Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Revolutionary Summer

Having just moved to Washington, DC, I want to take advantage of all the city has to offer... to that end, I strolled over to the wonderful Politics & Prose bookstore last night and listened to Joseph Ellis talk about his book Revolutionary Summer, a nonfiction work on the events leading up to (and early on in) the American Revolution.

In general, I like author talks, and this one was great.  He knew the material inside out, spoke without notes, was both precise and expansive, giving a good overall sense of his subject as well as particular and evocative details.

Of course, I was also interested in this material because of my own writing.  And though Deborah comes much later in the war (and has issues of her own to handle -- Ellis touched on women only by virtue of mention Abigail Adams' letters) much of what Ellis spoke about gave me a much better sense of the context in which Deborah existed.

Ellis, at one point, reminded the audience that the vast majority of people during the late 18th century were born, lived, and died within a twenty-mile radius, I was struck anew by how bold Deborah was.  Certainly, a good number of men went beyond this radius in their service to the country (in the army or militia) and certainly Deborah ended up within the sphere where she was born (Plympton to Middleborough to Stoughton/Sharon) but her service, as well as her initial flight, where she seemed to have traveled quite a bit, and -- perhaps especially -- her speaking tour later in life, all speak to a more adventurous and daring spirit than many of her contemporaries.

The second point that really struck me in Ellis's talk was his repeated contention that the Revolution didn't form a nation, so much as a set of sovereign states.  Each state had its own personality and Massachusetts, Deborah's home state, was a firebrand -- far out in front of the other states in its determination for independence.  Even more, the fact that there wasn't a strong sense of nationhood explains why, Ellis said, the Continental Army was treated so poorly, particularly at the end of the war.

This aspect had interested me as I did my research for the novel.  Towards the end of her service, Deborah's regiment is called from West Point to Philadelphia because there has been a mutiny of veterans in Pennsylvania.  These veterans were dissatisfied due to the fact that they had been sent home (furloughed) without pay or pension.  Many of these men had served for years and got nothing for it.  When I was researching the novel, I couldn't figure out why this was the case; I just assumed that the Congress was short on funds (and then I got back to more pertinent research).

Ellis's explanation was that the Congress so disliked the idea of a standing army, and so wanted to prevent the glorification and extension of the Continental Army, that they denied them pay and pension -- sending them home, as he said, as beggars -- in order to detract from their standing.  What an unfathomable shame!  But now I understand the motive.  I left the talk feeling -- as I often felt during my research -- that Deborah's world is unbelievably different than the one in which I live (and I know which one I prefer!).

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