Monthly Archives: July 2017

Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution

Another great book for your reading pleasure and edification… 🙂 This one’s about how Benedict Arnold transitioned from being a hero of the Revolution to its almost-successful betrayer, and thereby earned the dubious distinction of having his name become a synonym for traitor in American English.

That story is worth the read in its own right. But along the way Philbrick colors in a lot of Revolutionary history that I was unaware of, and which explains a bunch of things. For example, why didn’t the American Revolution devolve the way the French Revolution did a few years later, with Committees of Public Safety, the Terror and the rise of Napoleon? Answer…it started down that path (gulp), with witch hunts dragging people who didn’t express enough support for the Cause out of their homes. In fact, Philbrick asserts that part of the reason it didn’t go further was because of Benedict Arnold turning traitor, which gave enough people pause to remember Franklin’s observation “we must all hang together, or we shall all surely hang separately”.

I also enjoyed reading about how Washington repeatedly put the Revolution in danger by trying to foment “one glorious battle” to defeat the British…failing miserably every time he tried. Which eventually forced him to overcome his naturally aggressive instincts (he was an upper-crust, self-made Virginian, after all) and switch to a war of attrition, and let the nascent United States hang on long enough for the French to make it not worth England’s while to keep the colonies (England made far, far more money off of its Caribbean possessions, which France’s entry into the conflict put immediately at risk, than it did off of the 13 colonies combined).

Which is not to denigrate Washington. Real character, and genius, IMHO, is not in having amazing gifts (or at least not just having amazing gifts), but learning how to surmount the limitations we are each born with, whatever those may be. That’s what made Washington the guy we named our national capital after.

Definitely worth picking up.

East Meets West

I just finished reading a pair of wonderful books, 1491 and 1493, both by Charles Mann. The first, 1491, is an in-depth survey of the history and civilizations of the Western Hemisphere prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and what happened to the folks who had been living here after that event. I found it riveting, and chock full of things that I either had no knowledge of whatsoever, or whose significance I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier.

For example, the “virgin forest” described by early colonial settlers appears to have been the result of intensive farming by the native Americans. As also appears to be the case with the Amazon rainforest. The reason neither was appreciated by the Europeans was because there was little or not tradition of “farming” trees in Europe, and diseases to which the original inhabitants had little resistance spread in advance of the wave of colonization, killing off as much as 95% or 96% of the inhabitants. I cannot imagine what the impact of that extinction level event was to the previously-thriving cultures, which, like the Europeans, had no understanding of how bacteria and viruses cause disease, let alone how to combat them.

1493 focuses on the global paroxysms that resulted from that first contact, as Western Hemisphere crops — and pests — flooded the world, along with Inka silver destabilizing both European and Asian societies. 

Definitely worth reading.