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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

Although not an academic historian, Barbara Tuchman, by her own acknowledgment, derived her chief canon of historical writings from one of the founders of modern, academic historiography: Germany’s Leopold von Ranke. According to Ranke, having amassed their research historians were to eschew interpretations and allow the facts to speak for...

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Although not an academic historian, Barbara Tuchman, by her own acknowledgment, derived her chief canon of historical writings from one of the founders of modern, academic historiography: Germany’s Leopold von Ranke. According to Ranke, having amassed their research historians were to eschew interpretations and allow the facts to speak for themselves. If such a goal was unattainable, and all sensible scholars recognized that it was, at least it set a course toward “objectivity.”

Tuchman does deal in facts concerning those aspects of the American Revolution that she has chosen to view. Most of her materials, indeed, had long been familiar to and confirmed by professional historians. Therefore, aside from the intrinsic joy of reading a well-written work, the real value of The First Salute, somewhat contrary to the author’s desire to let her facts explain what happened, is interpretive.

The attraction of Tuchman’s approach lies in her manifest belief that the personalities and actions of individuals, rather than ineluctable forces, are responsible for lending substance to grand strategies, inherited tactics, governmental pronouncements, and blanket policies. Individual wills and characters—often brave and competent, at times and in some circumstances brilliant, but just as often vain, weak, and vacillating—determined events.

Thus George Washington’s tenacity and almost spiritual strength miraculously kept an always tiny rebel force in existence. By contrast, Lord North’s self-proclaimed unfitness for Great Britain’s ministerial leadership ensured incompetence at the core of British responses to American rebellion. Similarly, the private passions (gaming and women) as well as the vanity of England’s “beautiful” Admiral George Rodney, the greatest of her sea captains between Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson, encouraged a lassitude, indecisiveness, and poor judgment that delayed his brilliant naval victories against the French in the Caribbean, ironically, until after the military triumph at Yorktown. Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in America, though a perceptive man in many ways, succumbed to high living, indecision, and inanition at critical junctures in his campaigns against rebel forces—forces with the odds so heavily against them that they might easily have been irrevocably defeated by greater resolve.

Throughout her narrative, Tuchman stresses the salient importance of sea power. To be sure, France’s decision to intervene in behalf of American rebels proved to be of paramount importance. It was by no means a foregone conclusion, however, that its intervention would succeed. The French naval commander, François de Grasse, in company with Jean Rochambeau, the commander of French army forces marching beside Washington, first had to interdict (if only briefly) Great Britain’s control of the Atlantic. That they managed this feat not only served as a tribute to their martial skill but also was attributable to the flawed personalities of the British commanders. Proof of this charge is the failure of the otherwise impressive Admiral Samuel Hood to support his naval colleague, Admiral Thomas Graves, in the prosecution of the Chesapeake campaign. General Charles Cornwallis’ capitulation to the Franco-American forces at Yorktown was the momentous result.

Tuchman’s interpretation of the Revolutionary War in The First Salute is not a deterministic one. The outcome of unfolding events was uncertain at the time. What ultimately settled the outcome were the vagaries of the actors: their personalities and characters. About these, she is far from sanguine. Indeed, in her epilogue, reviewing the decline of the “proud design” envisioned by a few patriot leaders in the eighteenth century as she assays its sorry state by the closing years of the twentieth century, she sees her human subjects waffling “between truth and endless error” in the permanent mold of the human species.

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