Each year as the Fourth of July approaches my thoughts turn to the American Revolution. What a truly remarkable struggle it was, a turning point in the affairs of Man we are still too close to in time to truly fathom. I just began reading Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first volume in his trilogy on the Revolution and I am bowled over by it. Atkinson achieved notoriety with his Liberation trilogy, looking at the US Army in North Africa and Europe in World War II and it was quite good. However, I was unprepared for the level of historical insight I am finding in his latest work. I have read over the years hundreds of books on the American Revolution and I thought that I had little to learn about that conflict, but Mr. Atkinson is showing me that I was in error. An example is at the beginning where he skillfully, and concisely, lays forth the preparations that the British government was making for war in the winter of 1774-1775. Now I knew these facts, but seeing them laid out as he does brings home how inevitable Lexington and Concord were. The British government had decided that military force was going to be needed to bring the American colonies to heel, and once that decision was made war was inevitable.
In his majestic give me liberty or give me death speech of March 23, 1775 Patrick Henry made a statement that has seemed to future generations prophetic:
It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
However, based upon the preparations of the British Crown for war against its own subjects, Patrick Henry was merely stating what any intelligent observer in America in early 1775 would have realized: war was coming, and very, very soon.
And that is the great strength of Atkinson’s work. He rescues the Revolution from antiquarian study, and makes the readers see it as contemporaries saw it who lived through those grand and awful days.
The writing is in the grand style, mercifully free from the cant of the contemporary academy that makes so many current historical works almost unreadable. A sample:
“The second consequence was epochal and enduring: the creation of the American Republic. Surely among mankind’s most remarkable achievements, this majestic construct also inspired a creation myth that sometimes resembled a garish cartoon, a melodramatic tale of doughty yeomen resisting moronic, brutal lobsterbacks. The civil war that unspooled over those eight years would be both more grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering. Beyond the battlefield, then and forever, stood a shining city on a hill.”
That passage can stand in quality of expression on America’s founding with this passage by Stephen Vincent Benet in his The Devil and Daniel Webster:
And he began with the simple things that everybody’s known and felt–the freshness of a fine morning when you’re young, and the taste of food when you’re hungry, and the new day that’s every day when you’re a child. He took them up and he turned them in his hands. They were good things for any man. But without freedom, they sickened. And when he talked of those enslaved, and the sorrows of slavery, his voice got like a big bell. He talked of the early days of America and the men who had made those days. It wasn’t a spread-eagle speech, but he made you see it. He admitted all the wrong that had ever been done. But he showed how, out of the wrong and the right, the suffering and the starvations, something new had come. And everybody had played a part in it, even the traitors.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Get it and read it cover to cover. You will thank me.