Review: The British Are Coming

The British Are Coming (The Revolution Trilogy [Volume 1]), Rick Atkinson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019.

Summary: A history of the first two years (1775-1777) of the American Revolution, discussing the causes, personalities, and key battles.

This is the first volume of Rick Atkinson’s proposed Revolution Trilogy. Based on my reading of this volume, I look forward to reading the next two. Atkinson skillfully manages to interweave accounts of the various British and American figures, and battles from Quebec to Charleston, South Carolina without confusing this reader or losing him in minutiae. Yet one has a sense of “being there” at Lexington, Quebec, Boston, Charleston, New York City, and Trenton and Princeton. We sense how insufferably certain of himself and earnest to flex his power George III is, and how subtle and skilled Franklin is in cultivating the support of a reluctant French court.

I discovered what a near run thing it was that Quebec almost became a fourteenth colony, save for Carleton’s determined defense and the critical shortages of manpower to win the decisive battle. I learned that Benedict Arnold, before his capture, was probably the most brilliant military leader in the colonists’ cause. The feat of his march into Canada alone established his ability to lead and overcome the impossible.

I almost found myself turning my nose as I read about conditions in American camps and that desertions and illness took more than the enemy. And I came to understand as never before how hard Washington had to work to just hold together a cohesive fighting force.

More significant was to see Washington’s evolution as a commander, particularly after his failure to grasp the topography of Long Island, and his misbegotten defensive attempts to hold New York. Victory, not in battle, but in establishing a superior position in Boston failed to teach the crucial lessons both of dispositions of his forces and the folly of trying to defend New York against a superior British force. Finally he realized that his most important task was to ensure the survival of his army while maintaining morale. His lightning strikes against Trenton and Princeton reflected a growing understanding of the need to fight as he could rather than as the British wanted him to, in which he could not succeed.

The other thing that became clear in the reading was that military superiority of the British was no match for the geography of the colonies. The end of this volume shows them controlling only two ports and a radius of geography in New York and New Jersey. The defeat in Charleston showed the British were not invincible when Americans fought from a position of strength, led by the flamboyant Charles Lee.

Atkinson combines lively narrative organized around the campaigns of 1775, 1776, and the first part of 1777 with well-drawn maps and helpful illustrations throughout the text. While the political efforts of the colonies are discussed as they enter in, this is first and foremost, a military history. Even Franklin’s efforts both in Canada (a failure) and France (a growing success) centered around military supplies. Along the way, we learn of many young men, both officers and rank and file who entertained hopes of a family and a bright future only to die either instantly, or in slow, painful death of wounds or illnesses in the camps. The story of every war was no less true in the inception of this country. The follies that refused to see a greater vision of birthing a new nation that might become a strong trading partner, would sadly become the story of colonialism over the next two centuries. And it would be the source of the “butcher’s bill” to be paid in blood over the next years of the war.

Review: Rush

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Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding FatherStephen Fried. New York: Crown, 2018.

Summary: A full-length biography of this doctor-founder of the American republic covering his personal life and beliefs, advocacy, war service, and friendships with the Founders, and estrangement from Washington.

He turns up in almost every biography of an American founder or account of the American War of Independence. He played a pivotal role in battle field hygiene, the training of American doctors, and in the field of mental illness. His profile adorns the logo of the American Psychiatric Association. But one has to look hard for accounts of the life of Dr. Benjamin Rush until recently. Even John Adams expressed displeasure that Ben Franklin received far more notice although he believed Benjamin Rush the better man. In the past year, this balance has begun to be redressed. Harlow Giles Unger, who has written on most of the Founders has published a biography on Rush.

A fellow Philadelphian, journalist Stephen Fried, has completed what may be the definitive account of Rush’s life, using a growing archive of Rush’s correspondence and other documents, to give us a many-faceted portrait of one of America’s most distinctive Founders.

He begins with a spirited young boy who lost his father before turning six, lived with an aunt and uncle while attending Reverend Samuel Finley’s school. He graduated from Princeton at fourteen, apprenticed under Dr. John Redman for the next five years, and then went to Edinburgh for medical studies.

On his return, he is offered a chair in Chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, while alienating two of his mentors, John Morgan and William Shippen over credits on publications. With Shippen, this is just the beginning.

He is friends with nearly all the Founders, particularly as their paths crossed in Philadelphia. His welcome and advice to John Adams was critical in winning the support of the other colonies to the resistance that began in Massachusetts. He was highly esteemed by Franklin and succeeded Franklin as chair of the Philosophical Society of which they were both a part. He was a sounding board to Thomas Paine as he composed Common Sense. He is one of the youngest signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Like others, he sets aside personal interests to head a surgical department for the war effort, and confronts horrible battlefield conditions and Dr. Shippen’s mishandling of funds and resources as Surgeon General. His efforts to protest this ultimately fail, but here, as elsewhere, his pen achieves what he otherwise could not in his manual for battle field hygiene, implemented over the next hundred years and saving many lives. The other, and more profound controversy of the war concerned an unsigned letter he sent to Patrick Henry expressing reservations about Washington’s leadership. Henry passed the letter along to Washington, who recognized Rush’s handwriting. Relations were never warm, thereafter. In later years, he expressed both regret for the letter, and admiration for Washington.

The same passion that got him into trouble also made him an effective advocate with many causes. He was a devout believer, but participated in both Presbyterian and Anglican congregations and was an early proponent of religious tolerance. He loved conversation with skeptics like Jefferson while remaining orthodox in his own beliefs (even reciting an Anglican prayer book prayer on his deathbed). He advocated for the rights of blacks and the abolition of slavery (although he owned a slave that he only eventually and quietly emancipated) and helped start the first African church in Philadelphia. He was a proponent of education, founding Dickinson College, and advocated for the education of women. Perhaps most significant, with his appointment to the Philadelphia Hospital, he noticed the poor conditions of those suffering from mental illness, campaigning for separate and more humane treatment facilities. One of the most poignant aspects of this focus was that his eldest son John was one of his patients. He pioneered occupational therapies and treatments for addiction.

As a doctor, Fried’s portrait is of a dedicated, even heroic figure, tragically wedded to the dubious or even harmful methods of his day, notably the bleeding and purging of patients, which may have hastened mortality in a number of cases. His medical treatises often are extended defenses of these measures. Still, he remained in Philadelphia through a horrendous yellow fever epidemic, contracting (and surviving) the disease himself. He was considered one of the leading medical figures of the day, consulting with Lewis and Clark, provisioning them with medicines, including what they reported to be a very effective laxative! His greatest medical contribution may have been the hygiene and sanitation measures he recommended for the military that no doubt reduced the number of deaths from conditions in military camps.

While Rush’s correspondence got him in trouble in the early part of his life, at another point, he was responsible for a reconciliation that led to a most amazing exchange of letters. For a dozen years, Adams and Jefferson had been estranged from each other since the election of 1800. Rush was friends with both. He began by sharing a “dream” with Adams (a common device in their letters) about Adams and Jefferson resuming their friendship. Slowly, he helped the two of them resume correspondence, which eventually swelled to over 280 letters before both died July 4, 1826, fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence with Rush. Both would outlive Rush, who died either of typhus or tuberculosis in 1813.

Altogether Rush and his wife Julia had thirteen children, a number dying in infancy or youth (not uncommon at this time). Richard, the second born served in both the Madison and Monroe administrations in cabinet positions while James followed in his steps as a physician and became a prominent figure, marrying into wealth.

Fried’s portrayal drew me in by exploring this distinctive man in his greatness and flaws. His youthful ambition and sense of rectitude overpowers his judgment of what is both appropriate and possible. He could be quite prickly in defending his own reputation, especially during the yellow fever epidemic, where his methods, if not his dedication, could be questioned. He shines in his friendships, his advocacy, and his love for his wife. He also seems something of a tragic figure as he watches the dissolution of his eldest son’s sanity, and the hopes that he would follow in his steps. I suspect he wasn’t an easy man to have as a father.

Fried has done us a great service. He has chronicled in full the life of one of the Founders who obviously deserves far more attention than he has received. Instead of being a bit player in the stories of others, we are introduced to Rush on his own terms, and begin to understand why he was in all the other stories. Were it not for him, we would not have the sparkling correspondence between Adams and Jefferson and the humane treatment of the mentally ill. You might say, he was the doctor who assisted at the birth of a nation.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: The Loyal Son

Loyal Son

The Loyal SonDaniel Mark Epstein. New York: Ballantine Books, 2017.

Summary: The history of relations between Ben and his illegitimate son William Franklin, from filial loyalty to estranged parties as a consequence of the Revolutionary War, and each man’s choices.

I’ve read a biography of Ben Franklin and numerous histories of the Revolutionary War, and had never realized how deeply estranged Franklin and his son were until I read Daniel Mark Epstein’s well-researched study of the lives and the tragic relationship of these two men.

It was not always so. William, an illegitimate offspring of Franklin’s, was raised as a son by him and Deborah. They worked side by side in the affairs of Philadelphia, fought alongside each other against Indian attacks, and went to England together to plead against the Penn family, who as proprietors of Pennsylvania enjoyed an exemption from taxes for defense of the Commonwealth. Franklin supported William in his legal studies while William was at his side in his laboratory and often his emissary in legal pleadings with the Solicitor General. They were engaged together in a land deal for western lands. William gained such a reputation that he even marched in George III’s coronation procession while Ben observed from a distance. While in England William met and married Elizabeth, shortly before they all left for America.

For a few short years, the family was together as Elizabeth gave birth to William Temple Franklin (who would be known as Temple). Ben returned to England as a representative of the colonies for their growing list of grievances against England. William eventually secures an appointment from the Royal Court as governor of New Jersey. From here their paths begin to diverge. Ben becomes increasingly disenchanted with England and concludes that independence for the colonies is the only answer. William remains a loyal to the crown, executing his office well (New Jersey being among the last to join to movement for independence). When Ben becomes involved in the cause against fellow governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the divide becomes greater.

After a brief return to America in 1775 (after Deborah had died of stroke during his long absence) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben went to France as America’s emissary, taking Temple, who played a role similar to William in his earlier years. Before he departed, he tried to intercede with William to withdraw from his governorship gracefully.  William, stood firm, until finally arrested. When paroled, he acted subversively, endorsing pardons of New Jersey loyalists and otherwise acting to subvert the revolution. When discovered, William is imprisoned under deplorable conditions in Litchfield. Ostensibly, Ben does, and can do nothing without seeming in complicity with the son and giving fodder to his own enemies in the colonies. Eventually, in ill health, he is released, but too late to comfort Elizabeth, who dies in New York City. Instead of leaving the country, William continues efforts to mobilize loyalists in subversive activities in support of England, including and indirect role in the seizure and hanging death of hated Captain Jack Huddy.

Only when peace is finally achieved is an attempt made at reconciliation. William makes the first move, in a moving letter of apology to his father, to which Ben responds with coldness. Eventually the two meet, but only for William to sign over lands to satisfy debts to his father. They remained estranged for the rest of their lives, and it was Temple, and not William, who remained in England on a government pension, who inherited from Ben. Sadly, Temple did not otherwise benefit from the influence of his illustrious grandfather, living a dissolute life without direction or purpose.

The “loyal” in Epstein’s title underscores the crux of this book, William’s choice of loyalty to Crown above family. It might have been one thing had he fulfilled his office of governor until displaced. His persistence in the loyalist cause, against all his father and family held dear was fatal to his relationship with Ben, who could not forgive this. Yet one wonders if things might have been different had Ben been more present as a father, particularly in that critical period after he was arrested, and eventually transported to Connecticut. Did his resistance stem in part from his father’s absence when his mother Deborah’s health was failing, while Franklin engaged in affairs with other women?

While William comes off as stubborn, and from an American point of view, a traitor to his country, Ben Franklin comes off little better, and perhaps worse–more interested in money owed than in restoring the son who once worked and fought at his side. Each had betrayed the loyalty of the other, yet it is a mark against the legacy of the elder Franklin that he was so unwilling to forgive. One may attribute this to the exigencies of war which often presses people to hard choices, yet in Epstein’s telling, the elder Franklin comes off poorly.

Epstein shows us a side of Ben Franklin’s life that has been muted in many portrayals of this founder, as well as giving us a full-bodied rendering of William. One unusual aspect of this rendering is the debt Epstein acknowledges to William Herbert Mariboe, whose unpublished 1962 doctoral dissertation on William Franklin he calls “the best biography of William Franklin ever written.” One wonders what might have been if such generosity had existed between father and son Franklin. Sadly, that is a story not to be told.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.