Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom - Russell Shorto
Scored for six voices, Revolution Song (W.W. Norton, $28.95) traces the evolution of the idea of freedom in America from the early 1700s to roughly 1830. Many of the nation’s historical landmarks are here: the Stamp Act, the Continental Congress, Valley Forge and the war’s major battles, but Russell Shorto isn’t retelling the story of the American Revolution. Rather, he uses events to show what his six protagonists made of them. George Washington is the most familiar of these figures, but Shorto portrays the complicated man behind the imposing Founding Father, showing us the aspiring officer’s over-developed sense of honor and his reputation among Native Americans as the “Town Destroyer.” Washington found “something charming in the sound” of bullets and was so fashion conscious that he designed the uniforms for the Virginia militia. His British counterpart, who began life as a Sackville then inherited a fortune from a family friend and became Lord George Germain, provides the base-line for “freedom”: it depended on lineage and loyalty to the king. For Abraham Yates, an Albany shoemaker turned lawyer, patriot, and anti-federalist, freedom meant casting off the shackles of class. By the time Yates was involved in writing the New York constitution, he had assimilated Enlightenment thinking and advocated equal rights for all. But “all” meant European men. Shorto’s interwoven narratives highlight how one person’s idea of liberty ignored that of others. The “cause of humanity” American patriots such as Yates proclaimed did not include free black men who’d bought themselves out of slavery, like Venture Smith, or Native Americans such as the Seneca leader Cornplanter, or “wayward” women like Margaret Coughlin, the daughter of a British officer who fell in love with Aaron Burr, was forced to marry an abusive English soldier, ran away, and supported herself with a series of affairs with wealthy men. These three complete Shorto’s dramatis personae, and their long-overdue stories are riveting and heartbreaking.