Jim Cullen: Review of Kevin Phillips's "1775: A Good Year for Revolution" (Viking, 2012)

tags: religion, books, American Revolution, Kevin Phillips, Jim Cullen



Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

Kevin Phillips is now well into this third career, all of which have showcased a way with words. His first, as a young man, was a politico of the Atwater and Rove variety: he was an architect of Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" in 1968. In the 1990s, however, Phillips grew disenchanted with the Republican Party, and began writing a series of books that included Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (2002) and American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush (2004). He became a particularly acute analyst of the financialization of the U.S. economy, and the growth in inequality that has accompanied it. Part of what has made his work so acute is a striking depth of historical consciousness -- in Wealth and Democracy, for example, he drew apt analogies between what is happening to the American economy in the twenty-first century, the British economy in the twentieth, and the Spanish economy in the seventeenth.

In 1999, Phillips moved avowedly into the field of history. His massive study The Cousins Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America, drew a striking, yet highly nuanced, pair of demographic trajectories between the Cavaliers of the English Civil War/Tories of the American Revolution/Confederates of the U.S. Civil War on on side, and Roundheads, Patriots, and Unionists on the other. It was a book closer in spirit to David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed than Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? While Phillips perhaps stretched his argument farther than an academic historian would, there was no mistaking his erudition or the breadth of research he brought to the project.

The same is true of Phillips's latest work of U.S. history, a foray he describes in his preface as "welcome refreshment in this era of political disappointment." The title, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, may sound like a more modest undertaking, though its size -- well over 500 pages -- indicates otherwise. In some sense, the argument is simple: 1775, not 1776, was the real hinge of American history, the moment when independence transformed from a possibility to a reality. The Declaration of Independence was more epilogue than prologue. Indeed, it was only the tremendous sense of momentum that came out of 1775, especially in terms of the string of victories Phillips dubs "the Battle of Boston," that allowed the Patriot cause to absorb the many military blows that followed the Declaration, years in which the "rage militaire" of '75 largely dissipated, especially in the South. "The spirit of '76," by contrast, was a bicentennial marketing device.

But the scope of the book is in fact much wider. Phillips offers a sweeping interpretation of the coming of the Revolution that encompasses familiar topics like politics and economics as well as more less familiar ones, like the logistics of international gunpowder supply and naval tactics. He also foregrounds the interplay between culture and geography, paying special attention to the dynamics of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia and South Carolina, whose role he sees as pivotal (Connecticut and South Carolina too often overlooked). There's also a fine chapter on the geopolitics of the Revolution, notably the role of Spain, which temporarily arrested its decline enough to make a decisive contribution to the cause and its own imperial prospects.

But near the heart of Phillips's analysis is a subject that typically gets short shrift in modern historiography of the revolution these days: religion. He picks through the often complicated sectarian politics of eighteenth century North America, in which ethnicity and geography were also tangled. So it is, for example, that he explains Virginia Anglicans tended to be Whigs, while Massachusetts Anglicans tended to be Tories. He affirms, as many previous observers have, that the Congregationalist heirs of the Puritans dominated New England politics, the cockpit of Patriot fervor. But he locates strands of revolutionary ardor in New Jersey Presbyterians and Pennsylvania Lutherans as well -- and considers them important. As Phillips notes, such arguments, once the staple of Victorian histories like those of Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Lothrop Motley, have long fallen out of favor. "Did these men have a better sense of the religiosity of eighteenth century than more recent chroniclers?" he asks. "Probably. Were they correct in painting a dour, predestination-minded culture as a progressive political force. Probably ... Modern cultural biases cannot wholly rewrite a prior American reality: that the Calvinist denominations central to those old battles ... bulked larger in the thirteen colonies of the 1770s than any major European nation."

Phillips is particularly skeptical that secular ideology was as important as its recent champions (think Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood) have asserted. He doesn't deny its prevalence in Revolutionary discourse, but he sees it as one element in a more complex fabric, and one that was probably secondary to trading interests. As he distills his view in his chapter on the subject on the birth of American politics: "economic motivations, constitutional rhetoric." In this regard he's closer to younger historians like Woody Holton, whose work is frequently cited.

The core point in any case is that the crucible of the American Revolution was the period between the fall of 1774 and the end of 1775. It was in these months that the rebels did not declare independence, but actually implemented it: they seized control of governments, formulated economic strategy, and actually fought a series of battles that stretched from Canada to the Carolinas.  The Declaration of Independence was literally an afterthought.

Phillips is persuasive in making this case. But he's not alone in making it. Actually, T.H. Breen stakes out similar turf in his 2010 book American Insurgents, American Patriots (see my review here). Oddly, though Phillips lists two of Breen's earlier books in his bibliography, this most recent one is not mentioned.

That's not the only problem. As you can probably tell even from this brief summary, 1775 sprawls in ways that are not always felicitous. It's not clear, for example, why we need two separate chapters, in two separate sections, on the Canadian campaign. Or two separate chapters Britain's first efforts to contain the Revolution of the South. Figures like the colorful Lord Dunmore certainly have a place in this story, but probably not as frequently as he pops up. One suspects that Phillips has become susceptible to the syndrome of the highly successful author not getting, or accepting, an editorial razor.

But of course there's a reason why he so successful. 1775 is a grab bag, but it's one that stuffed with welcome prizes (and one that you can pick your way through). Phillips can be a highly entertaining writer, as when he describes the notorious Duke of Alba executing Dutch Calvinists "as easily as frontier Texans barbecued beef" or suggests that the imprecations of the international indentured servant market was a form of virtual slavery, "lacking only some mittel europaisch Harriet Beecher Stowe to pen Uncle Hans's Barracks."

In short, 1775 is not Phillips's best work, as perhaps is inevitable when a writer turns to history as a form of escapism. But for that very reason it's highly readable -- and informative. Anybody who's as talented as he is good company.


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