It’s the tendency of Americans, suggests historian and bestselling 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 bestselling 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.
I had just written a book on John Brown and Abraham Lincoln and the run up to the Civil War. The question that motivated that book was, “What does a good person do in the face of evil?” John Brown and Abraham Lincoln agreed that slavery is evil, but the operative question was, “What are you going to do about it?” The decision that I formulated for looking at the American Revolution was, “What causes a person to forsake his country and take up arms against it?” The American Revolution was treason under British law. It was a big deal. What made them do it? What made other people not make that decision? That’s the intriguing part. It’s important when going back to the past to leave hindsight at the door. If you know how it turned out, there’s no way you can get inside the heads of the people you’re trying to understand. I’ve tried to make the worlds of Washington and Franklin and Joseph Galloway and Benedict Arnold come alive.
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 backwards. 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.