Alan Taylor is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. This interview is based on his new book, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016).
JF: What led you to write American Revolutions?
AT: I have been teaching the field for many years and developed an approach that tried to combine social and political history as well as incorporating the broad reach of the North American continent in the story. I had taken a similar approach in my book American Colonies and wanted to write a sequel that carried the continental story forward through the American Revolution into the early nineteenth century.
JF: What is the argument of American Revolutions?
AT: The book emphasizes the role of western expansion, native resistance, and British attempts to regulate the west in the constitutional crisis that disrupted the empire and led to the revolution. In the West, I also locate the fulfillment of that revolution as Jeffersonian Republicans ultimately facilitated and hastened that expansion. American Revolutions also asserts the multiple dimensions of revolution as experienced by native peoples, the enslaved, Canadians, Spanish Americans, and French imperialists. Competing definitions of the revolution also divided Jeffersonians from Hamiltonians in the politics of the early republic. And our own political divisions persist along fault lines inherited from that still contested revolution.
JF: Why do we need to read American Revolutions?
AT: The American Revolution transformed the continent, unleashing the movement of peoples, diseases, and ideas that would shape not only the United States but Canada and the colonies of Spanish America, which would host their own revolutionary movements during the next generation. In addition, we cannot well understand our political disputes and dilemmas today without grasping the creation of our republican institutions during the late eighteenth century.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AT: I loved to read history books of all sorts as a child and had the encouragement of my parents and teachers. Access to local public libraries was also essential to sustaining my interest. And I benefited from generous undergraduate mentors who taught me the skills and gave me the confidence to pursue graduate study in American history.
JF: What is your next project?
AT: I am researching Thomas Jefferson’s college education in late colonial Virginia and how he and other graduates of the College of William and Mary came to design a radically different sort of university meant to fulfill and consolidate the American Revolution.
JF: Thanks, Alan. Sounds like some good stuff.