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Book Reviews

The Debate on the American Revolution by Gwenda Morgan, Manchester U.P. 2007

ISBN: 978 0 7190 5242 2 (paperback). pp. 316. £15.99.

Reviewed by Simon Hill, History Department, Liverpool John Moores University

Book jacket

The second president of the United States, John Adams, once asked: “Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?” (p. 3). Over two hundred years have passed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and countless authors have written their own interpretations of the revolutionary period. In The Debate on the American Revolution, Gwenda Morgan of the University of Sunderland has attempted to survey all of the major interpretations of this phenomenal event. This is by no means an easy task - but she has nonetheless succeeded in producing a book that will become required reading for undergraduates studying this enormous topic. 

Her work analyses contemporary accounts (both Loyalist and Patriot); Bancroft’s “nationalist” writings; the “imperialist” school of Andrews, Beer and Osgood; the economically-focused Progressives of the early twentieth century (namely Charles Beard); the “neo-Whig” literature of Bailyn, Greene and Edward Morgan, as well as the ‘new social history’. In addition, Gwenda Morgan also highlights the debate over the making of the Federal Constitution, the role of ideology, and the impact of the Revolution upon Native Americans, African Americans and women.

As previously noted, this publication will likely become standard reading for undergraduates taking a course on this subject. It is clearly written with a student audience in mind. Indeed, it constitutes yet another part of the Issues in Historiography series. That is not to say, however, that this book has only a limited audience. Given the wide variety of topics incorporated within its pages, it has a lot to offer those who do not naturally consider themselves historians. But for the latter, in particular, it serves as a useful first point of reference. It offers good evaluations of the historiography and is assisted by a clear contents page, index and referencing. In short, there is something here for everyone and Morgan’s work is quite simply a pleasure to read. 

There are, however, one or two constructive criticisms to be made. Firstly, given that this is a student book, a brief chronological sketch of the period might have been appropriate. Another possible improvement could have been that the author paid more attention to the lucid writings of Forrest McDonald and John Roche on the US Constitution. But as Morgan points out, given the enormity of the topic and the limitations of space, the choice of materials is necessarily selective (p. 4). Still, The Debate on the American Revolution succeeds in what it sets out to do: “to…examine the American side of the story.” (p. 299). Ironically, this is where the publication encounters another problem. These revolutionary upheavals were considerably more than just an “American” affair. The ensuing War of Independence involved not only the British and their colonists, but also several other European states as well. Thus, it was disappointing that this book did not pay further attention to the international dimension of the American Revolution. Gwenda Morgan herself goes part of the way towards conceding that, in a climate that is interested in “Atlantic history”, this could potentially be considered a shortcoming (p. 299).

Because of this particular issue, I felt as though there was still yet more to come after the Conclusion. As Morgan states: “The challenge is to create a new synthesis.” (p. 301). Presumably by this she means a book that incorporates even the literature she has not mentioned in detail. Given the enormity of such a task, we return to John Adams’s original question: “Who shall write the history of the American Revolution?” I would not presume to say, but one thing of which I am certain is that in producing The Debate on the American Revolution Gwenda Morgan has paved the way for such a study to be undertaken.   

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