Book Review: An Empire on the Edge
by Nick Bunker
The question implied in the subtitle of Nick Bunker’s new book, An Empire on Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America would seem to get its simplest answer in Sherman Edwards’s play 1776, where a resolute Benjamin Franklin says, “We’re a new nationality; we require a new nation.” And maybe it really does boil down to something as simple as that, divergent evolution in action on a societal scale, but Bunker has a richer and deeper-rooted story to tell, one that ranges from the growth in power of the British Parliament in the mid-1700s to the South Sea trading mania to what amounts to a virtually irreproducible concatenation of redundant incompetencies on the part of Crown officials all throughout the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s.
He covers all the notable treasons of American colonials pushed past the limits of their patience by lawful trade practices and negligible taxation, from the notorious Gaspee affair, in which the run-aground British schooner of that name was attacked, decrewed, and destroyed by angry Rhode Islanders (egged on my their disheveled patriarch, lawyer Stephen Hopkins, who “read a lot of Pope, drank a lot of liquor, and as far as we can tell, never endured a day’s formal tuition in the law” and who famously said, “King & Parliament had no more right to make laws for us than the Mohawks”) all the way to the world-renowned Boston Tea Party, which that master of behind-the-scenes image-sculpting, Samuel Adams, turned into the most famous – and most prematurely telegenic – protest of all time. The Tea Party is lovingly recounted in two excellent chapters that quite correctly characterize it as a no-going-back moment, although Bunker tartly reminds his readers what the fuss wasn’t about:
Of course nobody really needed tea, a point often made by old-fashioned moralists who saw tea drinking as a form of decadence. The French hardly drank it at all, except as a medicine. Neither did the Germans or the Spanish. Only the British and their American cousins had come to see it as something they could not do without.
This story, colonies slowly but ineluctably fomenting toward a break with the King and empire, has been told a few thousand times before Bunker came along, and he brings to the familiar task some weaknesses – his penchant for slipping into slangy idioms being easily the most annoying (I swear, if he described something transatlantic as “across the pond” one more time, I was going to send him to Davy Jones’ Locker) – and a great many strengths, including a very strong amount of research and a constantly-recurring gift for lively characterizations, both of individuals and, more often, of places:
Although we think of Rhode Island as a little place, its small dimensions were a source of strength. Only sixty thousand people lived there, barely a fifth as many as in Massachusetts, but they were tightly clustered around the rim of the bay, not scattered across a hundred miles of farms and forest. One in four of its people lived in sizable towns, making this the most urban province in America. And so information traveled fast in the columns of two newspapers or on the weekly stage from Boston. Of all the colonies, Rhode Island was also the one where the ocean entered most deeply into the lives of the people, and this made the province all the more open and more extrovert.
The sheer number of its predecessors hardly detracts from the many pleasures on hand in An Empire on the Edge, of course; the story of how Boston dared to dream of American independence and then courageously led the rest of the country toward that shining city on a hill is always worth reading again, and Bunker tells it well. And his surprisingly sympathetic treatment of hapless Lord North, the Prime Minister on whose watch the United States was born, is an welcome bonus.