There is little doubt that Robert Middlekauff had his work cut out for him when he set out to write The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763 – 1789 for the Oxford History of the United States. A broad period that covered that began with the end of French and Indian Wars and ended with the ratification of the new Constitution, it is difficult to cover in only one volume. It creates considerable difficulty even for a history of the caliber of Professor Middlekauff, because ultimately you are going to have to pick and choose, focusing on certain areas while only doing a service to others. Even in a book as long as this is (some 750 pages long) it is invariably the problem that he runs up against.
Yet largely where other works might falter, Middlekauff tends to, by and large, succeed in his work. Offering a comprehensive overview that seamlessly flows across a vast political, social, economic and militaristic timeline, he tries to balance the education of both those unfamiliar with the period and those seeking greater insight into the period. Hardly to be considered the most in depth book to be written on the subject, it does offer considerable detail and thought in a single volume for what should, for all intents and purposes, be broken into two or three.
What is perhaps the most surprising is in where this book really succeeds, that is namely in the lead up to the Revolutionary War. In exploring this period in its greatest detail he works his way through the mechanics that worked behind the scene to slowly, but surely move America to open rebellion. Looking not only to the changes that occurred in the thinking of the American people, but the root, underlying causes, it weaves a compelling story that spans the course of 25 years, and countless men, sometimes long forgotten by history.
This, in turns, let Middlekauff show the reader how a group of small colonies at the edge of the world, on the frontier of the British Empire, evolved and grew into a cohesive force. Yet it is not an easy or a simple story of union and unity. Even among the colonies regional, and sectional fissures would begin to show, and, within them, political divides between different factions promoting different interests. Here, though it is perhaps easy or simple to just fall into the trap of writing solely a military or a political history, he weaves it all together in a way that is both easy to understand and simple to read. In that the reader is introduced to the Tory Junto faction in the fiercely independent Rhode Island, the River Gods who dominated life in Western Massachusetts, and a host of other figures and factions that shaped both the Loyalist and Patriot thinking.
Yet, he is not content to leave the story as an American story alone. Taking readers across the Atlantic he journeys to the Court of Saint James, home of King George III, distant, removed, often subjected to parents who favored his brother over him, where he offers some insight into British policies and the figures that played into it. John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, rigid and unyielding, Charles Townsend, disinterested and pushed into politics by his family, and a host of other players, bound by their inability to understand colonial interests, their unwillingness to listen to their concerns and their complaints and their fundamental belief that they were to rule over, not necessarily govern the colonies, are brought into the story to understand why the Americans would and did believe they were exploited by a far distant capital. Perhaps one of my favorite passages in explaining the British system would come when, in trying to explain the complexity of the system of patronage that would grip British thinking and put them so far out of touch, Middlekauff would offer this assessment:
With most members animated by purposes so limited and with the nation agreed that no fundamental issues existed, it is not surprising politics usually came down to the question Charles Dickens puts in the mouth of Lord Boodle in Bleak House: “What are you going to do with Lord Noodle?” Bewildered by the shifting alignments of the day and solely put to find a place for every deserving man, Lord Boodle saw the awful choices facing the crown in forming a new ministry should the present government be overthrown, choices which “would lie between Lord Goodle and Sir Thomas Doodle – supposing it be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case arising out of the affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, whar are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council: that is reserved for poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests, that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What Fools? That the country is shipwrecked, lost and gone to pieces…. Because you can’t provide for Noodle!”
The Lord Boodles of the Political order rightfully attributed great importance to the distribution of offices: the system after all depended upon providing for one’s friends and followers.
Yet, one cannot mistake this for a comprehensive look at British policies in the America’s. If anything, like most else in the book, it is a brief overview. It is largely a starting point to give those who might want to delve deeper into the topic a place to begin.
Still, what Middlekauff does, and does well, is write a readable book that is neither dry or boring. Thought provoking, it shines as it offers its analysis of characters who comprise the numerous different stories, and span the numerous different landscapes in this book. This allows readers to have a deeper understanding of what drove them to act, and react in the ways that they did, and is key to getting a fuller view of events that not only surrounded them but that they also impacted. In that sense, it offers a deeper insight than one might expect for the length it does cover.
The word of warning I will offer is that in picking up The Glorious Cause do not necessarily expect your outlook to necessarily change. It is not that sort of book, and if you are looking for something that is going to challenge your thinking on the American Revolution, this book is not going to do that unless you tend to side with the British in the Revolution. Though, at times, a bit philosophical, it is the story of the American Revolution that is told from an American history point of view for American readers, and that is where it ultimately begins and ends. It isn’t a bad thing, it is just the territory that Middlekauff covers in this book. The truth is that though we may want it to cover other territory, we can’t be surprised that it doesn’t from its’s very title. At any rate, in an age where we tend to re-write our own history to fit our own purposes and agendas, it is an important story to be told.
For anyone looking to learn about the American Revolution, and are searching for a starting point, or for anyone who is looking for a refresher, one that will perhaps add a little more knowledge to their study of the Revolution, I would recommend The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 – 1789. Even knowing many of the stories, names, and events contained in its pages, I found it a great read I had trouble putting down. It is a good read from start to finish.