Wednesday, January 26, 2011
American Insurgents, American Patriots Review
I was impressed by what I learned from this book. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn a little more about how the American Revolution actually happened.
Mr. T. H. Breen gives us a well-researched book about the "nuts and bolts" of the American Revolution. He picks up the thread in the years before 1775 and demonstrates pretty clearly that this was not something that was created by the lofty speeches and writings of our Founders. It was certainly informed by pamphlets and by a popular reaction to what was being said in newspapers (early Americans didn't care for their popular media any more than we do today). But it was birthed in small towns wherever there were enough men willing to pick up whatever weapon they owned and come together to thwart the colonial governors and their emissaries.
Revolutions have several components. There are the over-arching ideas of a revolution, which can be expressed by high-minded, lofty rhetoric and then there are the angry, frothing masses who are willing to die to get their point across.
Mr. Breen demonstrates time and again that the vehemence of rural colonists was responsible for pushing the Founding Fathers towards more radical positions. Were it not for the ability of the locals to run off a tax collector or intimidate loyalists into silence, the muscle of the American Revolution would not have revealed itself to the men who came to lead it. As early as 1774, extralegal committees were taking control of local governments in small towns throughout the Northeast. The people were in revolution before it became fact.
The people drove the events with which we are familiar. The terrible defeat and retreat of British regulars from Lexington and Concord was carried out by whoever happened to appear along the route of march and take aim. That outpouring of support informed just how radical men like John Adams could afford to be. Benjamin Franklin's talk of moderation and negotiation ended abruptly when he saw just how much the people were willing to sacrifice.
Please pay close attention to Chapter Six in the book, because that is where Mr. Breen really establishes his thesis, which is to elevate the importance of the American Revolution as a people-driven event that captured the energies of a significant number of Americans and was not wholly concocted by a handful of wealthy merchants and lawyers. It was carried out by the people who convinced men like Ebenezer Punderson, hardly a well-known figure in American history, to get in a boat and row out to an anchored British warship where he requested a kind of asylum and protection from his own neighbors. And while they never actually harmed him, they hated him for saying that they had no right to resist the authority of the British Crown.
I thought the presentation of the book was good. I didn't notice anything about how it was structured; some of the reviewers on Amazon.com thought it was repetitive. I didn't think it was repetitive; what Mr. Breen knew that he had to do with his work was support his argument with details and facts, and he was able to do that. I did not track down every one of his notes or citations; I think his arguments were validated by the material he presented to back them up. It's not an easy read, like a David McCullough book; it's a little more difficult than that because Mr. Breen wrote it with criticism and challenges in mind, I suspect.
Missing from many books about the American Revolution are details about associations, committees, and other dreary details that don't quite reach the poetic status of General Washington arriving to take command of the rabble. In point of fact, Washington commanded with the consent of the rabble, and it was never the other way around. The men who took up arms and wandered in and out of the colonial army were incapable of being fooled by great speeches. They were too busy worrying about shoes, sickness, their families and their future.
The cover was a near miss with me. Without the comma after "American Insurgents," I was put off. That's my problem. I understand why the comma was not necessary and was supported by the alteration in size of the print. White words? That was probably what was decided would work best against the rather well-chosen painting on the front. The painting, itself, is a wonderfully primitive kind of folk art, and I don't think a better one could have been chosen.