Doing Democracy

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Rick Atkinson chose the title of his new book—The British Are Coming—not because those words ever crossed Paul Revere’s lips (Atkinson says he was much more likely to have said “The regulars are coming!” since pretty much everyone in the Colonies was British).

Instead, he chose it because at the outset of hostilities between Britain and its rebellious American colonies, the British were indeed coming, across more than 3000 miles of ocean, and in force, with their huge navy determined to defeat the colonists through seapower.

Recently, he gave a lively presentation about his new book at Washington Crossing State Park—an appropriate venue, because it’s where General Washington crossed the Delaware River with his men in preparation for the battles of Trenton and Princeton. These were the first major battles won by the colonists in the Revolutionary War. And those victories gave the colonists new hope, at a time when hope had been “all but extinguished” by their losses.

Atkinson devoted some time to reflecting on the Founding Fathers. They weren’t flawless, he said, and in recent years some of their flaws—owning slaves, especially—have been emphasized more than their accomplishments. Writing in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” they were certainly making more a statement of aspiration than of fact. Many groups (not only slaves, but Native Americans, women, indigents, and others) were not treated equally under the laws of 1775.

Nevertheless, he emphasized, no other country in the world was doing what the Founding Fathers were doing at that time, as they worked to free themselves from Britain and toward achieving a “more perfect union” among vastly different colonies. And so, for nearly two hundred and fifty years, our nation’s creation story has remained vivid and compelling to people across continents.

We learn several things by examining those early days, he says: the nation was born bickering; we thought certain truths were self-evident; good leadership was vital; and whatever trials we face today as a country, we’ve been through worse. In November 1776, General Nathanael Greene lost Manhattan’s Fort Washington to the British. After this terrible setback, when he said to his wife “be of good courage,” he was speaking to us, Atkinson said.

When he started researching this book, the author had access to a new trove of archival material, including letters and memoranda written by George III himself. He has a knack for unearthing the telling incident that illuminates a bigger story and using a modest amount of statistics in a compelling way. One new (to me) set of statistics he gave showed the difficulties the British soldiers faced. Of the hundreds of ships sent from England to bring provisions to its troops, huge numbers were lost. The animals aboard died. The flour and supplies were spoiled. As one example, of 550 Lincolnshire sheep sent, only 40 survived the long voyage.

The insight that most startled him as he worked on this 564-page volume was the strength of the myths the British held about America and the war. Certainly not King George, nor any of his ministers, ever set foot in this country, where conditions were very different than at home. Our population was growing at four times England’s rate; two-thirds of white colonial men owned land, while in England only one man in five did; and two-thirds were literate and could vote, compared to one Englishman in six. And, because Americans lived in a frontier society, they were heavily armed.

The British leaders had an even more dangerous blind spot. They didn’t realize the extent to which Americans, isolated from their mother country by an entire ocean, had simply become accustomed to governing themselves.

A point Atkinson made several times, including in the context of the political upheavals we face today, is that “Democracy is never done. It is always something we must be doing.”

If Rick Atkinson is coming to your area, don’t miss him!

Painting by William Tylee Ranney:  “George Washington rallying his troops at the Battle of Princeton”; from https://www.goodfreephotos.com, public domain.

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