Best Book Review of Revolution Song, written by Russell Shorto

Shorto, Russell, Revolution Song – A story of American Freedom, 2018, W.W.Norton & Company (NY/ Londen). ISBN 978 0 393 24554 7

4 stars

Shorto ’s Book about the American Revolution

I didn’t really know too much about the American Revolution (1765-1783), until reading: Revolution Song, the latest book written by American writer-historian Russell Shorto.

  • For a complete list of my books read & favorite books, go to: Goodreads.
The American Revolution through the lives of six people

Shorto ’s Revolution is brought to the reader through the lives of six people. Ordinary people mostly, who’s role little by little unfolds as the revolution gets going, ends in a real war and finally, independence.

Four of them are born in the colonies. Americans, you could say. One in Africa, and another in Britain.

Short introduction to the six main characters

There’s only one person I knew beforehand. George Washington was born in a wealthy Virginia family. A descendant of early colonists. He first fought the French – in the name of the British king – before he became an American “rebel” aka patriot. Mainly, because the British authorities treated him as an inferior being. Even as a soldier, initially fighting on the British side.

Painting of General George Washington, first US President. Painted by Rembrandt Peale (1772). George Washington, one of the main characters in Revolution Song, written by Russell Shorto.
George Washington, painted by Rembrandt Peale (1772).

Besides Washington, we get acquainted with Abraham Yates. Born in humble circumstances, we see how Yates becomes a lawyer & politician. Ending up as one of the first members of the New York State Senate. Fighting a loosing battle against the U.S.A. becoming a Federalist state.

Cornplanter, aka Ki On Twog Ky, also John Abeel II (Father of Dutch descent) is a representative of the Indian tribes. The native people who from the get go were actively divided between the warring parties. Between the French & British. And later on between the British and the American colonists. Although Cornplanter opted to cooperate with the winning side, he soon enough learned that the Indian tribes were the losers in the end.

Cornplanter, painted by Frederick Bartoli (1796).
Cornplanter, painted by Frederick Bartoli (1796).

The last “American” is a young girl, born Margaret Moncrieffe. Daughter of a British officer. After being married off to a man she doesn’t love, she soon escapes her husband. Starting a vagabond life in the US and Europe. Living a rich life, living a poor life. Always on the lookout for happiness, but never really settling and loosing everything in the end.

Two men whose life’s story we read, were born outside the American colonies. The Englishman George Germain, later Lord Sackville represents the hardline British. As their Secretary of War he always looked down upon the colonies, defending British rule until the very end.

Finally, we meet the “African-American” Broteer Furro, aka Venture Smith. Captured by slave-traders in Guinea, West-Africa, he ends up in the Americas. Sold from one slave-holder to another. But finally, capable of buying back his former freedom. Venture was lucky, because – as you know – most, after the independence, remained enslaved. Principally in the southern states, Like Washington’s homestate Virginia.

  • Note: It made me wonder if George Washington is as big a hero for the African-Americans, as for the White US-citizens?
Painting "Washington crossing the Delaware", to attack the British garrison. A decisive victory during the American Revolution. 
Painted by Emanuel Leutze (1851).
“Washington crossing the Delaware”, to attack a British garrison. A decisive victory during the American Revolution. Painted by Emanuel Leutze (1851).
“Freedom” as a keyword

As stated in the subtitle, “Freedom” is the keyword in Shorto ’s Revolution Song. As well as, in most of his earlier work.

First of all, the Freedom of the American colonies. Initially only 13 states. A process you can follow by following the lives of the six people mentioned. A long process, ending in a war that was more symbolic than violent. Fought in the colonies, but also in Europe. Foremost, in the English parliament.

Besides the US independence, the book is about personal freedom. Mostly for the people who seemed to fight a loosing battle. Like the Iroquois Cornplanter, the African slave Venture and of course poor Margaret, who had to fight for her rights as a young woman in the wrong time.

In that sense, it’s a story that takes you by the hand. Jumping through time. From one amazing life to another. Some characters growing in their role and becoming leaders, like Washington. Others, falling down, like Margaret who most probably died in an English prison-cell.

Monument to the unknown soldier, Washington Square, Philadelphia. Statue of George Washington, one of the main characters in Revolution Song, by Russell Shorto.
“Freedom is a light”. Monument of the unknown soldier in Washington Square, Philadelphia. For al those who lost their life in the American Revolution. Statue of George Washington.
A 4 star out of 5

That said, Revolution Song by Shorto is a solid read. A surprising concept, that provides different perspectives on the American Revolution, the Constitution and it’s concept of Freedom. The story is presented as a collage of people. You hop from one life to another, told in a chronological order.

An original way of telling a story. He used ordinary players & testimony before, but never in this way.

The only critique concerns the third & last part of his Revolution Song, in which it seems Shorto all of a sudden is skipping time. Instead of months, we start treading through the years. As if he had a deadline to reach. I would have preferred a 100 or 200 additional pages.

In conclusion, highly recommended for the reader who likes a good, personal story with the young British-American colony as a decor. How it wrested itself free from English rule, but also French interest. And wrote a constitution in which personal freedom was key… At least & initially for the white folks. A freedom they still discuss, but cherish, like in Shorto’s view.

Other books by Russell Shorto I’ve read:

For me, it wasn’t a surprise that “Freedom” was key in Shorto ’s Revolution Song. He used it before.

I already had the honor to read three earlier books written by him. On Descartes, the Dutch history of New York and Amsterdam (the capital of my country of birth, see About Me).

For Shorto “Freedom” is key to a better world. A world of freedom. That is, real freedom. For everyone.

I get the message – maybe more so a Dutch citizen – but at the same, as Shorto, feel sad and concerned about the fact that freedom and tolerance are losing ground. Not only in the US, but also in Europe, including the Netherlands. Worrying times. More reason, to learn from our history and historians.

Stars on Shorto’s earlier works (out of 5)
  • 4.5 stars: The Island at the Centre of the World – The untold story of Dutch Manhattan and the founding of New York, 2004, Doubleday (Londen/NY/…). ISBN 0385 60324X
  • 4 stars: Amsterdam – A history of the world’s most liberal city, 2013, Doubleday (Londen/NY/ …). ISBN 978 0 385 53457 4
  • 4 stars: Descartes´ bones – A skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason, 2009 (oorspr. 2008), Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978 0 307 27566 0

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