The Struggle to Set America Free
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Richard Henry Lee, tall and spare, with a long, pasty face dominated by penetrating eyes and wayward receding hair, left his Philadelphia lodging on the spring- soft morning of June 7, 1776. He set out on the same walk he had taken six days a week for nearly a year. A member of Virginia’s delegation to the Continental Congress, Lee was heading for the Pennsylvania State House, the home of Congress.
Philadelphia bustled with forty thousand inhabitants. It was the largest American city, more populous than Bristol, the second-largest city in England, and only slightly smaller than Dublin and Edinburgh, the leading urban centers after London in the British Empire. Philadelphia so impressed a widely traveled British army officer who visited the city in 1765 that he declared it to be “great and noble,” “one of the wonders of the world” that “bids fair to rival almost any city in Europe.” Colonel Adam Gordon marveled at how this planned city was so “wisely laid out,” and he was especially struck by its magnificent public buildings and ethnic and religious diversity.
Philadelphia was something of a melting pot. English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Germans, and Africans rubbed shoulders, their accents and dialects familiar throughout the city. Lee’s stroll on this bright June day was along brick sidewalks, something few American towns yet boasted, and down wide paved thoroughfares alive in midmorning with the rattle and rumble of carts, coaches, and wagons drawn by sweating horses that clattered loudly on the cobbled streets. Lee walked below streetlights that were set aglow only on moonless nights—this was, after all, a frugal Quaker city—under tall elms and lofty Italian poplars, past homes both elegant and modest, all made of brick, and close to the commons, where tethered milk cows grazed. Striding briskly, Lee passed inns, coffeehouses and dram shops, a church and cemetery, an outdoor market, the Quaker school, the city jail, and shops of assorted tradesmen, from which the noise of the workplace, and sometimes the sour odors, flowed through open doors into the streets.
After a few minutes, Lee glimpsed the light red brick State House, known today as Independence Hall. Located in a square bounded by Chestnut and Walnut streets on the north and south, and Fifth and Sixth streets on the east and west, the State House was the city’s most imposing structure. Constructed over a quarter century beginning in 1729, it stretched for more than one hundred feet, was forty-four feet wide, and was crowned by a sixty-nine-foot-tall masonry bell tower, making it the equivalent of a six-story building—a veritable skyscraper in an America in which hardly any structure topped two stories. Designed with careful attention to balance and ornament, this imposing building was meant to convey dignity and a sense of orderliness.
There was irony in this, for while Lee’s walk took him to the very symbol of order and authority, his purpose on this day was the essence of revolution. It was Lee’s intention to ask the Continental Congress to declare American independence.
Copyright © 2011 by John Ferling. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury Press.
Review by Lucas A. Powe, Jr.
The Revolutionary War, initiated at the battles of Concord and Lexington, had been going on for 15 months before the Continental Congress declared independence. For most of that period the colonists were not fighting for independence; they were fighting to be reunited with Great Britain on American terms (a return to the pre-1763 policy of benign neglect). If there had been a vote on independence in January 1776, eight of the colonies would likely have voted no—which probably matched the desires of their residents. Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, John Ferling’s superb new book, offers the best description of how American independence came to be under circumstances where neither the mother country nor (at least in 1775) a majority of the colonists wished that outcome. It is a story of contingency, patience, shrewdness, ambitions and blunders.
The guts of Ferling’s story cover a period of less than three years. His starting point is the Boston Tea Party (although he briefly notes events from the Stamp Act to the Declaratory Act to the Townsend Duties) and the end is the Declaration of Independence (although, again, he briefly extends the narrative). Among the wonderful assets of the book are the very short (a couple of paragraphs) biographies of the protagonists. They are both incisive and illuminating.
There is a split focus between London and North America. On the British side the dominant position, fully supported by George III, was that Britain could not be indecisive and that the Empire could only be preserved by bringing the colonists to heel. Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and others argued, unsuccessfully to the contrary, that a sincere offer of imperial reform could have prevented (it surely would have delayed) American independence. Burke famously asserted that the policies of Lord North’s ministry “drove them into the declaration of independency; not as a matter of choice, but necessity.”
On the American side a majority wished to reconcile with Great Britain and their beloved king but only on American terms. Had those who wanted “Independence Now” pushed too hard or too early they likely would have failed. From 1774 to the spring of 1776 “all the great critical questions” decided by the Continental Congress were done by the narrowest of margins. Those who wanted independence, especially the Massachusetts delegates, successfully walked a tightrope of pushing but neither too hard nor too far—until it was time.
As Sandy Levinson and I have noted in reviews over the past two years, we are going through an explosion of terrific books on America in the last half of the 18th century. John Ferling’s Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free ranks with the best of them.
Hardcover Book : 448 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc ( June 28, 2011 )
Item #: 13-398426
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 1.12inches
Product Weight: 22.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
Excellent insight into the 'behind the scenes' debates and conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic. I think this book would make a great movie; though movies often disappoint after reading the book, especially one as well-done as this.
Reviewer: Jim L
I did not enjoy this but and I don't know why. I like Ferling, I thougth Almost a Miracle was incredible. This book is well research, witten in Ferling's normal style. For some reason I struggled to finish it, often not wanting to pick it up. For whatever reason I just didn't like this book.
Reviewer: Raymond S
Nowhere that I can recall has a book on the American Revolution so transfixed me. Ferling is a superb writer ( I own a number of his books). This book should be required reading in high school US History courses.AS a transplanted New Englander, I now understand this period of American History more coherently. Kudos to Ferling for an outstanding piece of work!!!!
Reviewer: Howard S