Jewish World Review July 4, 2005/ 27 Sivan,
Triumph of the rabble
Would I have had the confidence in a ragtag army of farmers who
knew how to use a pitchfork, but not necessarily a gun? Would I have trusted
that the sailors and fishermen, artisans and tradesmen of town and country,
shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters, blacksmiths and tailors could defeat the
mightiest empire in the world? How seductive, given the final choice, would
it have been to leave behind dresses of homespun cotton to aspire to the
fine fabrics of London ladies?
Strong considerations of family life would have intruded, too.
It wouldn't have been easy to encourage a husband or a teenage son to go off
to join a raw, undisciplined, inexperienced "rabble in arms," to follow a
general who had never led any army into battle. Disease and hunger followed
them. Fathers marched off with their sons; one Connecticut woman "fitted
out" five sons and 11 grandsons.
King George III rode to Parliament in a gilded chariot decorated
with golden sea gods, symbols reminding the American colonies that Britannia
ruled the waves, almost without challenge. Would I have imagined the king
right, after all, when he announced to Parliament that "to be a subject of
Great Britain, with all of its consequences, is to be the freest member of
any civil society in the known world"?
These are the questions that flood the reader of David McCullough's new book, "1776," where we learn that for all of our romantic notions that the colonies were guaranteed by destiny to win independence from Great Britain, the result was actually far from certain. This is the book to read on this Fourth of July as a complement to the barbecues and speeches and fireworks. Doubt and uncertainty threw a shadow over everything, from the eloquent and contentious debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords to the dark and bloody ground where the ragged colonists camped. The historian shows with photographic clarity that no matter how glorious the cause, the margin between victory and defeat is a thin one, with the winner often determined by combinations of circumstances requiring enormous human sacrifice.
David McCullough, our most popular historian, dramatizes the human experience behind scholarly fact in a narrative that is not about the Declaration of Independence, but about what it took to beat the odds. In November 1776, after Washington had lost four battles and just before he crossed the Delaware to Trenton, British commanders offered a pardon to all who would swear allegiance to the crown. It was time to put up or shut up. I can hope I would have remained steadfast then, resolute in confidence that neither I nor my family would ever again sing "G-d Save the King." I didn't have to make that choice. Thousands of men and women who went before us did, and thank G-d for every one of them.
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