Eric Herschthal: Review of John Ferling’s “Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free” (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Eric Herschthal, a staff writer for The Jewish Week, is currently researching a book on the early American republic. His writings have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Observer, and elsewhere.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the Founding Fathers these days. After all, it is the Civil War’s moment.  This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that ghastly war, and for the next five years it will get the lion’s share of attention.  The challenge facing any historian writing a popular history of the Founders today, then, is to show that what they fought for—freedom, and independence—were not simple canards; that when the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they actually meant it.

That is the challenge facing John Ferling, a respected historian of the American Revolution, in his new book, “Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free.” To tell his story, he seizes on an underappreciated but profoundly significant moment in the eight-year War of Independence—the decision to not merely compel the British to reverse a series of onerous acts, but to break away from the empire entirely, and declare themselves a free and independent nation.

There was no precedent in history for such a move, and the Founders knew they were taking a great risk. By highlighting many of their early objections to independence Ferling captures just how parlous it was. The colonies had no real central government, and the body that would vote for independence, the Continental Congress, was itself a hastily formed government with no formal powers. The colonies had no standing army, and in case war broke out, they would have no way to fund it. Even if they found a way—but lost a war—the British probably would have been even more ruthless in their rule.

Ferling shows that independence, in fact, was not even seriously considered until the first fire was shot at Lexington, on April 19, 1775.  Until then, most delegates merely wanted Parliament to repeal the series of acts they felt trampled on their rights as full British subjects. If colonists were taxed, they felt they should at least be able to represent themselves in Parliament, just like all the other mainland subjects.  But beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765—the first direct tax the colonists every experienced—the imperial government went in the opposite direction, exerting more control over the colonies without giving them any legislative means to redress them.

One of the strengths of Ferling’s book is to cross the Atlantic and show us the British perspective. The reason Parliament enacted the Stamp Act to begin with was because the war they fought on America’s behalf—the French and Indian War (1754-1763)—left it strapped for cash. It was not unreasonable for Parliament to ask the colonies to pay for a war that, while Americans fought, the imperial government funded. When you consider that the tax Americans were being asked to pay amounted to just two percent of what average mainland Britons paid, you can begin to see why Parliament was flummoxed by the colonists’ intransigence. 

So what changed? Why did the delegates, only after the war began, begin to take independence seriously? Ferling goes through a litany of reasons that mostly stem from events on the battlefield and the logic of statesmen. George Washington’s early victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill, for instance, convinced many delegates that their fears about an inadequate army were exaggerated. Yet the colonists’ subsequent defeat in Quebec City in December of 1775—where nearly 500 American rebels were killed, wounded or captured—hinted that the war might be long and protracted. If that were the case, the colonies would need foreign aid fast. France was willing, but only if the colonies declared themselves free.

But if Ferling’s strength is to show us how battles and the political calculus of statesmen influenced the vote for independence, it is also his weakness. We get only occasional glimpses of how the lives of slaves, Indians, women and un-propertied men forced the Founders to act as they did.

There are only passing references to how both British and Americans tried to lure Indian tribes to fight for their cause, and no discussion at all of how those tribes’ choices influenced the Founders’ decisions. Aside from a brief mention of Abigail Adams, we are left searching for how women responded too. Yet women were crucial to the war effort, if in less obvious ways. When the British enacted their embargo, for instance, colonists lost nearly all of their domestic goods. And it was women who began producing clothing en masse to make up for the lost supply.  

Ferling’s thin discussion of wider society’s role is even more surprising given the importance he gives to Thomas Paine. Ferling tells us that Paine’s “Common Sense” was “the most influential pamphlet published in the American Revolution—indeed, the most influential pamphlet published in seventeenth- and eighteenth century America.” But we get only a dim sense of why legions of colonists responded to it the way they did. After all, it was not only Paine’s fiery denouncement of monarchy, but his impassioned argument for a radical new society that lit Americans on fire. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” Paine wrote, inspiring untold millions.

It was that kind of radicalism that another one of Ferling’s main characters, John Adams, tried to stem.  To his credit, Ferling reminds us that as the Continental Congress’ leading proponent of independence, Adams was appalled by Paine’s radical political ideas. He believed that Paine’s proposal for a unicameral assembly, which would have broadened the electorate significantly, was “despicable,” “ignorant,” and “will do more Mischief…than all the Tory writings together.” Like most delegates, Adams fretted over the democratic excesses that the Revolutionary rhetoric seemed to invite.

And nowhere was this more evident than in the delegates’ reaction to slavery. For many, Britain’s greatest affront was to offer slaves freedom if they fought for the king.  The royal governor of Virginia’s decision to make that offer—however duplicitous—convinced slave-owners that the British no longer had their interests in mind.  It would be necessary to declare independence, they thought, if only so they could regain control of their slaves.

It is worth noting that when Thomas Jefferson wrote his draft of the Declaration of Independence, which listed the colonies' grievances against the king, his most impassioned indictment focused on slavery.  He blamed the king for inciting slaves to fight against their owners, but, critically, also for bringing slavery to America in the first place. It was an “assemblage of horrors,” Jefferson wrote, entailing “a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

When the declaration was put to a vote on July 2, 1776, it passed unanimously. But delegates from Georgia and South Carolina voted for it on one condition: the passage on slavery be dropped. It was, and on July 4, the revised draft was complete. Slavery, many delegates thought, would no longer be an issue.

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