Rarely, will I recommend a book with revisionist appeals. Claudio Saunt’s work, West of the Revolution, is such a book. As the title indicates, Saunt explores North American events contemporaneous to, but removed from, the American Revolution. Despite an appeal to modern revisionist belief, it is an enjoyable and informative read of 211 pages.
Beginning with Richard Henderson’s attempt to establish a new American colony, Saunt recounts European/ American colonization efforts west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of modern Mexico. By detailing diplomatic interactions and empirical rivalries, the author successfully links the political causes and effects of events playing out across the continent. British interests in North America extended well beyond the Atlantic seaboard. Russia extended its claims to California. Spain also moved to occupy California.
People outside empirical Europe also affected continental events. Native Americans also navigated the world of politics and land acquisition. Saunt relates events central to the history of several native nations, including the Creek trade with Spanish Cuba, and the Lakota discovery of the Black Hills. Consequences of European exploration, commerce, and colonization are also detailed. Saunt describes Russian domination of the Aleuts and Spanish brutality against the Costanoans. Disease proved devastating not only to natives, but also to Europeans.
European geographic ignorance of western North America, and the misconceptions derived from that lack of knowledge, provides a major theme. Claims over land were made with the assumption that non-existent rivers provided commercial opportunities. Empires miss-judged the geographic advantages of their rivals and rushed into ill-conceived projects in a race to gain control of a territory before rivals had an opportunity to solidify their claims.
In recounting events, in demonstrating the connection between diplomatic efforts and real events, and in relating the agency of Native peoples, West of the Revolution delivers a solid history. Where it suffers is in its obvious, and seemingly intentional, support of a modern revisionist ideals. Several of the book’s dust jacket blurbs indicate the book’s support of revision. Countering a narrative of an American nation born from an enlightened British political/ legal heritage and whose providential expansion tamed a near empty savage continent, the revision forwards the narrative of a continent teeming with people of multiple ethnicity conquered by the expansion of a greedy commercial empire. The revision clouds the importance of the British colonies, the founders, and the Revolution’s formative influence on the later nation in order to create a more inclusive history. Replacing a miss-characterization with a different miss-characterization is not a correction, it is a revision. Despite its revisionist appeal, I recommend West of the Revolution.
Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2014).