Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got American History

In honor of the American Independence Day, and while I recuperate from surgery and read and relocate the books on my shelves, I’m taking a look at a couple of volumes of American Colonial history. I haven’t read these since I was a graduate student, when they were required for my degree, but it wasn’t a hardship opening them again.

That’s because I like history, I like old stuff, and I like stories. And let’s face it—the story of the American Revolution is a good one, and the ideas that the colonialists brought to the political discourse are thrilling. The values and principles the colonialists debated and ultimately went to war for have been battered in recent times, but to imagine that people sat around the dinner table and read Patrick Henry’s speech in the newspaper (the “give me liberty or give me death” one) or the words of John Adams (“Let justice be done though the heavens should fall”) just makes me glow. Talk about stakes! They could not have been higher.

So the first book I’m looking at is The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn. Bailyn, now 96 years old and still a professor at Harvard University, won the Pulitzer Prize (the first of two) and the Bancroft Prize for this book, and it’s still selling well on Amazon, more than 50 years after its original publication date.

Bailyn’s original concept of this book was an organization and interpretation of the pamphlets published in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Pamphlets, published as standalone broadsheets or reprinted inside the newspapers of the time, were treatises and essays on topics such as political theory and history in diverse forms including political argument, sermons, correspondence, and even poems. They were widely read and discussed. The pamphlets reveal motive, understanding, assumptions, beliefs, and ideas, and were intended to explicate and persuade, particularly about the current political situation.

The most famous of these pamphlets was Common Sense. Written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76, it begins: “These are the times that try men’s souls” and goes on to argue two main points: independence from England, and the creation of a democratic republic. Because its content was considered treasonous, Paine published the 48-page pamphlet anonymously on January 10, 1776; it became an immediate sensation.

Common Sense sold 500,000 copies in its first year of circulation, and Paine, wanting to help the American cause, donated his royalties to George Washington’s Continental Army. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), Common Sense had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history—it was bought by 20 percent of the population. (By comparison, with today’s population, more than 65 million copies would need to sell in the first year; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in 2007, has sold 65 million copies to date.) Common Sense is still in print today.

The pamplets are largely seen as the underpinnings for the arguments for the American Revolution. Bailyn used these pamphlets, of which more than 400 were published in the pre-Revolutionary times, as a foundation for his book. However, as he analyzed the texts, he became convinced that, as he says:

…the American Revolution was above all else an ideological, constitutional, political struggle and not primarily a controversy between social groups undertaken to force changes in the organization of the society or economy.

In particular, he took a broader look at the Founders’ concern with the uses and misuses of power―the great benefits of power when gained and used by popular consent and the political and social devastation when acquired by those who seize it by force or other means and use it for their personal benefit. Chapters include “The Literature of the Revolution,” “Power and Liberty: A Theory of Politics,” “The Logic of Rebellion,” and “The Contagion of Liberty.”

There’s a lot of footnotes, but when you read the text, you might feel, as I did, something of the uncertainty, challenges, fears, hopes, and excitement of what it must have been like to carve out a new government on an uncharted continent.

The second book I have here is John Adams by David McCullough, who won the Pulitzer for this best-selling biography, which was six years in the making. (HBO turned it into a miniseries in 2008, when it won four Golden Globe awards and 13 Emmy awards, more than any other miniseries in history.) John Adams is a lot different in tone and texture than the Bailyn book (and a lot longer); here the story of the revolution is only one part (although a big part) of Adams’s life, and his thoughts about it are referred to more directly through correspondence and speeches than McCullough’s analysis and interpretation.

John Adams was a Massachusetts lawyer when current events overtook him and he felt that it was his duty, obligation, and ambition to enter politics, even though it would reduce his income (much to his wife’s distress) and he disliked wrangling. As life would have it, he became one of the most distinguished of a generation of revolutionary leaders despite his restrained, sometimes off-putting disposition, and eventually his skill and political guile enabled him to become the second president of the United States. He was the first to propose George Washington to command the new Continental Army; later, he bickered with Tom Paine’s plan for government as suggested in Common Sense.

Adams served as president in difficult times, when sectarian Federalist and anti-Federalist factions vied for power and introduced scandal into an administration beset by other difficulties—including pirates on the high seas and conflict with France and England. While both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (for example) were tarnished by their personal and professional exploits, Adams maintained his personal integrity in the revolution’s strife-filled aftermath.

Two of the most outstanding sections of this biography are the enormous amounts of correspondence between John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, a marriage McCullough calls “one of the great love stories of American history.” When she saw the British sailing out of Boston Harbor, Abigail famously wrote to her husband of her desire for independence:

—in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.

Of course, the husbands didn’t listen.

At one point when John Adams was troubled by the developments of the war, depressed and moody, he wrote often to his wife, both for his own comfort and hers, since she was pregnant. She responded:

I know not how you find the time amidst such a multitude of cares as surround you. I am really astonished at looking over the number [of letters] I have received during the month….I hope ‘tis your amusement and relaxation from care to be thus employed. It has been a feast to me.

Also fascinating was Adams’s long correspondence with his successor as president, Thomas Jefferson, which McCullough calls “one of the most extraordinary correspondences in the English language.” Here is Adams’s recollection of how and why Jefferson came to draft the Declaration of Independence:

I think he [Jefferson] had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me second. The committee met, discussed the subject, [of the Declaration of Independence] and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draught, I suppose because we were the two first on the list. The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: You should do it.

Adams: Oh! no.

Jefferson Why will you not? You ought to do it.

Adams: I will not.

Jefferson: Why?

Adams: Reasons enough.

Jefferson: What can be your reasons?

Adams: Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.

Here is Jefferson’s recollection of this event: The committee unanimously chose him to undertake the draft. “I consented. I drew it [up].”

Both of these books are very well-written and engaging, and they offer a detailed and we-are-there look into the workings of the making of a new nation as well as the ordinary and extraordinary people who created it. Compare their words and actions to those of today’s leaders. You’ll want to go back to 1775.


8 thoughts on “Kay: What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got American History

  1. They sound fascinating. On the rare occasions that I think about giving up writing (usually when I’m starting work on a new book, which for me is the hardest part), one of the arguments in favor of quitting is that I’d have more time to read.

    Thanks for adding to my TBR list!

  2. I carried on a bit in that post! I had trouble making it “short enough” when I was writing it, and now that I’m reading it, I can see how my enthusiasm for history carried me away. However, if you do like American colonial history, these are two fine books.

    Happy Fourth of July!

  3. What a great post, Kay. I was never a big fan of history, not helped by the fact that in school, the teachers I had seemed to have little interest in it either. A few years ago I became very interested in British history – triggered by my Regency and historical romance reading – but our own history has remained ignored.

    The books you’ve mentioned above sound like an excellent way for me to change way, especially since I will be seeing Hamilton soon.

    • Oh, have fun at Hamilton! I haven’t seen it, but my understanding is that it plays a little loose with history. Still, it would be a fun way to see “history” in action, not to mention song and dance.

      I’d be curious to see what you think of these books if you take a look at them. The McCullough book is pretty long and it focuses on John Adams, of course, so that might be too narrow a topic for someone more interested in a general history of the colonial revolution, although I enjoyed it immensely, and I think both John and Abigail Adams are fascinating people. I sucked up the Bailyn book when I read it originally because I was very interested in the colonial pamphlets. I was working on an underground newspaper during graduate school, so I saw all kinds of parallels between the colonial revolutionary pamphlets and the newspaper I worked on. And now I can see the parallels between the pamphlets and social media.

    • Elizabeth, Hamilton is amazing. Just stunning. I was fortunate to see it twice. Surprisingly, it stimulated an interest in history by my son, who gobbled up anything he could read about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (age-appropriate, of course). He still goes around singing the lyrics.

  4. Thanks for the recs! I got about halfway through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton before life interrupted…I haven’t picked it up since. I’ve always loved American Colonial and Revolutionary War history, perhaps because many locales where I grew up (in Maryland) had a tie to both of those conflicts. If you’re looking for an easy-to-read author, there are several good books by Nathaniel Philbrick, about Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware, the Mayflower, and more. If it has history in it, I will probably read it.

    Right now, I’m sort of skimming through a history of Blacks in England (set up for the 3rd book in my series), and I’m very interested in the economic dynamics between the Caribbean-America-England, particularly after the War of 1812 (again, for my 3rd book). We put in build-in bookcases in the other end of our family room when we redid our kitchen a few months ago and they quickly filled with all the history books I have floating around the house. Many are Regency-era specific, but not all.

    • I don’t know much about that period In history, but the dynamic between the Caribbean, the States, and England is fascinating. The whole economic driver depended on slavery, and then there were the slave revolts, if I remember correctly. Sounds like a great premise for a Regency!

  5. Like a lot of Americans, I think my view of that period has been strongly flavored by the musical, Hamilton. Oh, sure, I knew some of the basics from the short amount of time devoted to the era in American History class, and I picked up some little bits of trivia (Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and also the remarkable Abigail Adams came across my radar a few times before I’d heard of the musical). But not much.

    (-: So, when I discuss Aaron Burr, it’s hard for me to see the good side of him. And Miranda was a bit sniffy about John Adams, too. The king in *Hamilton* says incredulously, “JOHN ADAMS??? I know him; that can’t be. That’s that . . . little guy who talked to me.” And compared to George Washington, they all look small, the king sings.

    Still, it sounds like John Adams was a fairly decent guy, and Abigail was a firecracker . . . I’d like to know more about them!

    (-: And of course, with the way The Reynolds Papers played a key role in the musical Hamilton, I would love to read more of these papers and pamphlets; I’m sure they are all available online, but the Reynolds Papers were DENSE, and I’m not sure if my interest is up to all the time and effort of reading them. Still, Common Sense should be doable some summer weekend. TBR list keeps growing.

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