The First Salute

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Flying the flag of the Continental Congress, the American brigantine Andrea Doria sailed into the Caribbean port of St. Eustatius on November 16, 1776. As was customary for ships entering foreign ports, it fired a cannon announcing its presence. The return salute ordered by the Dutch island’s governor, Johannes de Graaff, constituted “the first salute” that accorded foreign recognition to American sovereignty. This vignette provides the title to Barbara W. Tuchman’s tenth—and last— historical work and the opening for her selective survey of the decisive diplomatic and military campaigns of the Revolutionary War: from American declarations of independence to the British surrender at Yorktown in 1782.

Like earlier Tuchman histories, two of them Pulitzer Prize winners, The First Salute is a traditional historical narrative consisting of twelve chapters, with an epilogue, a bibliography, reference notes, and a serviceable index. There are sixteen splendidly chosen illustrations, nine of which are striking portraits of the story’s principals (six in color), as well as six extremely useful maps, two of which conveniently are endpaper.

Characteristically, Tuchman opens this work with an incident and personalities that lead her into broader, more complex affairs. St. Eustatius, “the Golden Rock” where her narrative begins, functioned as a vital source of arms and gunpowder for American rebels—to the immense profit...

(The entire section is 530 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A venerable generalization holds that women prefer writing biography to writing history. A variation of the same generalization likewise holds that when writing history, women concentrate upon detailing character and personality rather than concentrating upon the delineation of impersonal “forces” or “movements.” In Barbara Tuchman’s case, there is validity to both generalities. The corpus of her work, The First Salute included, are distinguished by these emphases, by the evocation of her subjects’ physical presence as well as by deft revelations of their characters.

Utilizing splendidly chosen “corroborative detail” (Tuchman’s own phrase) to impel her narrative, Tuchman became one of the most widely read historians—male or female—of her day, reaching an international audience. While she was immensely appreciative of academic research and historiography, she was also fully aware that academic history during her lifetime was overwhelmingly a male preserve, and that few of these men consciously wrote for mass markets or for popular audiences.

Although the author of The First Salute occasionally registered public impatience with women who avoided commitment to careers and coddled themselves with creature comforts, she was equally impatient with aggressive feminist causes. In fact, she rejected association with them. Nevertheless, as a woman who opted to write in the field of male-dominated historiography, she was a major contributor—without higher academic degrees—to the rejuvenation of well-researched and engagingly written historical works. Her career broadly followed precepts advocated by a figure whom she much admired: Mary Ritter Beard, the recognized founder of modern women’s history, a historian in her own right, and a champion of women writing history. While Tuchman’s own work tended to preempt a substantial portion of the popular history market until her death in 1989, her enormous success was certainly calculated to encourage other women historians to emulate her. Neither male nor female historians, however, are likely to duplicate her feat in gaining two Pulitzer Prizes.