A New History of
The Invention of America
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- Most of us were taught that the American Revolution was fought for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." More likely, it was a matter of property rights; or better, real estate. The military defeats of 1776 brought "many moderates to the point of despair, privately worrying that the estates they had labored to amass might prove forfeit to a vindictive Crown."
- The reason blacks were not given arms to help in the fight against the "regulars" was fear of "The Danger of Insurrection by Negroes in Southern Colonies" --- as one member of Congress wrote.
- One of the silliest constructs built into the Constitution was creation of the state and national senates ... crafted, supposedly, to be a libertarian reflection of the English upper house. It was dreamed up by John Adams because of a mistaken perception of Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. He believed the House of Lords to be a viable check on the power of the king.
- As pointed out by Niall Ferguson and countless other historians, the war that sputtered on between 1775 and 1783 was not truly a revolution, but, better said, America's first Civil War.
- If we don't learn anything else from Rakove's reporting of the bountiful correspondence of the Founding Fathers and their friends, they were uniformly miscreant spellers, throwing random capital letters around like pansies in the garden. Robert Morris wrote to John Jay, "Its a horrid consideration that our own Safety should call on us to involve other Nations in the Calamities of Warr ... Can this be morally right or have Morality and Policy nothing to do with each other?" When George Mason spoke of his wife Ann, he reported, "Form'd for domestic Happiness, without one jarring Attom in her frame." And when she died, "I was scarce able to bear the first Shock ... A Depression of Spirits, & settled Melancholly followed, from which I never expect, or desire to recover."
- The English didn't pursue the war as vigorously (after 1778 when the French entered the fray) because their appearance on the scene opened up too many new fronts. Especially in the Caribbean, where "Britain would need to protect the sugar-producing islands of the West Indies." That's where the loot was. In other words, it was, once again, a matter of economic determinacy:
In the Atlantic economy, sugar remained a far more lucrative crop than Chesapeake tobacco or Carolina rice.
"The North American theatre of operations would have to compete for strategic attention and scarce resources with all these other interests and commitments."
- The great sites of the Revolution that we recall today are Valley Forge, Boston Commons and Yorktown. But we would be better memorizing the names of the many towns in New Jersey where so many key (and bitter) battles took place. As the authors of an engaging book of popular history, Gringolandia,
In a brilliant tactical stroke, General Washington bypassed Trenton entirely, as everyone has done ever since, and threatened the mercenaries' right flank at South Orange. The Hessians moved to turn Washington's left flank at West Orange, but he gave them the slip at East Orange and regrouped in Nutley. The Hessians went in pursuit, but confused by New Jersey's famous traffic circles, took the wrong exit at Weehawken, where they marched right into the redcoats, who were doing close-order drill. In the meantime, the Colonials invested Tenafly, while General Washington stood up in a boat to cross the Passaic River, and led the storming of Teaneck.***
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The journey that Jack Rakove takes us on in Revolutionaries is not an easy one. His main thesis is that outside of hotheads like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams, most of the "founding fathers" were political conservatives, saw themselves as loyal sons of England made temporary warriors by the foolishness of King George III and his minister, Lord North. Ben Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and even George Washington were not unaware of the calamities of war. It was only after the turmoil of 1774 and 1775, where the English turned vindictive, murdering prisoners, burning whole communities ... it was then that the colonialists began to mutter the word --- albeit sotto voce --- "independence."
Finishing off Revolutionaries was a bit of a pain. Rakove's writing style can be a pother. Chapter Five is a long one about an obscure slave-holder named Jack Laurens who wants to set up an all-slave fighting force to battle the British. It could well have been dispensed with. And the publisher might have found more readers had they chosen to print Revolutionaries in readable type.--- Richard Saturday
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***The narrative in Gringolandia continues, "When the colonists took up arms against the Mother Country, England sent over an army of redcoats and Hessian mercenaries to restore order. The English invasion force landed at New York Harbor, but they were held up for several weeks by the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which insisted on checking every trooper's passport, vaccination certificate, background, politics, and school record. When the English finally disentangled themselves from the INS, they were set upon by an army of catchpools and cutpurses who robbed them of half their muskets, three-cornered hats, and hub-caps.
"The English bravely fought their way up the West Side Drive, despite heavy traffic, and then took the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, with the aim of suppressing the rebels in Piscataway. The colonists responded by naming their commander-in-chief after the bridge, and fell back. Adopting guerrilla tactics, they harried the English troops day and night with sorties, ambushes, scurrilous graffiti, and late night telephone calls. The constant ringing of the telephone played havoc with the English command and control system, which was already confused enough by the Hessians who spoke no English --- and barely spoke Hessian for that matter. When the English directed them to dig trenches, they misunderstood and occupied Trenton."