Monday, September 05, 2011

Six Authors in Search of the Revolution!

Today is the anniversary of the first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774, and of course a bit of trivia like that brings to mind the towering mountain of American Revolution histories that confronts the curious wanderer - a profusions of such histories that only grows more daunting every publishing season. 2011 saw fourteen such histories lumber down the conveyor belt from major houses, with who knows how many more specialized monographs filling out the weight. Innocent readers - especially those semi-mythical 'common readers' just looking for a good book on the subject - must inevitably feel overwhelmed.

Must inevitably feel overwhelmed, that is, until they turn to Stevereads, the un-overwhelmer! I (needless to say?) have read almost every book ever written on the unprecedented revolution Boston devised, spearheaded, and then graciously shared with the rest of the colonies, and I'm happy to help clarify the field a bit. Doing more than 'a bit' will require several entries, but we can at least make a start with six American Revolution volumes and how they each sniff around that first assembly of the Continental Congress. We'll kick things off chronologically and then jump all the hell around:

The History of the American Revolution by David Ramsay

Ramsay was one of America's first prolific publishing historians, and he was collecting original documents about the Revolution while the guns were still firing. His account was first definitively published in 1789 (as usual in that benighted era, pirated versions cropped up too), and in 1990 Lester Cohen made a very good edition of that original two-volume work, including a warm, affectionate Introduction to Ramsay, his work, and his world that perhaps goes a little too far in the direction of forgiving congeniality. Cohen stresses the humanitarian side of Ramsay (who was, to be fair, an amiable man), noting how outspoken he was against the evils of slavery. But Ramsay was a Southerner to his bones, and his own writings on the subject of slavery don't exactly brim with reformer's zeal:
The peasantry of few countries enjoy as much of the comforts of life, as the slaves, who belong to good masters ... There is frequently more happiness in kitchens than parlours, and life is often more pleasantly enjoyed by the slave, than his master.

Fortunately, in the stately sprawl of his history, there's far more to draw the reader's attention (sometimes too close attention - Ramsay has been several times castigated for plagiarism), including our author's summary of that first congress:
Of the whole number of deputies, which formed the Continental Congress of 1774, one half were lawyers. Gentlemen of that profession had acquired the confidence of the inhabitants by their exertions in the common cause. The previous measures in the respective provinces had been planned and carried into effect, more by lawyers than by any other order of men. Professionally taught the rights of the people, they were among the foremost to decry every attack made on their liberties. Bred in the habits of public speaking, they made a distinguished figure in the meetings of the people, and were particularly able to explain to them the tendency of the late acts of parliament. Exerting their abilities and influence in the cause of their country, they were rewarded with its confidence.

This is pious and well-intentioned, certainly, and we may never know the full extent to which Ramsay was aware of the 'viral' and scandalous jokes circulating at the time about that surfeit of lawyers.

Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick

Bobrick's tangled and intellectual 1997 book on the subject likewise ponders the make-up of those early Congresses, and he finds himself at odds with John Adams himself, who at the time was pessimistic about the caliber of men America could field to handle this great crisis. For his part, Bobrick sees giants (and he generously quotes the wonderful Esther Forbes, whom we've praised here before:
Although outstanding figures may occasionally emerge in response to a historical crisis, those who arose to lead the Revolution surpassed all that might have been hoped for or have since been seen. Surely this is so in the aggregate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Wythe, George Mason, Edmund Randolph, and the Lee family of Virginia; Samuel and John Adams and John Hancock of Massachusetts; Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania; John Jay, James Duane, and Gouverneur Morris of New York; John Rutledge and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina; and more, with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and others beginning to step forth into the light. Generally speaking, they were men of wealth or professional distinction, socially staid, not likely to be rebels, and belonged to an intellectual elite. About a third were lawyers, and most held university degrees. They were "gentlemen" in the old-fashioned sense of the word, which, wrote Esther Forbes, "implied lace ruffles, clean hands, and a knowledge of Latin and Greek."

In most of these accounts, focus among those gentlemen tends to focus on one person more than all the others:

George Washington's War by Robert Leckie

Leckie's fantastic 1992 book is mostly a military history of the Revolution (of which there are quite a few equally excellent volumes), but he frequently takes time out of his tally of battles to paint the broader canvas - and he perforce returns often to that one diminutive central figure:
Yet while conservatives, such as James Duane of New York, Dickinson and Galloway, were attempting to revive the spirit of conciliation with the Crown, Jefferson did not join them. He was drawn, rather, like the Cavaliers of the First Congress, to unite with Yankees such as John Adams. When a petition was received from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety asking Congress to adopt the New England army that had laid siege to British-held Boston, it was Adams who did his utmost - inside and outside Carpenter's Hall - to prevent the nine lower colonies from splitting from the northern four. He arose in Congress to warn of the common danger from the tried-and-true British policy of "Divide and Rule." If New England were to fall, then one by one the others would be enslaved, beginning with New York.

That incendiary voice was a natural-born product of Massachusetts, which had borne the brunt of the king's tyranny longer than any other colony and naturally led the way in undermining and overthrowing that tyranny in every way possible. You wouldn't expect two Southerners to be scrupulously fair about that, and yet:

Rebels and Redcoats by George Scheer and Hugh Rankin

This classic 1957 account of the Revolution is every bit as excellent a read and exhaustive a study today as it was half a century (!) ago, and its authors recount with high drama the unfolding of events after those initial exchanges of gunfire with the British:
Those rebels moved swiftly to gain the advantage in propaganda. The Second Continental Congress would not convene until May 10; the Provinicial Congress of Massachusetts, convening on April 22, decided that news of the hostilities of the nineteenth should be given to the English people as quickly as possible and from the viewpoint of the colonists. Without waiting to consult the general Congress, the Massachusetts body within three days took depositions from scores of participants who avowed that the British troops fired first. These depositions, accompanied by a letter addressed "To the Inhabitants of Great Britain," were directed to Benjamin Franklin, agent for the colony in London, who was requested to "print and disperse" the story.

And in that account, again, a familiar name crops up:

A Leap in the Dark by John Ferling

That name is well known to Ferling, who wrote a masterful biography of John Adams, and in 2003 he came out with this fast-paced, anecdotal history of the entire Revolution - an account that's constantly enlivened by touchstone references back to his favorite Founding Father:
Adams feared that his quest for greatness would be thwarted by his physical limitations. "By my Physical Constitution I am but an ordinary Man," he said, a reference to his unprepossessing physique. He was about five feet seven and overweight. He also was balding, pale, ungainly, and, as one observer noted, "careless of appearances." Other liabilities dogged him as well. His visage was usually grim and stern, his manner gruff and grumbling, and he was often brusquely impatient with those who differed from him.

The 'other' Adams also gets fair mentions by Ferling (although our author has him vapidly diminishing in power and influence quite a bit more rapidly than he in fact did):
Samuel Adams's master stroke at the First Congress had been to discourage intemperate behavior by the Massachusetts delegates. It was John Adams's genius in 1775 to grasp intuitively that it would be counterproductive for the radicals to get too far in front of popular opinion.

In his Introduction to that very good edition of David Ramsay's history, Lester Cohen concludes his comments with a touching tribute:
In preparing Ramsay's History for publication, I had the extraordinary experience of coming full circle. At the beginning of my graduate career in 1966, I was blessed by having Page Smith as my mentor and friend; at the end of my teaching career, there was David Ramsay, whom Page introduced to me, along with his passion for beauty and deceptive simplicity of narrative. I have always identified the two, David Ramsay and Page Smith, no doubt because Page has always exemplified for me the finest spirit of the eighteenth century. If these volumes were mine, rather than Ramsay's, to dedicate, I would dedicate them with admiration and respect to Page Smith.

Anyone who knew Smith would warmly agree with this. From his days as a garrulous Harvard undergraduate to the much-deserved accolades he received as the nation's conscience during the Bicentennial hoopla, Smith was a smart and wonderfully inviting dean of Revolution studies (his own two-volume biography of John Adams might just be the best book ever written on that oft-biographied subject). It seems only fitting that we conclude our brief tour of some good Revolution books with his own:

A New Age Now Begins by Page Smith

He brought this two-volume narrative history out in 1976, and every page of it glows not only with his passion for precise revision but also with his Herodotean dedication to telling stories in the overlay of his researches. His books are unfailingly incredible to read, mainly because he never forgets to let the drama of his events come through, as when he follows the Massachusetts delegation to that first Continental Congress and puts us in their perceptions:
So, some twenty days after they had set out from Boston, the members of the committee arrived in the city where the fate of their province and of America would be decided. There would be, it appeared, about fifty-six delegates, of whom twenty-two were lawyers. The proposals had been made to meet at Carpenters' Hall rather than the State House - in order, the Tories said, to curry favor with the working men of the city, since the hall had recently been built by the subscription of Philadelphia's carpenters who were understandably proud of the handsome structure.

Like so many of these historians, Smith is fascinated by John Adams (and considerably aided by the fact that Adams, like all of his descendants, was a habitual and highly voluminous recorder of the events of his own day), so we get his impressions of virtually everything:
Two days after their arrival, the New England delegates met the famous Pennsylvania "Farmer," John Dickinson, who was hardly the picture of the simple husbandman as he arrived "in his Coach and four beautiful Horse." Dickinson was the antithesis of a bold patriot. "Slender as a Reed - pale as ashes," he looked at first sight as though he could not live a month, and, indeed, he gave a rather tedious recital of "his late ill Health and present Gout." As one hypochondriac viewing another, however, Adams was impressed with a certain tough resiliency, "as if the Spring of Life were strong enough to last many Years."

It would be pretty to conclude things here by noting with pleasure that the Spring of Life in Smith's own works was strong enough to last many years, but no: all his marvellous books are out of print, moldering unvisited in library stacks and used bookstore shelves. If you ever see anything by this author on those shelves, do yourself a favor and consume it - it's all popular history done perfectly.

As noted, popular history has always lavished attention on all aspects of the Revolution - each of these six titles deserves an entry of its own, and all six represent the smallest tip of the iceberg of what's seen print in the last two centuries. Maybe come July 4th we'll go over six more - in the meantime, find these! They all still have mighty powers to please!

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