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Book Review: Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor

By (July 5, 2013) No Comment

Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor:our lives
The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776
by Richard R. Beeman
Basic Books, 2013

When John Adams envisioned the rituals that might someday attend the commemoration of American independence – an independence he did as much as anybody to secure – he imagined the parades and fireworks that would happen every year, but he remained mercifully silent about one of the most reliable rites enacted in America every summer: the writing of yet more books about American independence.

Such books were already at flood even before the country’s bicentennial, and they’ve been at tropical superstorm levels ever since, to the point where multi-volume studies have been done about everybody who so much as had a pint at the Green Dragon in 1775. The prelude to the American Revolution has been studied to its last detail; the American Revolution has been studied to its last detail; the social and political aftermath of the American Revolution has been studied to its last detail.

This is easily understandable, and it’s not all just about commerce. The American Revolution was a signpost event in human history, after all – one of the single most important such events, and the birth of the single most important nation the world has ever seen, and the greatest. It warrants infinite study, and it repays it handsomely. Each generation of scholars, novelists, and passionate amateurs re-spades the old familiar ground and discovers new treasure buried there. Each current crisis re-casts the past with intense relevance. More than almost any other epoch in history (the American Civil War being one of its only rivals), the American Revolution tends to bring out the best in its chroniclers.

Case in point: Richard Beeman’s latest book, Our Lives, Our Fortunes, & Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776. It’s a charming, fast-paced retelling of a narrative that’s been retold a thousand times before, how a group of colonial leaders, increasingly aggrieved by their treatment at the hands of the distant British monarch George III, petitioned and agitated for redress and then finally revolted and fought for freedom. The trick to courting commercial success with such a narrative is exactly the same as it was for Homeric bards retelling the story of the Trojan War at drunken merchant banquets in Argos: attack the whole matter with memorable zest, but challenge no orthodoxies. Paint your heroes in bright colors – as Beeman does with handsome man-about-town John Hancock:

Still only eighteen, he began to dress in the most elegant clothing styles from London, outdoing even Uncle Thomas, wearing fancily ruffled shirts, silver-buckled shoes, gilt-edged jackets and one particularly stunning red velvet outfit. There were frills not only on his cuffs, but on his shirt front He was every inch a dandy from his bob wig down to his fancy-buckled shoes.

And perhaps mildly question some complacent assumptions – perhaps gently suggest that not all colonists were always on fire to break with the past and forge a new nation; summarize the instructions given by the various state legislatures for their delegates to the First Continental Congress, but do it with just the faintest hint of revisionism:

When we look back on the steady deterioration in the relationship between the Congress and royal officials in London during the twenty-two months that would follow, we might find it tempting to regard these expressions of affection and felicity as insincere boilerplate, but in fact, the overwhelming majority of delegates to the Congress did come to Philadelphia with a deep affection for their mother country and were genuinely desirous of finding a path toward reconciliation.

Give credit where it’s due even to America’s imperial adversaries, although not too much credit, and not too liberally spread around; when talking about George III and his ministers, assure your readers that “… the crew confronting those challenges in London in the fall of 1775, while neither hopelessly stupid nor deliberately evil, was obviously not up to that task.”

And perhaps most importantly in these politically polarized times, point out to your readers that even as early as 1774 (1774 is early, for this type of narrative), the First Continental Congress “began to act like a government,” and its august members began to create a bipartisan brotherhood that should be the envy of today’s Congress:

The seven weeks they had spent together inside Carpenter’s Hall hammering out the language of their various resolves, addresses and petitions helped create some … cohesion. But equally important, the convivial experience of dinging together in the city’s taverns, of being royally entertained almost nightly in the homes of Philadelphia’s most prominent and affluent citizens and even the discomfort of being crammed together in the tiny bedrooms of the city’s boardinghouses, acted in powerful ways to prompt mutual respect and, in most cases, affection and friendship.

Beeman handles all this with an ease and skill that will keep his readers turning pages as if they didn’t already know how it all turns out. The familiar titans – Franklin, Jefferson, Washington, Hancock, Samuel and John Adams – are all here trailing their most familiar quotes and anecdotes, and the whole narrative gets an added perk of drama when open armed conflict erupts at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. Beeman tells the story much more as a genial evening’s host than a rigorous historian (John Adams is characterized at one point, for instance, as a “darned good courtroom lawyer”) – it’s not really the historian’s trade he’s plying in these pages but rather the epic poet’s: reciting the grand old stories while the wine of patriot season flows and the night sky over Boston is filled with fireworks.

There’s a worth to that, and Beeman has written a worthy book. It’s important to remember what kind of a book it is, but Americans are unlikely to do that while the barbeques are going and the flags are hanging in the ferocious summer heat. Maybe in September.