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America at Birth

Independence was won. Now begins the hard part.

Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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The Perils of Peace

America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown

by Thomas Fleming

Collins/Smithsonian, 368 pp., $27.95

Everybody who knows anything about history knows that the Revolutionary War ended with the defeat of the British at Yorktown, in 1781. But everybody is wrong, as Thomas Fleming spells out engagingly--if not always judiciously--in The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. In fact, America faced bitterly hard times after the battle that spoiled Great Britain's southern strategy. The United States could well have lost the war even after Yorktown, in large part because the Americans' will and ability to fight were collapsing almost as fast as those of the British.

George III himself was slow to get the point. Initially, he viewed Yorktown as a momentary setback. "The events of war have been unfortunate to my army in Virginia, having ended in the loss of my forces in that province," he told a slack-jawed Parliament. "But I retain a perfect conviction of the justice of my cause." He also retained armies in control of New York, Charleston, and Savannah, poised to snap shut on the wayward colonists in between.

His Majesty might have actually persuaded Parliament to fight on had television and the Internet existed in the 18th century: Men of that era got their information months after the fact, in ways that often precluded a bold and effective response. What the war-weary Parliament did not know is what Fleming lays out here: The United States was itself exhausted and bankrupt. Its Congress was bitterly divided, dispirited, and incompetent, and its 13 states were precariously united at best. Its hungry and tattered army, owed back pay that the country had no means of providing, was at the point of open mutiny.

While General Washington firmly resisted calls to seize control of civilian authority and set matters aright, he had no good idea of how to feed and clothe his men. America's economy was in shambles, and many (most?) citizens, fed up with the extraordinary carnage and cost of this seemingly endless conflict, wanted the war to end yesterday, if not immediately. In that context, the signing of the Treaty of Paris securing America's independence two years later was little short of a miracle--or, as some Founders saw it, a sign that divine providence was at work in the creation of the United States.

Many books have been written about America's "rancid" politics, post--Yorktown, while others have treated the peace negotiations in Europe. Fleming contends that The Perils of Peace is the first to explore "the often hair-raising interplay between these dramas." Hair-raising it is, and Fleming, a successful fiction writer as well as historian, keeps the tale moving, employing his considerable storytelling talents. He paints memorable characters in few strokes, and puts the reader right on the scene, from the cold and hungry American camps to the glittering palace of Versailles.

You would think a book about the American Revolution that focuses more on political maneuvering in sitting rooms than stirring battle scenes might be on the tedious side. You would be wrong. But I was distracted by one of Fleming's stylistic tics: Reading along, I could not help but notice the characters (and their written works) seemed to be repeatedly described as furious, ferocious, and filled with rage: "Morris wrote a ferocious letter. .  .  . This blast of rage was written by twenty-four-year-old Major John Armstrong. .  .  . [H]ot-tempered Major John Armstrong was expressing the fury many officers felt. .  .  . [T]he infuriated young major. .  .  . Exploding with rage, Adams wrote to Robert R. Livingston. .  .  . In a ferocious pamphlet, Burke claimed. .  .  ." And so on.

More troubling is the author's cartoonish treatment of Benjamin Franklin as a paragon of wisdom, moderation, and common sense, and his fellow diplomat (and future president) John Adams as a mere foil, a meddlesome radical to the point of being nearly disastrous to the American cause. Franklin, of course, offered one of the most memorable (and accurate) glosses on Adams when he observed: "I am persuaded that he means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." Adams, for his part, feared that the Revolution would be reduced by future historians to an over-glorification of Franklin and Washington (at the expense of such major figures as Adams, of course): "The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electric rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod--and thenceforth those two conducted the policy, negotiations, legislatures, and war."

Just as Adams feared, Franklin seems to get the full godhead treatment here, while the man from Massachusetts is portrayed as a gaffe-prone intruder and member of a diabolical congressional conspiracy that seems hell-bent on destroying the kindly, randy doctor for no better reasons than jealousy and spite. Fleming cannot even send poor Adams off to dinner without injecting a note of mockery, as when the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, "treated the cranky puritan to a feast of fine wine and succulent food that left him burping contentedly all the way back to Paris."

A more scrupulous historian might have thought twice about slinging around the word "puritan" in regards to Adams, who had in fact stepped away from the puritan tradition in his religious beliefs and habits of thought. A more nuanced--and surely more interesting--evaluation might have taken into account that Adams, though a thorn in the side of Vergennes, had a point in warning that America should be wary of securing independence from the British at the price of utter dependence on the French. And that Adams, by writing such terrifically indiscreet (and wonderfully human) private letters, subjected himself to greater risk of being parodied and pummeled by historians than his less honest and forthright contemporaries.

Indeed, Adams's life of high achievement, and his deft work in keeping America from going to war either with France or Britain during its feeble early years of his presidency, suggests there was a good deal more to the man than meets the author's narrowing eye. Still, the good here--the sprightly writing about events on two continents during a little-appreciated period of vast importance to the world--significantly outweighs the bad. Fleming's account culminates in Washington's moving farewell to Congress (which would surely inspire a "blast of rage" from the ACLU) as he lays down his power as general and retires to private life: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have superintendence of them, to his holy keeping."

The general's own moderation and virtue were far from the least of the blessings bestowed on America in these years. As the events of The Perils of Peace make clear, if God did not have a hand in this most improbable and hair-raising story, we were, at the very least, awfully lucky.

Edward Achorn is deputy editor of the editorial pages at the Providence Journal.