Re-Writing the American Revolution: Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost

Kathleen Duval, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015).

9781400068951When most people think about the American Revolution and its cast of characters, names like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington spring to mind. On the British side, people might think of John André, Benedict Arnold, John Burgoyne, and, sometimes, Lord Dunmore. Though some of these people appear in Kathleen DuVal’s latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, most of DuVal’s narrative centers around people who seldom feature in books or articles on the American Revolution. It is not the American Revolution that most people know. Indeed, “The American Revolution on the Gulf Coast,” DuVal writes, “is a story without minutemen, without founding fathers, without rebels. It reveals a different war with unexpected participants, forgotten outcomes, and surprising winners and losers.”

Wonderfully published by Random House and filled with some thought-provoking illustrations, Independence Lost is structured into three parts. Part I, “The Place and Its People,” focuses on the Gulf and the characters within it. Usefully, DuVal provides brief biographies of each character. Parts II–IV cover the Revolutionary War and its varying consequences on the Gulf Coast. Like some recent, successful books, DuVal uses a small number of people to “stand in for larger peoples but also illustrate that imperial relationships were almost always personal and that the most complete history is a multi-perspectival one.” These people are: Payamataha, Alexander McGillivray, Oliver and Margaret O’Brien Pollock, James and Isabella Bruce, Petit John, and Amand Broussard.

Instead of using one person, or character, per chapter, as others have done, DuVal weaves these individuals’ American Revolution together. She examines their behavior at various times in chapters throughout the book. Writing about (very) different people during the same time period but living in different situations is difficult. People can come in and out of the narrative, making it hard to establish a connection with the reader. But in Independence Lost, DuVal is able to convey her characters’ stories well. With vivid, engaging prose, she brings the reader into their lives, and it makes for enjoyable reading.[1]

DuVal’s eight characters introduce perspectives on the American Revolution that are often put to one side, or ignored. It is a diverse cast of characters indeed. DuVal deploys them as literary devices to show how the Gulf Coast’s American Revolution was not necessarily the same as the East Coast’s or the South’s American Revolution. Indeed, DuVal distinguishes the Gulf from Britain’s other North American colonies. With a different crop of people living there, coupled alongside a less sophisticated culture of mobilization—much of the Gulf’s news was reliant on word of mouth and slow postal networks—a reciprocal relationship system defined how many people behaved.

DuVal names this “advantageous interdependence.” She shows how people in the Gulf Coast were disconnected from people in Boston or New York. People in the Gulf lived outside the intercolonial political culture that was integral to the mobilization of broad-based opposition to Parliamentary measures. Instead, for people in the Gulf, working together “was a more logical goal.” They needed each other. And in the Gulf Coast, where few products were manufactured, most of its inhabitants needed the British Empire, too. When accounting for why East and West Florida did not join other North American colonies at the First or Second Continental Congress, DuVal uses her “advantageous interdependence” model to explain it. “It was the empire that protected them from the military might of other empires and powerful Indians.” “[I]t was the empire,” DuVal continues, “that delivered manufactured goods, created a market…and secured property rights.”

In Parts II–IV, DuVal moves into territory that has not yet been fully appreciated by historians of the American Revolution. In Part II, “What to Do About This War?,” she uses her characters to convey the complexity of wartime affairs on the Gulf Coast. Much of the narrative relates to how Indians—Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks, for example—engaged with and responded to attempted European diplomacy. With engaging prose, DuVal unpacks the complex circumstances that led to some people fighting for one side, while others moved towards another.

But loyalty couldn’t be taken for granted. It couldn’t be abused, and some weren’t very good at attracting it. Indeed, DuVal shows how Britons and Americans didn’t do well in galvanizing support. But from moving away from the traditional America–Britain dichotomy, DuVal’s narrative moves towards the Spanish and, in particular, the wartime statecraft of Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Louisiana from 1777. Gálvez hoped that by defeating or at least weakening the British it would, DuVal writes, “accelerate a renaissance of the Spanish empire.” With large-scale, sustained investment in the Spanish war effort on the Gulf, coupled alongside Gálvez’s diplomatic and military abilities, victories at Baton Rouge, Mobile, and Pensacola redrew the boundaries of the Gulf Coast after 1783.

And thus, in Part IV, DuVal explores “The Paradox of Independence.” For some, as we know, American independence changed the geopolitical borders in a positive way. For others, it was the opposite. Negotiations for the Treaty of Paris included American, British, French, and Spanish representatives. Different proposals for what the treaty entailed were put forward by the Spanish, French, and Americans. (DuVal includes a wonderful illustration of how they differed.) But Indians were not represented, and they were furious about their lands being negotiated away. “They were independent nations,” DuVal writes, “and to them Britain’s surrender did not change anything about their territory or their sovereignty.” They were not under American, British, French, or Spanish jurisdiction.

For Indians in the Gulf, DuVal argues, American independence and European diplomacy did not guarantee their territorial and, by extension, political sovereignty. Instead, they had to depend on each other to secure their own independence. And thus in the years following the Treaty of Paris, many wanted to protect themselves by encouraging a pan-Indian confederation. But uniting “under a single flag” was difficult. It would have been unprecedented. And with a newly independent United States vying for territorial control and, then, expansion, America’s “new kind of empire…pushed Indians out of the way.” The Spanish weren’t equal to American growth, either. DuVal argues that “independence” is a term only applicable to the thirteen colonies. As others were “written out of the story of the American Revolution,” she continues, their attempts at balancing their diplomatic relationships soon faltered. Neither could not stand in the way of America’s westward expansion.

This well-researched book is full of information that historians and students of early America will benefit from. By introducing heretofore underappreciated or overlooked figures and exploring their American Revolution, Independence Lost is an exceptional piece of scholarship.

As I read Independence Lost, completing it in a few sittings, I kept asking myself a familiar, but complicated, question: whose American Revolution was it? There are many potential answers to this question. Some of them were brought up, in April, at a Massachusetts Historical Society conferenceSo Sudden an Alteration’: The Causes, Course, Consequences of the American Revolution.” DuVal’s work wasn’t explicitly referenced then. But now, following the publication of Independence Lost, if someone wants to suggest whose American Revolution it was, DuVal’s scholarship cannot be overlooked.

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[1] See, for instance, Maya Jasanoff, Libertys Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

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5 comments on “Re-Writing the American Revolution: Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost

  1. snwoodwork says:

    As someone who lives on the Gulf Coast, this should be especially interesting. I’ll be picking this book up very soon.

  2. […] Chris Minty reviewed Kathleen DuVal’s latest book, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the Revolution. Today, […]

  3. Dena says:

    This is exciting! I just finished a course called The American Revolution in Context, and there are so few mentions of the South. I’ll be adding this to my to-read list.

  4. […] but also in placing black anti-slavery activists at the centre of its story. Independence Lost (reviewed last summer by our own Chris Minty) likewise reconstitutes a well-trodden topic—this time the […]

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