Book Reviews by Jonathan Carriel
For those who may be interested, Jonathan Carriel’s “author profile” on the Amazon.com website offers Listmania! lists of favorite works of historical mystery fiction, historical fiction, nautical fiction, and contemporary mystery fiction; plus some additional capsule book reviews.
Patrick Henry, by Thomas S. Kidd
Liberty Tavern, by Thomas Fleming
As If an Enemy’s Country, by Richard Arthur
The New American Revolution Handbook, by Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron
Revolutionaries, by Jack Rakove
American Heroes, by Edmund S. Morgan
The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss
Patriot Pirates, by Robert H. Patton
The King’s Three Faces, by Brendan McConville
Bolt of Fate, by Tom Tucker
Patrick Henry, by Thomas S. Kidd
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, June 5, 2012]
Our subject is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, by Thomas S. Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University in Texas who has also published five books on religion in American life. It's in hard cover, 320 pages long, with substantial footnotes and an index, but no illustrations. It was published last year by Basic Books, for $28.00.
I confess I am not a regular reader of biographies, but it is surely a worthwhile practice occasionally to study an individual life whole, rather than as one actor among many in a public drama or one innovator in a historical movement.
But being brought up close and personal to any 18th Century individual can be a tad daunting. If it's a good biography—and I think that this one is—one confronts the pivotal character weirdnesses and all, warts and all. Patrick Henry was a controversial figure all his life, and he remains so as a historical memory. No matter what one's modern political predisposition might be, I guarantee that each and every American reader will find some traits of Patrick Henry inspiring, some traits admirable, some commendable, some foolish, some absurd … some appalling. One has to deal with him as a mature adult, because he's a perfect antidote to hero-worship! Yet by his own lights, he was completely consistent.
Let's recap the basic outline. Patrick Henry was born in 1736, four years after Washington, and died six months before him, in 1799. He lived his entire life in half a dozen residences all over the state of Virginia. His first wife died, he married again, and with the two he fathered seventeen children. Not bad for a man who complained of weak health all his life!
Patrick Henry came from a hardscrabble background and had money problems—think seventeen kids—all his life. He was a not particularly successful planter who educated himself to be a lawyer, and like many prominent contemporaries, he dabbled in land speculations. By the way, he was also supported by—and supporting—sixty to seventy slaves. He was barely out of debt when he expired at the age of sixty-three.
Henry was far more seriously religious than the other Founders. He was an Anglican—later an Episcopalian—with strongly traditionalist leanings. Despite these, he was much affected by the revivalist movement he witnessed in rural Virginia, which the author suggests encouraged his famous oratorical ability. He came to local prominence in 1763, as a lawyer opposing the “Parson's Cause”--opposing state financial support of his own Anglican clergy.
The notoriety thus earned propelled him into the House of Burgesses, which he entered in 1765 amid the Stamp Act crisis. He made his famous oration—which may or may not have included “If this be treason, make the most of it!” only a fortnight after taking his seat.
Patrick Henry often involved himself in public affairs, but never remotely thought of himself as a politician. His many private concerns constantly pulled him away from his public commitments. For the next decade he maintained contact and involvement mostly by correspondence, returning to activity as the imperial crisis again came to a head in 1773. In March 1775, he urged the province to arm itself against the royal government with his most famous oration—which may or may not have included “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (Contemporary reports said his speech was thrilling and moving—but no one actually transcribed it.)
He was so successful, they created a Virginia regiment, and made him the colonel of it. He led one face-down with the royal governor, but then the more conservative folks decided he'd be less troublesome back in the House. After Independence was declared, Patrick Henry became the state's first elected governor, winning three consecutive one-year terms. This kept him plenty busy, you can imagine—especially with an on-going war against the Cherokees and ever-present threats of slave revolt--but he nonetheless found time to participate in the effort to reorganize the state as an entity independent of its royal overseers. He proposed a compromise on the Establishment issue, the “general assessment for religion,” which would somehow apportion state funds among the various Protestant denominations. This seems truly loopy to me—but it was supported by no less than George Washington. However, Jefferson's more rigorous proposal for the separation of church and state won the day.
Henry won another two years as Governor in the 1780s, but had retired to his private practice when the constitutional convention came up. He declined to participate, asserting that he “smelt a rat” from the beginning. Though he had often asked for greater power from his state, as Governor, and often requested more military support for Virginia from Congress, he sensed neo-royalist tyranny in the movement to replace the Articles of Confederation. He, Samuel Adams, and George Mason became the best-known of all the Anti-Federalists.
After that effort was lost, Henry reconciled himself with the thought that the people had spoken, and again retreated to private life. His complaints about the Constitution did spur the adoption of our Bill of Rights, but Henry thought them inadequate restraints on the federal government. He vehemently protested Hamilton's Bank and assumption schemes, but never joined the Republican faction during the contentious 1790s—partly as a result of the intense personal animosity he felt for Madison, and especially for Thomas Jefferson. Henry was enormously popular at this time, and despite his previous objections, the Federalists began urging him to accept ambassadorships and cabinet positions, all of which he refused only on the ground of health and family and finances. He objected to the Adams administration's Alien and Sedition Acts—but then objected even more vehemently to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions Madison and Jefferson had presented.
Today, we might call all this a “flip-flop,” but the author makes a convincing argument that Henry's true and consistent premise was a species of “Christian republicanism” that set virtue as the highest political goal, the essence of liberty, and that the excesses of the French Revolution had deeply terrified him. Jefferson's party was greatly alarmed when Henry won election back into the Virginia legislature in 1799—only to be stopped by death itself.
Perhaps the accomplishment I most admire in the Founding generation--Patrick Henry just as much as Madison and Hamilton--was that they thought structurally about the ideal form of government. Today, we too lazily assume that, since we're a lot richer than they were and we've eliminated chattel slavery, our structure must be all right. Perhaps a reconsideration of the career of Patrick Henry, despite his mercurial weirdnesses and his warts, would indeed be salubrious.
Liberty Tavern, by Thomas Fleming
[This review was originally posted on History News Network, April 4, 2012]
Revolutions do not usually come cheap—and certainly the American Revolution did not. The eight-year war that secured it is conservatively estimated to have claimed some 25,000 American lives—the percentage-wise equivalent, today, of 3.1 million citizens. (There was huge carnage for the British, too, of course, plus substantial casualty counts for allied Europeans and Native Americans.) Yet even as we take in these staggering numbers, the true human cost remains a bloodless shadow. As Stalin gruesomely but aptly put it, one death is a tragedy, a million … is a statistic.
This is a nexus where historical fiction can profoundly enhance our grasp of historical reality—and one of the greatest novels of the Revolution has happily just been reissued, with a new introduction by its prolific author, as an electronic book. Thomas Fleming’s Liberty Tavern sold a million copies when it was originally published in the bicentennial year, 1976. Its themes are, if anything, even more urgent and relevant today.
Fleming’s fictional middle-class New Jersey family seems at first very familiar: the father’s a widower and the hard-working proprietor of a prospering public accommodation that serves as a social focus for miles around; his two much loved but quarrelsome stepchildren are in their late adolescence and chafing to be free of all adult supervision. This story’s no set-up for a television drama, however: it begins uneasily on January 1, 1776—amid universal trepidation about the future.
Liberty Tavern pulls the reader deeply into the reality of a community that will spend years in upheaval, uncertain of the outcome to the last, often at war with itself as much as with a foreign oppressor. The eponymous hostelry’s respected owner, Jonathan Gifford, is a former British soldier, somewhat hobbled by a knee injury, who for the last decade has immersed himself in building his business, his family, and his locality. Experienced in battle, he views with deep apprehension the cocky assertions of many of his neighbors that Britain can be defeated without difficulty by righteous patriots. He withholds his counsel when others maintain with equal glibness that the king’s forces can never be defeated and that surrendering is the only sane course. Virtually everyone around concurs that British policy is unjust and ought to be changed; but the disagreements over whether that would be possible and how the colonists might promote it turn increasingly acrimonious.
The public situation is further complicated for Gifford when his two stepchildren take opposite sides—passionately, neither evincing any toleration for Gifford’s cautious prudence. Headstrong, seventeen-year-old Kate has taken up with the poetry-spouting, loyalist son of Gifford’s best friend, and deems politics an outrageous imposition on her romantic life. The equally headstrong, nineteen-year-old lad Kemble, home to recuperate from pneumonia after two years at Princeton, is frantic to participate in the glory that he is positive will accrue to the American cause. All three struggle too with remorse and guilt and defensiveness over the memory of the recently deceased wife and mother—the sort of completely personal, apolitical concern that insistently obtrudes itself into everyone’s real life despite all hell breaking loose.
Around this cauldron of personal and local difficulty breaks the American Revolutionary War. Only after Congress has declared independence does Gifford make his own declaration—by renaming the tavern. The boy finds it too little, too late; the girl disdains to perceive the enormous risk involved given the British army’s proximity and the tavern’s location on a major military highway. The best friend becomes estranged. As the years pass, Gifford and his children suffer greatly—physically, emotionally, economically—as control of their county passes abruptly not only between the Redcoats and the Congress, but among them, the loyalists, the state’s militia, rogue vigilantes, and outright criminals.
While dozens of homes, barns, fields, and businesses are plundered and burnt by all sides, the tavern’s needfulness to all factions contributes to its clearly precarious survival. The family’s and the community’s endurance is just as tenuous; determination and heroism are stretched taut to see them through.
As always, war brings out some of the best and lots of the worst in human beings—and it brings them out on both sides of the conflict. Many of the novel’s most memorable characters and scenes involve honorable British enemies … and truly despicable “patriots.”
When the ships finally sail out of New York harbor, Kate and Kendall—eight years older, after all, and much wiser than they were on page one—are fully reconciled to their stepfather. But even as relief and hope offer breath to the gasping population …
We’ll say no more. Treat yourself to the enthralling Liberty Tavern, and you won’t be studying the American Revolution, you’ll be living the American Revolution.
As If an Enemy’s Country, by Richard Arthur
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, October 4, 2011]
We’re looking at As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, by Richard Archer. The hard cover is 284 pages long, including over two dozen helpful and well-produced illustrations, voluminous notes, a scholarly list of cited works, and an index. It was published last year by Oxford University Press, for $24.95.
The book is part of a series called “Pivotal Moments in American History,” edited by David Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson, and it surely fits perfectly into that concept. The author draws us into the day-to-day world of Boston in the five years from 1765 through 1770, and shows us how it was the military occupation of the city—from October 1768 through May 1770—that truly was the straw that broke the camel’s back of connection to and identification with the mother country.
Like Americans elsewhere, the citizens of Massachusetts had endured the privations caused by the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townshend Acts; they had protested with petitions, demonstrations, and often nasty acts of intimidation; and they had seen their efforts ignored, dismissed, or disdainfully rejected. All the colonies had suffered heavily as a result of their self-imposed Non-Importation Agreements. Our own city was host to the British Army, and not always happy for it—despite the profits it brought to many—but there had been the rationale that New York City was a convenient staging area for the prosecution of the wars against the French and the Indians.
Only Boston was occupied, with the almost-explicit mandate to control the population, to coerce it into paying Parliament’s profoundly objectionable taxes. Archer does an excellent job of explaining how the daily irritations and indignities of the occupation—sentry challenges, moonlighting troops, catcalls, harassment of women—built up over months, on top of the general disgust over imperial taxation. He also looks at matters through British eyes: those of foolish politicians, venal tax-collectors, timorous commissioners, and uncomprehending common soldiers. He shows how, by the wintry evening of March 5, 1770, both the citizens and the soldiery were seething with fury at each other and spoiling for a fight … which, tragically, did come. There’s a superb blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute chapter on the “massacre” itself that’s worth the price of the book.
If I have a complaint, it’s that I could’ve wished for a little broader historical context. I’ve always wondered why Massachusetts, particularly, was the leader and focus of the Revolution. Was it the simple fact of being the closest to Britain? Was it that those ornery Puritans were at constant loggerheads with the Anglicans? In my reading of recent years, I’ve come to think that, while many factors are involved, the fact that Massachusetts suffered more from the Britain’s constant wars with France—spending proportionally more men and money on the effort—had much to do with it. I think it’s relevant to recall that the Bostonians—and the British—of 1765 would doubtless remember the major anti-impressment riot of 1747, for example; and the fact that Massachusetts came out of all of the wars with the highest proportion of indigent widows, orphans, and cripples.
But Archer makes a persuasive case that stationing two regiments of troops among a city population of fifteen thousand was critical. And as Gary Nash suggests, it’s hardly irrelevant today to consider how the consequence of the military occupation of anybody’s turf can be a “deeply radicalized” population.
I haven’t read many competing histories, but I can vouch that for a detailed exposition of the events of “the Boston Massacre,” Archer’s rendition is excellent. And if one wants to learn what actions really touched off the American Revolution, I’d strongly recommend this work.
The New American Revolution Handbook, by Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, February 1, 2011]
We have something completely different, The New American Revolution Handbook: Facts and Artwork for Readers of all Ages, 1775-1783, by Theodore P. Savas and J. David Dameron. It’s a trade paperback, 160 pages, published by Savas Beattie in 2010, for $14.95.
This “handbook” combines tables, lists, maps, illustrations, and very brief prose descriptions of people, events, battles, and aspects of the Revolution in a form I think is intended to be both referential and entertaining. There are sections on:
· Quotations of the day;
· Curious facts;
· Commanders of the Americans, the British, and the Hessians;
· Lists of regiments of the British, the Loyalists, the French, the Spanish, and the Hessians, with brief summaries of their activities;
· A list of major battles—organized by state location.
· A third of the volume is devoted to prose description of “Select Battles & Campaigns”
· Which is followed by “Battles in Illustrations and Artwork”.
· There are prose summations of the Revolution as experienced by Native Americans, African Americans, women, and prisoners;
· A section on technology;
· A section on flags;
· And finally, lists of books, websites, and places to visit.
· One thing there is not, is an index.
While there are items in this “handbook” that I found unexpected and valuable—a breakdown of the standard officers within a British regiment, for example; some of the thirteen maps; and descriptions of the conflicts on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico—I regret to confess to considerable impatience with the total product.
It appears to be a cut-down version of the same authors’ recent 430-page Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution, but there are some really odd choices made. For example, while the Battle of Long Island merits seven pages, there’s nothing on White Plains or Fort Washington. With the illustrations of battles section, Cowpens and Yorktown are each described twice, but Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse barely get a mention. Since the listing of major battles is by state, the first is the 1783 battle of Arkansas Post, located in the current state of Arkansas; followed by the 1781 battle of New London, in Connecticut; followed by the 1778 siege of Savannah, in Georgia; and so on down the alphabet. If you compare this to Wikipedia, you’ll find it has—for free—a chronological list that’s far more comprehensive, plus more thorough descriptions of all the individual battles.
I wish I could say the tome was at least free of proofreading errors. Nope, there are several. The text puts Bemis Heights on the east bank of the Hudson … but fortunately the map puts it back on the west side. And rather comically, in a sentence purporting to decry the dismal fact that Kosciuszko’s surname is constantly misspelled, the book itself misspells Thaddeus, his given name.
Better luck next time!
Revolutionaries, by Jack Rakove
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, December 7, 2010]
Tonight we consider Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, by Jack Rakove, a professor of history at Stanford University. It was published in hardcover earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for $30.00. Its 487 pages include forty pages of notes, a brief bibliography, and an index. There are no illustrations, but the subject matter really does not require any.
Rakove’s subject is the intellectual evolution of the individuals who comprised the leadership of the revolutionary generation. He assumes the reader’s familiarity with the basic outline of U.S. political and military history of his period, which is concentrated on the nineteen years from 1773 to 1792—and I doubt this would be an obstacle to anyone present tonight, particularly as he deftly adverts to the on-going story without ever growing pedantic.
The book is a series of character studies, particularly fascinating as they carry each man through a long period of time, detailing the evolution of his ideas, emotions, attitudes, and activities. While each study necessarily endures over an extended period of time, and details the businesses, family relationships, and even the infatuations of each individual, the writing is so coherent that the reader feels caught in the sweep of on-going time, and never jostled back and forth from one moment to the next.
There are three parts, divided into ten chapters. The first part comprises the last colonial years and the agonized decision for separation; the second, the war years, during which those who had the leisure to do so urgently pondered the continuing rationale for their battles; and finally, the early national period, when the issue became the definition of the successfully independent polity.
Rakove hastens to assert that the American revolutionaries were a bewilderingly diverse group, and that he discerns only a few common threads among them. He never quite states a theme, unless it’s the following: In the early 1770s, he writes, “the men who soon occupied critical positions in the struggle for independence were preoccupied with private affairs and hopeful that the troubles that had roiled the empire in the 1760s would soon be forgotten. To catch them … at those moments when they individually realized that would not be the case is to understand that the Revolution made them as much as they made the Revolution.”
If you’ll allow me to sketch the chapter outline, I think you’ll better grasp of the author’s intentions.
· The first chapter explains the progress of Samuel Adams and John Adams as they individually passed their “tipping points” on the road to separation, and in their willingness and ability to persuade others to follow.
· The chapter entitled “The Revolt of the Moderates” details the counter arguments proffered by those who concurred with the diagnosis of injustice, but who were most reluctant to apply the treatment of revolution.
· There’s a chapter explaining Washington’s growing awareness that his personal actions, character, and image mattered to the success of the cause in forms deeply invasive of his personal needs and inclinations.
· After the Declaration, Rakove devotes a chapter to the many American leaders who indeed suffered mightily as a result of the blatant hypocrisy of endorsing liberty on the one hand while condoning chattel slavery on the other.
· An overview follows of the early efforts of “The First [state] Constitution Makers”—including George Mason (of Virginia); Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland); and James Duane, John Jay, Robert Livingston, and Gouverneur Morris in New York. A main issue facing these first state constitutions was apparently manhood suffrage for all free white males.
· “The Diplomats” then treats Franklin, Adams & Jay’s separate and combined struggles to balance idealism and realpolitik during the extended peace negotiations in Paris.
· The three concluding chapters form a section called “Legacies,” which includes a description of Jefferson’s philosophical and cultural “optimism”; Madison’s deep concentration on fundamental political principles and realities; and Hamilton’s relentless nationalism.
I’m not sure I quite understand why the author bills his tome “a new history of the invention of America.” Perhaps “a new perspective” on the invention of America might have been more appropriate—and quite an achievement in itself.
Rather than quibble, however, I’d like to give special mention to the two chapters that most engaged me. The second chapter, “The Revolt of the Moderates,” follows John Dickinson (of Delaware), Robert Morris (of Pennsylvania), and New York’s James Duane and John Jay through 1774 and 1775. The insight that Rakove points out, is that the bulk of the moderates were from the middle colonies, and that was for the straightforward reason that the middle colonies had the most to lose. They realized the middle colonies had the greatest populations and concentrations of wealth right where the vengeful mother country could—and undoubtedly would—and in fact did—go after them.
And Chapter 5, titled “Vain Liberators,” concentrates on the agonized evolution of thinking of Henry Laurens of South Carolina, and his irrepressible son Jack Laurens. Henry Laurens had become one of America’s richest by virtue of slave trading, then gave that business up to become a gentleman planter. But of course, as a gentleman planter, he was still dependent on slave labor. He keenly felt the contradiction, and tried in various ways to reduce the brutality of the slave regime, but could not eradicate it, even on his own turf. Meanwhile, his son conceived the wild (and doomed) notion of creating a military cadre of enslaved black men, the survivors of which would be promised emancipation at the end of the struggle. In both, we sense a poignant wish for a better world, and an overwhelmed bewilderment at how to get there.
In sum, Revolutionaries is a valuable addition to the literature that deals thoughtfully with the question, “What were they thinking?”
American Heroes, by Edmund S. Morgan
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, February 2, 2010]
Here we have a collection of essays by Edmund S. Morgan, published last year by W. W. Norton as American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women who Shaped Early America. The volume is 279 pages long and retails for $27.95. Morgan was a history professor at Yale for thirty years, and is the Pulitzer-winning author of some two dozen books on 17th and 18th Century American history.
He attempts, in a foreword, to explain the current title by reference to a modern, not necessarily militarized conception of heroism, but I’m afraid that any thematic unity of the book is quite lost on me. In addition to some expected analyses of individual derring-do, a good many of the essays concentrate on very general subjects such as library freedom, the mindset of the Puritans, the philosophical problems inherent in the concept of political representation, and even historiography. If the publisher had named it Seventeen American History Essays Not Previously Collected in Book Form, I think it might’ve been more descriptive of the contents, however disastrously unsalable a title.
All of this carping is not to suggest that this volume is devoid of interest. The writing is uniformly excellent and there are many valuable insights to be found. Perhaps if I’d picked and chosen among the chapters, as I might normally have done had I not been commissioned to review the whole, I might not have found the whole such frankly hard slogging.
But let’s concentrate for a moment on four pieces that struck me as most worthwhile.
· My favorite effort was “The Contentious Quaker,” a forty-page essay on William Penn. Morgan shows that while Penn’s ideas were demonstrably radical for his time, in his own mind, he was solidly a Protestant, a Gentleman, and a loyal Englishman. What was truly remarkable, Morgan shows, was that, building on his inherited advantages, Penn’s affable and non-judgmental personality enabled him to get away with these claims—which were each matters of real controversy—and that his success in turn heroically permitted the Quaker ideals of toleration and pacifism to gain, literally and figuratively, a beachhead in the British Empire.
· In another chapter, Morgan analyzes the theological background of the Salem witchcraft trials, not neglecting to celebrate Giles Cory and Mary Easty, both of whom paid the ultimate price for refusing to violate their consciences by confessing a crime they’d not committed. But what was particularly fascinating was an incident Morgan uncovered from ninety-five years later. In 1787, during the very months of the constitutional convention, the city of Philadelphia was twice roiled by mob violence against an elderly woman accused of witchcraft; the second incident apparently led to the victim’s demise ten days afterward. What Morgan finds remarkable is that not one of the assembled members of the convention saw fit to comment upon this locally notorious incident in his notes or letters. The implication he draws is that, while witchcraft was long since divested of legal sanctions, it lived on in popular imagination so tenaciously, even in enlightened Philadelphia, that such a horror could happen and not even occasion comment from the admittedly-preoccupied convention members.
· In “The Unyielding Indian,” I was gratified to gain a new perspective from the author. Morgan first reminds us of the great diversity of North American tribes, but then observes one startling commonality. “The history of most other invasions during historic times shows invaders and invaded mingling together, the one absorbing the other, or the two joining to produce a composite civilization. The very Englishmen who became Americans were the product of many different mixtures that had resulted from the successive conquests of England by Anglo-Saxons, Romans, Danes, and Normans. The invasion of America had no such result; the Indian refused to mix. One might have supposed that among the many different tribes, some would have joined the invaders and others not, but this was not the case. The Indians were almost unanimous in preferring their own way of life to that of the new arrivals.… Diverse as these different tribes may have been, they all possessed some quality that made white civilization unattractive to them.” Morgan goes on to find a few other common elements—attitudes toward wealth, honor, dignity, and methods of diffuse, collective self-government—that stood as positive bulwarks against European cultural incursion, no less than understandable objection to the invaders’ vehement insistence on conversion to Christianity.
· Lastly, “Dangerous Books” is a ringing defense of freedom of thought, specifically directed against interference with the openness of libraries. (It was written, incidentally, not in the last decade, but in 1959.) He recounts the creation of the library at an institution familiar to him, Yale College. Yale, we know, was founded in 1702 by Puritans eager to counter the lamentable deterioration of orthodoxy that had by then occurred at Harvard. All apparently went swimmingly until Yale accepted a gift of a mere five hundred books, from English donors, in 1714 … after which, heterodoxy promptly reared its shocking head in New Haven. Morgan offers many other instances, but we’ll skip to his conclusion: “The only way to make a library safe is to lock people out of it.… Libraries will remain the nurseries of heresy and independence of thought. They will, in fact, preserve that freedom which is a far more important part of our life than any ideology or orthodoxy, the freedom that dissolves orthodoxies and inspires solutions to the ever-changing challenges of the future.”
In summary, American Heroes is a disparate bag of essays, all of which are at least entirely literate. If approached as, for example, a collection of erudite magazine articles, most could be read with some profit and enjoyment. Whether one might want to do that would depend, however, on one’s careful scanning of the table of contents.
The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, October 6, 2009]
Our present volume, The Whiskey Rebels, is a novel, 323 pages long in the hardcover edition. It was published last year by Random House for a list price of $26.00. The author, David Liss, has half a dozen adventure stories to his credit, all apparently dealing directly or obliquely with financial misconduct; one is set in the present, one in seventeenth century Amsterdam, and a series of three are set in mid-eighteenth century London.
You might assume The Whiskey Rebels would be focused upon the partisans of the famous Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, but you’d be only partly right. You do learn some of the background of that event, and the legitimate grievances of those who partook in it, but the climax of the novel deals instead with the financial market crash of two years earlier and the political opposition to the first Bank of the United States. The narrative begins in 1781 and concludes in March of 1792 – save for a five-page epilogue set in 1804.
The narrative format also takes a bit of getting-used-to. After the first four or five chapters, you tumble to the fact that there are two first-person narrators, each getting a chapter at a clip. There’s our hero, a down-at-the-heels, unfairly treated Revolutionary War veteran; and our heroine, a self-educated woman from an Albany-area farm forced by circumstances to migrate to remote western Pennsylvania, from which she improbably returns eastward years later to engage in clandestine and successful stock-market manipulation. His narrative seems to be entirely in the present, in Philadelphia in 1791; her narrative methodically recounts the adventurous past decade of her life. Aha, I get it! you think. Surely these two will end up in bed together, notwithstanding that she is happily married, and he is carrying a torch for yet another lady (who is mired in desperately unhappy wedlock). Your romantic expectations are further raised as she recounts her husband’s murder and he recounts his paramour’s physical and spiritual deterioration. But, no. You get half-way through the book before the two narrators even learn of each other’s existence, and their life stories remain mostly separate while their relationship never develops beyond wary respect.
What brings them together at all is mutual detestation for the person and the projects of Alexander Hamilton. He blames Hamilton for his post-war disgrace and poverty; she blames Hamilton for his business with William Duer, the man who sold her husband a bill of goods in western Pennsylvania in return for the Continental Currency that made up his soldier’s pay, and presently for Hamilton’s federal excise tax on whiskey, which ruined the business the couple had managed to build up despite Duer. Hamilton is regarded as an arch-villain by both narrators until the very last chapters, when our hero unexpectedly changes his mind and decides that Hamilton’s Bank of the United States is essential to national survival – which then pits him against our heroine, who remains irreconcilably opposed to it. At the conclusion, after many genuinely exciting incidents and plot-twists, our heroine claims credit for the ruination of the unlovely William Duer, and our hero is grudgingly credited by her for thwarting her design to do in the Bank of the United States as well.
I’m afraid I didn’t find this historical novel completely satisfying either as history or as fiction. It certainly has its moments of interest in both respects — the text moves well, both narrators are engaging and likeable, and the historical background is detailed and intriguing — but the misleading title, the diffuse time-frame, a few improbabilities that truly challenge the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and the jarring two-narrator format sap its overall impact. However, if you’re fascinated, as I am, by the immediate post-Revolutionary history of the United States, it might still be worth your time.
Patriot Pirates, by Robert H. Patton
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, December 2, 2008]
Our agreeable task tonight is to consider Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution, by Robert H. Patton (a grandson of General George S. Patton). It was published in hardcover earlier this year by Pantheon Books of New York, for $26.00. Its 291 pages include 17 illustrations, thirty pages of notes, a bibliography, and an index. It is not as yet out in paperback.
The what’s-not-to-love title sets you up for a slight disappointment, in that the book is a tad less swashbuckling than it sounds. It’s actually a quite serious general summary of the maritime aspects of the American Revolutionary War. Perhaps the main reason we know so much less about the enormous seaborne effort raised against the British than we do of the land-based military history, is that it’s so baffling, so completely different a conflict from that waged in any other war we study, and also from any other U.S. naval conflict. Why was this?
· Even though hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men fought life-and-death engagements at sea during the eight years from 1775 to 1783, only a minuscule percentage of them were United States Navy ships or men. Since all thirteen states had salt-water coasts, some of them had institutions they called their navies, but even collectively, they too were in the minority. The bulk of the American ships were privately financed; the bulk of their staffs were private employees.
· How was that possible? Well, it won’t be a surprise to those of you who, like me, have read whopping shelves of naval fiction by the likes of Forester and O’Brian, but I certainly recall having trouble with the notion at first. That is, it was absolutely a given, in the 18th Century (and probably much earlier and on into the 19th Century), that if ships of two belligerent nations encountered each other on the high seas in wartime, and one coerced the other into submission, notwithstanding that the one might be a man-of-war and the other an unarmed merchant cargo ship, the defeated ship generally became the private property—the “prize”—of the victorious ship’s owners, officers, and sailors. This officially sanctioned piracy—there’s no other word for it—was the upshot whether the victor was itself a government naval vessel or a speculative private venture. The policy at first seems completely appalling … until you reflect that the 20th Century alternative was generally to sink the bugger and be done with it!
· There were rules, of course. You weren’t allowed to murder the defeated crew after they’d surrendered; before they surrendered it was all right, but afterward it was considered very bad form and, even worse, unprofitable, because you might be able to get a ransom for them. (Ransoming hostages was unquestioned and completely legal.) Private ships had to be licensed with letters of marque and such. The captured ships and cargo had to be condemned in properly-constituted admiralty courts. And so forth.
· In addition, American patriots weren’t the only privateers. There were American loyalists operating belligerent private shipping as well, particularly out of (ahem!) occupied New York City. There were also private English citizens and private residents of Canada, the Caribbean Islands, and of the European continent, all in on the same act. Confused yet?
In addition to the goal of harassing and distressing the British oppressors, the patriots desperately needed goods from Europe for the land-based military effort, most particularly gunpowder, munitions, and cash loans. Again, private shipping was recruited to run the blockades and arrange commercial transactions for these items on behalf of the public war effort. In the fall of 1775, the second Continental Congress formed a “Secret Committee” to organize procurement of munitions … by private shippers, who would earn commissions. Given the open door to wholesale corruption that this represented, it’s amazing this necessary policy didn’t bring the Revolution down within months.
Privateering took American patriot shippers to all corners of the North Atlantic world. They became de facto diplomats whether they knew it (or cared) or not. All sorts of diplomatic chaos resulted. For example, what was the neutral Spanish government supposed to do when an American privateer dragged a captured English ship into a Spanish port for revictualling prior to traversing the ocean? Benjamin Franklin painstakingly manipulated European governments impatient with such quandaries and irritated by British overreactions into remaining neutral, becoming overtly sympathetic or, in the case of France, open alliance.
The extent of the privateering was enormous. By 1781, Patton asserts, “there were almost five hundred private warships at sea and less than ten Continental” navy ships. How effective were they? Well, even before the Declaration, hundreds of British ships had been seized and confiscated. The rate declined as the war progressed and trade and tactics adjusted, but it remained substantial through to the cessation of hostilities in 1783. I’ve read that there were some 25,000 American dead in the Revolutionary War; and that some 10,000 Americans died in the prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay, just three miles from our comfortable venue this evening; and that the vast majority of the latter were captured privateers, whom the British regarded as no better than highway brigands. That’d be forty percent of the Americans killed, then—a very big part of the story if the numbers are anywhere close.
Our author attempts to cope by describing the major incidents and controversies chronologically, starting with the Gaspee incident in 1772, and concluding with the liberation of the survivors of the prison ships in 1783. He sketches the often fraught relation to privateering of many individuals of note, including the Brown brothers of Providence, Silas Deane, William Bingham, Robert Morris, Arthur Lee, Caron de Beaumarchais, the double-agent Edward Bancroft, John Paul Jones, and Nathanael Greene. For contrast—and to buckle a few swashes in fact—he includes several amazing tales of forgotten ordinary Americans who went privateering, struck it lucky, got rich, did it again, got unlucky, got captured, imprisoned, escaped, returned home destitute, and went right out and did it all over again. I think Patton does a quite reasonable job of sketching this bewildering history, warts and all. I did wish for a tad more historical context, in that we know that piracy, smuggling, and tax evasion were nothing new to the Americans in 1775, but had been endemic all along, particularly during the four major wars that had preceded the Revolution.
But Patton adds value by attempting to assess the on-going effect privateering had on the independent USA. Privateering effort, he contends, effectively founded several American industries and much of its business mind-set: insurance developed domestically to spread the risks and rewards; legal expertise developed to organize partnerships, corporations, and prize-settlements; international commerce developed as a result of local investment in international shipping as vessels were converted back to peacetime uses. On the other hand, we can also trace our current controversies regarding the military-industrial complex, about the use of private contractors in war, straight back to 1775.
As Patton explains, there was widespread moral ambivalence about it back then. Neither he nor I think there was much of an alternative, then, but it’s interesting that the revolutionaries dove into it with their eyes open—which can’t always be said for their descendants. I’ll close with Patton’s epigraph, a quote from John Adams that’s too delicious not to share. Adams had his own qualms, but he argued in favor of privateering. In the fall of 1775 he put it thus: “”It is prudent not to put virtue to too serious a test. I would use American virtue as sparingly as possible lest we wear it out.”
The King’s Three Faces, by Brendan McConville
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, April 1, 2008]
In our 21st Century, we are blessed with public opinion polls. A statistically significant quota of citizens, we are assured, are regularly being asked, On a scale of one to five, do you approve or disapprove of George’s performance in office? It is hoped that the returns of these canvasses will provide clues to such truly meaningful questions as, What do Americans really think and how do they really feel about their system of government? How does this vary geographically, among social classes, and over time?
Back when, there was no equivalent method to garner even such minimal quantification of the consensus regarding George’s performance that a modern poll provides. (This is George of Hanover we’re talking about, you of course understand!)
The author, Boston University professor Brendan McConville, has given himself an assignment that’d be tough enough even with the data of opinion surveys: to learn how Americans thought and felt about the social system in which they lived in the century preceding the Revolution. The book is The King’s Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. It was handsomely published in 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press; it’s 322 pages long, has over a dozen nice illustrations, and retails for $21.95.
The author avers that he began “with no agenda other than that of simply examining how provincials’ thinking about monarchy changed … between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution,” and I, for one, find his impartial detachment, not to mention his organization and his writing skills, very impressive. However, he came to a revisionist view. “Despite decades of proclaimed hostility to ‘whiggish’ and teleological history,” he contends, “most historians still treat the years between 1688 and 1776 as a long prologue to the revolutionary crisis.” He briefly takes such famed writers as Gordon S. Wood and Bernard Bailyn to task for this. Now I can’t begin to evaluate the historiographical controversy other than to say he has shown me many ways in which the colonials were more monarchist than I’d thought, so let’s concentrate on the evidence, which is at least curious and entertaining.
The book is very roughly divided among three historical periods: the first half-century following the Glorious Revolution; the imperial heyday that culminated in victory over France in 1763; and the dozen years leading to the Declaration. As McConville looks at primary sources, gone is our image of sturdy individualism, skepticism of authority, and easy-going toleration. American colonials had many political theories, but three things they were not, he insists, were republicans, egalitarians, or libertarians. To the contrary, his finding is that political culture in royal America was “decidedly monarchical and imperial, Protestant and virulently anti-Catholic, almost to the moment of American independence.”
Monarchists have always had some theory regarding the placement of exceptional political power into the hands of a single individual, and the chief has always been that of divine right as determined by primogeniture. Sooner or later, of course, this results in an incumbent who simply cannot be endured, and that happened to the English and their colonials twice in half a century, the first time causing extraordinary trauma and bloodletting, the second time for the most part gloriously peaceful. But both instances tossed divine right theory out the window, leaving a gaping philosophical hole. Both the English and the Americans simply swallowed the contradiction, pressed the Reset button, and declared that they believed in primogeniture from now on, and with the exception of non-Protestants.
However, there was a great difference in the assessment of the Glorious Revolution made in Britain itself as opposed to that in America. The British rejoiced in the Glorious Revolution as the constitutional vindication of parliamentary primacy. Americans, McConville contends, saw it as the end of Stuart meddling in their internal affairs, particularly their religious predilections. During the ensuing half-century, Americans enjoyed the benign neglect of Parliament, and only had to deal remotely with the tenuous and hesitant monarchy that Parliament had in fact elected. The paradoxical upshot was that, “eighteenth-century America became more overtly monarchical than England itself.” McConville goes into fascinating detail to show that, despite huge quarrels among themselves, all American political factions loved the monarch and regarded him or her as their champion. From New Hampshire to Georgia, everyone from plantation owners to businessmen to artisans to farmers to slaves to Native Americans believed the monarch was on their side and that if they could only get their petition past his scheming ministers, their cause would flourish.
By the middle of the 18th Century, the Hanoverians were somewhat surer of their position, and glorification of the monarch began in earnest. The King was variously seen as the savior of Protestantism and liberty (which were of course related); the loving, benevolent patriarch; and the cynosure of all goodness. Sun King imagery has actually been found among colonial artifacts—but our Sun King brings warmth and light, you see, not like their Sun King! Unable to cite opinion polls, McConville does enumerate the American importation royal family souvenirs; references to the king in newspapers and sermons—usually on the order of “His Most Sacred Majesty,” I kid you not; official celebrations of royal birthdays and coronation anniversaries; and even the increasing effort of advertisers to claim royal patronage.
He contends, however, that the inflated reputation simply could not be sustained. Following the Seven Years’ War, Parliament clumsily attempted to make Americans help pay for it, and his belief is that the colonists’ subjective understanding of the monarchy was so positive and pervasive, they for a decade demanded “that the imperial father of their imagination restrain a tyrannical Parliament. The king’s failure to do so led to a collapse of royal institutional legitimacy in 1773 and 1774.… In the final spasm of this deluge, violence came to be directed against preachers, particularly though not solely Church of England ministers, who continued to pray for the king. These sacrilegious acts marked the final collapse of civil society as it had existed in the empire.”
McConville’s intriguing and challenging summation is that American democracy has produced “a civic religion whose only reference is itself. American democracy’s power to drown out other voices, even those from its own past, has become as absolute, in its own way as the power of any divine-right prince. It is thus we have come both to understand our past as a prologue to our present and to deny a historically recoverable America profoundly different than we have been willing to acknowledge. That lost past has its own soul and its own messages to us, worth hearing even now.”
Before finishing, I have to applaud the author for an accomplishment not a direct part of his thesis, that is, making real to me, as never before, the intensity of colonial American anti-Catholicism. (I hope I won’t upset anybody’s dinner here!)
Of course I knew that colonial Americans had many lamentable, persistent prejudices, but.… “Every child who learned to read from the New England Primer each morning faced a drawing of the pope with darts on his face on the cover.” Many other graphic instances are cited, but McConville references one popular tradition throughout. I’ve never directly observed Bonfire Night and always assumed it to be a harmless pre-adolescent blow-out on the order of Halloween. Wrong. Throughout the colonial period, November 5th was invariably celebrated in all major towns as “Pope’s Day,” with parades that not only carried hanged effigies of Guy Fawkes, and the devil, but the Holy Father himself, to be torched amid great communal hilarity. It seems the Hanoverians, whose whole raison d’être lay in their Protestantism, were in no great rush to restrain such excesses.
So for over a century, Americans were constantly hammered with assertions that a “vile” religion of evil, autocratic, funny-looking and funny-talking foreigners actively designed to conquer them, and terrorized them through such proxies as their slaves and the Native Americans. In annual publicly-funded parades, the head of that religion was literally demonized.
It does give one pause, and certainly makes one thankful that we have gotten way beyond such things in our enlightened present!
Bolt of Fate, by Tom Tucker
[Originally presented to the American Revolution Round Table–New York, October 2, 2007]
The book we’re looking at is Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax, by Tom Tucker. It’s a handsome volume, 297 pages, with over two dozen black and white illustrations, extensive footnotes, bibliography, and index; published 2003; retails for $25.
The title … might lead you to think we’re pondering an academic version of Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters, but happily this book is a great deal more, a serious contribution to the history of science and its interplay with society.
One might think, since people have undoubtedly always received shocks when shuffling across carpets, that natural philosophers would have sustained a steady curiosity in the phenomenon through the centuries, and made consistent but plodding progress in examining it. Well, apparently not. Beginning around 1743, and peaking over the next ten years, electricity was suddenly a huge European fad that gripped everyone, from serious scientists to high society to middle-class dilettantes to fair-going country bumpkins. It was suddenly realized that static electricity could be generated at will, by creating friction against a spinning glass jar; and with it, you could not only attract confetti up to your hand, you could make bells ring without touching them, or inflame a glass of brandy. Better yet, you could—in the pure interest of science—ask a willing, electrically-charged young man and a willing but neutral young lady, to touch, and enjoy the mildly prurient result of their shared convulsive shock. In 1746, the invention of the Leyden jar, forerunner of the electrical storage battery, made these parlor tricks into a new mass entertainment, fascinating everyone from village taverns to royal palaces.
One who caught the bug was the successful Philadelphia entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin. In March 1747, Franklin wrote a friend that he was “totally engrossed” in the subject. Our author, who has written on the history of invention before, goes to some pains to demonstrate that Franklin made genuine scientific contributions to the subject over the next few years. Among other things, in the process of meticulous experimentation on the properties of electricity, it was Franklin who coined positive, negative, plus, minus, and battery as electrical terminology.
Franklin kept current with scientific progress in Europe, and he knew that he’d done original and valuable work. He reported his efforts in the detailed epistolary style of the day to members of the British Royal Society. But not only did the colonial unknown get no thanks and no recognition for his labors, one of the best-known British scientists, the man to whom his letters were entrusted, William Watson, proceeded to plagiarize him.
This is the point at which Tucker’s revisionist thesis kicks in. A subsequent missive Franklin wrote in 1750 contained what was known as the “sentry box experiment,” in which a long iron rod was to be erected vertically into the sky and bent around into an open-fronted sentry box so that the bottom of the rod, hanging free, would not get wet, and then a person could supposedly conduct electrical experiments with it during a thunderstorm! The author asserts that, though phrased in bland scientific terms, Franklin’s “experiment” was intended, and would have been received, as a sarcastic invitation to his nemesis to go commit suicide. Fortunately, no one ever attempted the sentry-box as Franklin originally wrote it. In May of 1752, however, some French experimenters, having read it in translation and taken it seriously, made some common sense revisions. They set up the rod as directed, but left a Leyden jar in the sentry box rather than a person. When lightning struck the rod, the rod charged the Leyden jar just as static electricity would have, demonstrating that lightning was electricity. Twitting the Royal Society, the Frenchmen gave profuse tribute to the unknown American, and Benjamin Franklin became world-famous overnight.
This put him into a serious fix, however. The question now was, what had happened when he did the experiment? Tucker’s thesis is that Franklin stepped back, punted, and scored a touchdown: he dreamed up the famous electric kite experiment, intimated—but never precisely declared in so many words—that he’d already done it, and claimed it proved conclusively that the spark you get at the doorknob and lightning are one and the same. Franklin’s clincher was an assertion to the Europeans that, by the by, we in Pennsylvania are already using iron rods to protect our buildings … which was a bold-faced fib, but which catapulted Franklin to even greater fame, and was quickly backed up by instructions casually published in his Almanac for 1753.
Franklin went, according to our author, from being a scientist whose hard work had not been credited to a scientist credited for a proof he hadn’t really originated. We might like to believe that Franklin would struggle tenaciously for his due while piously disclaiming the applause for what he wasn’t, but … that wasn’t Franklin. (Nor, of course, was it typical of any of his contemporaries, or of all that many geniuses before or since.)
Tucker devotes a great deal of primary source research to showing us exactly why the image we all share—of heroic Ben mucking about with a kite and a key in a driving rainstorm—is preposterous and simply never happened. I found it both interesting and convincing. His corollary contention—that the fame Franklin achieved as a result of this never-denied myth enabled him to coax the French into an alliance twenty-five years later, and thus “won” the American Revolution—is considerably more arguable … but still engaging and provocative speculation.
If you have any special interest in Franklin or in the science of the Age of Reason, I think you’ll find Tom Tucker’s Bolt of Fate both entertaining and worthwhile.
Notices – Ordering – Author – Contact