Russell Shorto‘s Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (Norton, 2017) is a history of many revolutions, kaleidoscopic turns through six individual lives. There...

Russell Shorto‘s Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom (Norton, 2017) is a history of many revolutions, kaleidoscopic turns through six individual lives. There is Cornplanter, a leader of the Seneca Indians; George Germain, who led the British war strategy during the Revolution; Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan, the daughter of a British major; the always worried and wearied George Washington; Venture Smith, an African slave who eventually purchased his freedom in Connecticut; and Abraham Yates, the self-taught rabble rouser from Albany who helped shape the politics of New York, and the country. With each turn in their stories, these six lives continuously remerge and recolor the text, and together make one Revolution.

Shorto keeps the reader on the ground, so that we can see how the term “freedom,” among other concepts of the time, gained its meaning and importance. We feel each individual’s fight for self-determinacy, including its ugly and oppressive aspects, across their life spans.

In our conversation, Shorto and I talk about the insecurities and failures, the feelings of incompleteness, and the attempts at asserting or gussying up one’s self that drive the stories of all these historical subjects. The book slips and slides into ‘great’ events through wonderfully stark portraits of contingency, circumstance, and personality. What Shorto’s approach makes viscerally clear, and what we return to as we talk, is that no one person determined the Revolution more than any other, and no individual view contains all. This matters for the very reason that this Revolution song is no fiction. It is a history with many parts in contrapuntal relation that resolve only to hear a new dissonance and seek another resolution. It is a song we continue to sing.


Michael Amico holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation, The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: The True Story of the Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy of the American Civil War, is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He can be reached at [email protected].

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