The American Revolution: A Concise History
Oxford University Press, 2011
128 pp., $18.95
Thomas S. Kidd
Americans love books on the Founding—especially lengthy ones. From David McCullough to Ron Chernow, bestselling authors on the Revolution have realized that epic tomes sell. But there is something to be said for brevity, too, as illustrated by Robert J. Allison's fine book The American Revolution: A Concise History. Robert Middlekauff's seminal work The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (1982) took more than 600 pages to cover what Allison deftly summarizes in less than 100. A scholar has to master a lot of material to present it so concisely and authoritatively, and Allison's book is one of the best places to get a reliable introduction to the Revolution and the Constitution.
Having said that, Allison does not surpass Gordon Wood's similarly brief The American Revolution: A History (2002), which bests Allison for clarity and balance. Balance is particularly difficult to achieve in a book like this, and Allison is not always successful. For example, does a 100-page book on the Revolution need three pages on Benedict Arnold?
It is also challenging to develop clear themes in a concise history, but Allison organizes his around the question of America's novelty. Although the book is mostly silent on the role of faith, he argues that one of the salient innovations of the Revolution was religious liberty. The struggle for religious freedom forged the ideal of defending minority rights against majority tyranny.Tom Paine's Common Sense promised Americans that they could "begin the world over again"—but did they? Allison answers yes, but with significant caveats related to slavery and racism. The notion that "public order was the personal concern of every citizen" emerged fully with the election of Jefferson in 1800. But for Jefferson and most Founders, only white men were unambiguously regarded as citizens. Nevertheless, Allison contends, the republican ideal of an informed, participating citizenry became the Revolution's greatest legacy.
Thomas S. Kidd is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University, and the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution.
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