Review of Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789

Robert Middlekauff has read deeply in the history of the American revolution and the early republic. Moreover, he is interested in more than just a simple narrative; he is interested in causes and motives, as he shows in chaps. 20 and 21 of this book, which discuss why soldiers fought instead of ran.

Unfortunately, the narrative in this book has holes, and Middlekauff often fails to put people and personalities into context, making the reading less interesting than it should be. He also makes high demands on readers’ attention; this, plus the holes, made the book heavy going at times.

Here are some examples of holes: 1) In his discussion of the Intolerable Acts, Middlekauff fails to say what the Quebec Act was, yet on pp. 239 and 280 he assumes you know. 2) On p. 471 he writes: “They all knew what happened to Buford’s men at Waxhaws when they tried to run away.” This is the only time “Buford” and “Waxhaws” are mentioned in the book. 3) On p. 340 Middlekauff says: “June also brought William Howe back to New York.” I can’t find where it says Howe had been in New York before. 4) On p. 462 it reads: “Some hint of what was coming was given …when the victors, shouting ‘Tarleton’s Quarter,’ shot and stabbed the wounded…” There is no explanation of this anywhere in the book. On p. 478 we are told: “… Lee’s Legion rode in. Greene once more had his army in one piece.” This is the first time that “Lee’s Legion” is mentioned. I had to look in the index to find out that “Lee” was Henry Lee. It never explains how he got a legion. The last time we saw him, on 417, he was foraging in Delaware.

No context for people and personalities: Isaac Barre gives a speech supporting the colonies in parliament (74-75), but Middlekauf never tells us who he is or why he speaks so strongly. Directly below, the American who thinks Barre’s speech is “noble” is never identified. Apparently it was Jared Ingersoll, who appears in a very different light in other parts of the book.

Demands on reader’s attention: Pp. 406-7 says that “Amherst told the king…” This is Jeffrey Amherst. The last time we met him, also identified only as “Amherst”, was page 276, where he was fighting Montcalm in Quebec for all of one sentence. Look up Amherst in the index, see where he appears, and see how easy it is to connect these references. This is very tough, demanding writing.

Middlekauff knows the period, is a very intelligent writer, has interesting views and judgments which he backs up effectively. However, if you want to understand what is going on, you will have to go to other books in addition to this one, and you will have to pay very close attention to Middlekauff, with pencil in hand and constant reference to the index.

As an example of a book which brings people and personalities strongly into context, I recommend Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly” which has an outstanding chapter called “The British Lose America.” This will tell you who Barre was, why they were drinking toasts to John Wilkes in South Carolina in 1768, and what the Quebec Act was. It’s only a tiny fragment of the history Middlekauff tries to cover, and occasionally Tuchman falls down as well (she mangles the text of Barre’s speech), but it is a great example of fascinating historical writing which historians would do well to study.

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