Yesterday, Chris Minty reviewed Kathleen DuVal’s latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the Revolution. Today, we continue with an interview with DuVal, who is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Junto: Your work has focused on Atlantic perspectives, including that of marginalized voices. What sort of questions inspired Independence Lost? And, what particularly drew you to the Gulf Coast?
DuVal: In teaching the U.S. survey, I had noticed that I taught the colonial period as a broad and diverse history of many peoples and regions, but when I got to the American Revolution, I narrowed the focus to the thirteen colonies in exactly the way I had been telling the students we wouldn’t do. In the course of research for my first book, I had come across the Revolutionary War battles between the British and the Spanish at Pensacola and Mobile, and I thought that telling the stories of the people who experienced that part of the war as well as what happened to them in the war’s aftermath would broaden our understanding of the Revolution in similar ways to the broadening that colonial-era historiography has undergone in recent decades. I wanted to know what various people—European, Native, and African—on this edge of the Revolution thought about the war and what they envisioned for the continent’s future.
Junto: You have some fascinating analysis into the role of European-Native American diplomacy during the American Revolution. At some points, you note parallels between what went on during the Seven Years War, and what happened during the American Revolution. What do you think most shaped Native American views of independence?
DuVal: The idea of independence was already engrained within Native American views of themselves and their polities. The eighteenth-century Chickasaws, for example, didn’t question whether they were a independent nation. What did change in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries was that many of them began to use a European vocabulary of nationhood when they explained themselves to Europeans in defense of their independence.
Junto: You bring in a lot of different voices – Native American, women, slaves, and various groups of Europeans. When writing Independence Lost, what did you find to be the most challenging about bringing in all those different perspectives?
DuVal: The shortage of primary evidence from some of the people was not surprising but was challenging. I was particularly frustrated at my inability to find any evidence about any of the Choctaw or Creek women and children who were in Pensacola at the time of the siege. I know they were there, but I couldn’t find anything about them as individuals. But other primary sources were a wonderful surprise, such as the letters I found from Margaret Pollock to the Spanish governor, at a time when women were not supposed to write such letters—indeed, the governor told her to stop writing him, which, fortunately for us, she did not do.
Junto: This past July, you participated in a panel at SHEAR exploring how a republic becomes an empire. Did this working on this book change the way you think of that process?
DuVal: Yes, absolutely. I already believed that the westward-expanding United States acted in many ways like an empire. What shocked me was the huge number of proposals in the Spanish archives from Americans proposing either to become Spanish subjects or to form new independent states allied with Spain, all of which caused me to see that U.S. national westward expansion was by no means guaranteed (or even likely until at least the 1790s).
Junto: What do you think the most important lesson studying the Gulf Coast can teach us about the American Revolution?
DuVal: Studying this region helps us get beyond the old question of whether people revolted because of ideological or pragmatic reasons. In fact, most people—and definitely most women—didn’t choose war at all. It came to them, and they had to make their way in it the best they could.
Junto: One of your final paragraphs asks the question about whether independence was “gained or lost?” What did American independence mean for some of the groups that lived on the “edge of independence?” In other words, whose independence was it?
DuVal: For many people, empires provided more benefits and more security than the United States would. I think it is important for us to disentangle the concept of the country’s political independence from the multiple and overlapping ways in which people in North America exercised individual and national independence within a network of interdependencies.
Junto: What are you working on now?
DuVal: I am working on what I think will be a joint biography of the Spanish General Bernardo de Gálvez, who led the Spanish forces in New Mexico and in Gulf Coast and Caribbean battles of the Revolution, and his wife, Marie Felice de St. Maxent, who was an important figure in French New Orleans. I think their story will illuminate themes of empire and revolution in the second half of the eighteenth century.