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Thursday, July 11, 2013

“The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution”, by Barbara W. Tuchman

365 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394553337

Barbara Tuchman subtitles her book The First Salute as A View of the American Revolution, which seems applicable enough. It is the view from the European side, at least at first, for although it seems to revolve around the issue of the American Revolutionary War, the book spends a great deal of time on Eurocentric issues of the centuries building up to the main event; so much so that the Revolution almost seems subsumed by an entirely different, and not unpleasant, topic of Dutch independence from Catholic Spain (if Dutch civil government doesn't seem directly pertinent to the original idea, at least it is made to seem interesting).

Fortunately, the author is actually moving forward with such seeming digressions in her own arcane fashion. The book builds much along the lines of the Revolutionary War itself: a bit of glory to start with, then a slowdown with key triumphs to keep the reader involved, growing increasingly political, and then emerging from all the murk to a glorious, desperate triumph. The final chapter, giving us the battle of Yorktown, seems to leap from the page, and all of the seemingly disparate stokes of earlier chapters show just how each event came into place at precisely the right moment in precisely the right way for great men to launch a nation from. Somehow, Yorktown seems miraculous and inevitable at the same time. If a history book can be said to have a surprising and shattering ending, this book does it. I learned more about British, French, Dutch, and even Russian involvement in the birth of the USA than I even knew existed. Although I brought some basic knowledge to the table, this book painted the arch of the war in a way I never completely understood, and I will never view the early history of my country in the same way. An erudite, entertaining, and educational novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed this work because it presented a needed view of the American Revolution and how the international context supported our victory. It provides lessons in how the preeminent power of an age can be humbled by a coalition of forces, determination, and coincidence. It shows just how fragile the fabric of our revolution's success actually was. This was, however, not up to Ms. Tuchman's usual standard of excellence, but that is still good enough, because the history is good in all but one respect: she depreciates A.T. Mahan while using and espousing his arguments and presentations. By coincidence I had just read Mahan's Influence of sea power on History before reading The First Salute. It was apparent that in her research Ms. Tuchman also had read Mahan. She incorporated his arguments and yet criticized them out of context. A small flaw in, but significant to students of history, especially to those with more than a passing interest in sea power. I would not have noticed this discrepancy had I not just read the other work first. Ms. Tuchman's work is a valuable addition to the body of work on the American Revolution and sea power. It is a must read for both sets of lessons: those of history and objectivity in an author.

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