Tuesday, July 09, 2013

What We're Reading: The American Revolution, Part 3

Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence 1774-1776,
by Richard R. Beeman

This book is the third and last of three recently published books on the American Revolution reviewed in this blog. Of the three books, it covers the longest period of time, but like the other two, rather than presenting a survey of the broad colonial landscape in the formative years of the American Revolution it focuses on a specific subject and narrates a discrete series of events

 In Beeman’s case, his subject is the first two years of that wholly new and extra-legal invention, the Continental Congress. He gives us an overview of the major personalities, debates, and rivalries with an eye towards explaining how that body arrived at the decision in early July of 1776 to declare American independence. In the course of this study, Beeman looks not only at the internal debates but describes the dynamic between the Continental Congress and the external polities that so impacted its composition, quandaries and decision making: the politics that went on in the British ministry, the delayed and disappointing reactions of the British Parliament and of the king to the colonists’ petitions for redress of grievances, the localized “revolutions” that were occurring during the period in individual colonial governments, and the radicalization of popular opinion throughout the country as the crisis escalated. He also seeks to trace in this history of the Continental Congress the development of an “American” identity and to explain the evolution of the Congress into a legislative and eventually a governing body for the “United Colonies.” He tells us how the Congress gained legitimacy, how it attempted to define the scope of its authority, and how, in the absence of an executive branch, it attempted to govern. Executive authority resided in the numerous Congressional committees that were created--during the life of the Continental Congress, a total of 3,249! The experiences in Congressional government, its frustrations, limitations, and the exposure of the major interest and fault lines involved in creating a national consensus, informed the post-Revolutionary debates concerning the creation of a federal Constitution with its new structures of government.

It would be easy to pass over Beeman’s book by assuming it is a story we already know, or by anticipating that it would be one less interesting than the military action recounted in Revolutionary Summer or Bunker Hill; but Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor is the best of this recent trio of new books. This is not because any of these titles present original or revisionist views of important events in the American Revolution, but because Beeman has chosen a subject, the history of the Continental Congress, which allows him to deftly represent and summarize political events that were occurring nationally. There are books that tell new stories that can be of merit, but books that tell a story we know, and tell it better than it was told before, are also important works of history, and Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor is a triumph of summarization, synthesis, and explication.

It is much more than a narrative still-life. The dynamics of major events are on display here. Beeman has narrative talents that make, perhaps unexpectedly, a story of legislative history and deliberation into an engrossing and dramatic story. There is, shall we say, an attention to plot development here, and to characterization as well. We are given the biographies and pungent quoted asides of major Congressional characters like the radical John Adams and Samuel Adams, as well as the views of their more moderate Congressional opponents, in particular Joseph Galloway, John Dickenson, and John Jay. (We seldom hear much about those who were more hesitant about American independence and this will be new to most readers.) There are two notable asides that involve textual analysis, one on Thomas Paine and his popular pamphlet "Common Sense," and the other on the text of the Declaration of Independence, which explains the process of its composition, the sources of the ideas in Jefferson’s original text, and the deletions and revisions made by the Congress to the final draft. Both of these are incisive and illuminating explications, and could stand alone as useful orientations to these documents. In addition to the literary devices of characterization and plot development that Beeman employs, he also treats us to a charming depiction of the setting in which these events took place as he takes us on a tour of late 18th century Philadelphia.

One of the challenges facing any historian who tries to reconstruct the nature of the debates and actions of the Continental Congress in its early years--and it may be one that seems in ways ironic given our contemporary debates over government secrecy and leaks--is that the business of the Continental Congress was conducted under a ban of secrecy. Delegates were enjoined not to discuss their deliberations.They feared that public debate would constrain their candor and their ability to compromise and achieve unity, and of course they were concerned about both the subject under consideration and the areas of internal division becoming known and exploited by British colonial or ministerial officials. Much of the narrative Beeman is able to reconstruct comes from the breaches of confidentiality that can be located in contemporary journals and letters of delegates, especially the journal and letters of the voluble John Adams. The man most reviled by historians researching this period of American history is the man who was the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, who served in that capacity from 1774 until the convening of the First Federal Congress in 1789. He received the job more by virtue of his political connections than his demonstrated skills as a note-taker and secretary, and his official records are notoriously sketchy and confusing. Compounding his archival offenses, Thomson towards the end of his life burned a large collection he had amassed of “secret historical memoirs,” claiming that they would cast doubt on the “virtue and wisdom of those involved in the struggle” and contradict what he felt had been the salutatory historical myth that had been created surrounding America’s founding.

If there is a shared perspective that is common to all three of these books it is the recognition of the importance of Samuel Adams, who in my history schoolbooks was often portrayed, in passing, as an activist and iconic local hero in Boston but never as a prime mover or respected intellectual voice of the revolution. You can’t read Revolutionary Summer, Bunker Hill, or Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor and not come away with the feeling that if there was any one individual responsible for the American Revolution it was Samuel Adams, who was quite simply an astonishingly skilled propagandist, organizer, and politician in both Boston and on the national stage. His political calculations proved remarkably prescient and he moved along his passionate cause with control, discretion and skill. In "Common Sense," Thomas Paine, addressing his countrymen, famously wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And yet as the arguments of Samuel Adams and other delegates in the Continental Congress made clear, what patriots wanted was not so much the creation of a new world but a preservation and protection of the culture of freedom and democracy that had thrived in Colonial America and that they now found under assault by British Imperial policy. The instruments of that policy, its laws, regulations and taxes, assaulted their sense of individual rights, social status, and personal dignity. What empowered the American Revolution was not the desire to be freed of slavish bonds but rather the determination to remain unbound, a valuation of freedom that came from the experience of having lived as free men. It was something that cut across social class, ideology, regional and individual interests, and it made possible the unity and unanimity that was the astonishing and seemingly improbable achievement of the Continental Congress in these formative years of the rebellion.

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