Fightin' Words: Five Memorable Revolutionary Books

When the Berlin Wall came down and tiny pieces of it (real or purported) immediately went on sale, I took it as emblematic of our era: the mass, crass commercialization of everything.
But I was wrong, at least in thinking that there was anything new about the speed with which revolutions turn into money making. I learned from Simon Schama's Citizens (published that same year, 1989) that no sooner had the Bastille been stormed two centuries earlier than an enterprising Parisian businessman named Pierre-François Palloy began demolishing it and selling the rubble as souvenirs.

In revolutions, I suppose, high ideals and low impulses always merge. For brief moments, the great currents of history and the petty motives of individuals can become indistinguishable. And so, in honor of the Fourth of July, I offer a few good books about revolutions and invite readers to nominate others.

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence, by John Ferling (2007).
With unsparing descriptions of the conditions in the Continental army, Ferling makes it clear that victory over the British came as a surprise to many on both sides. Rather than an army of volunteers, many of the foot soldiers of the Revolution were conscripts or unemployed men hired by more wealthy conscripts to take their place. But even though many of the troops were poor, unemployed and foreign born, Ferling resists the temptation to impugn their patriotism. "Had financial reward been the only enticement, many of these men likely would have joined the king's army, where monthly wages were guaranteed, and where payment was made in a currency that could be expected to retain its value. However pecuniary the motives of the enlistees, a great many no longer saw themselves as Britons, but as Americans."

Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, by James H. Billington (1980).
At a deep and often subconscious level, Billington argues, the faith of many revolutionaries has been shaped by the Christian faith they sought to replace: "The present was hell, and revolution a collective purgatory leading to a future earthly paradise." Billington, who is now the librarian of Congress and has long been a scholar of Russia, traces the intellectual currents that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution back and forth across the Atlantic.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama (1989).
I've already mentioned this delightful social and political history above, so here I'll just add that Schama backs up Billington's point. European ideas inspired the American Revolution, which in turn had an enormous impact in France. Benjamin Franklin, he notes, was mobbed wherever he went in France in 1779 and "was probably better known by sight than the King."

In the Name of the People: Prophets and Conspirators in Prerevolutionary Russia, by Adam Ulam (1977).
The author was Harvard's late, great scholar of socialism. In this book, he introduced me to the wide cast of characters and decades of revolutionary activity that preceded what we have come to think of as Lenin's revolution.

Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, by Woody Holton (2007).
This book focuses on the period immediately after the Revolution, arguing that the Constitutional Convention in 1787 is the real "birth date of the American colossus." In Holton's subtle revisionist account, the framework of our government emerged from the collision between the Founders, who sought to constrain popular democracy in the Constitution, and the ordinary, "unruly" Americans who pushed back and demanded the guarantees in the Bill of Rights.

Got any ones that I missed or thoughts on the ones listed?

-- Alan Cooperman

By Christian Pelusi |  July 3, 2008; 9:55 AM ET Alan Cooperman , Nonfiction
Previous: Five Books to Avoid Reading Outdoors | Next: Truth or Fiction? Five Books That Reinvent History


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916 by Peter De Rosa

This is one of my all time favorite reads, fiction or non-fiction. Though a history, it is written with a novel's pace. It does start out slow to set the historical context, but once the revolt's planning kicks in, it is a mad dash to the heart breaking finish.

I first read this book the summer before I left for college and I reread it every few years. In fact, it might be time to revisit it.

Posted by: Basil | July 3, 2008 2:05 PM

For American Revolutionaries, I was struck by Evan Carton's "Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America."
Abroad, Orwell's "A Homage to Catalonia." I'm sure that's just one of many involving the Spanish Revolution/Civil War; it seemed to generate some great literature (For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc).
And with Orwell, there seemed to be even more revolutionary fervor, of the haves-vs-the-have-nots variety, in The Road to Wigan Pier. The ending of that book is practically a call to arms.

Posted by: mark tarallo | July 3, 2008 9:38 PM

A very readable "Infamous Scribblers" would make this list. It covers "The Rowdy Beginings of American Journalism".
A very easy read of writings in Colonial era when the country was coming of age.
Author Eric Burns creates a very comfortable history of the early vulgarity printed at the time.

Posted by: Jim Chapman | July 8, 2008 8:25 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company