Book – Gore Vidal – Inventing a Nation

American Revolution comes to life

The broadside was a common form of media during the American Revolutio.  Inventing a Nation is such a broadside – a compact melange of anecdotal history, contemporary commentary and unabashed partisan rhetoric — in other words, a great read! Vidal surveys the period from 1776 to 1800, concentrating on the personalities and writings of Hamilton, Adams, Washington, & Jefferson. Along the way, he contrasts 18th century politics and political philosophy with 21st century politics. Other times he’s satisfied with the quick jab, as when he quotes Adams’ view of the newly arrived French minister as a comparison with “our first unelected president”:

John Adams had known Genet’s family in France: he had also known the boy himself. Politely, he received the fiery minister and then wrapped him round with Adamsian analysis of the graveyard sort: “A youth totally destitute of all experience in popular government, popular assemblies, or conventions of any kind: very little accustomed to reflect upon his own or his fellow creatures’ hearts; wholly ignorant of the law of nature and nations . . . ” Adams did grant him “a declamatory style. . . a flitting, fluttering imagination, an ardor in his temper, and a civil deportment.” Thus two centuries ago the witty French had sent us an archetypal personality whose American avatar would one’ day be placed in Washington’s by now rickety chair.

But Vidal’s slyness is only a cover for his real subject — the creation of a government that could hold democracy at bay without the trappings of a monarchy. The book is not much longer than an old-style New Yorker series, and he summarizes major events like the constitutional convention to provide details of the men involved, as seen by themselves and their peers. Early on he shows the prescience of many of the founders:

At eighty-one Franklin was too feeble to address the convention on its handiwork, and so a friend read for him the following words: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administred; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administred for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other. Now, two centuries and sixteen years later, Franklin’s blunt dark prophecy has come true: popular corruption has indeed given birth to that Despotic Government which he foresaw as inevitable at our birth. Unsurprisingly, a third edition of the admirable Benjamin Franklin: His Lift As He Wrote It, by Esmon Wright, is now on sale (Harvard University Press, 1996) with’ significantly-inevitably?, Franklin’s somber prediction cut out, thus silencing our only great ancestral voice to predict Enron et seq., not to mention November 2000, and, following that, des­potism whose traditional activity, war, now hedges us all around” No wonder that so many academic histories of our republic and its origins tend to gaze fixedly upon the sunny aspects of a history growing ever darker. No wonder they choose to disregard the wise, eerily prescient voice of the authentic Franklin in favor of the jolly fat ventriloquist of common lore, with his simple maxims for simple folk; to ignore his key to our earthly political invention in favor of that lesser key which he attached to a kite in order to attract heavenly fire.

In the afterword Vidal pushes the point home, starting from his discussion of the Alien & Sedition Acts, progenitors of the Patriot Act, he follows Jefferson’s careful defense of civil rights with his orchestration of the states counterattack that resulted in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions

In a sense Jefferson had made his case in the first Kentucky Resolution from which Breckinridge had eliminated the core
argument “where powers are assumed [by the Federal government] which have not been delegated [in the Constitution], a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy: that every State has a natural right in cases not within the compact. . . to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of powers by others within their own limits.” Thus Jefferson in 1798 had spoken in favor of the principle of nullification. But the first resolution asked for no more than a general sense of the States that the two Federalist Acts were unconstitutional.

Jefferson had to act cautiously, for, even as Vice President, his mere criticism of the acts of Adams & Hamilton could be a violation of the Sedition Act. [Not so different from today’s Bush supporters who declare any dissent being aid and comfort to the enemy.] In this case, the ultimate confrontation was avoided by Jefferson’s electoral defeat of Adams and immediate
suspension of the 2 acts. But nullification remained an inflammatory concept lurking within the Constitution; exploding in the Civil War 2 generations later. Today, Vidal sees it as perhaps the last defense of the states when the Federal Executive abrogates power.

I’ve only traced here one of several threads Vidal ties to contemporary issues. Others include Hamilton’s creation of the financial system, and Marshall’s bold construction of judicial review. Shortness doesn’t prevent Vidal from presenting many arguments that are vital to today’s national politics. Conservatives’ knee-jerk reactions in reviews are amusing since much of the discussion in the book is of ideas any true conservative should hold as core values!

  • Washington’s Crossing – a Review  An invading force gets bogged down while fighting an insurgency.
    While it could be ripped from today’s headlines, this is actually a book about the American Revolution. This is an impressive work on many levels.
  • History as a Work in Progress History is always a subjective process and the best we can hope is that historians tell us what their particular biases are
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  • American Presidents Trivia Game From Zachary to Abe and back from Adams to Wilson, how much do you know about our American Presidents? US Presidents Trivia — challenging for any ability or knowledge level.

Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution


How the Renaissance contributed to the Scientific Revolution

Unintended Consequences of the Renaissance

The re-birth of learning during the Renaissance had many unintended consequences. Historical fiction if well done can demonstrate this.  Dorothy Dunnett while re-telling the story of Macbeth in ‘King Hereafter’describes what Phillip Bobbitt calls the transition from Princely states to Kingly states where the ‘monarch’ might actually hold little land, and whose power relied on holding together an amalgam of territories that had no natural borders (Eg, the widespread and disjointed Hapsburg Empire). Her Nicolo and Lymond series are excellent portrayals of politics and economics in these times. These states were supported by concepts from Greek Philosophy such as Plato & Aristotle’s ideas of government, and especially Aristotle’s ideas that nature could be deduced from first principles. No need for experiment. This reliance on revealed truth rather than observation and experiment gave way first with the Protestant Reformation, then with the experiments of artists and proto-scientists like Leonardio da Vinci and Vesalius artists and proto-scientists like Leonardo da Vinci and Vesalius.

Ultimately, the Renaissance started a series of revolutions – First , Copernicus and Bruno rejected the received idea that the earth was the center of the universe. Later scientific exploration showed that even the sun was only a tiny star amid vast galaxies. Finally, Darwin, standing on the shoulders of early scientists like Hooke, Galton, Newton, and Leibniz, knocked human beings from their pedestal as god’s primary focus, by showing that we are but one species in the sprawling network resulting from evolution.

Teleology, if not theology was dead.

Science & Democracy evolve from the Renaissance

Another consequence of Renaissance ideas was the concept that man might make his own rules, not being ruled from above. Venice had a constitution that was more republican or oligarchical than democratic. Various smaller experiments in city-state communes of medieval Europe followed, including the long struggles against Medici domination in Florence described by Machiavelli in The Prince. The 17th century saw further concepts democracy in philosophy and practice, especially in England and the new Dutch Republic. But it was the enlightenment of the 18th century that gave violent birth to the major democratic revolutions in America and France. What had started with Kings employing painters to glorify their reigns ended by replacing those dynasties with modern democracies.

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy is a magnificent journey through 17th century Europe. Politics, and especially economics, are major foci, as the characters learn and adapt to the evolving capitalist system of venture capital and stock markets, Kings and Princes take a back seat to merchant traders and entrepreneurs.


Fernand Braudel – Civilization and Capitalism
15th-18th Century.

Fernand Braudel’s epic 3 volume work is Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century. These are heavy lifting,
both physically and mentally, but well worth it, and you can see the influences he had on Dunnett and Stephenson when they prepared their fictional narratives. Braudel’s scope is phenomenal, touching details across centuries of history and different civilizations. Fantastic maps and charts illustrate the concepts, along with period pictures.

Starting with human life in the centuries before industrialization, he examines the machinery of exchange as a whole, from barter to the most sophisticated  capitalism. After a survey of the instruments of exchange, he then moves on to look at the effects of markets on the economy. Eventually, traders cease to be mere movers of goods from one place to another and start to build production facilities in far off places. Again echoed by  Dunnett & Stephenson

• Vol. I – The Structures of Everyday
• Vol. II – The Wheels of Commerce
• Vol. III – The Perspective of the World

Book – Washington’s Crossing


David Hackett Fischer
An invading force gets bogged down while fighting an insurgency. While it could be ripped from today’s headlines, this is actually a book about the American Revolution. This is an impressive work on many levels. It’s an excellent history of George Washington’s first year as commander of the Continental army. It also provides insights into the conduct of the war and the morale of the armies that provided the ultimate success. Along the way, Fischer shows that much of what we ‘know’ about this period is incorrect. It’s amazing at this point that there can be so much new information available [The diaries of Hessian Colonel Eward, e.g., only became available in English in 1979]

The early chapters are devoted to Washington’s challenge in bringing a true motley crew of independent regiments together as a continental army. He describes vastly different concepts of such basic values as liberty:

One backcountry company came from Culpeper County, in western Virginia on the east slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. … and mustered three hundred men with bucktails in their hats and tomahawks or scalping knives in their belts…Part of their “savage-looking equipments” may have been their flag…. the dark image of a timber rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

… This was an idea of liberty as reciprocal rights that belonged to all the people, a thought very different from the exclusive rights of New England towns, or the hierarchical rights of Virginia, or the individual autonomy of the backsettlers. … Their version of liberty was more radical in thought and act than any other unit’s in the army. But these men were devoted to the American cause and willing to fight in its defense.

A historiography at the back of the book is a standalone essay on the process of historical description and analysis, showing how over 200 years of study have processed historical fact to produce narrative with varying intentions.

A perhaps unintended effect is Fischer’s description of William Howe’s campaign to pacify the colonies, focusing on bringing New Jersey back into the British fold. His descriptions of the local insurgencies that opposed Howe are eerily familiar to today’s dispatches from Iraq.The actual offenses 2 centuries apart are different, but the refusal of officers to stop outrages, sparks an insurgency:

gathered by county justices and clergymen … They documented an epidemic of rape in New Jersey by British soldiers: “Three women were most horribly ravished by them, one of them an old woman nearly seventy years of age, ….” Others described gang rapes not only by private soldiers but by officers: “British officers, four or five, sometimes more, sometimes less in a gang, went about the town by night entering into houses and openly inquiring for women.”

Americans were shocked by the number of cases, by their scale, and by the involvement of British officers. The Pennsylvania Council of Safety reported another such an incident near Woodbridge, New Jersey: A “gentleman in that part of the country was alarmed by the cries and shrieks of a most lovely daughter; he found an officer, a British officer in the act of ravishing her, he instantly put him to death; two other officers rushed in with their fusees, and fired two balls into the father,” who was severely wounded.

Howe insisted that these reports were nothing but American propaganda…Junior officers in his army knew better. Captain John Peebles, commander of a grenadier company of the Royal Highland Regiment, wrote sadly in his diary on Christmas Eve 1776, “In orders a man condemned to suffer death for a Rape, but pardon’d at the intercession of the injured party; the second instance, tho’ there have been other shocking abuses of that nature that have not come to public notice. The story of the poor old man and his daughter in Long Island was very bad indeed, hard is the fate of many who suffer indiscriminately in a civil war. “

As always, the continuing occupation, with insufficient troops to complete its mission, then feeds further

Small bands of armed men ambushed mounted British couriers on the road. They killed a British officer and his servant, attacked foraging parties in the countryside, and shot at Hessian sentries. Captain Friedrich von Miinchausen wrote on December 14,1776, “It is now very unsafe for us to travel in Jersey. The rascal peasants meet our men alone or in small unarmed groups. They have their rifles hidden in the bushes, or ditches, and the like. When they believe they are sure of success and they see one or several men belonging to our army, they shoot them in the head, then quickly hide their rifles and pretend they
know nothing.”

The result was a spontaneous rising … Mott himself recruited men who were ready to take up arms against the British and Hessians. Other leaders did the same. Colonel David Chambers of the Hunterdon militia led a band in Amwell Township east of Coryell’s Ferry. These men did not go into the town of Trenton or attack its outposts, but when Hessian Jaegers or British dragoons or small foraging parties left the town and went up the Delaware Valley along the River Road, or northwest toward Flemington and Lambertville, or north toward Princeton, the Jerseymen attacked. Colonel RaIl began to lose men every day, and the strength of the militia increased. On December 16, Colonel Chambers sent prisoners across the river to George Washington: two Regulars, and one “Malitious Active Tory” who had “assembled and spirited the negroes against us.” On December 17, a patrol of British dragoons went upriver toward Pennington and McConkey’s Ferry. They were intercepted by the Hunterdon men, and one dragoon was” deadly wounded.” On December 18, another dragoon was killed on the road to Maidenhead by a party that was reported to be more than a hundred strong. On December 19, three grenadiers in the Lossberg regiment were captured while out forag­ing. On December 20, RaIl sent a patrol of Jagers and dragoons four miles upriver to Howell’s Ferry, where they met 150 Hunterdon men commanded by Captain John Anderson; the Americans came off second best and lost three or four men.

The Jerseymen forced RaIl to send dispatches to Princeton with an escort of a hundred men, which some British commanders thought absurd. But the growing scale of attacks by the Hunterdon militia supported his judgment. RaIl was rapidly losing control of the countryside, even to the outskirts of Trenton. He could not patrol up the river even to Howell’s Ferry, four miles upstream, without losing men. McConkey’s Ferry ten miles distant was beyond his reach. The Hessian commander could identify the American leaders by name, and he could defeat the Hunterdon militia in a stand­up fight, but he could not stop them from striking again and again, and vanishing into country that they knew so well. In all of this the Jersey men went far beyond instructions from Washington. This Hunterdon Rising was an autonomous event, by angry men against a hated oppressor.

… another American officer began to attack from a different direction. …Grenadier Reuber called the raiders with darkened faces “black Negroes and yellow dogs.” He added, “We had to watch out. . . . They crossed the Delaware to our side, set some houses on fire, and then retreated. Again everything was quiet. . . but we had to watch out. “

The American rebels kept up constant pressure on the isolated Hessian garrison. The description of the constant stress on the troops could be taken directly from reports of US Marines in Iraq and similar to Sebastian Junger’s reporting in War

“The Hessian garrison suffered few casualties in these repeated raids from the river, but they lost sleep and confidence and their morale was badly shaken. Rumors of impending attacks multiplied. On December 20 or 21, Reuber remembered that “the inhabitants of the town circulated a rumor that the rebels wanted to surprise us. We did not have any idea of such a thing, and thought the rebels were unable to do so.” But their colonel took no chances. Reuber wrote, “Early in the morning Commander Rall selected a strong force from his brigade, also a cannon, and we must march in two divisions, along the Delaware, to see about the Americans attempting to cross the Delaware for an aggression. There was no sign of it, and we marched to near Frankfort, which was situated on the other side of the Delaware.. There we could see Americans. Rall stopped us and we joined with the other divisions and returned to Trenton. All was quiet again.

“… He explained to Donop, “I have not made any redoubts or any kind of fortifications because I have the enemy in all directions.” For security the guns were kept in the center of town. Reuber wrote that every soldier was ordered to sleep “fully dressed like he was on watch. The officers and sergeants must enforce this order.”

Even the desperate but unanswered calls from commanders on the ground sound eerily like the pleas for more troops in Iraq that were ignored by Rumsfeld et al:

“Rall called for help. He sent many messages asking for assistance from Donop below Bordentown, General Leslie in Princeton, and Major General Grant at Brunswick. Rall reported that his Trenton garrison was exhausted, the town was indefensible, and attacks were increasing. Only one senior officer took Rall’s worries very seriously: In Princeton, Alexander Leslie, an excellent officer, moved quickly. As early as December 18 he wrote to Rall, “I’ve ordered the first Light Infantry to be at Trenton tomorrow at 10 o’clock and I take the 2d Light Infantry and 300 Men of the 2d brigade to Maidenhead to be in the way if needed. “31 Leslie also sent troops on December 21. Reuber recalled, “Saturday afternoon before Christmas came three English regiments from Princeton to Trenton for reinforcement and when they came to town and Major Rall settled them, they were ordered to turn around and march back to Princeton. ”

Fischer ably brings the narrative to a close:

In the winter campaign of 1776-77, Washington and the Continental army found a solution that had many elements. Part of it was flexibility and opportunism in high degree. Throughout the Revolution George Washington’s strategic purposes were constant: to win independence by maintaining American resolve to continue the war, by preserving an American army in being, and by raising the cost of the war to the enemy. Washington was always fixed on these strategic ends but flexible in operational means. …The diversity of operations in the winter campaign was the first clear example of a style that persisted through the war. He was quick to modify his plans with changing circumstances and adapted more easily than his opponents. Washington was a man of steadfast principle but also a military opportunist. Many American leaders would follow that example: Greene and Morgan, Lee and Jackson, Grant and Sherman, Eisenhower and Bradley, Nimitz and Patton, Schwarzkopf and Franks.

Another element in this American approach to war-fighting a new way of controlling initiative and tempo in war. After many defeats around New York, American leaders learned the urgent importance of seizing the initiative and holding it. George Washington and his lieutenants did more than merely surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton on the morning after Christmas. They improvised a series of surprises through a period of twelve weeks. By that method they seized the initiative from their opponents and kept it … Washington made it a formal principle in the army, when he ordered his generals to drive the campaign and not “be drove.”

Initiative was largely about the control of time in campaigning. English historian George Otto Trevelyan wrote that George Washington succeeded at Trenton and Princeton because he “caught the occasion by the forelock.” In New Jersey, American leaders learned to make time itself into a weapon. They did it by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the campaign. Day after day through the winter campaign, the Americans called the tune and set the beat. By that method, they retained the initiative for many weeks and kept British commanders off balance. The material and moral impact was very great, especially when a small force was able to control the tempo of war against a stronger enemy. Events happened at a time and place of their choosing. From all this another American tradition developed. It appeared in the Civil War, in both theaters in World War II, and in discussions of tempo by Pentagon, planners in the twenty-first century.

The central figure was George Washington himself. In the winter campaign of 1776-77, he developed a system of intelligence that became part of his new way of war. Washington personally recruited secret agents, with orders to report to him alone, and employed Nathaniel Sackett, of the New York Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, to construct an entire network in New York with agents male and female, of every rank and station. It is impossible to know the full extent of Washington’s intelligence operations, for he cloaked them in secrecy, but beyond doubt he was very active in this work.

Washington also asked Continental generals and militia commanders to gather their own intelligence, and even to run their own agents…lHis attitudes toward intelligence-gathering were different from those of leaders in closed societies, who sought to monopolize intelligence and prohibited efforts they did not con­trol. Washington was comfortable with an open system, in which others were not only permitted but actively encouraged to have a high degree of autonomy. This free and open system of information-gathering engaged the efforts of many people, produced multiple sources, and got better results than closed systems. It was another reason why free societies often have more effective intelligence systems than closed societies.

All of these elements came together in the winter campaign of 1776-77: boldness and prudence, flexibility and opportunism, initiative and tempo, speed and concentration, force multipliers, and intelligence. They defined a new way of war that would continue to appear through the Revolution and in many American

I’ve focused here on particular passages that highlight similarities with modern insurgencies and occupations, but the book is also an excellent military history of the Trenton campaign and its significance to the American Revolution. Of special interest are the over 40 pages of appendices with detailed orders of battle, weather records, and other information that will be of use to military modelers and gamers.

Finally, unlike so many histories, the maps are excellent – specifically designed to illuminate the text.




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