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BOOK REVIEW

A view of America’s independence

By Chuck Leddy
July 4, 2011

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John Ferling has written the kind of ambitious, sweeping, top-down narrative history that has lost favor somewhat in an era when historians increasingly pursue a narrower focus: on social history, with its bottom-up perspective, biographies that emphasize (by definition) a single historical actor, or smaller histories that find larger historical themes within lesser-known events. Ferling instead offers readers a wide-angle look at the critical period, 1763 to 1776, leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

From the opening pages, Ferling’s ambition is clear. He starts with a British debt crisis triggered by military spending to oust the French from much of North America.

After peace arrived in 1763, writes Ferling, “Great Britain was swamped with debt brought on by years of war. The national debt had doubled during the previous seven years’’ of war. Parliament, supported by overstretched British taxpayers, asserted that the American colonies, clear beneficiaries of Britain’s military victory, should pay their fair share of the debt burden.

So began a decade-long period of futile British efforts to compel the colonies to pay levies and recognize Parliament’s authority to tax them.

Ferling paints brief biographical portraits of all the main characters, from pro-independence activists like Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine to King George III to multiple British prime ministers to American moderates like John Dickinson who pushed for reconciliation with the crown. Ferling’s narrative typically introduces an important character in the middle of an action, followed by a few pages of biographical background, then finishing with more action. Because of this structure, the book sometimes feels episodic and sputtering.

That said, Ferling digs deep into a few important themes, which he handles in a fresh way. For instance, Ferling makes it clear that until early 1776, American moderates seeking reconciliation played a powerful role in Congress.

Pennsylvanian Dickinson, for instance, argued passionately for seeking a negotiated settlement with Britain over the tax issue, one that would keep the colonies inside the empire. On the other side of the Atlantic, reconciliationists in Parliament like Edmund Burke sagely warned that “Great Britain must offer conciliatory terms or risk the loss of its American colonies.’’ Burke would be proven right.

“Leaders on both sides had many opportunities to choose an alternative course,’’ writes Ferling, but the king and his ministers “spurned every American proposal for change, accommodation, and negotiation,’’ instead pursuing a stubborn policy of colonial submission through military force. Congress actually sought talks with the king after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. George III responded to this offer by declaring war on the colonies and demanding their complete submission to British rule.

Ferling expertly explores the multiple motivations that led to independence in July 1776, both inside the Congress and among the public. The French, always Britain’s bitter rival, were enthusiastic about providing financial and military assistance to the colonies, but with the precondition of an American declaration of independence. Paine’s hugely popular pamphlet “Common Sense’’ also energized public opinion in favor of independence. The war itself, including tales of British atrocities against noncombatants, additionally galvanized the independence movement.

But the biggest driver of all, Ferling notes, was the inflexible policies of the British government, which “was committed solely to the use of armed force to resolve its American problem.’’

Ferling’s ideas, especially about the lost opportunities at reconciliation, are certainly worth exploring in meticulous detail, but his attachment to writing old-fashioned narrative history that sweeps over the big moments and important historical actors gets in the way of a deeper treatment.

Ferling gives us breadth but necessarily sacrifices depth. “Independence’’ is both useful history and itself a lost opportunity.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

INDEPENDENCE:

The Struggle to Set America Free

By John Ferling

Bloomsbury, 448 pp., $30