Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom, by Russell Shorto
This book is a stellar example of the best achievements that can result from the contemporary leftist obsession with identity politics combined with a complex and well-researched view of history to provide a complicated tale that checks a great many of the boxes of various identities. That is not to say that I found this book to be perfect, because the author frequently demonstrated his hostility to Christianity and reveled in the impotence of George Washington as well as the sleeping around of Margaret Coghlan, who went from loyalist refugee to escaped housewife and kept woman to an obscure death after spending lots of time in debtor’s prison. A great many of the stories included in this book are poignant, and they manage to combine and bounce off of each other in complex ways, as a black slave learns from his dying father what it means to be a man and an Iroqouis war chief seeks an honorable peace for his people after the destruction of so much of his people’s civilization during the brutality of the American Revolution while his brother seeks to reform his people’s heathen faith. Again, this book was not written for me and the perspective of the author is far different than my own, but there is still a lot to appreciate here based on the compelling way the author has found insight in unfamiliar perspectives on a familiar story.
This volume is about 500 pages long or so and is divided into three parts and twenty chapters that ricochet off of each other from George Washington’s youth to the period after American independence where the author reflects on the legacy of the lives of the people here. We see Washington dealing with the loss of his father and his crazy mother and his desire to rise up to honorable status despite some handicaps. We see Cornplanter’s status as an elite involving difficult negotiations that seek to preserve the dignity and honor and survival of his imperiled people in the face of imperial war and revolution. We see Venture Smith be kidnapped and sold into slavery and seek his own freedom and that of his family as well as the well-being of his people in New England. We see Margaret Coghlan seek to be reunited with her father, to escape her abusive husband, and then to find a free life where she can be loved and respected. We see George Sackville seek to recover from accusations of cowardice at the Battle of Minden and find himself continually being raked over the coals for that moment of weakness despite having achieved high office and noble title. And we see Abraham Yates struggle to make a good living for himself and deal with New York politics as a populist who seeks to cut elites down to size and provide away for the views and interests of the common folk to be respected and heard.
It is indeed the humanity that the author discusses that comes across strongly here. Even as someone who is particularly hostile to leftist identity politics and to the author’s own hostility to traditional morality and Christian decency, I can recognize why this book is so widely praised. The author has a genuine degree of sympathy for those who he writes about and at least struggles to keep an even-handed perspective when it comes to the people he is writing about. And the author’s commitment to identity politics is quite notable. He writes about elites in both the United States (George Washington) and Great Britain (George Sackville), working class whites (Abraham Yates), women (Margaret Coghlan), native Americans (Cornplanter), and blacks (Venture and Meg Smith), many of whom had interactions with others in strange and surprising ways. The author makes much of Washington’s name as “Town Destroyer,” which he apparently inherited from an ancestor of his and lived up to in his own efforts in the American Revolution and points out the ugliness and competitiveness of elite politics, but anyone who can draw sympathy for Washington for having to deal with a crazy mother and be viewed as not enough of an elite to marry some of the young women of his class is clearly doing a fine job at seeking to check elite privilege in all kinds of ways. And without agreeing with it, it is still hard not to respect it.