A 1774 cartoon, published in London, shows British figures forcing tea on a female figure representing America.Library of Congress
A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky Norton
American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804 by Alan Taylor Norton

It’s life or death for America, people tell you. Angry debates about taxes, religion, and race relations inflame the newspapers. Everyone is talking politics: your spouse, your teenage daughter, your boss, your grocer. Neighbors eye you suspiciously, pressing you to buy local. Angry crowds gather, smelling of booze and threatening violence; their leaders wink, confident that the ends justify the means. The stores have sold out of guns.

It’s 1775 in Britain’s American colonies. Whose side are you on?

Read two new books on the Revolution—Jane Kamensky’s A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley and Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750–1804—and you may be surprised to find that you don’t know whom you’re rooting for. Which is to say, you’ll feel like a typical colonist in the revolutionary era, filled with doubt and suspicious of both sides. In the families that drive Kamensky’s story, and along the far-flung frontiers that Taylor weaves into his sweeping synthesis, empowerment and exhilaration are rivaled by horror and hesitation in the face of an uncertain cause.

The painter John Singleton Copley was “a spiky, anxious man, raised poor in a spiky, anxious place”: colonial Boston, where theater was taboo and dancing controversial. The stuttering son of a widowed and cash-strapped tobacconist, he grew up to paint preeminent American patriots and British royals; his renown, like his sympathies, straddled the New World and the Old. He even met George III after making his way in 1774 to Britain, where he became known as a self-promoting social climber who tried too hard. But Copley’s skill was beyond dispute, at least until the lead from a lifetime of pigments seemed to accelerate his decline. In his prime, he painted water that whipped, dresses that gleamed, and eyes that emoted. With canvas and paint, he captured life and passion.

Kamensky, a Harvard historian, manages a similar feat in her fourth book featuring Boston and its environs, an account that deserves to be called, as she does Copley’s best work, “a sensory tour de force.” As a boy, Copley “fell asleep to the twang of halyards and woke to the shouts of sailors and hawkers, and strumpets trudging home from the taverns to sleep.” As a teenager, he toiled in the long summer daylight on which painters then, as now, depended, and he progressed with astonishing speed. Hands that looked like candle wax in 1753 (when he was 15) became hands of flesh and blood and motion in 1754.

Enterprising, methodical, and inclined to perfectionism, Copley at first looks like an early example of the self-made man, forging his own way through hard work and calculated sobriety. In an era when the most-promising colonial painters hurried to study with the masters in Europe’s artistic capitals, Copley lingered in provincial Boston. He painted portraits of men and women who weren’t cultivated enough to appreciate the more august historical and allegorical paintings that turned heads in London and Rome. The great artists Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds implored him to come learn what “Cannot be Communicated by words,” as West put it. But England was expensive and Copley was a homebody, so for years he declined the invitation. Instead, West, Reynolds, and other epistolary acquaintances sent him haphazard and often secondhand advice via transatlantic post. He was so busy launching his career—“I must work like a Beaver,” he later wrote—that he didn’t marry until he was 31, six years older than most Boston men were when they wed.

But if Copley was largely self-taught, he wasn’t self-made. For Kamensky, his story exposes the limits of individual autonomy at a time when most colonists cast their fate with relatives and neighbors. In an era when husbands legally controlled their wives, Copley’s life trajectory was profoundly shaped by his wife—and especially by his in-laws—for better and for worse, till death did them part.

Copley married Susanna “Sukey” Clarke in November 1769, a union of true love and financial logic. Politics didn’t figure in the match. Although Copley had marched with the Sons of Liberty several months earlier, he seemed to care less about Parliament’s new taxes than about whether European critics liked his art. Instinctively cautious and obsessively organized, he couldn’t begin painting until every last rag and pastel stub was tucked away, every color blended perfectly on his palette. Like many of his contemporaries, he craved liberty and order. The smoke-filled roar of revolution held no allure.

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But marriages take on lives of their own, Kamensky writes, and the politically agnostic newlyweds soon found their union defined by an imperial crisis they had yearned to avoid. Sukey’s father, one of the richest merchants in Boston, had contracted to sell part of the tea shipment that was about to arrive in late 1773. He didn’t want to return it to England. One mob attacked his warehouse, and another attacked his home. By the time yet another mob dumped the tea into Boston Harbor one month later and cast itself as a virtuous defender of “the People,” Sukey’s father had fled to a British garrison for protection.

What’s a son-in-law—and a tepid Son of Liberty—to do? Copley finally sailed for Europe, partly to perfect his art, and partly because Boston was becoming too dangerous for the cautious and coolheaded, especially when the coolheaded seemed guilty by association. He never returned to America. Instead, he died in England among royalists and loyalists. His ambivalence about the war persisted, but having married the daughter of a tea merchant, Copley—who had struggled to support his mother and half brother since his teens—felt little choice other than to conform with his well-off in-laws.

Note those words: Copley felt little choice. As Kamensky emphasizes, Copley didn’t choose sides so much as the sides, he believed, “chose him.” In the 18th century, notions of individual agency—of bold autonomy and readily pulled bootstraps—were only beginning to take root. (Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, a how-to guide for the upwardly mobile, wasn’t published until the 1790s.) Had Copley married someone else, he might have spent the postwar years painting American revolutionaries, not British princesses.

Far from a born partisan, Copley could have gone either way. Kamensky’s great accomplishment is to leave readers pulled by different audiences, demands, and political allegiances right along with him. You’re likely to share the young colonial painter’s suspense in 1766 as he awaits the verdict of London’s cosmopolites on his first major work, A Boy With a Flying Squirrel, a sweetly sensitive portrait of his half brother that captures the hope and yearning of a youth on the cusp of adulthood. His elation when the rave reviews trickle in is contagious—but how dare a critic call the painting too “liney”? With politics as with paint: By the time Copley is stutteringly addressing the tea-rejecting mob as his father-in-law’s intermediary in 1773, don’t be surprised if you find yourself terrified that Sam Adams and his angry throng may triumph.

Beyond Copley’s remarkable trajectory from clapboard Boston to Georgian London, of course, the Revolution unfolded on a broader geographic canvas. It originated not just among East Coast urbanites who loathed the British Parliament’s new taxes, but also among backcountry colonists who loathed new restrictions on trans-Appalachian settlement. Its ramifications spread deep into North America. Everywhere, as Alan Taylor’s authoritative account shows, the war looked as ethically knotty as it did in Boston.

Or even knottier. On the eve of the Revolution, about 11 percent of male taxpayers in Boston owned slaves; the Copleys had several. Farther south, the numbers only grew, and Taylor—a historian at the University of Virginia—emphasizes that many masters were fighting for the liberty to enslave. In 1772, England’s highest court hazily implied that colonial slaves who arrived in England would become free. The decision didn’t pertain to enslaved people in the colonies, but it suggested that England was the true bastion of liberty, and it rendered imperial power all the more threatening to colonists who were already alarmed about taxation without representation. A parliament that could tax colonists, after all, might also free their slaves. During the war, royal officers—in a move meant more to score a point than to advance an antislavery agenda—did help free thousands of southern slaves who had fled their patriot masters for the British lines. In return, Taylor observes, “patriots rallied popular support by associating the British with slaves, bandits, and Indians.”

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The Revolution was just as racially charged in the West, and just as violent. In 1763, financially and territorially overextended after the Seven Years’ War, Britain had tried to curb frontier bloodshed by banning colonial settlement west of the Appalachians, where native people ruled. Colonists protested that Britain was favoring Indians over its own white subjects, and when the Revolution erupted, Taylor writes, frontier turmoil turned “anarchic” while some Americans grew “genocidal.” Colonial and Indian towns alike were burned to ashes, crops destroyed, heads skinned, skulls shattered. Among the Iroquois in what is now upstate New York, George Washington earned the name Hanodagonyes, or “Town Destroyer”; the father of one country had ordered the devastation of another. The 1783 Peace of Paris only brought continued chaos, as Americans began to occupy their newly won western territory and native people confederated in response.

American Indians weren’t the only neighbors to threaten the young United States. British Canada and Spanish Louisiana courted Americans’ loyalties by variously offering cheaper land, better trade, and, amazingly, lower taxes. Taylor’s attention to conflicted frontier loyalties echoes Kamensky’s northeastern perspective: Early American nationalism was a work in progress, not something the revolutionaries and the Founders dared take for granted.

By the mid-1780s, Americans’ loose confederation of states was dangerously close to unraveling, while the Indian confederation was surging. To many onlookers throughout North America and Europe, the United States seemed destined for defeat, even after the Constitution boosted federal power. The mighty British empire hadn’t been able to control the backcountry, so how was an untested and cash-poor republic supposed to handle the challenge?

The solution was as brutal as the war itself, but it worked. Instead of trying to compel obedience in the West, as the British had attempted with the Proclamation of 1763, the United States government eventually tried to earn westerners’ loyalty by helping them dispossess native people. Integrating decades of scholarship, Taylor concludes his ambitious continental story with Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, which helped transform the tempestuous West from a national curse into a national blessing, a source of revenue and votes and geopolitical power (at least until 1861, when the fate of slavery in the West sparked another, bigger war).

In Taylor’s age of revolutions, dirty hands abound (and not just figuratively: patriots smeared loyalists’ homes and mouths with feces). Neither Taylor nor Kamensky devotes much space to the high-level intellectual history that used to dominate scholarship about the Revolution. While they recognize abstract ideological conflict, they’re focused above all on crosscutting conflicts of interest—between importers and boycotters; speculators and squatters; creditors and debtors; evangelicals and establishmentarians; masters and slaves; Americans and native people; those who wanted stability and the firebrands who were willing to risk family, home, and life itself in an uncertain war against a global superpower. Taylor joins Kamensky in noting that most colonists simply followed friends and family, uneasy with the notion of individual agency. Many tried to stay alive by staying flexible, changing sides “with the circumstances of every day,” as Thomas Paine lamented.

Copley and countless of his contemporaries called the Revolution a “civil war,” agonizingly aware of the divisions and destruction that it sowed. A lot of good would have to result if the ordeal was ever going to be justified. Patriots used precisely such utilitarian logic, arguing that sometimes you have to sacrifice a few to save the many. “We are not allowed to hesitate a moment,” one patriot said in defense of the mob that had destroyed the home of Copley’s father-in-law. “Of two evils chuse the least.” Or avoid choosing altogether; for many colonists, under the press of circumstances, that seemed the safest plan.

Good did arise from evil, Taylor emphasizes, as sometimes happens in the course of human events. In the ostensibly more meritocratic postwar order, common white men could claim more respect and political rights than they had previously enjoyed. If revolutionaries “fell short in producing equality and liberty for all,” Taylor concludes, “they established ideals worth striving for.” The struggle to end slavery and the mission to secure women’s rights directly invoked the soaring language of the Declaration of Independence. But those controversial movements weren’t preordained, and as Taylor notes, pro-slavery forces summoned the revolutionary legacy too.

History, they say, belongs to the victors. Contemporary American thinking about the Revolution tends to celebrate what was gained: political independence, republican government, a stirring rhetoric of equality, and, perhaps in some indirect but visceral way, us. But in resuscitating the ethical ambiguity of the conflict, Taylor and Kamensky invite Americans to identify with the losers as well, and that is itself a triumph.

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