Saturday, October 4, 2014

Bunker Hill - Nathaniel Philbrick

Before there was ever a Revolution, the conflict between Great Britain and her American colonies was a series of uncertain skirmishes. Though rebels - Philbrick's so-called "patriots" - cast aspersions, snowballs, and occasionally stones at British rule and, sometimes, British soldiers, there was hardly any formal rebellion to speak of, much less revolution. Nathaniel Philbrick looks at the political and social affairs in Boston, of the Massachusetts colony, during the late 1760s into the 1770s. To label these as 'pre-revolutionary' times would be a mistake - it was never fated that the colonies would rebel. This point is crucial to Philbrick's work: the struggles and negotiations, conflicts and missteps by both the rebels and the British could have ended with capitulations, retreats, or treaties. The British could have abandoned the colonies, or the young Americans could have abandoned their rebellion. War was never assured.

In mustering the collective will to fight an uncertain struggle, Philbrick shows the evolving negotiation of what would become an American identity. Here it seems true that history is not only written by the winners, it is simply written by the survivors. The names Washington and Hamilton, Franklin and Adams, have come down to us not simply for the role they played in a successful rebellion, but by dint of their having survived it to grow their legacy. Philbrick introduces us to Dr. Joseph Warren, one of mid-18th century Boston's most well-regarded citizens. As president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Warren led the likes of Paul Revere and John Hancock towards a cause which would become revolution. As they struggled to define an identity that was neither simply British nor rebel, Warren published work deriding British authority, led meetings to assess how community leaders would represent themselves, both to loyalists and the British government, and eventually resigned his leadership to fight alongside his fellow rebels in the militia. It would cost him his life. If we are looking for a moment when Massachusetts truly turned towards revolutionary aims, we could do worse than Warren's forsaking political measures for arms.

Of particular interest is General George Washington. Philbrick recounts Washington's less-than-stellar early career (never gaining the British army commission he hoped for), moving towards his emergence as a mature, cautious, unifying presence for the rebels. Coming from the southern, and in many ways dominant, colony of Virginia, Washington was a much needed regional balance to what was seen as a largely northern rebellion. Navigating both the Continental Congress and differing and disperse state militias, Washington had to create both a military and political consensus where none had emerged before. Indeed, he had to do so within a military and political sphere that was being born as he was navigating it.

Clearly, during the nascent years of rebellion, much was uncertain. Philbrick turns this uncertainty into a careful and lively study about what would become the seeds of a new nation. Rather than rely upon the wisdom of distance, he digs into the moment and finds a story that remains fresh, whose legacies remain uncertain.