Edmund S. Morgan,
The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89
(University of Chicago Press,
1956; re-issue, 1993)

Originally published in 1956 and revised in 1977, this book is probably familiar to a couple of generations of college students. This may well be the most accessible overview of the formative history of America.

As an overview, of course, it does not go into great detail about the myriad of topics debated by historians still today, but it does hit most of the predominant features of the Revolutionary story. Edmund Morgan builds his work around the premise that the Founding Fathers did indeed operate on principle in building a new nation and that the struggle eventually framed itself as a pursuit of equality among all men.

He admits that many of the decisions made by the leaders of the Revolution did equate to economic or property gains for themselves, but he argues that this is not contradictory at all with a commitment to liberty because liberty in the 18th century essentially hinged on land ownership. He also rationalizes the contradiction of slavery's continued existence being incorporated into the Constitution by arguing that the convention delegates acted out of urgent concern for the future of a government in its death throes at the hands of a powerless Congress as set up by the Articles of Confederation -- without such compromise, the important new Constitution could not have been ratified by a sufficient number of states before the young nation collapsed at the feet of the British and Spanish.

Morgan first examines the increasingly rocky relationship between the English Parliament and the colonies -- specifically, the debate over taxation and infringement of liberties that led up to the declaration of independence. He devotes a few pages to the war but does not delve very deeply into military matters. Morgan does an excellent job explaining why the Articles of Confederation failed and how the problems of that system were widely recognized, frankly debated and resolved in the creation of a new national government established upon the bedrock of a new federal Constitution.

Aside from Morgan's excellent treatment of the birth of the American republic, this book also features the texts of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and federal Constitution; a timeline of important events; and a pretty expansive discussion of source materials published before 1977. In sum, this book is ideal for anyone just wanting to learn or review the pivotal events surrounding the creation of the United States without having to sift through scholarly criticisms and debates of important yet secondary aspects of the story.

by Daniel Jolley
29 October 2005

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