Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: Declaration: the Nine Tumultuous Weeks when America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776

Another find from my Borders sale! I decided to bring it along with me on my travels because it is tiny and I was hoping I'd finish it while still in California (and thus could leave it there and not schlep it back and forth). That plan really wasn't well thought out, because I had little reading time during the week. Between new apartment errands, visiting with old friends and birthday celebrations for my sister, I didn't read until I got up to Lake Tahoe for the weekend. On the flip side, the plan was still a bad one because I ran out of deadly roughly 35 minutes into my first flight back to DC. Luckily, I was able to pick up a new book in the airport before I got on the plane- that review will come later this week.

Now for the actual book review. I had mixed feelings about this read. I really enjoy the idea behind the book: explain the ties between the restructuring of the Pennsylvania state government and the Declaration of Independence. I have read a great deal about the discussions and deliberations behind the production of the Declaration, but I knew very little about the radical overthrow of the chartered government led by John Dickinson. I am confident I am not the only person whose knowledge about that process is lacking, which is surprising because some of the key players are well remembered and widely famous for their role in bringing about the Declaration. John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush and Richard Henry Lee were all committed to helping transform the Pennsylvania government as a way to bring about independence for the 13 colonies. By harnessing the power (social and physical) of the common man without the vote, these men were able to throw out the existing chartered government that supported reconciliation with England and replace it with a committee and a House that endorsed independence. Removing Pennsylvania as an obstacle to independence ensured Maryland, Delaware and eventually New York's support and participation in a new united nation.

My question was if these very famous men contributed in such a major way, why didn't I know about it? Sure I have studied these men, but these particular actions escaped my notice. Truth is, they really didn't want posterity to recognize them for their involvement in the overthrow of Pennsylvania's government. Samuel Adams burned all of his letters and papers regarding the subject and instructed his colleagues to do the same. Rush and Adams quickly began to disassociate themselves from some of their more radical allies after independence was achieved. And to be fair, not without good reason. Some of their former partners went on to espouse ideas that were flat out unacceptable in the 18th century and brought down great derision on their heads. That being said, the story does live on in this book and is one I am very glad to know.

Despite my enjoyment of the topic of this book, I felt that the writing could have been better. Especially in the beginning, I felt that the writer was pandering or lowering his speech. Perhaps he was trying to reach crowds with less knowledge on the subject, but it did feel like he was a bit condescending. Additionally, the author gave a lot of background information about each of the key players mentioned. I love this kind of information- I think it makes the people come alive and represent more than just words on a page. However, the book really wasn't long enough to have all of that information as adequately address and analyze the events from May-July, 1776. As a result, I felt that the telling of the main story suffered a bit. It could have been furthered developed and more analyzed. One final bit of criticism, and this is really more of a personal pet peeve, is that it felt like the author was trying to make the story suspenseful. I am a big believer that history, especially something as huge as the Declaration of Independence doesn't need much help. For example, at one point he said "John Dickinson went home. That turned out to be a mistake." Then he had a artistic marker and a page break. I just feel like that extra emphasis isn't really necessary.

All in all, a good topic, but poorly told.


  1. Given the amount of utter horse manure Hogeland manages to pile into this column at Salon, I can only imagine that reading his book was akin to trudging through the Augean stables.


  2. It certainly wasn't my favorite, although it was a quick read, so not too painful. While I try to always be respectful of other people's work (because I hope that they will someday do the same for me!), I definitely wouldn't recommend it!


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