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pronghorn

pronghorn

It is what you do before you declare independence that counts

1775: A Good Year for Revolution - Kevin Phillips

The bicentennials of the American revolution are well behind us, but the simple stories of Jefferson, Washington and Franklin  and the glory of July 4, 1776 celebrated then still comprise the heart of the American founding myth.  Kevin Phillips' 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is exciting not because he argues that we are celebrating the wrong year, although he is persuasive that the key decisions leading to independence were made in late '74 and in '75, but because he illuminates so much revolutionary activity under emphasized or forgotten in the conventional accounts.

 

Phillips was a political activist before he started writing history, and he begins by analyzing the growth of tensions leading to revolution as if it were a political campaign: he breaks down the demographics, cross-referencing the economic, religious and political issues that led each group to lean to one side or the other.  It is much more nuanced than the standard list of economic grievances I am used to seeing in general accounts.  These details become important throughout the book, as it becomes clear that the revolutionary war is also a civil war, with many military engagements fought solely among Americans on one side of the Atlantic, and grave political disagreements strongly impacting British ability to project military force from the other side of the Atlantic.

 

 The book then turns to a partly chronological and partly geographic story of the organization of the rebellion (and British countermeasures).  The emphasis is not on the continental congress (as with conventional accounts), but first with the organization of local governmental authority to supplant the colonial governors.  These committees of correspondence and safety came to wield full political power: administering economic regulations and loyalty oaths, driving loyalists out of key offices, professions or even entire localities, guarding public safety, arranging provisions for militia and citizens.

 

Second, a local military had to be created, mostly be taking over the existing colonial militias, purging officers loyal to Britain, and then expanding them, even to the extent of imposing an extralegal draft.  The continental army came later.

 

Third, shortages of powder, arms and cannon threatened the militias ability to fight.  Extraordinary measures needed to be taken: organizing new factories, plundering British armories and forts, and blockade running trade missions to Europe and the Caribbean.

 

The story of these efforts, and the gradually escalating small military engagements they set off, is the bulk of Phillips' argument for the great importance of 1775.  The writing is often exciting, with an eye for interesting characters and illustrative events, but the book bogs down on occasion, as the argument is complex, the details many, and the organization at times overburdened.  By the second half of the book, a narrow focus on establishing the importance of 1775 is abandoned for a general account of the first half or even the entire, revolution, with an emphasis on topics where the detailed work of academic historians has yet to fully emerge in  the conventional accounts.

 

I highly recommend the book to anyone who is an American or military history buff.  For a general reader it may be a bit dense and overwhelming, or not, depending on what you like.