, they couldn’t have asked for more from the status quo, so what caused them to do this? Knowing how it turned out, we wonder why everybody didn’t join the bandwagon? But that has the question backward. The question is why did anybody join that bandwagon in the first place, especially people like Washington and Franklin? Loyalists didn’t become loyalists. They simply remained loyalists. The big leap was made by the ones who chose revolution.
Governing: Rather than the standard portrayal of Franklin as a genial raconteur, you present him in a sterner and more argumentative light.
H. W. Brands: The motivating question for this book was what causes somebody like Franklin to forsake his country and take up arms against it. This was serious stuff. When Franklin is dealing with the British, he’s not charming. He’s all business.
Though it’s generally the younger generation that is more rebellious, Benjamin Franklin, at age 70, became the rebel, while his son William chose to stick with the status quo. Benjamin Franklin never got over that, which is striking because Franklin became estranged from many of his British friends during the war, but he repaired those relationships after the war. In the case of William, however, he couldn’t or wouldn’t reconcile. He was wounded by William’s actions during the war, but those actions consisted of upholding his oath of office and his oath of allegiance to the British government.
Getting Inside Big History Through Little History
Governing: With so much to draw from, how did you choose what to feature in this book?
H. W. Brands: Historians look for good sources. If the sources aren’t there, you can’t write about it. I try to get inside the heads of historical figures and let my readers inhabit their world. I try to draw a distinction between what I call big history and little history. Big history is the overarching story. It’s the American Revolution. It’s war and peace. Little history is the story of individual lives. For me, the most interesting part is the intersection of these two.
Look at what happened to the loyalists after the war. They had to leave. That’s why we don’t know more about the loyalists. The good thing for them was that they had a place to go. The worst thing that can happen is if you’re involved in a revolution and you don’t have a place to go. That’s when things get really bloody. You see this in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution. It didn’t happen in the case of the United States, not because Americans were more genteel than others, but because the loyalists all fled for their lives, and the British gave them a place to go.
Fortunately for me, there are a couple of individuals who wrote memoirs of their experience. One of them was Boston King, an enslaved man, who became a loyalist in response to an offer by the British government to turn coat. If you leave your master and come over to the British side to help suppress the revolution, then you’ll receive your freedom. Boston King took up the offer.
What Are the Chances?
With anybody making the choice, you have to weigh your chances of success. Where do you stand on the principles? Where does your personal interest lie? What are the chances of success? What happens if your side wins? What happens if your side loses? In the case of Boston King, as with other enslaved peoples, it was more fraught because, even if the British side won, who knew if they would actually follow through on their promise? Slavery was still legal in the British Empire. Boston King joined the British Army, and at the end of the war he found himself in New York City. He heard that the British have agreed to return confiscated property, and he knew that the Americans considered slaves to be property. Fortunately for King, there was wiggle room in the negotiations. The British did give back horses and houses and buildings, but they didn’t give back the slaves. Boston King went off to Canada as a free man.
Governing:There were occasions in your book where patriots remarked that if they didn’t win this war, they’d be mere slaves. Given where we are culturally at the moment, you can’t read this stuff without just cringing.
H. W. Brands: That’s quite true. It was particularly rich when George Washington used this terminology. Nobody’s going to enslave George Washington, for heaven’s sake. He’s always going to be the wealthiest person in Virginia, at the top of the state’s social pyramid. So one has to decide whether this is just an overwrought figure of speech, or is there something serious going on here? The appropriate first assumption is that he means what he says, so what does he mean? In the first place, he recognizes that his liberties are at risk. Washington’s not going to be whipped or sold down the river, but he thinks that rights that he ought to have are going to be taken from him. He’s not going to wind up in the slave quarters on Mount Vernon, but the imagery is there.
“[P]eople looked upon rights in quite a different way than we look upon rights today.”
Projected in a different direction, it makes us reflect on what Jefferson meant when he said, “All men are created equal.” He certainly didn’t mean that at that time and place, everybody had equal political rights, so he’s talking about something else. It’s a reminder, again, that people looked upon rights in quite a different way than we look upon rights today. The concept of human rights was revolutionary. Most people in the world at the time didn’t have rights. Maybe Englishmen had rights, but simply because they were Englishmen. French people didn’t have English rights. What the Americans and the British were really arguing about was whether the Americans had English rights. But the idea that humans had rights simply because they were humans was very foreign to most people. George Washington didn’t have to do the kind of intellectual or psychological somersaults that we would have to do if we said, “We’re going to be slaves if we give in to the Stamp Act,” while ignoring the fact that we actually own physical slaves.
One of the striking things about Washington is that the contradiction did not seem apparent to him. Washington would have considered it an affront to be told that he was not equally represented in British Parliament. He would say that “every man of property ought to have a vote.” But if you pointed out that Martha doesn’t get to vote, he would say, “well, she’s a different category of person. It doesn’t apply to her.” There was a much greater degree of comfort in saying that people were in different categories. White men of English descent were one category. Women, even those of English descent, were a separate category. If you have people of Indian descent or African descent, those are separate categories still.
“The good news is that we survived. … The bad news is it took a civil war.”
Governing: America today seems divided as never before, with all kinds of apocalyptic rhetoric being tossed about. But history tends to teach us that any sense of presentism or that we’re in a unique or especially critical moment is usually nonsense. It’s been divisive from the beginning, right?
H. W. Brands: It has been divisive from the beginning. We have to compromise to keep this experiment going. When people would ask about the message of the book, I put it this way: “I have been to the 19th century. I have been to the past. I’ve been to a time when the country was even more divided than it is today, and I’ve returned with good news and bad news. The good news is that we survived. We’re still here. The bad news is it took a civil war.” I’m not saying that we’re on the verge of a civil war. But I will say that when any country reaches the point where the people who are on the other side of political issues come to be seen not as folks with a different opinion but as enemies, and when those differences become irreconcilable, then you’re playing with fire. One of the essential components of the emergence of the American independence movement was this judgment on the part of people like Franklin that they were no longer Englishmen. The British weren’t allowing them to be full Englishmen, and so they had to be Americans.
When people start thinking of themselves as conservatives or Republicans, or as Democrats or liberals, before they think of themselves as Americans, then we’re reaching an alarming point. Party politics after the Revolution were as bitter as they are now. At that particular moment, it was resolved by an election, one that didn’t have the kind of precedent that our elections today have. The election of 1800 was the first time where the party in power lost and left peacefully. It was also one where somebody had to make a difficult decision and say, “The good of the country is more important than the good of my party or maybe my own personal good.” Alexander Hamilton swallowed his opposition to Thomas Jefferson, saying, “He’s the one that these people voted for. He’s the one that the electors really wanted. He should be president. As much as I detest his policies, I support the idea of republicanism. The person who is supposed to win the election should win the election.” So there have been times in the past when we have been as divided as we are today, and things have been worked out peacefully and we’ve moved on. I certainly hope we can find the wherewithal to do that again.
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. Reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.