Sunday, February 12, 2017

Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution

One of the most fascinating aspects about the history of colonial America was the relatively rapid pace of its end. For hundreds of years, American colonists seemed content under British rule, and yet, only twelves after the end of the French and Indians War, in which Americans fought side-by-side with their British rulers, the two sides exploded into armed conflict that lasted eight years and ended with the United States of America gaining independence.

What went wrong with this relationship between the thirteen colonies and its mother country? Tax disputes?

In his 1988 non-fiction piece, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, author A.J. Langguth explores that question and others, using narrative techniques and biographical details to tell the literal story of America as it came to revolt against Great Britain, defy the mightiest empire in the world, and establish its independence. Langguth does not merely list dates and facts as if writing a dry textbook; he brings history to life as a compelling drama, filled with fascinating personalities and conflict, the personal, the political, and battlefield variety.

Most people are familiar with the big names: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc. Langguth not only gives us accounts of these well known figures; he also devotes time to the lesser known individuals who players who played crucial parts in the founding of the United States. The book opens with an account of James Otis, a Massachusetts politician who in 1761 spokeagainst writs of assistance, which the Crown used to enter colonial businesses and homes suspected of smuggling to search for contraband. Otis was a passionate speaker, but in subsequent years, he became more unpredictable, railing against anyone and anything that displeased and often contradicting himself and changing his mind in the process.

Langguth also gives time to the men on the other side, such as William Howe, the British general who did not annihilate Washington's army at New York when he had the chance because a) he wasn't too keen on the war in America in the first place and b) he and his brother thought they could negotiate a peaceful end. Before the war, as a member of Parliament, Howe argued against the Intolerable Acts. We also learn about men like Thomas Hutchinson, a Loyalist judge and governor in Massachusetts who was the last civilian governor of the colony and became quite hated by the populace. He had wanted to write the history of Massachusetts but ending up dying in England, incredibly homesick for the land he was no longer welcome in.

The book covers the big moments and battles, like Paul Revere's famous ride, the Boston Tea Party, and Saratoga, but Langguth also depicts the politics that linked all these events and how the personalities of the men involved shaped the course of the events. We all know about the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, but here, the author discusses the actions of the state governments and politicians, the negotiations between America and France, and the peace treaty talks between those two nations and Great Britain. The political and legal processes and the art of negotiation, so derided today, might be necessary evils, but they've always been a vital part of how America functions.

Patriots is thoroughly researched. Langguth uses a variety of sources, including primary sources such as essays, journals, diaries, and letter from the time, to give a good sense of whose these people were, their strengths, and their foibles. What emerges is the human nature of the men who made and opposed America. Washington, Jefferson, Howe, et al are once again made flawed humans trying their best under the circumstances rather than the mythical heroes and villains history has made them out to be.

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