Americans’ struggle for freedom and independence affected a wide range of individuals.
Aiming to reveal the reality of life in the Colonies and Britain before and during the Revolution, Shorto (Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, 2013, etc.) focuses on six different people: George Washington; British aristocrat and statesman George Germain, Lord Sackville; Venture Smith, an African-born slave; Abraham Yates, a shoemaker who rose to become mayor of his native Albany, New York; Cornplanter, a Seneca warrior; and Margaret Coghlan, the American-born daughter of a British officer. Except for Washington and Sackville, the protagonists are little known, which affords the author a fresh and often fascinating perspective on 18th-century life. Drawing on memoirs, letters, archival material, and much historical writing, he fashions a brisk chronological narrative that jumps from one individual to another. Smith’s story is especially lively: a tall, strapping young man, he quickly learned “how to leverage his position” even though he was enslaved and managed to buy freedom for himself—and eventually for his wife and children. Settling in Stonington, Connecticut, he amassed considerable property, so much that when his former owner fell into bankruptcy, Smith offered him a mortgage on 100-plus acres of land, and, in the transaction, managed to provide an inheritance for his own son. Yates emerges as a complicated character: working for popular representation, nevertheless he was “convinced that government, any government, was a thing to be mistrusted,” growing ever more powerful, “always at the expense of individuals.” He was opposed to ratifying the Constitution because it gave the federal government “vast powers” and therefore was pleasantly surprised at the creation of the Bill of Rights, which ensured individual freedoms. Coghlan seems the most arbitrary—and unrepresentative—of Shorto’s choices: young, intelligent, and well bred, she was beautiful enough to attract many indulgent lovers in America and abroad, where she ended her life in penury. If Coghlan “felt the pull of freedom,” still Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gloria Steinem hardly seem to be her “ideological descendants.”
An intimate look at life in tumultuous times.