OUR FIRST CIVIL WAR: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution. By H.W. Brands. Doubleday. 496 pages. $32.50.
We are all shaped by history, so origin stories, particularly our own, have for centuries been a point of fascination. DNA testing and online genealogy sites help explain our own origins, and the subject of our nation’s founding ― how and why 13 colonies successfully rebelled against their powerful parent ― remains a topic of never-ending curiosity as the subject of popular books, movies, television programs and video games.
“Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalist in the American Revolution” by historian H.W. Brands is an accessible retelling of our nation’s origins told largely through the lens of familiar historical characters. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin play outsized roles thanks to their endless writings. Benedict Arnold, John Adams, Joseph Gallaway and Franklin’s son William, among a few others, help flesh out the story.
“Our First Civil War” leans on a treasure trove of letters and other primary sources for quotes from the actual participants who were living the events. Weaving their own words together adds a sense of authenticity, and here is where Brands storytelling skills excel.
For example, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, the president of the Congress, urged each member to attach his name saying, “We must be unanimous, there must be no pulling different ways. We must hang together.” Benjamin Franklin replied, with his typical quick wit, “Yes, we must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Several years into the war when Washington began to sense the resolve of his fellow colonials weakening, he wrote, “Nothing short of independence can possibly do. The British could not be trusted; they would attempt again to bend our necks to the yoke of slavery.”
As someone who owned human property, Washington knew Americans would not be whipped the way his own enslaved people were, but he used the overblown metaphor anyway because of its power to incite partisans like fake news stories do today.
Perhaps the worst causality of the war that Benjamin Franklin had to bear was the lost relationship with his son William. As royal governor of New Jersey, William Franklin was captured and imprisoned by the patriots. William remained under arrest for much of the war but eventually he resettled in England.
His famous father, a Continental congressman and United States diplomat, never interceded or provided aid or comfort. In this case, father and son never mended their relationship, and Franklin even removed William from his will citing, “the part he acted against me in the late war, which is of public notoriety, will account for my leaving him no estate.”
Years later, Franklin reflected on how he longed “for the return to peace, on the general principles of humanity.” He didn’t seem to regret the struggle or the sacrifices, but he wished they had not been necessary.
He wrote, “After much occasion to consider the folly and mischiefs of warfare, and the little or no advantage obtained even by those who have conducted it with the most success, I have been apt to think that there has never been or ever will be any such thing as a good war or a bad peace.” Powerful words and lessons that resonate as much today as they did centuries ago.
While Brands’ dependence on personal writings and accounts to push the narrative favors characters like Washington and Franklin, it excludes the voices who left little historical record. The stories of two enslaved men, Boston King and Jeffery Brace, loyalist and patriot respectively, appear marginalized like a postscript. Their stories, and others like them, deserve attention.
Historians focusing on the southern colonies have already proven that the phrase “brother against brother” describes both the American Revolution and the Civil War fought “four score and seven years” later. But here Brands dedicated too many pages to the same story that readers remember from their high school history classes.
Even though “Our First Civil War” is a well-crafted and fast-paced account of our nation’s founding, it suffers from a misleading title. If Brands had focused more attention on the southern colonies, his thesis that the American Revolution was actually our first civil war could have easily been proven. It is regrettable that he didn’t because, in truth, we do judge books by their covers.