on March 26, 2007
After hearing the Schoolhouse Rock favorite, "The Shot Heard Round the World" about 500 times on a trip recently (I have young kids), I just had to get a good book on the American Revolution. I chose this book, the first in the Oxford History of America Series, "The Glorious Cause" by Robert Middlekauff from several at my local bookstore (don't worry Amazon, I buy a lot of books from you, too). I chose it in large part because the publisher was Oxford, who generally puts out great books and series. Overall, the book did not disappoint, but it was not quite as good as the dust jacket led me to believe.
First, the good: the language and flow is excellent. In the sense of just sitting back and reading - it's a good one. The vocabulary level is pretty high, but you won't need to reach for the dictionary often. The book seems incredibly-well researched. It was clear that Middlekauff is VERY well read on this subject and period, and the footnoting is well-done. I really like being able to follow up on the sources he used and he is generous and thorough in sharing them. Also, he spends a lot of time on the events leading up to the war. Although one reviewer feels that four chapters on the Stamp Act is too much, it actually almost wasn't enough for me! I say that because if you believe what Middlekauf first states (and seems to be true from other readings), that the American people had NO desire to secede from Britain early on, then you must wonder how they got so quickly (relatively speaking) to a course of action as radical as a fight for independence! So I believe the time spent on that period is critical and interesting. The details of the battles are excellent, and generally, any material he provides is thoughtful and interesting. Basically everything he chooses to write about is done well.
One of the negatives, though, is that the book feels like so much is missing. I can appreciate the desire to keep the book from becoming 3,000 pages; however, there is something about its structure or style that makes it feel like he tried to cram 3 volumes into one - and didn't succeed very well. One chapter, for example, near the end of the book covers such diverse topics as the Tories, the Indians, Slaves and Slavery, American social classes, the Navy, etc., etc. The section on Indians is only two or three pages. I understand that you can only cover so much, but I think Middlekauf would have been better served by either narrowing his focus and writing a coherent narrative, or expanding the book.
I admit to much ignorance of the subject, which has been somewhat repaired by reading this book, but there seemed to be some important items left out: there was nothing about Benedict Arnold's betrayal, virtually nothing about British popular reaction to the war, very little to explain French movements and personalities, and in general, the coverage of the last few years is scantier than the first. Upon reflection, I think the criticism here is related to the first - it simply reads as if the book is a collection of really great bits and pieces of the history of the revolution without a clear plan as to what was going to be covered in detail and what was going to be left out. One of the things that contributes to this is covered by another review in detail: Middlekauf's tendency to mention key figures without any introduction or even hint that they have never been mentioned before (you find yourself thinking, "oh, I must have forgotten that paragraph that explained who this person is...", but then you go back and realize - there is no such paragraph!).
My single biggest complaint, though, is reserved for the editor - the typos!!! There were misspelled words, bad grammar, and other obvious typographical errors every three or four pages. It was really, really annoying and there is really no excuse for a publisher like Oxford to let something out in this state.
If I appear to be more negative than positive, then the negative came off too strong (I wish I could give it 3.5 stars). It IS a good book. I enjoyed reading it and actually found it quite hard to put down. I just wanted it to be better. I think it fell short of its potential and didn't do justice to the writer's obvious command of the subject. Maybe I'll feel differently after reading other histories of the same period - this was my first. I still recommend it, though, despite the flaws, and would read other works by Middlekauf.
To get a little background out of the way first, let me state that the highest credentials I possess in historical studies are a minor in History and a love of the genre. I read books very quickly and usually read three to five at a time. This book took me over three weeks and was the only one I could read during that time. It is an absolute slog. If you plan on reading this book, be sure to keep a notebook from the beginning so you can keep up with the various characters and locations, because keeping a thread going throughout the book is definitely not one of Middlekauff's strong suits.
Now for the actual review. Because the cover says "The American Revolution," I mistakenly geared myself up to read about that. This is not a shortcoming of the author, but a misstep on my part. Let me just tell you before you begin that the first shot is not fired until page 276. For a huge part of the first fourth of the book, Middlekauff describes local politics in the colonies. I do not wish to criticize the choice of subjects, because some of it is very interesting, but be prepared for pages and pages of description of two feuding families in Rhode Island's early political scene.
Finally, once battle begins, the book moves along fairly quickly. This (I think of it as the middle portion, but that is not based on physical distance in the book) was my personal favorite part. The only drawback is an odd disconnect as he repeatedly breaks from battle in America to go back and give half-hearted attempts to explain the politicking in England at the time. That did interest me, and I would like to have learned more about the politics there at the time, but I did not because he stayed on the topic only long enough to describe changes in Cabinet positions, the general mood of the King, then swerved back to a battle in America. As I read about the battle, I began to look forward to the story of Benedict Arnold. He is mentioned on page 390, but still leading American troops. Although everyone knows the name and that he was a traitor, I had never heard the specifics. Where did he defect? Was there a battle? Did he take men or equipment with him? My hopes were dashed, however, for the next mention of him comes on page 476. "It had none, and the dispositions of British troops seemed favorable to a new expedition to the north - Benedict Arnold, who had defected to the British the preceding September, had led a raiding expedition to Virginia..." Curious to ignore that part of the Revolution, which obviously interests many people.
On to the back third of the book. This is where I began noticing the editing errors others have commented on. It almost seems as though the editor got tired of reading it and some mistakes slipped through the cracks. I am very forgiving of these, however, because I was only pulled away from the story six or seven times throughout this massive book, and given its size, I believe a few mistakes are understandable. The last portion of the books suffers from what I think of as "junk drawer writing." I kind of got the feeling that Middlekauff had many threads he wanted to expound upon, but either did not allocate room or time, or did not feel it was enough to constitute a large chapter, so many things get pushed into a small space. The political and social atmosphere after the British surrendered was not described in nearly enough detail for my taste. The Constitutional Convention, while getting its own chapter, could have been told in much more detail. That last few chapters, covering the mood of the country, the Convention, and ratification, seemed much shorter than all the previous chapters. This last third of the book was where Middlekauff lost me. Reading it became a chore and I frequently flipped to see how many pages I had left. It is very disheartening to invest so much time in a book then feel as though you cannot wait for it to end.
In case you are reading this trying to decide whether or not to buy it, I will attempt to offer the fairest review I can. If you have not read much on the Revolution, I would start elsewhere. If you have read a moderate amount on it, as I had in my collegiate studies and my time since graduating two years ago, I would not read this yet. As I alluded to in the Benedict Arnold comment earlier, Middlekauff sometimes skips over what many would deem to be the most interesting stories of the era. Instead he focuses on obscure political battles and minor characters of the time. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it supports my advice of reading other histories first. I would recommend this book only for true students of the period. If you are not intricately familiar with the major characters and events of the time, I am afraid you will feel this book is a waste of your time. Then again, if you have studied it that much, I do not know that there will be much new material for you here. Unfortunately, in my previous historical studies, I had focused mainly on other subjects and had hoped to find an in-depth introductory general history of the Revolutionary era. That is not this book. Again I want to point out that this is my mistake, not the author's.
Aside from his sometimes curious subject choice, this is a well-researched, lengthy history of an amazing era. Although I came away unsatisfied, I do not wish that I had never read it. I just wish I had not read it yet.
This is a very good book on the Revolution, or The Glorious Cause. Right from the beginning you get a sense of what Middlekauff is attempting to portray as he describes in detail the major factors that led to the Declaration: debt from the Seven Years War and the taxes that were meant to help recoup that debt. His recursive style - of starting a new chapter by backtracking in order to fill the gaps that are needed in order get back to the timeframe of the previous chapter - is an amazing way to write. I haven't seen much of this style of writing in nonfiction, only in fiction by authors such as Faulkner and Morrison, and it does well in furthering the story along. The additional chapters scattered throughout that explain some of the non war aspects are very helpful and interesting to read.
This is a long read, though, so prepare yourself. It doesn't help that the last 80 or so pages is about the debates at the Constitutional Convention, which is an extremely dry read that should not have been included in the first place. Additionally, there is a focus on the battles fought, so if you prefer not to read about battles than this book would not be for you. All in all, Middlekauff did exactly as he set out to do - even with the Constitutional Convention chapters, since this does fall into the premise of his book - and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period. For those who are also interested in the French and Indian War read Anderson's Crucible of War, which is a perfect lead in to the The Glorious Cause.
on January 2, 2012
Given the quality of the other volumes I have read in this outstanding series, I had high expectations for this one: I wanted context, succinct bios, story, and analysis. Unfortunately, this volume fails to deliver enough on every single count, and yet it is full of extraneous detail. Rather than surrendering to a rich narrative, I had to struggle to follow the author's logical jumps, to fill in the many crucial details he seemed to assume the reader would know, and to sort through the oddly incomplete (yet overly long) descriptions of military maneuvers or political machinations.
The book begins well, with an explanation of the political context in both the US and Britain. In the wake of the French-Indian War, the young king (George III) had decided to station a permanent military garrison in the colonies, which his subjects were supposed to finance. This added a presence and level of control over the colonists' economic affairs, who while loyal subjects were accustomed to independence and a wide latitude to manage their lives in the way they saw fit. Given the flawed personality of GIII, the British attitude remained paternal, condescending as to children, and arrogantly impenetrable to contrary points of view. This led not just to a clash, but to a comedy of errors. GIII imposed a number of unpopular taxes and acts, provoking increasingly provocative protests in the colonies and heavy-handed responses from Britain that only made things worse. Violence led to violence, some fiery American radicals expressed their ideals in fabulously articulated polemics that gave life to ideals and a plan for action, and events moved in ways no one expected.
Unfortunately, I simply did not get a feel for when and why things happened the way they did. For me, this is a very basic failure of narrative. Perhaps even worse, while it was easy to get lost in the details, the cause-and-effect reasons behind certain fundamental issues (e.g. opposition to the Stamp Act) do not clearly emerge. It was frustrating, even boring after a while. The analysis is too sparse, especially in the beginning.
Once independence is declared, the core of the book is a military story. For me, this section was far too long and mired in excessive details of minor engagements, to the point that I began to skip them. Once again, the narrative failed to keep my interest and I constantly found my mind wandering. After the war is won, the book shifts into a kind of summary of events, oddly lacking in detail, even rushed. There is one chapter on the failure of the confederated period, one on the constitutional convention that refers to all the issues as if pre-ordained, and a very brief one on the ratification fight. It makes for a lopsided reading experience, to say the least. Finally, very few of the personalities come through. Most of the biggies like Washington and Adams are covered, but Hamilton is a mere shadow, Burr is barely mentioned - the list of the neglected goes on.
At the very end, there is a good section of analysis that sums up much of the author's perspective. It is well worth the work to get there, but it is nonetheless a long slog. That being said, I found the tone to be overly sentimental, referring to ideals that were supposed to serve as beacons to humanity in spite of the fact that most of them came from slave owners who recognized their own hypocrisy, such as Jefferson but also the fascinating Patrick Henry. It serves up a triumphalist story that implies a direct link to the present yet fails to add any critical perspective whatsoever. This too, in my eyes, is a significant failure for such a massive and ambitious narrative.
I was hoping that this book would serve as a kind of capstone to a long period of reading I have been doing on this period. I expected the book to recapitulate what I already knew, add new layers of detail and interpretation, and offer an intimate dialogue with a great academic. Both Battle Cry of Freedom and What Hath God Wrought (other volumes in the series) did this for me to complete satisfaction, but this volume did not. I can barely bring myself to give this 3 stars and frankly cannot recommend it.
on June 17, 2013
Robert Middlekauff’s 1982 contribution to the Oxford History of the United States was the inaugural volume of the series. It was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and was extensively overhauled in 2005 for an updated second edition. Middlekauff’s work has been a wonderful addition to any library that covers any part of the American Revolution. As with any event in history, the exploration of its roots are critical to understanding why it occurred and in the way it did. Middlekauff devoted the first third of the volume covering those roots and the years leading up to 1775 before the opening fight at Lexington and Concord. This is very important because there has always been a very large question concerning how quickly the American colonists changed from loyal supporters of the British crown and British citizens to disloyal rebels and American patriots.
The themes of pre-revolutionary American are explored along political, social, and religious lines as well as economic. How these themes converged to explode into the Revolution is to understand the ideology of the Revolution itself. This work came out during the years when historians like Bailyn and Wood were concerned with the political ideology and focused on the Republicanism that emerged from those colliding themes. Middlekauf did not devote many pages to social, cultural, gender, or class issues in the first edition, but did include them in the revised second edition which revitalized the book and refreshed it. As a result, the second edition retains its place as an outstanding contribution to Revolutionary history and has not become dated by newer historiography like so many other comprehensive works have become.
Once Middlekauff arrives in the War for Independence the volume settles down to mainly political and military histories, although the second edition expands on women’s roles in the conflict and American Indians while also expanding on developments leading to the creation of the Constitution in 1787. I was a bit disappointed in the familiar assertion that the American victory at Saratoga had a direct impact on France signing the Franco-American Alliance treaty rather than the fact that the French had been preparing to enter the war as soon as they could convince Spain to join the alliance and they spent 1777 preparing the French fleet for war. However, this is a common theme in revolutionary history and one which historians often disagree. In any event, Middlekauff definitely highlighted the important role the French played throughout the Revolution.
By this point of the war the British had began to realize that the conflict had become a global one which had major strategic problems for them. In hindsight it became obvious that their lack of planning and unwillingness to escalate the forces required for victory or understand the scale of the conflict had played major roles in their eventual failure to successfully resolve the situation. With France in the war, Britain regulated the North American colonies to a sideshow and focused on maintaining what it felt were more lucrative colonies in its empire. Middlekauff definitely points this out and how this new strategy completely altered the war’s aims. As many historians have pointed out, the results of the war were not inevitable and at any point had American forces not won some of the battles that they did win from 1778 onward, the results could have been very different from what did transpire.
I was happy with the two chapters that were heavily edited for the new edition concerning inside and outside the campaigns. The role of smallpox in the war was often overlooked for years, but historians have concluded that inoculation of American troops may very well have been one of the most important decisions Washington made during the entire military phase of the war. In addition, Middlekauff painted an update picture of both that decision and how troops experienced the war. This is an expansion of the more modern bottom up view of the Revolution. I think this is important too because it helps negate the old interpretation that the Revolution’s outcome was a Providential event. By exploring the many small details that influenced the events of the conflict Middlekauff is able to show that the final outcome of the conflict had far more to do with logistics than with Providence.
There was no possible way for Middlekauff to explore in great detail every aspect of the period that he covered without writing several volumes and employing a small company of historians and researchers. The era is just too vast. However, as a volume that highlights the important themes and events that transpired in that time, he is able to deliver a fine body of work that should whet the appetite of anyone interested in the broader overview of the Revolution. At the same time, his sources can be used as a launching point to a greater exploration of particular interest for any reader. The volume is quite useful for a survey class on the subject and can form the backbone text for that class when supplemented by primary sources and additional readings to reinforce it. As such, it has found a home in my library and has been used in my own research on the period as a starting point on multiple occasions. It is a worthy entry and a handy reference.
on October 30, 2008
Middlekauf's book is the best single treatment of the American Revolution in print. He is fair and equitable in his treatment of all sides in this conflict. In fact, he might have gone too far in these efforts. One puts the book down feeling the British officials were often wronged by the American colonialists. Middlekauf devotes about half the book to the coming of the war, forty percent to the military conflict itself and about ten percent to the post-war years, including the writing of the U.S. Constitution. He gives everyone their moment in the story, including loyalists, sailors, and militiamen, but the core of his account is the battle between the two conventional armies. He breaks the mold and gives enough attention to actions in the South to inform his readers that the war was not one by New England alone. Perhaps the best thing about this book is how Middlekauf integrates political and military issues together. He shows that this conflict was political in nature and how military operations affected sentiment in both America and the United Kingdom and how that sentiment often determined what a commander could or had to do. This integration is one of the reasons the U.S. Naval War College uses this book as a required reading despite its limited discussion of naval operations.
on March 11, 2015
This is a good overview of the American Revolution as well as what came before and after it. The book begins with a lengthy description and analysis of the forces that helped produce the Revolution, and ends with a description and analysis of the changes the War produced in the 13 former colonies of Great Britain. I have only one chapter left to read, and am already sad that I won't have the book to read in the near future. I just made a long-distance move from the East Coast to the Midwest. I began the book in Maine, read it during my 3-day trip from Maine to Ohio, and am finishing it in Ohio. It's been a difficult move for me, and somehow this book gave me some continuity during the process; it was something I could always turn to and know I'd have a few minutes of pure enjoyment at the end of each day I grappled with my difficult transition.
The author's style of writing is clear, concise, evocative, never dry. He makes you feel like you're present at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Trenton. Every time I picked this book up I was eager to continue reading it. Before reading The Glorious Cause I'd read Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride and his Washington's Crossing (of the Delaware), both of which delve deeply into two specific aspects of the Revolution, so I was ready for a good overview of the War. This book gave it to me.
on February 18, 2008
"The Glorious Cause" is a wide-ranging look at the founding of the United States that is severely compromised by its author's inability to see the forest for the trees. To be sure, Middlekauff's scholarship is beyond reproach. However, taken as a whole the book reads like a 700-page selection of bullet points stripped of their formatting and delivered in paragraph form. There is precious little in the way of contextual analysis or 'big picture' overview - Middlekauff has events proceed in an ineluctable progression from A to B to C that overwhelms the reader in an endless stream of dates and proper nouns.
More aggravating are the omissions in Middlekauff's narrative - nothing on the treason of Benedict Arnold, nothing on the impetus behind the First Contintental Congress (it materializes out of thin air in his account), and nothing on the Articles of Confederation aside from an after-the-fact blurb about the agreement's flaws.
Instead, he often dives in to lengthy summations of personnel intrigues in obscure sub-committees of the British government, and devotes countless pages to the arcana of military strategy.
I can't figure who the intended audience for this book is. It's scope is far too wide-reaching to be of use to the professional historian, and yet it concerns itself primarily with minutiae of little interest to the average educated reader. Nor does it have the overarching analytic backbone necessary to draw all the facets of the time period together in a sensible format for the average reader.
In short, Middlekauff earns himself three stars for his outstanding scholarship; but he misses out on the other two for his suffocating pedantry.
on December 20, 2009
As a Canadian, I was not that exposed to the American Revolution in school. I recall us covering Washington on the Potomac, Bunker Hill, and Benedict Arnold but only basic, propaganda-like content (weird that there was so much on Arnold). Most American histories take a good versus evil stance but this effort does a fantastic job of conveying the complexities and fateful aspects of the revolution. Many talk of the battles but glance over the fact that this was an extraordinary effort because while fighting the British, the early leaders of America were also building a central government, struggling with daunting economic issues, experiencing social change, and muddling through foreign relations. All the time harnessing the power of a growing union of fledgling states. This strips away a great deal of the vacuous myths that have surrounded the period.
It is a history of citizen soldiers that the nation would call on time and again during its Civil War and the World Wars. I was struck by how independent the 'nation' already was by 1775 given the bungling governance of the Brits since 1764. In fact, America's greatest strength is still its greatest weakness, that is the tension that exists between liberty and nationalism. In essence, America had demonstrated their independence long before having to formally declare it.
The author's writing style is both authoritative and approachable. He takes us from strategy to tactics with ease and speed. The book covers an incredible amount of information which provides a tremendously holistic view of the conflict, its origins, and its impact. Starting with the key events that precipitated the war, from the Stamp Act to the Tea Act, the Boston Tea Party and "the shot heard 'round the world." The main part the book features a terrific description of the eight-year-long war, with awesome accounts of the conflicts, ranging from Bunker Hill to the win at Hannah's Cowpens and then Yorktown. The challenges faced by the troops on both sides is mind boggling. America's natural grasp of irregular warfare was a huge asset. I also enjoyed the summary towards the end which convincingly demonstrates that the British lost the war perhaps more than America won it.
The book concludes with the Constitution in the 1787 Philadelphia Convention and the struggle over ratification. This was very enlightening for me having been under the impression that everything was smooth following the conflict. Two aspects here are especially interesting; the machinations of Virginia and the lost opportunity to initiate a gradual emancipation of slaves. One thing the book maintains is the critical role Washington played in the conflict and as first leader of the new republic. He led with increasing confidence, consulted experts but made the final decisions, and he surrounded himself with good people (the truest sign of a great leader).
America like my country of Canada are living experiments and there is much to be learned from their histories. One small complaint unrelated to the book itself comes as a result of reading this on my Kindle, as the maps and other illustrations were very difficult to make out.
on June 27, 2007
This book is an excellent way to begin study of the Revolutionary era. While it covers the entire period (from the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 to the Ratification of the Constitution of 1787, its primary focus is on the war and the events leading up to the war. Coverage of the events leading up to the war is solid, with excellent character sketches of the British ministers who attempted to resolve the conflict favorably, and a terrific narrative of revolutionary events which unfolded during the Stamp Act crisis. The writing on these subjects is exceptionally lucid and the narrative is gripping.
The book is not as strong, however, in its coverage of events after 1776. Without a doubt, Middlekauff's explication of battle tactics and strategies is exceptional, and military historians will appreciate the detail and care, but it does come at the expense of better coverage of political and social events of the late 1770s and 1780s, which are covered in a few sections, leaving some to be desired for those interested in governance and social events during the war. In fairness, the Revised and Expanded edition adds several new perspectives (such as medicine in the Revolutionary War), but still leaves the reader needing more. Middlekauff's coverage of the Convention and its ratification is also a bit lacking, understandable as the book has already covered many pages by that point.
The bottom line: an excellent introduction that I highly recommend. For those new to the era, it lays the issues out clearly in an excellent narrative. It will give ample coverage of the War and its causes, but it needs to be supplemented by a firm understanding of the era's political theory. Bailyn's Ideological Origins, or Wood's Creation of the American Republic will serve you well in supplementing this text.