Sunday, May 19, 2013

THE BIRTHDAY OF A NEW WORLD

 that forever altered the relationship between Colonial America and Britain

BUNKER HILL, Nathaniel Philbrick


This is how to bring history to life, " On a hot, almost windless afternoon in June, a seven- year-old boy stood beside his mother and looked across the green islands of the Boston harbor. To the northwest sheets of fire rose from the base of a distant hill. Even though the fighting was at least ten miles away, the concussion of the great guns burst like like bubbles across his tear stained face." This is the opening graph of Nathaniel Philbricks' BUNKER HILL.  The boy was John Quincy Adams, and his tears were for his beloved physician, Doctor Joseph Warren, president of the Provincial Congress, "the most influential patriot leader in the province of Massachusetts...the man who  ordered Paul Revere to alert the countryside that British soldiers were headed to Concord..." Thus Philbrick plucks Warren from the margins of American history to place him center stage where he belongs as the overseers of the creation of the provincial army and the orchestrator  the Correspondence Committee's "propaganda campaign to convince meant to convince British and American people that  Massachusetts was fighting for its survival in a purely defensive war."
 That the grievances of people of Massachusetts were not altogether based on fact, hardly mattered. Neither did it matter that "Britain had not launched a preconceived effort to enslave the colonies.Compared to other outposts of the empire, the American colonists were...some of the most prosperous, least-taxed  people in the Western world." Ideology was the prime mover in this  clash between conformists and nonconformists, of people  shaped by an ethos that deified a stratified class system and those who  believed that  every  individual could effect his own transformation. Both groups were, in the beginning, loyal subjects of the British Crown. Then, in 1770,  came the  The Boston Massacre when British troops fired into an unarmed  crowd killing five people.  The Tea Part not withstanding, up to the  battle of Bunker Hill, the dichotomy between patriot and loyalist had yet to manifest itself openly. This was a progression aided by coercive legislation, the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington, and the incendiary policies of of British authorities.  In the words of John Adams, the revolution  began "in the hearts and minds of the people." Philosophical difference plus British hubris, the unbridled arrogance of British governors and military figures, gross blunders, acts of out-and-out cruelty, compelled patriots to externalize their feeling of alienation from a distant and indifferent government.

Lest it appear that every patriot in BUNKER HILL wears a shiny halo, it is important to note that Philbrick makes no attempt to obscure the flaws in American icons. Rather, she shines a revealing light on our George, the social climber,  "...the Washingtons were not rich enough  to considered genuine Virginian aristocracy ....(his) best hope for achieving the social standing he craved was the military.."He shows us young George Washington  as the  inept military leader during the French and Indian Wars, when he could not control his troops nor keep his Iroquois ally from bashing open the head of   a Frenchman with whom he, George,  parlays. Philbrick uncovers the snobbery  of a George, who, having married money, thought himself superior  to  New Englander farmers, whom he considered great unwashed louts. He shows us George,   the slave owner trying to keep African-Americans out of the Revolutionary Army. But he also shows us George soliciting criticism so that he can become a better leader and this adds another layer of depth to a book that combines thoughtful analysis, vivid description, amusing anecdotes and amply documented fact.

This is ultimately, a beautiful, romantic story of people fighting for ideas, fighting for the cause of liberty. Reading BUNKER HILL one runs the  risks becoming the kind of  super-patriot LL Mencken claimed to despise. How can one not fall in love with the heroism of Henry Knox, the former bookseller who  traveled over three hundred miles through ice and snow to bring weapons to the revolutionary forces? How can one not admire Rufus Putnam,  the  self-taught engineer who progresses from theoretical knowledge to the actual construction of  effective fortifications?  These are just two figures in an engaging cast of flawed but admirable characters in an enthralling canvas..

Besides painting vivid portraits, Philbrick has a gift for making history read like a thriller. It is no exaggeration to say that his depiction of military battles are as fascinating  as Tolstoy's. It comes as no surprise that he spent three years writing a book that tells the reader what is a mandamus, what is brief of assistance, how long is a Colonial Era bayonet, how the speech of Colonists departed from that of British English, why George Washington invited  the African poet Phillis Wheatley to visit him, how many families in Boston owned slaves, how much gunpowder was available to each soldier  in the revolutionary forces.
 BUNKER HILL is much more  than a record of  the events that led to the first pivotal battle of the American Revolution. It is a portrait of a young country coming into its own. It is a book that  takes lifeless history and recasts it into a vibrant narrative that engages the reader and capture his imagination.  Better yet, it is an account of why and how thirteen disparate colonies coalesced into the United States of America.

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