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.
The Oxford History of the United States series (to which magna opera such as McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty belong) marks its latest installment, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford, $35). The volume begins with the funeral of Lincoln—compared to whom the presidents that follow are disappointing in all but their facial hair—and continues through the 1876 election. A Stanford historian of Native Americans and the American West, Richard White deftly dismantles the stock cutouts of lone robber barons that have long populated this “historical flyover country.” With lively prose, ambitious scope, and an all-too keen sense of irony, he gives us a vivid depiction of an age of contradictions. White considers Reconstruction and the Gilded Age to have “gestated together” on sublime post-Civil War ideals, both quickly scaled back “to the unforgiving metrics of recalcitrant reality.” With balanced, tenderly evoked portraits of the “uncommon men and women,” the dizzying spin of technological progress, political corruption, immigration, urbanization, Westward expansion, crusading causes, economic inequality, and high-minded hope, are brought to a pace at which we can make out the foundations of the similarly complex epoch we now inhabit.
A rightfully monumental biography, Ron Chernow‘s Grant (Penguin Press, $40) is a finely crafted portrait of a complex man. Chernow, awarded the Pulitzer for his life of George Washington, details the life of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant by exploring the underbelly of military success. He starts by exposing Grant’s vulnerabilities, which figured in the future commander-in-chief’s memoirs as the modest ambitions of a young soldier at West Point. Suspecting he lacked the skill to succeed as a warrior, Grant was nonetheless determined to lead and command. He studied hard. Became a skilled equestrian, developed strong mapping skills, and eventually proved himself on the battlefield, despite skepticism from journalists and fellow soldiers who were aware of Grant’s struggle with alcoholism. Chernow also illuminates much about Grant’s staunch criticism of slavery, his resignation from the army, his newly formed political awakenings, and infamous financial problems. Later, as the eighteenth president, Grant emerges from the tragedy of Lincoln’s assassination and his own scandals as “America’s most famous man” who, as Mark Twain notes, “saved the country from destruction.” Prepare to be deeply immersed in this account of an immortal American life.