Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth

Scars of Independence: America's Violent BirthScars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this book via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review.

The quaint, romanticized version of the American Revolution that many have grown up with through popular history and school curriculum is not the real life story that those living during those years experienced. In Scars of Independence, Holger Hoock looks past the good versus bad and underdog narratives so prevalent today to reveal the multifaceted struggle and very violent history of the American Revolutionary War from all its participants.

Hoock frames the American Revolution as not just a colonial rebellion, but first and foremost a civil war in which the dividing line of loyalties split family. The Patriot-Loyalist violence, either physical or political, began long before and lasted long after the military conflict. Once the fighting actually began, both the Americans and the British debated amongst themselves on the appropriate use of the acceptable violence connected to 18th century warfare and on the treatment of prisoners. While both sides thought about their conduct to those in Europe, the Native Americans were another matter and the violence they were encouraged to inflict or was inflicted upon them was some of the most brutal of the war. But through all of these treads, Hoock emphasizes one point over and over, that the American Patriots continually won the “propaganda” war not only in the press on their side of the Atlantic but also in Europe and even Great Britain.

One of the first things a reader quickly realizes is that Hoock’s descriptions of some of the events of the American Revolution remind us of “modern-day” insurgencies and playbooks of modern terrorists, completely shattering the popular view of the nation’s birth. Hoock’s writing is gripping for those interested in popular history and his research is thought-provoking for scholars. Another point in Hoock’s favor is his birth outside the Anglo-American historical sphere in Germany, yet his background in British history and on-off research fellowships in the United States has given him a unique perspective to bring this piece of Anglo-American history out to be consumed, debated, and thought upon.

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth is a fascinating, intriguing, thought-provoking book on the under-reported events of the American Revolutionary War in contrast to the view of the war from popular history. Holger Hoock gives his readers an easy, yet detailed filled book that will help change their perspective on the founding of the United States by stripping the varnish away to reveal the whole picture.

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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of PowerThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The complex life and the politics of the third President of the United States in a dramatic period in history are brought to the fore in Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. After nearly twenty years in which Jefferson’s reputation has taken a hit through both scientific revelations and new biographies of his fellow Founders, the pragmatic philosopher who still yearned to daydream comes into better light 200 years after his time in office.

Meacham approached his book as a pure biography of Jefferson not a history of the times, which meant that only events that directly affected Jefferson or his immediately family were focused upon. Thus while Jefferson’s own story began in 1743, Meacham sets the stage with a family history that was also a history of colonial Virginia both politically and culturally. Throughout the next 500 pages, Meacham follows Jefferson in and out of Virginia with stops in Philadelphia, Paris, New York, and finally Washington D.C., but through everything a special focus was on how he developed his political acumen to achieve the vision he had for the United States in the world.

Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings is discussed throughout the book when important moments in both their lives cross. While Hemings is not the focus of the book, the ‘relationship’ is interwoven by Meacham into Jefferson’s complicated thoughts on slavery that is more thoroughly detailed towards the end of the book and is some of the best analysis in the book. Yet, the focus on Jefferson’s political skill in comparison to his contemporaries and his time resulted in a fairly quick book to read (505 pages) that had extensive notes that could have added more to the body of the book and given the book more depth is the basic drawback of the book.

Over the last decade, a new round of biographies of the Founding Fathers has brought praise and more attention to the actual human beings we think of when we hear their names. Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is a fascinating read of a man whose words and actions are both celebrated and controversial.

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Washington: A Life

Washington: A LifeWashington: A Life by Ron Chernow
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The life of George Washington is not the stoic, myth-laden journey most people have fixed in their minds.  As revealed in Ron Chernow’s excellent biography, the stoic man in paintings hid an emotional complex man who went from being a loyal British subject for the first two-thirds of his life to the individual who brought a new nation into being over nearly a quarter century.

Chernow beings by putting Washington not only into the context of his times, colonial Virginia, but also into the family dynamic he grew up and developed in.  The first son of his father’s second marriage, Washington’s father died young like many of his forbearers leaving a void in his life that he filled with his oldest half-brother Lawrence.  It was his brother’s service in the Royal Naval that would direct Washington to desire military success when he was a young man.  However, Washington would lose his brother at an early age in a string of emotionally sting but ultimately fortuitous deaths that shaped his life.

Beginning with his brother Lawrence, Washington had the good fortune of finding and befriending influential people throughout his life.  Learning early on, in trial and error, to be willing to service while not appearing to strive for service, Washington was able to climb into more influential circles than it had been thought possible at his birth.  Even as he cherished getting military glory, Washington quickly took advantage of business opportunities throughout his life but especially land speculation and purchases.

Chernow faithfully follows the course of Washington’s life, but instead of just going from one high or low point to the next he fills in the details thanks to the massive amount of material he researched through Washington’s papers.  Beginning in the French and Indian War, that he essentially started, Washington never truly found the glorious military moment he aspired to but the lessons he learned in his first war would be put to good use in the Revolution as he kept his ever rotating army together through one hardship after another.

Throughout all of his public life, Washington was plantation owner of a vast estate and holder of numerous slaves.  Throughout his time in the Continental army, the Constitutional Convention, and as President, Washington thought of Mount Vernon and how it was run.  At first attempting the try and true Virginia crop of tobacco, Washington switched to other crops and aimed to be a scientific innovative farmer to make his farms profitable but wasn’t able to establish his dream due to his public life.  Chernow did not shy away from Washington’s slavery record; instead it was a major recurring theme throughout the book that was returned to numerous times including the lead up to Washington’s final days.

In examining Washington’s last quarter century, Chernow showed how Washington’s dissatisfaction with Great Britain being with little things but eventually grew into his becoming a leader in Virginia against British taxes.  Chernow took Washington’s time leading the Continental Army to not only show his military decisions, but also his interactions with Congress which would shape his political outlook not only during but after the war for a strong central government.  Finally, Chernow proved a look into Washington’s creation of the Presidency in relation to Congress and the Judiciary, to foreign and domestic affairs based on  his experiences throughout the war and afterwards.

After finishing the book, the reader sees how Washington was uniquely qualified for the times he lived in and also a normal human being.  Chernow gives the reader not a waxwork life, but a moving one that shows it was only Washington who could have done what was needed during the last quarter of the 18th century.  If you want to find out who George Washington was beyond that he “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen” then this is the book you need to read.

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Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence

Band of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America's IndependenceBand of Giants: The Amateur Soldiers Who Won America’s Independence by Jack Kelly
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received an Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.

The soldiers of the Continental Army were not professionals when the American Revolution began in 1775, neither were their commanding officers.  But as Jack Kelly writings in his book “Band of Giants”, these amateur soldiers took on and defeated the greatest army in the world to win independence for their nation.

Kelly’s chronicle of the Revolutionary generation’s military journey starts in 1754 following an inexperienced George Washington as he ignites the French and Indian War and the military lessons he learned.  As each significant leader is introduced within the narrative, Kelly gives the reader insight into their previous military experience or lack thereof.  As the war goes on, Kelly explains how the commanders learned through failure and success that eventually resulted in the victorious siege of Yorktown.

The best part of this book is that Kelly just doesn’t follow Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold who always seem to be at the fore of Revolutionary history.  The lives and careers of Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, Daniel Morgan, John Stark, Charles Lee, and many others are given their just do in the relating of events during the war.

Yet there were sections of the book that seemed that Kelly let stray from the overall thrust of the book.  Kelly introduced the wives and family of many of the men he follows in the book; overall this is not a bad thing since at times family situations did interfere with a commander’s duties.  However at times, the details Kelly relates while interesting little facts were just that and nothing more in the overall context of the book.  Another glaring error was Kelly shifting from chronicling the course of events and why the individual made the decisions he made, only to then suddenly armchair quarterback the decision before continuing on the narrative.  These moments were few and far between, but left the reader scratching their head.

Overall “Band of Giants” is a very readable, researched, general history of the American Revolution and the commanding officers of the Continental Army.  Although author Jack Kelly does stray briefly into unrelated details and on a couple of occasions interjects his opinion, those errors cannot take away from a well written book that introduces the reader to a better understanding of the history of the American Revolution.

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