BOOK REVIEW: ‘Declaration’

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DECLARATION: THE NINE TUMULTUOUS WEEKS WHEN AMERICA BECAME INDEPENDENT, MAY 1-JULY 4, 1776
By William Hogeland
Simon & Schuster, $26
273 pages

Good narrative nonfiction is supposed to take a story you already know and both capture your interest in anew way and also leave you at the end wanting to learn more. This book by this writer is about as good as it gets. The late Theodore White attempted something similar with his best-seller “The Making of the President,” which purported to offer an inside view of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960. But history writer William Hogeland here offers us an even more credible feel of being inside the bare-knuckled struggle that took place in Philadelphia in the supercharged nine weeks that led up to the issuance of the Declaration of Independence 234 years ago this month.

The framework of Mr. Hogeland’s tale is a familiar one. The five dozen or so men who arrived in Philadelphia in May 1776 for the Second Continental Congress faced what had been left undone a year earlier by the First Continental Congress, a final decision about whether to seek yet another time to reconcile the bitter impasse between the Colonies and the British government or take the horrifying step of breaking away from the mother country and setting up a fragile new experiment in self-government.

In the meantime, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred, a makeshift Continental Army was being put together by George Washington, and there were reports of a huge British armada on its way to crush the rebels even before they had a chance to make up their minds whether they wanted to rebel or reconcile. But we know all that already. What is new about this book is that Mr. Hogeland reminds us that there also were sharp divisions even among those who were resolutely for a clean break and independence as to just what kind of new order was to be set up in its place.

There were those, like cousins Sam and John Adams, who wanted to create a kind of better England where the benefits and responsibilities of democracy would be reserved for the respectable classes of citizenry who would uphold the rule of law and the stability of society. But while England had offered a Whiggish model of orderly government, it had also sent the New World its “17th-century levelers,” those who thought no man should have too much while any man had not enough.

As the author reminds us, quoting former House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, “All politics is local.” And so it is in Philadelphia in May 1776, when the Second Continental Congress is about to convene. Mr. Hogeland’s story actually begins 10 days before the first session of the Congress, when Pennsylvania’s own voters gather outside the same State House building later to be known as Independence Hall. It is a local election called to elect a new state Assembly, and because of a new expansion in the number of seats open to candidates from the western counties of the Colony, it was possible that the new Assembly might reverse Pennsylvania’s solid determination to seek reconciliation with the British Crown. And if the Keystone Colony, as it was called even then, shifted to independence, would other doubting Colonies fall into line?

What we get is truly delicious political maneuvering of the kind that would make an Obama strategist’s mouth water. Instead of the monumental characters of John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the rest, we get the plotting Adams cousins and their unlikely allies, the Lees of Virginia, who make a shaky and improbable alliance with a cast of conflicting and conflicted radicals from other colonies, some of whom were not even delegates to the Congress.

But what the other radicals do control is popular opinion. And while both the Adamses and Lees both feared and despised what they considered “the mob,” they could only get independence approved with the support of those town craftsmen, small merchants, debt-ridden farmers, newly arrived German settlers and, most unruly of all, the Scots-Irish who pushed ever westward looking for land that was free of cost and the constraints of English law. These were the men who ordinarily would be denied a vote, but they had formed themselves in to armed militias throughout the Colonies and were the backbone of Congress‘ own army. They had guns, and now they had the vote.

So even though we know the outcome in advance, there is a delicious suspense to this story. Could this self-destructive alliance hold together long enough to ram through, first the resolution to secede, and then, at the end, a clear declaration of why America had to go its own way?

This is by no means the complete story of the founding of our nation. But it does whet one’s appetite to read on elsewhere. I even forgive the author’s cartooning of Benjamin Franklin into a kind of opportunistic villain - as well as his attempt to turn the revanchist John Dickinson into a prophetic revolutionary. Both are unnecessary dramatic devices that merely get in the way of an important story that is otherwise very well told indeed. This book plus Carl Becker’s 1942 “The Declaration of Independence,” which remains in paperback, make a good introductory short course to this first document of our Founding Papers.

James Srodes is the author of the best-selling “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.” His email address is: srodesnews@msn.com.

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