Top critical review
9 people found this helpful
massive, triumphalist narrative that is a bit too sentimental
on 3 January 2012
Given the quality of the other volumes I have read in this outstanding series, I had high expectations for this one: I wanted context, succinct bios, story, and analysis. Unfortunately, this volume fails to deliver enough on every single count, and yet it is full of extraneous detail. Rather than surrendering to a rich narrative, I had to struggle to follow the author's logical jumps, to fill in the many crucial details he seemed to assume the reader would know, and to sort through the oddly incomplete (yet overly long) descriptions of military maneuvers or political machinations.
The book begins well, with an explanation of the political context in both the US and Britain. In the wake of the French-Indian War, the young king (George III) had decided to station a permanent military garrison in the colonies, which his subjects were supposed to finance. This added a presence and level of control over the colonists' economic affairs, who while loyal subjects were accustomed to independence and a wide latitude to manage their lives in the way they saw fit. Given the flawed personality of GIII, the British attitude remained paternal, condescending as to children, and arrogantly impenetrable to contrary points of view. This led not just to a clash, but to a comedy of errors. GIII imposed a number of unpopular taxes and acts, provoking increasingly provocative protests in the colonies and heavy-handed responses from Britain that only made things worse. Violence led to violence, some fiery American radicals expressed their ideals in fabulously articulated polemics that gave life to ideals and a plan for action, and events moved in ways no one expected.
Unfortunately, I simply did not get a feel for when and why things happened the way they did. For me, this is a very basic failure of narrative. Perhaps even worse, while it was easy to get lost in the details, the cause-and-effect reasons behind certain fundamental issues (e.g. opposition to the Stamp Act) do not clearly emerge. It was frustrating, even boring after a while. The analysis is too sparse, especially in the beginning.
Once independence is declared, the core of the book is a military story. For me, this section was far too long and mired in excessive details of minor engagements, to the point that I began to skip them. Once again, the narrative failed to keep my interest and I constantly found my mind wandering. After the war is won, the book shifts into a kind of summary of events, oddly lacking in detail, even rushed. There is one chapter on the failure of the confederated period, one on the constitutional convention that refers to all the issues as if pre-ordained, and a very brief one on the ratification fight. It makes for a lopsided reading experience, to say the least. Finally, very few of the personalities come through. Most of the biggies like Washington and Adams are covered, but Hamilton is a mere shadow, Burr is barely mentioned - the list of the neglected goes on.
At the very end, there is a good section of analysis that sums up much of the author's perspective. It is well worth the work to get there, but it is nonetheless a long slog. That being said, I found the tone to be overly sentimental, referring to ideals that were supposed to serve as beacons to humanity in spite of the fact that most of them came from slave owners who recognized their own hypocrisy, such as Jefferson but also the fascinating Patrick Henry. It serves up a triumphalist story that implies a direct link to the present yet fails to add any critical perspective whatsoever. This too, in my eyes, is a significant failure for such a massive and ambitious narrative.
I was hoping that this book would serve as a kind of capstone to a long period of reading I have been doing on this period. I expected the book to recapitulate what I already knew, add new layers of detail and interpretation, and offer an intimate dialogue with a great academic. Both Battle Cry of Freedom and What Hath God Wrought (other volumes in the series) did this for me to complete satisfaction, but this volume did not. I can barely bring myself to give this 3 stars and frankly cannot recommend it.