- - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

1775: A GOOD YEAR FOR REVOLUTION
By Kevin Phillips
Penguin Group, $36, 602 pages

If you buy only one history book for the rest of 2013, this should be the one.

Book reviewers have long turned such phrases as “magisterial” and “masterpiece” into cliches. This book richly deserves far more effusive encomiums. I can only say that Kevin Phillips will change everything you think you know about our American Revolution and replace it with a deeper, richer understanding of the more complex and very human story of our founding.

Good history writing should fulfill two objectives. It should provide the reader with a clearer grasp of what the historic characters were thinking as well as how they acted. Equally important, there should be some resonant connection with our current lives, for while history does not repeat itself exactly, it is vital that we remember that our past is fashioned by ordinary humans like ourselves who often face eerily similar dilemmas.

Mr. Phillips is perhaps better known as a fierce polemicist who chronicled “The Emerging Republican Majority” in his 1969 best-seller after helping Richard Nixon fashion his Southern strategy the year before. Since then he has been an unsparing critic of the movement he helped create, effectively damning both the right and left equally for abandoning the core of middle Americans in favor of the calcified fringe groups of both political parties.

The kind of heated controversies that have swirled about Mr. Phillips the polemicist for four decades obscure what a fine historian he has become. This book should go a long way toward expanding his reputation as one of the truly creative thinkers of our time.

For those of us schooled in the tradition that our nation’s founding dates from 1776 (on July 4, to be precise), Mr. Philips yanks our attention to the year before. His argument takes what is known as a “long view” — the overlaps of the months both before and after 1775 — but he is quite precise when he asserts:

“The infant named the United Colonies, born in 1775, was conceived during the Continental Congress of September and October 1774. The famous date, July 4, 1776, was actually a belated christening, with only a few godparents on hand.” He explains, “The initial purpose of this book, as contemplated in 2008, was to argue that 1775 was as important as 1776. The finished book goes further. It argues — and I hope substantiates — that in many respects, 1775 was more important than 1776. The earlier year’s cocky optimism, its advance guard of hundreds of new grass-roots patriot committees, its political gambles, its unsung military successes enabled and entrenched de facto American independence.”

In retrospect, it certainly must be acknowledged that there was not much to cheer about during 1776, brave declarations of independence notwithstanding. The arrival of the largest British naval and military force in the empire’s history sent Washington’s fledgling Continental Army reeling in a succession of defeats that forced it into winter exile in the Pennsylvania wilds. The economic costs of the struggle would impose an ever-greater burden on the new nation from which it would take another 10 years to recover.

However, by 1776 it was already too late for the British to reclaim what had been lost the year before. The patriot cause, it turns out, was better organized during 1775 than most of us have been taught. By the end of 1775, most Colonial capitals and major seaports (only Boston was the exception) were governed by patriot provincial congresses and enforced by trained militias, which policed American trade flows and suppressed Loyalist oppositions.

Writing with both dry humor and precise research, Mr. Phillips schools us that early patriot battles at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill were more than matched by military showdowns that savaged both Loyalist and British forces throughout the Colonies. These early successes were a mixed blessing, however. They generated a fantasy of expectations among the mass of people while at the same time ensuring a British response to the rebellious colonies with a savagery not practiced in other parts of the empire.

Mr. Philips is at his best in emphasizing two segments of our founding story that are often overlooked in previous accounts. While he acknowledges the pivotal role played by Massachusetts in sparking revolutionary fervor, he shows in fascinating detail how an equally vital role was played by South Carolina planter patriots in organizing and enforcing independence in the South. Our revolution was born on the extreme edges of the Colonies and only gradually gained critical mass among the middle section and sometimes (New York being a case) not even there.

Mr. Phillips also deserves praise for his detailed research into what King George III and his Cabinet thought they were doing in their strategy to win back what was truly the jewel in his crown. The king had plenty of close advisers who argued for reconciliation before 1775, and for recognition of the inevitable loss as the war progressed and spread to conflicts with other European powers all over the globe. However, he simply could not comprehend this.

Here is where the story resonates most strongly with our current time of metastasizing crises. It shows how crusted cultural stereotypes and outdated economic and political theories can trump reality with often bad consequences for both winners and losers.

This is a very good book, indeed.

James Srodes’ “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father” won the 2006 One Book One Philadelphia history prize.