Posts Tagged ‘American Revolution’

Book Review: First Family by Joseph Ellis

Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Title:  First Family
Narrator: Kimberly Farr
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2010), Edition: Unabridged
Previously Read by Same Author: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
Summary/Review:

Historian Joseph Ellis explores the relationship of Abigail and John Adams, and how it was effected by the Revolutionary Era, not to mention the effect they had on fomenting revolution.  The main source for this history is their voluminous correspondence which shows that they saw one another as intellectual equals discussing the issues of the day, but also demonstrated a romantic attachment.  While Abigail is the more grounded of the two balancing John’s fiery personality, there are instances where Abigail seems more extreme, such as her support of going to war with France during John’s presidency or her approval of the Alien & Sedition Acts.  Since the book relies so heavily on correspondence, there is more material for the times that they were apart than when they were together and obviously not writing one another.  For the later years after John’s presidency, Ellis relies on the pair’s correspondence with other individuals (including the famed letters to and from Thomas Jefferson), but it loses the intimacy of the earlier parts of the book.  Ellis may have done better to pare the book down just to the years where correspondence between Abigail and John exists rather than attempt the story of their entire lives, but that’s a minor quibble.  This book paints a human portrait of the “venerable” couple from the time of the nation’s birth.
Recommended books: John Adams by David McCullough and Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Bunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick

Author:  Nathaniel Philbrick
TitleBunker Hill : a city, a siege, a revolution
Publication Info:  Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 30, 2013)
Other Books by Same Author: Mayflower
Summary/Review:

Another brilliant work of Massachusetts and American history by Philbrick.  Like Mayflower, which was about the first three generations of the Plymouth colony through King Phillip’s War, Bunker Hill is more than it’s title implies.  It covers the period of a little over two years from the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor to the evacuation of Boston by British troops.  While covering historical ground that I’m familiar with, Philbrick has a way of shedding light on people and events in ways I never thought of them before.  One key element of this book is how the Revolution grew not just from political and ideological differences of the Massachusetts’ colonists with the mother country, but with very personal relationships and slights.  The Battle at Breeds Hill is the centerpiece of this book, but it also provides good accounts of Lexington and Concord, the fortification of Dorchester Heights, and the political and military maneuvering before and after this events.  Not to mention the infighting among the Patriots and the Redcoats, as well.  I highly recommend this accessible account of the events and decisions that lead to the American Revolution.
Favorite Passages:

“For Gage, the patriots’ complaints about British tyranny seemed utterly absurd since British law was what allowed them to work so assiduously at preparing themselves for a revolution. Never before (and perhaps since) had the inhabitants of a city under military occupation enjoyed as much freedom as the patriots of Boston.”

“For most Americans, England was an abstraction: a mythical homeland that despite its geographic distance from America remained an almost obsessive part of their daily lives.”

“The irony is that by the time Gage received Dartmouth’s letter, the anger of the ministry, along with that of many Massachusetts patriots, had cooled. If Gage had done nothing that spring, the patriot leaders, already beset by growing discord within their own ranks, would have had even more trouble maintaining a united front. The ministry had played perfectly into the radicals’ hands when Gage finally chose to act on a letter based on information and instructions that were several months old.”

“For many months now, the regulars had endured the taunts and outright maliciousness of not just the Bostonians but also country people just like these. It was the country people who had refused to allow the barracks to be built that might have saved the lives of the soldiers’ comrades and loved ones who were now buried at the edge of Boston Common. For the regulars this was personal, not political. If any of these farmers dared to fire their muskets, a British volley was sure to follow.”

“It’s estimated that approximately half the total deaths that occurred that day (forty-nine for the provincials, sixty-eight for the British) happened in and around Menotomy.”

“Benjamin Russell was the thirteen-year-old student at Boston’s Queen Street School who had followed Percy’s brigade out of Boston. Once in Cambridge he and his classmates had decided to spend the afternoon playing games on the town’s common, only to discover on the evening of April 19 that they were now trapped outside Boston with no way to communicate with their parents. Instead of despairing, they volunteered to serve as errand boys for the officers of the emerging army. Russell would not hear from his parents for another three months.”
“Stark, Prescott, and Putnam were part of the same army, but as far as all three of them were concerned, they were each going to fight this particular battle on their own. With Prescott confined to the redoubt, Putnam preoccupied with building a fortification atop Bunker Hill, and Stark supervising at least the eastern portion of the rail fence, there was no one to synchronize the three of them into a single cohesive unit. Adding to the difficulty of getting these three commanders to work together were preexisting personal animosities. Stark didn’t like Putnam—a feeling that was probably mutual—and as had already been made clear by the interchange about the entrenching tools, Prescott and Putnam didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It also didn’t help that the three of them were from different colonies. At this point a continental army did not yet exist, and in the absence of a unifying “generalissimo,” a quite considerable intercolonial rivalry had developed. General Ward might be the head of the provincial army, but only the soldiers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire were officially a part of that army; Connecticut had not yet formally placed its soldiers under Ward’s control. What had been true in Cambridge a few hours before was true now on the hills overlooking Charlestown: no one seemed to be in charge. But that wasn’t necessarily all bad. There might be, in essence, three different commanders on the American lines, but as far as General Howe was concerned they amounted to a single, very difficult-to-read enemy. In just the last hour he had watched as the provincial fortifications organically evolved in ways of which not even he was entirely aware. Howe wasn’t up against a leader with a plan to implement; he was watching three different leaders try to correct the mistakes of the other two. The workings of this strange amalgam of desperation and internal one-upmanship were baffling and a bit bizarre, but as Howe was about to discover, the end result was surprisingly formidable.”
“As Washington perhaps sensed, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been a watershed. What he didn’t realize was that the battle had convinced the British that they must abandon Boston as soon as possible. Now that the rebellion had turned into a war, the British knew they must mount a full-scale invasion if they had any hope of making the colonists see the error of their ways. Unfortunately, from the British perspective, Boston—hemmed in by highlands and geographically isolated from the colonies to the south—was not the place to launch a knockout punch against the enemy. Rather than become mired in an unproductive stalemate in Boston, the British army had to resume the fighting in a more strategically feasible location—either in New York or even farther to the south in the Carolinas. That was what Gage suggested in his correspondence that summer, and that was what the British ministry decided to do within days of learning of the battle on July 25. But, of course, Washington had no way of knowing what Gage and the ministers in London intended.”
“As had been proven on April 19, the militia, which could be assembled in the proverbial blink of an eye, was the perfect vehicle with which to begin a revolution. But as Joseph Warren had come to realize, an army of militiamen was not built for the long haul. Each company was loyal to its specific town; given time, an army made up of dozens of competing loyalties would tear itself apart—either that, or turn on the civil government that had created it and form a military dictatorship. An army that was to remain loyal to the Continental Congress could not be based on local affiliation.”

Recommended booksAs If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution by Richard Archer, 1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses by Robert Harvey, Ye Cohorn Caravan by Wm. L. Bowne, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young, and Paul Revere and the World He Lived In by Esther Forbes.
Rating: ****

Book Review: As if an Enemy’s Country by Richard Archer

Author: Richard Archer
TitleAs if an enemy’s country : the British occupation of Boston and the origins of revolution
Publication Info: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010.
ISBN: 9780195382471
Summary/Review: Sometimes you pick up a book thinking it will be about one thing and discover it’s about something else, and learn a lot in the process.  I thought this book would be about Boston occupied by British troops under siege of the Continental Army ca. 1775-1776.  Instead it is set a few years earlier from 1768 to 1770 when British troops were first sent to police the unruly provincial capital.  I did not know, for starters, that after the Boston Massacre (where this book ends) that British military forces were withdrawn from the city only returning for the later conflict.  Archer creates and interesting panorama of Colonial Boston, small in geography and population, where the army formed 1 out every 5 adult males.  The inevitability of conflict between the troops and the populace in what was effectively an armed camp is discussed, but also the unexpected alliances.  Many merchants who would go on to become Loyalists, for example, were fine with the political dissent against taxation and the occupation at the time.  Archer writes an engaging and informative history of a time and place I thought I knew already.

Recommended booksThe Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution by Alfred F. Young,  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, and Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence by Jack Tager.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Revolutionaries by Jack Rakove

Author: Jack Rakove
Title: Revolutionaries
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2010.
ISBN: 9780618267460

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A New History of the Invention of America,” this historical look at the American Revolution and the framing of the United States Constitution does take a different approach than the typical popular history of the era.  Rakove tries to emphasize that founders of the United States were ordinary men who rose to the occasion to make the best of the opportunities that the revolution provided for nation-building.  He also emphasizes that these founding fathers rarely agreed.  The strength of this book is that if offers an intellectual history of the arguments that America’s founders and the compromises that they needed to agree to.  Rakove also deserves credit for including figures whose names rarely appear in popular history – such as George Mason, John Dickinson, Charles Carroll, John Jay, Henry and John Laurens, Richard Henry Lee and Robert Morris   –  alongside John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.  The book systematically discusses the origins of the revolution, the decision for independence, the course of the war campaign, diplomatic missions in Europe, United States governance under the Articles of Confederation, the framing of the Constitution, and the successful establishment of the new government.  My main criticism of this book is that Rakove is often too generous in discussing the motivations of his subjects.  For example, most historical works interpret George Washington wearing a military uniform to the Continental Congress as a deliberate part of a campaign to gain the command of the army, but Rakove makes it seem like happenstance.  Regardless, this is a well-written and engaging history of the nation’s founding and I recommend it to anyone interested in the time period.

Other little tidbits I liked:

  • John Adams liked Rembrandt’s work, especially “The Prophetess Anna,” the portrait of his mother with a bible that my son liked at the Rijksmuseum.
  • In a letter written in 1784 to Samuel Mather, Benjamin Franklin expresses a desire to return to his childhood home of Boston and perhaps “lay my bones there.”

Favorite Passages:

“We think of happiness as a personal mood or state of mind.  In the eighteenth century its connotations were broader. . . Happiness was a condition that whole societies as well as individuals could enjoy.  It implied a state of social contentment and not merely personal cheeriness and good humor.  Happiness was one of those broad concepts that both private and public meanings, subject for philosophical inquiry rather than psychological babbling.  For Jefferson the concept of happiness was something to ponder as well as pursue.” – p. 300

“Traditionally, bills of rights were thought to operate as a restraint on government by providing people with a basis for knowing when their rulers were overstepping their power.  But that function no longer fit the political life of the republic.  ‘Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression,” Madison observed.  “In our Governments the real  power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is cheifly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.'” – p. 394

Recommended books: Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, and Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America by Steven Waldman
Rating: *** 1/2

Book Review: Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006) by Simon Schama (author of the excellent Dead Certainties) tells the story of people who found liberty at the time of American Revolution, but not from the Americans.  Enslaved blacks served in British regiments trading their loyalty to the king for promises of freedom (which makes this book an excellent companion to the Octavian Nothing novels).  After the war, freed blacks attempt to establish their own colonies first in Nova Scotia and then in Sierra Leone.  These efforts struggle against elements of the British government and commerce as well as internal divisions.

Schama’s work introduces a number of fascinating characters including, many of whom I previously knew little or nothing about

  • Colonel Tye — African-American Loyalist guerilla leader who had many military successes against the Continentals.
  • William Wilberforce — Member of Parliament and abolitionist who headed the effort that lead to the end of the slave trade in Britain.
  • James Ramsey — minister and abolitionist who was a prominent leader in bringing an end to the slave trade.
  • Granville Sharp — one of the earliest voices in England to take up the cause of abolition and attempt to have slavery ended by legal means.
  • Olaudah Equiano — freed blackman who became a prominent writer and speaker for abolition in Britain.
  • John Clarkson — an abolotionist along with his brother Thomas.  John acted nobly as an agent for the Sierra Leone company trying to get promises made to the black settlers fulfilled.
  • Thomas Peters — escaped slave who recruited fellow Loyalist blacks from Nova Scotia to found Sierra Leone and is remembered as a founding father of that nation.

This well-written narrative really brings alive an overlooked period in history.  I enjoyed listening to Schama himself narrate the audiobook in his lively, lilting voice. This is also the first time I’ve listened to a book as a downloadable audio file from the Boston Public Library.

Rough crossings [electronic resource] : Britain, the slaves, and the American Revolution / Simon Schama.Publisher:[New York, N.Y.] : HarperAudio, 2006.
ISBN:0061171522 (sound recording : OverDrive Audio Book) 9780061137020
Notes: Downloadable audio file.
Title from: Title details screen.
Abridged.
Duration: 11:52:30.

Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (2008) by M.T. Anderson continues and completes the young adult Revolutionary War saga.  I read the first volume, The Pox Party, earlier this year and it was by far one of my favorite books of the year so far.  This volume picks up with Octavian escaping a death sentence and with his tutor Dr. Trefusis make it into besieged Boston.  There he is a violinist performing to entertain the British regulars.  Octavian yearns for something more and answers the call of Virginia governor Lord Dunmore who has created a Royal Ethiopian regiment for slaves of rebellious masters willing to take up arms to put down the rebellion in exchange for their freedom.

The majority of the book is in the form of Octavian’s diary (interspersed with a few letters written by other actors in this drama).  He describes the hope and optimism of slaves gaining freedom and learning to fight.  His reunion and developing relationship with the older, wiser slave Pro Bono. He tells the stories of his fellow slaves and how they made their escape.  He describes in grim detail the loss of Norfolk and the plague of smallpox the decimates the regiment.  Eventually Octavian’s spirit is all but crushed and he comes to the conclusion that Dunmore has no desire to free slaves other than for tactical purposes.

I have to admit that this book dragged at times.  There was too much verisimilitude in a day-to-day diary of the mundane life of a foot soldier.  I also admit that with the reality of Octavian’s life already established in the previous volume that it loses the unique science fiction edge and reads more like a straight-forward historical novel.  The novel does follow real historical events and recreates them in an admirable way.  Yet, and it may just be due to flashbacks of working at Colonial Williamsburg, I had trouble getting into this book.  If you enjoyed the first volume as I did, I would definitely recommend completing Octavian’s story.

Author Anderson, M. T.
Title The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing, traitor to the nation. v. #2 The kingdom on the waves / taken from accounts by his own hand and other sundry sources ; collected by M.T. Anderson of Boston.
Publication Info. Cambridge, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2008.
Edition 1st ed.
Description 561 p. : maps ; 24 cm.

Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Volume I: The Pox Party (2006) by M.T. Anderson begins like a science fiction story, reminiscent of The Baroque Cycle. Young Octavian lives with his mother Cassiopeia and a crowd of Natural Philosophers who go by numbers instead of names. Octavian and his mother are royalty, and although they are far from home, they live in luxury with fine foods and clothing, a classical education, and sophisticated society.

HONKING HUGE SPOILERS BEGIN HERE.

In time it is revealed that Octavian and his mother are slaves living in Boston in the 1760’s-70’s and while treated well materially, Octavian is also something of a lab rat, under constant observation by the scientists of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. This goes right down to Octavian having his excrement weighed after every bowel movement to study the efficiency of his digestive system. Over the course of the novel Octavian grows more aware of the uniqueness and injustice of his situation. Octavian’s coming-of-age is coupled with the College falling on hard times and the start of the Revolution. The central paradox of the novel is that the American’s who are fighting for freedom are doings so while defending their right to withhold freedom from others.

The title refers to an event in the central chapters where in Spring of 1775 the College scientists gather a party of 40 people, both blacks and whites, on a remote farm and inoculate them against smallpox. It is literally a party with dancing and entertainment until the guests begin to fall ill from the inoculation. As everything with the College of Lucidity it is also a scientific experiment to compare the effects of the pox on peoples of European and African descent, and becomes the subject of a scholarly paper. Finally, it is also an attempt by the slave masters to keep their servants indisposed and away from the cities as they fear the British will incite the slaves to fight against the colonists.

The majority of the book is written in first person as Octavian’s memoirs mixed with letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings that offer other character’s perspectives. It’s classified as a Young Adult book, although I think the 18th-century style language would prove challenging for a teenage reader. I know I would have found this book difficult as a teen as I didn’t learn much of the history until I went to college and become acquainted with the language until I worked at Colonial Williamsburg. But perhaps I underestimate today’s young adults who can enjoy reading a gripping story and perhaps reread it later in life for other perspectives.

I enjoyed this book immensely and it is a front runner for my list of favorite books for 2008. I look forward to reading the second volume The Kingdom on the Waves set for release on October 14, 2008.

Favorite Passages

Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us. — p. 156

‘Tis time to shake off the yoke of oppression. ‘Tis not enough for royal tyrants to reduce us to slavery — they raise up our slaves to lord it over us.

We shall break all their backs. We shall show them chaos and rebellion. There shall be retribution. [Clepp Asquith, Esq]. — p. 262

Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2006.

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