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Faces of Revolution

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Faces of Revolution
Personalities and Themes in the Struggle for American Independence
by Bernard Bailyn. (New York: Vintage Books, 1992.)

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 3, 2002

In Faces of Revolution, Bernard Bailyn has brought together a series of his essays on the American Revolution that not only illuminates the subject matter, but which serve to stir the imagination. His purpose was not only to educate the reader about the events which transpired, but to show that it was not a preordained event, and that other courses of action available and other outcomes possible than outright revolution. On the whole, the book was divided into two main parts. The first part contained biographical sketches of eight Americans. They were included because an understanding of the personalities who contributed to the revolution is intrinsic to an understanding of the history. The second section dealt with the overriding themes of the revolution, and served to synthesis Bailyn overall interpretation of the revolution.

What was most interesting about the personalities, which Bailyn chose to include in his book, was that he did not stick to those solely of large stature. I found one of the most interesting features of this book to be his essay on Harbottle Dorr, the Boston shopkeeper who painstakingly archived daily copies of the Boston newspapers beginning in 1765 during the stamp crisis and ending in 1776! It is amazing enough that he took the time and the effort to indexed and footnoted his collection, but what is even more amazing is that he ever began upon the venture in the first place. This is one of the key points of the book, and one which this essay clearly illustrated, this is that the people of revolutionary America realized that something of historical import was taking place, something which would transcend their own lifetimes. Bailyn also shows that in the beginning, it was not independence that was craved, rather it was equality. Independence may well have been the outcome of the struggle but it was not the end goal.

While the blatant point of this book is to simply provide a historical analysis of a given event, it is also much, much more. Bailyn attempted to show that the ideas and ideals of the revolution are as vital and pertinent today as they were in the 1700's. History is not a creation myth that can be pushed aside as immaterial to everyday life. Many of the very concerns which worried our revolutionary forefathers have again reared their ugly heads, such as "the fear of ‘secret services' money dispensed in covert operations by the executive through hidden slush funds..." (Pg 239.) Bailyn reminds us that those that take their liberty lightly soon lose it. And that through the study of historical precedence, one may be forewarned and forearmed against such menaces.

Another objective of this book was to show that history is not static, new information and new means of looking at an event can greatly alter our perceptions. Not only do the on going studies of historical materials add to our understanding of our pass, but they also to our future. Also, it is by the effort of historians and other like minded individuals that the information is diffused into the social consciousness, aiding in the constant evolvement of history and historical thought. He succeeded in this endeavor by showing how the release of private papers and their consequent publication enhances the accuracy of the historical record and that they help flesh out the details, providing documentation of the motivation and the inner workings of those who directed the course of history.

The biggest strength of this book is the fluid prose in which it is written. Bailyn has a knack for taking, what most would expect to be a boring subject, such as the sketch of Reverend Andrew Eliot, and turning it into an intriguing and enlightening story. He does this by juxtaposing the somber historical facts such as when and where he went to school, with glimpses of the real man. Through Eliot's own writings, and those of others, Bailyn provided insights into Eliot's personality, his fears, and the results of his actions - both in terms of his own life and how he affected others. Bailyn did this with all of his personality sketches - he brought the men to life, clothed their skeletons with reality, and forced you to empathize with them as they struggled to find their place in the turbulent revolutionary period.

The biggest weakness of this book is that he only wrote about the men. Granted, men fought the war and wrote the Constitution and had all the glory, but it makes me wonder - how did the women of Colonial America feel about the events that were transpiring? Did any women attend the meeting in which Mayhew's sermon set off a riot? If so, did they agree or disagree with his speech? A hundred such questions trouble my mind. I realize that history is based upon the historical record, and when that record is primarily written by men, it is their story that comes down to us in the history books - yet I am sure that there were diaries and letters and other incidental records left behind by the women which might begin to tell their tale. And if so, I feel that this book would have been greatly enhanced by the inclusion of at least one sketch of a woman.

This is not to criticize Bailyn's work, for on a whole I found his book to be enjoyable to read and highly informative. Bailyn also made me realized something that in its simplicity I should have intuitively known, this is that is that when the Continental Congress declared the independence of the colonies, "...but gave reasons for doing so that were so utterly idealistic and so rations - and yet so manifestly practical - that they stood as a threat and a challenge to every political system that existed." (Pg 158). This made me reevaluate my understanding of European history and the resulting wave of revolutions which were to shake the world. If for this, and no other reason existed, I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to a friend.

Many reasons exist for recommending this book. In addition to it simply being a good ‘read', it forces the reader, almost unwillingly at times, to contemplate the turn that history took and the phenomenal intellectual breath of the men who shaped the revolution and the formation of the new government. It is also a wonderful historical and literary work, as the book's blurb from the Chicago Tribune so adequately states, Bailyn "...provides and extraordinarily lucid and informative representation of the revolutionary age...elegant and persuasive." I wholeheartedly agree with this summation - it is an exceptional book which I will most willingly recommend to others, as it was recommended to me.

Related Reviews:

Crisis of Empire: Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, By Ian R. Christie.
In this book, Christie attempted to give a brief, but a thorough, chronological overview of the causes and the consequences of the American Revolution. Dealing primarily with the period from 1754-1783, Christie, also included a terse review of the historical background which precipitated the settlement of the colonies, their general histories, and the events which laid the ground work for the crisis.

Never Come to Peace Again, by David Dixon.
Pontiac's Uprising and the Fate of the British Empire in North America.

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