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Book Review: Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1 – July 4, 1776 by William Hogeland

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Pennsylvania said "No" to independence.  On May 1, 1776, voters turned out and in the nearest thing to a referendum on independence, voted it down.  In reality, they voted for a form of state government that in and of itself precluded support of the colony's representatives to the continental congress for independence.  It had been a long and difficult battle for John Dickerson.  It marked the beginning of a series of behind-the-scenes meetings and actions by Samuel Adams that could be considered nothing short of a conspiracy to declare independence.

from the bookTwo hundred thirty-four years later, we're still struggling with some of the same issues that delayed the union of the colonies right up until the final vote on July 2, 1776.  Yeah, it was July 2, not the 4th that we declared independence.  Voting rights, racism, slavery, dramatic differences in economic levels, roots of labor unions, back-room deals, and petty bickering amongst the elite, rich ruling class made me check today's calendar against the setting of the absorbing and eye-opening Declaration by William Hogeland.  

Before Hogeland's educational romp through the last nine weeks before July 2, 1776, I thought that Huey P. Long, Louisiana, and New Jersey politics took the cake. True to the old adage about newness under the sun and FDR's comment on conspiracies, our forefathers set the pace for interesting politics in the years to come for the new republic.

"The shot heard 'round the world" was fired in Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, a full year before the election in Pennsylvania that started the dominoes falling.  Pennsylvania's leader was against independence but was an officer in the militia and an enthusiastic soldier.  John Adams wanted the emerging country to be run by an elite ruling class of the wealthy with only those who owned enough property to be allowed to vote.  Very  few of the fighting men owned any property unless they moved to Vermont.  Just as today, our country's character is filled with interesting and important paradoxes that have led to many ironies.  Reading these sometimes humorous and always interesting stories proved to me that history does in fact repeat itself, for good or bad and politics do in fact make strange bedfellows.  We have to make the most of it in our own generations. 

Richard Henry Lee - from the book
Hogeland also authored The Whiskey Rebellion, and a collection of essays, Inventing American History, as well as two plays, a co-authored screenplay, and a novel, The Surrender of Washington Hansen. He uses flashbacks and actual conversations (gleaned from diaries and historical notes) to make Declaration come alive like a novel — but this is all fact.  Fifty-eight pages of notes and and another dozen for listing sources make this little known story ring true and re-assures the reader.  

 

Also included are eight slick pages of high gloss black and white photos and illustrations.  Hogeland tells us the back stories of the famous like the Adams cousins and John Hancock. We are also introduced to the renegade pharmacist, the math teacher who wanted to provide for the poor, eliminate slums, and help farmers, and the self-taught medical doctor who established Vermont.  Who is that flamboyant purple-dressed character with an equally flamboyant signature? Where is "Poor Richard" when you need him, and who is that Southerner with the three names? How does Richard Henry Lee become such an important piece in Samuel Adam's puzzle?  As if there wasn't enough pressure to finally decide on independence, the largest fleet in history (prior to June 6, 1944) is under sail toward the colonies to intensify the fighting begun in Concord.

Would I buy Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1 – July 4, 1776?  Yes — faster then you can put your "John Hancock" on a personal check!  It makes great reading for the second of July.

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About FCEtier

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    Sounds like a good read.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl A Geek Girl

    You and I talked about some of this. Need to talk more.. and soon.

    Americans were an angry lot, weren’t they?

    This sounds incredibly good, but is there an audio book? I’m bout read out.

  • http://etierphotography.blogspot.com/ FCEtier

    Currently available only as hardcover and on Kindle. Check Amazon periodically.

  • Reese McKay

    Sounds fascinating for sure. People generally relate to story telling as the most effective style for presenting history. Fortunately more and more historians are writing about history in narrative form, rather than just lists of names, dates, events, and a kind of catalog of what happened in a kind of dry and boring style. When you tell it like a story, kind of in the style of a historical novel, people can connect to it so much better. This is easier to do for slices of history (focusing on very brief but crucial time periods.)

    The only downside is that by focusing on such a brief and climactic moment in time it can give people a misleading picture of what happened and why. After reading a book like this, it would be great if more people were willing to tackle somewhat longer historical accounts that provide a broader context and background, such as accounts of the hundred years leading up to the American Revolution and what was happening not only in the American colonies but also back in England and Scotland. To understand the context even better you need to read about what was happening with the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, the Italians and other major players in Europe at that time as well.

    It would be particularly helpful to learn more about the ideas of men back in Scotland, such as the “moral philosophers” especially Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume; the Philadelphia-born medical doctor, Benjamin Rush, who went to Scotland to study medicine; the Presbyterian evangelist John Witherspoon who left Scotland to become the second president of Princeton in New Jersey (nine of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were Princeton graduates, while only four were from Harvard). There were many other men in Scotland and England whose ideas had major influence on the American founding fathers. These stories are all told in “How the Scots Invented the Modern World,” by Arthur Herman.

    For example, did you know that Tom Paine most likely took the title to his famous treatise “Common Sense” from another Scottish moral philosopher named Thomas Reid? In 1764 Reid followed Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith in the position of chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Reid argued forcefully that knowledge was based on direct experience and was essentially the province of “common sense.” He usually disagreed strenuously with Hume, although the two agreed on some crucial points. The American lawyer James Wilson was the one who more than anyone managed to put Reid’s ideas into concrete form and helped James Madison hammer out the federalist form of the Constitution. Reid argued among other things that ordinary men could understand the law. a radical idea at the time.

    Jefferson also borrowed the term “self evident truths” from Reid. Reid said that certain moral truths were “self evident”, “no sooner understood than they are believed,” because they “carry the light of truth in itself.”

  • Reese McKay

    Dinah finally managed to find time to read Declaration. In fact, we both read it. And we read it together, each of us taking turns reading long passages aloud to each other. We hardly ever do that. Thanks for recommending this one. It was better than I could have hoped for. In particular William Hogeland included enough background information and overall historical context to really put all of these events into a meaningful historical perspective.

    I especially appreciated how he tied the politics of late 18th Century America (and Britain) to the history of the Magna Carta; the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell in the mid-1600s; and the general Whig political philosophy that grew out of that history — their view that the protection of property was the basic definition of “freedom,” and their view (which would now be considered highly elitist by most Americans) that the only “virtuous” society was one in which the owners of property exercised the primary levers of political power, maintaining severe limits on the power of kings (and government in general) and at the same time preventing the anarchy they felt would ensue if those who did not own property (regardless of their education, professional accomplishments, etc.) were allowed to vote and hold office.

    Speaking of Cromwell, I must add this note from Arthur Herman in How the Scots Invented the Modern World. “Oliver Cromwell managed to do what no monarch had done in over a thousand years of trying. He had unified not only England and Scotland under a single regime, but Ireland as well, after his brutal, cold-blooded massacre of the inhabitants of Drogheda in 1652 terrified that island into submission. The only thing this remarkable achievement earned him, however, was the undying enmity of posterity in all three nations. If there is one historical figure whom Irishmen, Englishmen, and Scotsmen can all agree to hate even today, it is Oliver Cromwell.” (Herman, Chapter 1, “The New Jerusalem”, page 29)

    The basic Whig political philosophy was largely coincident with the philosophy of what became the moderate wing of the Presbyterian establishment of Scotland in the 1700s. The hard line conservative wing of the Presbyterians were far more like the early Puritans of the Massachusetts area. These conservatives were (oddly enough when you consider today’s politics) both much more fundamentalist in their Christianity and more egalitarian. They were the ones who had begun (under the direction of their founder John Knox in the 1500s) the institution of universal education in Scotland. They established a vast public school system to accomplish this purpose. The conservative Presbyterians felt that in general no one should be more politically powerful than anyone else. As one means of reducing the hegemony of wealth and privilege they decided that all men should be able to read and write, even common laborers. This was originally motivated by John Knox’s “holy” war against the Catholic Church and a much more democratic idea of what freedom means, a freedom that applied to all people and particularly focused on freedom of conscience. Knox (and many other Protestant firebrands) wanted to create an army of literate Christians who could read their own Bible (and they had a marvelous one in English in the form of the King James Bible by 1609), and thus nullify the power of the Catholic priests and monks, who had been the primary holders of ecclesiastic power and to a great extent also political power for centuries, as representatives of the Church and the Pope. Another weird irony of history is that this same King James (VI of Scotland, and James I of England) was so autocratic (and in the eyes of many, outright despotic) in his rule of both kingdoms that he and his son Charles I (beheaded in the ensuing English Civil War) are both often regarded as poster boys for the excesses and corruptions of absolute monarchy. In the late 1700s George III would eventually be viewed with similar disdain by most Americans.

    Getting back to Declaration Mr. Hogeland is a very capable story teller and writer, which made the book hard to put down. It certainly filled in some major gaps in my own knowledge of the Declaration of Independence and the events and the political process that led up to it.