It’s life or death for America, people tell you. Angry debates about taxes, religion, and race relations inflame the newspapers. Everyone is talking politics: your spouse, your teenage daughter, your boss, your grocer. Neighbors eye you suspiciously, pressing you to buy local. Angry crowds gather, smelling of booze and threatening violence; their leaders wink, confident that the ends justify the means. The stores have sold out of guns.
It’s 1775 in Britain’s American colonies. Whose side are you on?
Read two new books on the Revolution-Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 -and you may be surprised to find that you don’t know whom you’re rooting for. Which is to say, you’ll feel like a typical colonist in the revolutionary era, filled with doubt and suspicious of both sides. In the families that drive Kamensky’s story, and along the far-flung frontiers that Taylor weaves into his sweeping synthesis, empowerment and exhilaration are rivaled by horror and hesitation in the face of an uncertain cause.
From Our December 2016 Issue
Try 2 FREE issues of The Atlantic
The painter John Singleton Copley was “a spiky, anxious man, raised poor in a spiky, anxious place”: colonial Boston, where theater was taboo and dancing controversial. The stuttering son of a widowed and cash-strapped tobacconist, he grew up to paint preeminent American patriots and British royals; his renown, like his sympathies, straddled the New World and the Old. He even met George III after making his way in 1774 to Britain, where he became known as a self-promoting social climber who tried too hard. But Copley’s skill was beyond dispute, at least until the lead from a lifetime of pigments seemed to accelerate his decline. In his prime, he painted water that whipped, dresses that gleamed, and eyes that emoted. With canvas and paint, he captured life and passion.
Kamensky, a Harvard historian, manages a similar feat in her fourth book featuring Boston and its environs, an account that deserves to be called, as she does Copley’s best work, “a sensory tour de force.” As a boy, Copley “fell asleep to the twang of halyards and woke to the shouts of sailors and hawkers, and strumpets trudging home from the taverns to sleep.” As a teenager, he toiled in the long summer daylight on which painters then, as now, depended, and he progressed with astonishing speed. Hands that looked like candle wax in 1753 (when he was 15) became hands of flesh and blood and motion in 1754.
A typical colonist in the revolutionary era was filled with doubt and suspicious of both sides.
Enterprising, methodical, and inclined to perfectionism, Copley at first looks like an early example of the self-made man, forging his own way through hard work and calculated sobriety. In an era when the most-promising colonial painters hurried to study with the masters in Europe’s artistic capitals, Copley lingered in provincial Boston. He painted portraits of men and women who weren’t cultivated enough to appreciate the more august historical and allegorical paintings that turned heads in London and Rome. The great artists Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds implored him to come learn what “Cannot be Communicated by words,” as West put it. But England was expensive and Copley was a homebody, so for years he declined the invitation. Instead, West, Reynolds, and other epistolary acquaintances sent him haphazard and often secondhand advice via transatlantic post. He was so busy launching his career-“I must work like a Beaver,” he later wrote-that he didn’t marry until he was 31, six years older than most Boston men were when they wed.
But if Copley was largely self-taught, he wasn’t self-made. For Kamensky, his story exposes the limits of individual autonomy at a time when most colonists cast their fate with relatives and neighbors. In an era when husbands legally controlled their wives, Copley’s life trajectory was profoundly shaped by his wife-and especially by his in-laws-for better and for worse, till death did them part.
Copley married Susanna “Sukey” Clarke in November 1769, a union of true love and financial logic. Politics didn’t figure in the match. Although Copley had marched with the Sons of Liberty several months earlier, he seemed to care less about Parliament’s new taxes than about whether European critics liked his art. Instinctively cautious and obsessively organized, he couldn’t begin painting until every last rag and pastel stub was tucked away, every color blended perfectly on his palette. Like many of his contemporaries, he craved liberty and order. The smoke-filled roar of revolution held no allure.
But marriages take on lives of their own, Kamensky writes, and the politically agnostic newlyweds soon found their union defined by an imperial crisis they had yearned to avoid. Sukey’s father, one of the richest merchants in Boston, had contracted to sell part of the tea shipment that was about to arrive in late 1773. He didn’t want to return it to England. One mob attacked his warehouse, and another attacked his home. By the time yet another mob dumped the tea into Boston Harbor one month later and cast itself as a virtuous defender of “the People,” Sukey’s father had fled to a British garrison for protection.
What’s a son-in-law-and a tepid Son of Liberty-to do? Copley finally sailed for Europe, partly to perfect his art, and partly because Boston was becoming too dangerous for the cautious and coolheaded, especially when the coolheaded seemed guilty by association. He never returned to America. Instead, he died in England among royalists and loyalists. His ambivalence about the war persisted, but having married the daughter of a tea merchant, Copley-who had struggled to support his mother and half brother since his teens-felt little choice other than to conform with his well-off in-laws.
Or even knottier. On the eve of the Revolution, about 11 percent of male taxpayers in Boston owned slaves; the Copleys had several. Farther south, the numbers only grew, and Taylor-a historian at the University of Virginia-emphasizes that many masters were fighting for the liberty to enslave. In 1772, England’s highest court hazily implied that colonial slaves who arrived in England would become free. The decision didn’t pertain to enslaved people in the colonies, but it suggested that England was the true bastion of liberty, and it rendered imperial power all the more threatening to colonists who were already alarmed about taxation without representation. A parliament that could tax colonists, after all, might also free their slaves. During the war, royal officers-in a move meant more to score a point than to advance an antislavery agenda-did help free thousands of southern slaves who had fled their patriot masters for the British lines. In return, Taylor observes, “patriots rallied popular support by associating the British with slaves, bandits, and Indians.”
The Revolution was just as racially charged in the West, and just as violent. In 1763, financially and territorially overextended after the Seven Years’ War, Britain had tried to curb frontier bloodshed by banning colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, where native people ruled. Colonists protested that Britain was favoring Indians over its own white subjects, and when the Revolution erupted, Taylor writes, frontier turmoil turned “anarchic” while some Americans grew “genocidal.” Colonial and Indian towns alike were burned to ashes, crops destroyed, heads skinned, skulls shattered. Among the Iroquois in what is now upstate New York, George Washington earned the name Hanodagonyes, or “Town Destroyer”; the father of one country had ordered the devastation of another. The 1783 Peace of Paris only brought continued chaos, as Americans began to occupy their newly won western territory and native people confederated in response.