Revolutionary America: Books for US Independence Day

As our colleagues in the US celebrate Independence Day, we take a look at books on the American Revolution. We also look at titles that examine this historic event from the British perspective.

For those of us in the UK, Independence Day is synonymous with fireworks, flags and the American National Anthem. Despite not celebrating it ourselves, American Independence remains a hugely significant event in our history, albeit one that is characterised by failure. Yale University Press publish a number of books examining this period in history, looking at the conflict from both sides of the Atlantic (take a look at a small selection of these below).

Did you know? Although Independence Day is celebrated on the 4th July,  the legal separation of the ‘Thirteen Colonies’ from Great Britain actually occurred on the 2nd July 1776, when the de facto Congress voted to approve a resolution of independence. It wasn’t until two days later that Congress approved and signed the Declaration of Independence, and it after this occasion that Independence Day is celebrated. Of course, the American Revolutionary War still had another 7 years ahead of it, but the 4th July remained hugely significant as a call to arms against foreign oppression.

Defiance of the Patriots

Defiance of the Patriots

Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America
Benjamin L. Carp

On the evening of December 16, 1773, a group of disguised Bostonians boarded three merchant ships and dumped more than forty-six tons of tea into Boston Harbour. The Boston Tea Party, as it later came to be known, was an audacious and revolutionary act. It set the stage for war and cemented certain values in the American psyche that many still cherish today. But why did the Tea Party happen? Whom did it involve? What did it mean? The answers to these questions are far from straightforward. In this thrilling new book, Benjamin Carp tells the full story of the Tea Party – exploding myths, exploring the unique city life of Boston, and setting this extraordinary event in a global context for the first time. Bringing vividly to life the diverse array of people and places that the Tea Party brought together, from Chinese tea-pickers to English businessmen, Native American tribes, sugar plantation slaves, and Boston’s ladies of leisure, Carp illuminates how a determined group shook the foundations of a mighty empire, and what this has meant for Americans since. As he reveals many little-known historical facts and considers the Tea Party’s uncertain legacy, he presents a compelling and expansive history of an iconic event in America’s tempestuous past. More

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell
Gary B. Nash

Each year, more than two million visitors line up near Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and wait to gaze upon a flawed mass of metal forged more than two and a half centuries ago. Since its original casting in England in 1751, the Liberty Bell has survived a precarious journey on the road to becoming a symbol of the American identity, and in this masterful work, Gary Nash reveals how and why this voiceless bell continues to speak such volumes about our nation. A serious cultural history rooted in detailed research, Nash’s book explores the impetus behind the bell’s creation, as well as its evolutions in meaning through successive generations. With attention to Pennsylvania’s Quaker roots, he analyzes the biblical passage from Leviticus that provided the bell’s inscription and the valiant efforts of Philadelphia’s unheralded brass founders who attempted to recast the bell after it cracked upon delivery from London’s venerable Whitechapel Foundry. Nash fills in much-needed context surrounding the bell’s role in announcing the Declaration of Independence and recounts the lesser-known histories of its seven later trips around the nation, when it served as a reminder of America’s indomitable spirit in times of conflict. Drawing upon fascinating primary source documents, Nash’s book continues a remarkable dialogue about a symbol of American patriotism second only in importance to the Stars and Stripes. More

Encountering Genius

Encountering Genius

Encountering Genius: Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Sculpted Portraits of Benjamin Franklin
Jack Hinton, Melissa S. Meighan, Andrew Lins

Benjamin Franklin caused a sensation when he arrived in Paris in December 1776 seeking support for America’s struggle for independence: nobles vied to entertain him, and artists scrambled to portray him. Although several artists produced sculpted busts of the visiting diplomat, perhaps the best-known image of Franklin was first conceived in 1778 by Jean-Antoine Houdon, who would become the leading portrait sculptor of the period. Encountering Genius investigates the making of Houdon’s 1779 marble bust of Franklin – perhaps the finest version realized – shedding new light on this enduring portrait (now in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Drawing upon dramatic and visually compelling new technical research, this publication’s three essays analyze the materials and processes used in creating Houdon’s sculpture, contextualize the iconic portrait, and compare the four most important versions of Houdon’s sculpture side-by-side. More

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy
Thomas J. Schaeper

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy

A man of as many names as motives, Edward Bancroft is a singular figure in the history of Revolutionary America. Born in Massachusetts in 1745, Bancroft moved to England as a young man in the 1760s and began building a respectable resume as both a scientist and a man of letters. In recognition of his works in natural history, Bancroft was unanimously elected to the Royal Society, and while working to secure French aid for the American Revolution, he became a close associate of such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and John Adams. Though lauded in his time as a staunch American patriot, when the British diplomatic archives were opened in the late nineteenth century, it was revealed that Bancroft led a secret life as a British agent acting against French and American interests. In this book, the first complete biography of Bancroft, historian Thomas Schaeper reveals the full extent of the agent’s deception during the crucial years of the American Revolution. Operating under aliases, working in ciphers, and leaving coded messages in the trees of Paris’ Tuileries Gardens, Bancroft filtered information from unsuspecting figures including Franklin and Deane back to his contacts in Britain, navigating a complicated web of political allegiances. Through Schaeper’s keen analysis of Bancroft’s correspondence and diplomatic records, this biography reveals whether Bancroft should ultimately be considered a traitor to America or a patriot to Britain. More

…and from across the pond…

George III: America's Last King

George III: America's Last King

George III: America’s Last King
Jeremy Black

The sixty-year reign of George III (1760-1820) witnessed and participated in some of the most critical events of modern world history: the ending of the Seven Years’ War with France, the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary Wars, the campaign against Napoleon Buonaparte and battle of Waterloo in 1815, and Union with Ireland in 1801. Despite the pathos of the last years of the mad, blind, and neglected monarch, it is a life full of importance and interest.Jeremy Black’s biography deals comprehensively with the politics, the wars, and the domestic issues, and harnesses the richest range of unpublished sources in Britain, Germany, and the United States. But, using George III’s own prolific correspondence, it also interrogates the man himself, his strong religious faith, and his powerful sense of moral duty to his family and to his nation. Black considers the king’s scientific, cultural, and intellectual interests as no other biographer has done, and explores how he was viewed by his contemporaries. Identifying George as the last British ruler of the Thirteen Colonies, Black reveals his strong personal engagement in the struggle for America and argues that George himself, his intentions and policies, were key to the conflict. More

When London was Capital of America

When London was Capital of America

When London was Capital of America
Julie Flavell

Benjamin Franklin secretly loved London more than Philadelphia: it was simply the most exciting place to be in the British Empire. And in the decade before the outbreak of the American Revolution, thousands of his fellow colonists flocked to the Georgian city in its first big wave of American visitors. At the very point of political rupture, mother country and colonies were socially and culturally closer than ever before. In this first-ever portrait of eighteenth-century London as the capital of America, Julie Flavell recreates the famous city’s heyday as the centre of an empire that encompassed North America and the West Indies. The momentous years before independence saw more colonial Americans than ever on London’s streets: wealthy Southern plantation owners in quest of culture, slaves hoping for a chance of freedom, Yankee businessmen looking for opportunities in the city, even Ben Franklin seeking a second, more distinguished career. The stories of the colonials, no innocents abroad, vividly recreate a time when Americans saw London as their own and remind us of the complex, multiracial – at times even decadent – nature of America’s colonial British heritage. More

These books are available from Yale University Press.

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