Early history of the Revolution by an ornery minister, in lovely period bindings

William Gordon, THE HISTORY OF THE RISE, PROGRESS, AND ESTABLISHMENT, OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: INCLUDING AN ACCOUNT OF THE LATE WAR; AND OF THE THIRTEEN COLONIES, FROM THEIR ORIGIN TO THAT PERIOD. London: Printed for the Author; and sold by Charles Dilly, in the Poultry; and James Buckland in Pater-Noster-Row, 1788.
1st ed. 4 vols., 8vo. [12], 504, map; [8], 584, 4 maps; [8], 499, 2 maps; [8], 445, [34 index], 2 maps. Full tree calf, boards and spines stamped in gilt, spines with red and black morocco lettering pieces. Without the list of subscribers usually found in volume 1. “Frederic van Heller 1839” inscribed in ink on ffep of each volume. Very minor scattered foxing, some misfolding and offset to maps, and minor insect damage and a few repairs to boards.
$10,000

A lovely set of one of the earliest comprehensive histories of the American Revolution, much enhanced by an interesting suite of maps. 

According to the Preface, author William Gordon resolved in early 1776 to compile a history of the conflict and to that end “gathered from every source of intelligence in his power”, “whether oral, written, or printed” (I:[6,7]). He avidly consumed the contemporary press and other printed sources—both American and British, was granted access to the government records of both the Continental Congress and Massachusetts, and communicated with Generals Washington, Gates, Greene and others, even being allowed “a liberal examination of their papers, both of a public and more private nature.”

The result is a mammoth work of just over 2000 pages, presented as a series of letters from Gordon to an unnamed friend:

“The form of letters, instead of chapters, is not altogether imaginary, as the author, from his arrival in America in 1770, maintained a correspondence with gentlemen in London, Rotterdam and Paris, answering in general to the prefixed dates.” (I:[3])

The first volume features potted histories of each colony, the French and Indian War, and the controversies leading up to the Revolution, more or less concluding with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The succeeding volumes follow the Revolution chronologically, with some attention to related events elsewhere in England, Europe and the Caribbean. Though Gordon was deeply sympathetic to the American cause, the work strikes me as surprisingly evenhanded: To give but one example, his account of the “Boston Massacre” lays blame if anywhere on the Boston mob rather than on Captain Preston or his men.

Gordon illustrates the History with no fewer than nine folding maps, of the United States, Boston and environs, New York City and surroundings, New Jersey, northern New England, the Carolinas and part of Georgia, Charleston (depicting both the 1776 Battle of Sullivan’s Island and the 1780 siege of the city), Tidewater Virginia, and the Battle of Yorktown. All are based on other sources: The Charleston plan, for example, is based on one in David Ramsay’s History of the Revolution of South Carolina (1782), while the Yorktown plan is a reduced copy of Sebastian Bauman’s famous plan of 1782. Taken together, though, they provide valuable geographic context for the events described by Gordon… far better, in fact, than the maps found in many modern histories of the war.

William Gordon (1727/8-1807)
Gordon was a native of Hertfordshire, studied for the (dissenting) ministry in London, and between 1752 and 1770 held a series of ministerial positions in his home country. One biographer describes him as a man of “ready wit and active mind, strong in his opinions”, but one viewed by others as “forth-putting”, “officious”, “arrogant” and “rude”. In 1770, perhaps having burned bridges at home but also impelled by “a growing sympathy for the American cause”, Gordon emigrated to Massachusetts. By 1771 or 1772 he was pastor of the Third Congregational Church in Roxbury, a position he held until his return to England in 1786. Whatever his defects of personality, he was held in sufficient esteem to receive honorary degrees from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), Harvard and Yale. At some point he was appointed chaplain to both houses of the Massachusetts legislature, though he was eventually “removed… for including pointed personal remarks in his prayers.” (Pilcher, pp. 449, 450)

Gordon had a gift for making enemies, among other things accusing John Hancock of misusing funds in his position as Treasurer of Harvard College, and charging Alexander Hamilton with seeking to overthrow the Continental Congress and establish General Washington as head of a new government (Pilcher, 452). This leads me to wonder at the extraordinary degree of access he claims to have been given while writing the History: Perhaps he was lying about this. Or maybe he was not as obnoxious as Pilcher indicates; or this outweighed by other, stellar qualities of intellect or character.

In any event, Gordon’s penchant for conflict caught up with him: In 1786, after losing his position at the Roxbury church and being attacked in the press, he pulled up stakes and returned to England. Two years later, after revising his manuscript—originally judged by many in England to be “too favorable to the American cause” (Pilcher, 453)—he published the History in 1788.

From 1789 to 1802 Gordon held a pastorate in Huntingdonshire. After resigning that position he returned to Ipswich—where he’d begun his ministry in 1852—and declined into senility and poverty, supported by his friends. He died there in 1807. After his death the reputation of his History seems to have gone up and down, but Sabin praised him as “one of the most impartial and reliable of the numerous historians of the American Revolution”, while Pilcher asserts that he “strikes a modern and sophisticated note while still preserving the timeliness of the 1780s.” (Pilcher, p. 464)

In all, a lovely set of a fine history of the American Revolution, by a complicated man.

References
Howes, G256. Sabin, 28011. Biographical information on Gordon largely from George William Pilcher “William Gordon and the History of the American Revolution”, The Historian, vol. 34 no. 3 (May 1972), pp. 447-464. For Gordon’s life after publishing the History, see Alexander Gordon and Troy O. Bickham, “Gordon, William (1727/8-1807)”, on line at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.