A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution
by Theodore Draper
Times Books, 544 pp., $35.00
This masterful narrative by one of our most acute political analysts can be enjoyed simply as a lucid account and explanation of the quarrel between England and its colonies that eventuated in American independence in 1776. The story has often been told before; but while Draper has few new details to add, he brings to it an instinct for the jugular and a worldly perspective that make the Revolution more intelligible in human terms than it has often appeared to be in other scholarly discussions. Draper’s Revolution, as the title suggests, was first and foremost a struggle for power.
Draper is something of an expert on struggles for power, for he has dealt with several in his previous work: struggles within the left wing of the American labor movement out of which came the American Communist Party, struggles in Cuba through which Castro was able to take over the country, struggles within the staff of the National Security Council that accompanied the Iran and Contra affairs, struggles within the Allied command in the Second World War. In these earlier studies part of the problem was to identify the participants and the (often hidden) issues and ideas dividing them. Here the participants are obvious, and the burden of Draper’s argument is to show that what divided them was not issues or ideas but mainly the desire for power. He tells the story in vivid detail, with many quotations from the participants, to show how each side viewed the other and how each grew toward a strength that threatened the other, until there was no way out but war.
Draper’s insistence that this was primarily a struggle over power implies that others have found something more or less than power involved in the contest, which is indeed the case. Although Draper is too good a scholar to stray into polemics, his book can be read—and I think he intends it to be read—not merely as the gripping story that it is but also as a corrective to an intellectual interpretation of the Revolution that has prevailed among most scholars for the past thirty or forty years.
That interpretation, though with many variants, has emphasized the political and constitutional rights the colonists claimed for themselves as British subjects, rights which they thought a corrupt administration, bent on tyranny, was attempting to deny them and would ultimately deny to their countrymen in Britain as well. The premise of the interpretation has been that the colonists’ objections to Parliamentary taxation were genuine and decisive, that they believed and acted on what they said and based their beliefs on a widely held, though disputed and perhaps outmoded, understanding of the British Constitution. It is admitted that they were not wholly consistent, that they objected at first only to taxation by a Parliament in which they were not represented, and then moved to denying such a Parliament any authority over them at all, before finally declaring total independence of British authority. But …