This encyclopaedia assembled by Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole bears witness to editorial thoroughness: 75 chapters in groups devoted to the context of the American Revolution, themes and events leading up to and resulting from the Declaration of Independence, external effects and internal consequences of the revolution, are rounded off by assessments and analyses of political and intellectual concepts initiated, instilled, or advanced in the achievement of nationhood. Any inquirer not satiated or exhausted by this wealth of information may then proceed to absorb 181 biographies and digest a chronological table.
This cannot mean, of course, that the last word on the subject has now been delivered. Equally inevitable are the demonstrable errors that managed to escape the vigilance of erudite and energetic editors. These are not grounds for questioning the utility of any encyclopaedia. So what may test its value?
A suitable and fundamental problem by which it might be judged concerns the accuracy with which events between 1763 and 1791 can be described as an "American Revolution". That debate is certainly not concluded, as the publication (subsequent to that of this encyclopaedia) by Gordon S. Wood of his prize-winning, highly praised but withal controversial book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, has demonstrated. What light do these pages cast on this question?
The editors, in an all-too-brief introduction, do not provide much help. Their justification for dividing the chronological sections at the Declaration of Independence is that "From that point onwards the revolt becomes a revolution and the course of American events passes definitively into American hands". Why this is preferable to classification of the conflict as a war of independence is not explained. Hopes of a more definite judgement are raised - and dashed - on the next page, where the essays on internal developments are introduced with the promise that "This section, more than any other, provides the materials and the arguments for the debate on the essence of the Revolution and what kind of revolution it was." Unfortunately, what follows is a conclusion no more challenging than the assertion that many Americans who believed they had taken part in revolutionary actions lost that conviction when they observed events in France after 1789. With so little initial guidance and no closing reflections whatsoever, the reader is compelled to seek opinions on the nature and extent of the changes that occurred in these years wherever they are to be found in the topical essays. From these no clear-cut opinion emerges.
This is no criticism of the contributors or editors. The range of subjects and lack of space do not permit the reaching of conclusions in what is essentially a compilation of the current understanding of events. But the effect of this is that the essays provided on aspects of the revolution by recognised authorities yield, in some instances, not the distilled essence of their longer works but rather a diluted version of their original studies.
Any opinion on which sections of an encyclopaedia seem the most satisfactory is sure to be prejudiced by the needs of the reviewer. None the less, disappointment must be expressed at the generally uncritical and restricted nature of the biographical section, from which even Benedict Arnold emerges with only slight adjectival stains on his character. Against this can be set much more informative sections about post-Revolution internal developments and the exposition of concepts significant in the period.
As for omissions, an aspect which the essays completely ignore - in a work composed entirely by historians - is the contributions of their predecessors to an understanding of the Revolution. Historians, not only history, need to be seen in perspective, if the substantial advances of the present generation, so massively on display in this encyclopaedia, are to be accurately assessed, whatever the additional cost in price and weight.
Peter Marshall is emeritus professor of American history and institutions, University of Manchester.
The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of the American Revolution
Editor - Jack P. Greene and J. R. Pole
ISBN - 1 55786 244 3 and 547 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £70.00 and £17.99
Pages - 845