Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal was first published in 2016. The author is a professor of early American history at the University of North Carolina. The subject of this work is Spain’s war with Great Britain in the Gulf of Mexico. This conflict was part of the American Revolution. Over the last couple of years, this book has gotten a lot of buzz among those who read and talk a lot about the American Revolution. DuVal has taken what is, on the surface a military history, and turned it into a study of people, culture and long term historical impact. In the end, she draws an unusual combination of conclusions.
A little background on the situation in the Gulf of Mexico during the American Revolution helps one to understand what this book is about. The thirteen rebellious colonies that formed the young United States were not the only European colonies in the region. Over the course of decades, European colonies in the Gulf of Mexico had been traded with some frequency, as a result of war and diplomacy, between Great Britain, France and Spain. At the time of the American War for Independence, Louisiana and Cuba were Spanish colonies. East Florida and West Florida were British colonies that did not join the rebellion against Great Britain.
This book is about the Spanish invasion, launched from Louisiana and Cuba, into British West Florida and its aftermath. Adding to the complexity of the situation was the fact that the British had native American allies that played a major part in the conflict. The book also covers the years after the war. Peace saw the emergence of the new United States as well as a resurgent Spain, which controlled large parts of North America, including Florida and New Orleans. Spain attempted to set up a system of alliances with Native American tribes in an attempt to prevent the United States from further expansion. DuVal argues that this strategy actually worked until instability in Napoleonic Europe weakened the Spanish Empire.
Though the subjects involve military and political events, this book is very much a social history. Duval focuses on individuals. Many residents of the region are put under the microscope. These include natives and immigrants from Great Britain, France and Spain, the first Cajuns who settled around New Orleans, slaves and Native Americans. The region was a hodgepodge of these groups. Individuals and families needed to choose which side to take and how they would participate in the conflict.
The lives of some fascinating people are explored. For instance, Amand Broussard was a settler living in Louisiana. He was an Acadian of French ancestry whose parents had been exiled from Canada and treated harshly by the British in what was known as the Great Expulsion. He and his fellow exiles thirsted for revenge against Great Britain and enthusiastically volunteered for military service with the Spanish to fight against the British. The descendants of Broussard’s people are today called Cajuns.
Another person highlighted was Alexander McGillivray. His father was a slave-holding plantation owner in Georgia. His mother was a Creek woman from a prominent family. McGillivray grew up in both Native American and Colonial American worlds. When the American Revolution broke out, his father chose to stay loyal to Great Britain. McGillivray went on to lead the Creeks in support of Great Britain against the Spanish and later allied himself and his people with Spain against a young United States.
Many other men and women are the subject of the narrative. DuVal points out that records and sources on women are sparse but she tries to paint a picture of some individuals.
The author tends to focus on motivations. She argues that few people in the region were concerned with theoretical concepts of liberty and were generally not debating independence. Instead, relationships and interdependence were valued by many. She writes,
“For most, advantageous interdependence was a more logical goal. Leaders of all kinds of polities struggled to establish a balance in which they might have more control over dependent relationships. Sovereign states involved networks of dependency. Families and individuals measured their freedom according to how much less dependent they were on others than others were on them.”
Lately, I have read several books on Spain’s role in the American Revolution, including Brothers at Armsby Larrie D. Ferreiro. My commentary on that work is here. I have also read Gibraltar, The Greatest Siege in British History by Roy Adkins and Lesly Adkins. My commentary on that work is HERE. These books have filled in a lot of gaps for me. For instance, over the years I have encountered many sources that acknowledged that Great Britain was very generous towards the new United States in ceding large tracts of land east of the Mississippi River after the Revolution. I always wondered why that was the case. In this book, DuVal contends that the British did so to keep the territory from being taken over by the Spanish. The British were more concerned with Spain’s empire than they were with the new United States.
DuVal tries to make several points in this book and takes some surprising twists in her conclusions. She successfully shows the American Revolution and its effects from the point of view of groups that had in the past been neglected. That is, slaves, Native Americans and women. In recent years, many authors who write about the Revolution have begun to highlight these groups, as they have been neglected in the past. In this spirit, this work is a very effective and interesting examination of a whole host of diverse people and groups.
Next, DuVal tries to show that the foundation of the United States was, in the short to medium-term, harmful to women, slaves and native Americans. She points out that the Revolution really meant liberty for white men. However, she does acknowledge that the ideals embodied and codified in the American Revolution eventually contributed to the concepts of equality and freedom for a diverse group of people. Ultimately, however, this book is highly critical of Revolutionary America and the early United States for excluding the majority of people from its concept of liberty.
Whenever issues such as this are touched, we enter the territory of the cultural debates, or what some call culture wars, that are going on today. Up to this point, DuVal takes a course that is characteristic of a certain ideology that is popular in quarters on the left. That is, she highlights groups that in the past were unrepresented, and is negative about the young United States for being dominated by white men. However, DuVal next takes a very unusual turn. The author goes on to contend that women, nonwhites, slaves, Native Americans and other groups were better off under the imperial colonial powers of Great Britain, France, and Spain than they were under Republican America. Championing colonial powers is anathema to the historical criticism that I referred to above. Thus, I was surprised that the author made this argument.
DuVal points out that Republican America bestowed most of its benefits on white men. It went on to virtually destroy numerous native American societies. Furthermore, she argues that while all these societies - the United States, the Colonial Empires and Native Americans - had slaves, that the slavery in the United States was particularly brutal and did not allow slaves to buy or earn their freedom as the other systems did. She also argues that women had more rights under the colonial systems. Furthermore, the author maintains that the empires had developed an interdependent system of commerce and alliances with Native American groups that would not have involved the overrunning of these groups as the United States eventually did.
This is an unusual mix of contentions. Duval initially takes what is a left leaning position and mixes it with what seems to be a take that is pro-colonialism. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the author, it cannot be said that she is afraid to go out of the box and take on controversial positions that do not all fall within a particular ideology. I should also note that Duval’s controversial conclusions only comprise the concluding pages of the book. The majority of the work is more or less straight history. This is not uncommon with a lot of history books.
My take on all of this is as follows: the American Revolution was indeed centered on white men and involved a lot of hypocrisy. It goes without saying that slavery was a source of terrible injustice and misery and represented a terrible hypocrisy at the heart of the American Revolution. Many of the founders, such as Alexander Hamilton, recognized this themselves. The expansion of America was also a cataclysm for Native Americans. It is important that historians like DuVal point these wrongs out and examine these issues. For all this, the American Revolution was a vital advancement in human progress. It laid the groundwork for so much progress and liberty that eventually provided enormous benefits to many groups. DuVal does point this out. In my opinion, while not completely dismissing them, she does not give enough credit to these positive aspects of the Revolution.
I also think Colonialism was morally wrong. However, as much as imperial systems were oppressive, DuVal makes a persuasive point, that the systems that the empires set up in North America, similar to the systems that were set up in India and Africa, did not involve Europeans overrunning the entire continent and this wiping out entire cultures. Thus, Native Americans of North America would likely have fared better under these colonial systems. This is a point that Fred Anderson also made in The Crucible of War.
Finally, DuVal does seem to minimize some of the terrible things that both the empires and the Native American tribes did. She downplays their systems of slavery. She ignores many violent and repressive things that the empires, especially the Spanish Empire, engaged in. This may be the biggest flaw in DuVal’s argument.
Though its subject is fairly narrow, this is a terrific history book. The way that it focuses on individuals as well as social history, while not ignoring the political and military, makes this work a very compelling read. Whether one agrees with Duval or not, she is not afraid to challenge convention. At the very least, she encourages her readers to think. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the American Revolution, as well as seventeenth-century history in general.