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Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom

Review

Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom

Six individuals whose lives intersected during the formation of the new American nation are examined in REVOLUTION SONG, underscoring the basic principles that provoked a war and created a new kind of governance that attracted people from all over the globe --- and still does.

Author Russell Shorto (THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD) has painstakingly chronicled the American Revolution from the viewpoint of six people who would have necessarily perceived it differently. Most famous among the six is George Washington, whose personal will to succeed thrust him on the national and world stages in perpetuity as not only the general who led the troops who beat the British, but the politician and statesman who would aid in deciding how the victorious rebels would govern themselves. Abraham Yates was a self-made man who rose from shoemaker to lawyer to political mover in the state of New York. Lord Sackville, later Germain, was England’s spokesperson in the obstreperous colonies, forced to bring home the cataclysmic news of his country’s defeat in war.

"Weaving these stories together in a sometimes loose, sometimes almost hour-by-hour timeline takes skill and a genuine interest in his characters, and Shorto exhibits both."

Two men whose lives are less known but no less fascinating also had a stake in the rebellion’s outcome. A slave named Venture Smith bought his freedom by dint of hard work and true grit, and became a Connecticut landowner who in later years dictated his autobiography. He had never forgotten witnessing the violent, merciless murder of his father in Africa. His father’s refusal to divulge the location of his property inculcated the boy with an understanding that ownership is a precious boon; it would be available to him, despite his origins, in the new world. The Seneca Indian chief known as Cornplanter parlayed with the light-skinned newcomers but then allied with the British, resulting in the devastation of his people by Washington's army.

The woman among the six was Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan, daughter of a British officer stationed in the colonies. He forced her to marry a man she loathed when still in her teens. Escaping from that match, she was found and consigned to a nunnery, and escaping that confinement she was then disowned by the same patriarch, proving that women at the time had no rights whatsoever. Her recourse was a life of abandonment to lust and lawlessness back in Europe.

Weaving these stories together in a sometimes loose, sometimes almost hour-by-hour timeline takes skill and a genuine interest in his characters, and Shorto exhibits both. Many issues ebbed and flowed in the timeframe, with Yates, for example, standing against the tide in his belief that the new US Constitution was drafted for the elite and would not protect ordinary citizens. The book serves as a reminder that our revolution strategists had no compunction about drafting African slaves to fight (Venture Smith’s son was among these draftees) without the slightest thought to eliminating the pernicious practice of human bondage.

An epilogue focusing on the later lives and passing of the six protagonists reminds us that George Washington, whose ideas and actions touched all of the participants in this drama, had no children, but would become known as the “father of his country.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on November 10, 2017

Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom
by Russell Shorto

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393245543
  • ISBN-13: 9780393245547