The First Salute
When one picks up a book about the American Revolution, one usually expects the action to begin in 1775, with the first encounter of American Minutemen against British forces at Lexington, Massachusetts. Perhaps the narrative will start a bit earlier, in Boston Commons, where an angry crowd confronted British soldiers who killed Crispus Attucks in the ensuing melee; or the first scene may be played out in that city’s harbor, where angry colonists tossed bales of tea into the sea to protest unfair taxation. The opening paragraphs of such a study could well be set in the Virginia statehouse in Williamsburg, where Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech, or in Philadelphia, where anxious delegates from the various Colonies gathered to discuss ways of seeking redress for wrongs visited upon them by the mother country.
All these possibilities are, despite their inherent drama, predictable; yet none of these serves as the opening of Barbara Tuchman’s study of this important event in American and world history. The first chapter takes place far from the cold of Valley Forge or the tense atmosphere of Boston under siege. Instead, the reader is taken to the West Indies, to the tiny island of St. Eustatius, where a Dutch colony was operating a profitable trade in sugar and other commodities. There, on November 16, 1776, four months after the rather foolhardy American colonials had brazenly declared their independence from England, Governor Johannes de Graaff ordered the sentry at the island’s fortification to fire a salute to an American vessel entering the harbor. This gesture, Tuchman tells the reader, was the first official act by a foreign power recognizing the Colonies’ right to exist as a separate nation. The unstated but subtle comparison with the somewhat smaller-caliber explosion on the green at Lexington three and a half years earlier is clear: This was, in terms of international relations, the shot heard round the world.
Readers familiar with Tuchman’s previous works will not be surprised by this unusual lead for her wide-ranging analysis of the impact of America’s revolution on the Western Hemisphere. Earlier books suggest that this author is at her best when probing around the edges of important events or ideas to see how little-discussed people or incidents have had significant impact on creating the world as readers know it today. Her past successes give ample evidence of that method. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978) presents the exciting history of fourteenth century Europe by focusing on the life of a little-known statesman, Enguerrand de Coucy, whose involvement in French and English political and social life makes him a superb mirror for the strengths and foibles of that age—a time remarkably like the twentieth century, Tuchman argues. Similarly, The Guns of August, her 1962 Pulitzer Prize-winning study of World War I, concentrates on causes leading to calamity rather than on events during the years of conflagration. The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984) examines an unusual concept: the tendency, in Tuchman’s view, of states to commit acts contradictory to their own self-interest. To prove her point, she examines four incidents ranging from the Trojan War to the American involvement in Vietnam. Throughout her career as a popular historian, Tuchman’s particular signature has been her angle of vision, an uncanny ability to see important movements in history from a perspective little used by conventional academics in their study of the past.
The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution is much like its precedessors in this respect. It is not simply another study of the forming of the American nation; rather, it is a review of the way the Colonies’ war with England was shaped by, and helped to shape, relationships between England and its European neighbors, especially France and the Netherlands. Tuchman shows how events unfolding in America forced the British to alter both their military strategy and their pattern of international diplomacy in the entire Western Hemisphere. The author’s interests lie not in battles, primarily, but in behind-the-scenes activities that led to confrontation and especially in the personalities of those men who figured prominently in bringing about the military events that other historians examine....
(The entire section is 1798 words.)