Igniting the American Revolution: A book review by Bob Morris

Igniting the American Revolution
Derek W. Beck
Source Books (May 2016)

Those were indeed the times that “tried men’s souls”

I was reminded of that observation by Thomas Paine, as well as another: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

Previously in Setting the World Ablaze (2000), John Ferling  invoked metaphors of pyrotechnics when discussing the American War of Independence and they are indeed appropriate figures of speech. The Boston Massacre on December 16, 1773, served as the “spark” and various real or perceived grievances served as “kindling.” Over time, more than 200,000 lives were consumed or severely damaged. The “firestorm of destruction” extended from New England through Pennsylvania to East Florida in the south, and, to Saint Louis in what was then referred to as Upper Spanish Louisiana in the west.

Derek Bek makes equally effective use of these and other metaphors in his latest book — by implication and explication — as he examines a two-year period that evolves from the Boston Massacre to a cluster of events in the Expedition to Lexington on April 19, 1775.

In or near the downtown area of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now provide a representative selection of brief excerpts to suggest the thrust and flavor of Beck’s narrative.

o Quoting John Adams, “There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last effort of the Patriots [i.e. the Boston Tea Party] that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered — something notable And striking.” (Page 17)

o “The Expedition to Concord was a dismal failure, though they scoured all of the hiding places as reported by Gage’s intelligence. The whole affair was hardly worth what little war stores they found, the lives killed thus far,  or the many lives that were about to be sacrificed in the coming hours as the British marched through an enraged countryside. As the British expeditionary force was about to learn, the American Revolutionary War had begun.” (176)

o “The Spring of 1775 was then the blossoming of the Revolution during the Battle of the Nineteenth of April into a genuine though uncommitted Revolutionary War.  This advent of hostilities and immediate aftermath in turn gave way, in the summer of 1775, to a very long Siege of Boston, with each side digging in and preparing for battle.” (271)

Having lived for several years in this area, with an office in Concord (where three sons received swimming lessons at Walden Pond) and a home in Sudbury (zip code 1776), I had a special interest in the detailed account of these and other colonial developments.

I commend Derek Beck both as an historian and as a raconteur. He does indeed provide a book, as he had hoped, that offers “an honest look at the events that began the Revolution, warts and all.” Bravo!

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Ferling’s aforementioned Setting the World Ablaze as well as Beck’s The War Before Independence: 1775-1776, R.R. Palmer’s The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800. and Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.


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