Crucible of Revolution -April/May 2013

Nat Philbrick’s new book looks at BOSTON and the roots of the REVOLUTIONARY WAR

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

The moments, and the men behind them, have become clouded in myth, as if a simple mention of the names and places is all that is required: The Tea Party, “The shot heard round the world,” the Founding Fathers. The problem with the fog of myth, however, is that it often obscures a more complete and compelling story, one filled not with great men, but simply with men trying their best under difficult times.

Nat Philbrick’s latest book, “Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution,” lifts that fog, taking readers down the narrow streets of 1773 Boston to meet ministers and secret rabble-rousers, booksellers and sea captains, thugs and ideologues, tavern owners and patriots, wealthy merchants of both the patriot and loyalist persuasions, as well as leaders on both sides of that political divide.

In the middle of it all is the little-known story of Dr. Joseph Warren, a charismatic, Harvard-educated doctor and militia officer, who at 34 years old directed the emerging revolution on a day-to-day basis and whose face might have ended up on the dollar bill instead of Washington’s, had he not been killed in what turned out to be the bloodiest battle of the Revolutionary War.

Philbrick shows us historic figures, not only as if they had stepped away from their famous portraits, but as if we had read about them in last week’s newspaper: Sam Adams the revolutionary, John Hancock the wealthy merchant, “Joyce Jr.” the costumed leader of a tar and feathering committee.

Over the course of 10 books, including one honored with the National Book Award for nonfiction and one shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize, Philbrick has developed a style that connects the power of narrative to decisive moments in American history. Warner Brothers has acquired the movie rights for “Bunker Hill,” and Ben Affleck, fresh off his Academy Award for Best Picture with “Argo,” is slated to direct.
Philbrick also has a knack for defining the landscape – the unyielding Pacific Ocean in “In the Heart of the Sea” and the Great Plains in “The Last Stand” – as somehow something more than simply the stage on which history was played out. This time it is Boston under siege, bookended by a fortified gate closing the city off from land, British ships sealing off the harbor, and a militia gathering in the hills overlooking it all. The Boston Philbrick describes is almost unknowable by looking at a map of Boston today, and central to the political hothouse from which the American Revolution eventually sprang.

“What is that saying about being doomed to repeat the past if you don’t know it? I think we’re doomed to repeat the past even if we know it. I think that’s just the way it goes.”
“Bunker Hill” arrives in bookstores April 30. Nantucket Today had a chance to sit down with Philbrick, before he left for the mainland to begin a book tour, to chat about the process behind his work.

Nantucket Today: This book does not linger in the history of hindsight, but rather a story where history writ large flows out of history writ small, the big event that defines a nation coming from a series of smaller events.

Nat Philbrick: When you look back on history it makes it all seem inevitable, but it wasn’t inevitable at all to those people living through it. Great moments can be messy. Nobody knows what’s going on. It’s not that they were better than us when they forged this union. They were just like us. It was a different time and circumstances, obviously, but they were flawed, fascinating people, finding themselves in the midst of an extraordinary situation, and doing the best they could. But it wasn’t a pretty picture.

And here we are today, the same thing. It’s messy and awful and nobody really knows what’s going on. We can look back 10 years from now and what happened might seem obvious, but it never seems obvious at the time.

NT: It is easy to miss the story behind the historic moments. How much history do you know, or think you know, as you begin to research and write?

NP: It’s just amazing to me how superficial my knowledge of history is until I get into the archives. And then I begin to see that there is some complexity here, it’s not all as patriotic cookie-cutter as you think. It’s part of the American experience that I’m curious about and don’t quite know how it really worked. With this I was just interested in how a city was impacted by a revolution. And with revolutions happening all over the world it seems these days, I was just curious about how it happened. Growing up, if you weren’t a patriot it seemed like you were evil incarnate. But there are two sides to all of this, and from the beginning it wasn’t clear how it was going to end up.
It was the question of finding the right characters to focus on. It has to be a character-driven narrative, because there you see that this is a book about leadership. You can see the Warren kind of leadership versus the George Washington kind of leadership, versus the very different British kind of leadership, and the different cultures that have developed and continue to develop in America. For me the act of putting together a narrative is about finding out how it actually happened as best as I can figure it out.

NT: How did you develop that characterdriven style?

NP: The light bulb that went off was “Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890” (first published in 1993). Telling the history of the island through people made me think I could do this. And in a way, each book has been a refinement of that light bulb, so to speak. I just don’t connect with a story unless there’s some emotional engagement, some entry point to which I can relate. For me it’s a process of trying to get to know who these people were, and finding out it wasn’t just ideology driving them, it was personal relationships, matters of money, it just became much more complex and ultimately much more interesting. It’s a process of just trying to find a story that is human, yet it finds surprising moments in the things we all sort of presume we already know.

NT: If there is a main character it is Dr. Joseph Warren, who was so central to the early patriot movement but who seems to have been washed away by the sands of time. He was a man born into a certain standing in society, and able to move in those circles, but during battle he stayed on the front lines with his men. On top of it all, he juggled his medical practice with a fiancé and, perhaps, a young, pregnant mistress. Do you purposely look for people like him as a storytelling device?

NP: I had sort of heard of him but didn’t understand who he was. It was after I decided on this topic that I began to realize that this is the guy, the great character a lot of us have never heard of. And then I began to realize how famous he had been in the early 19th century, and how much that has since faded. He was quite the guy, but only gradually I began to piece together how rich his story was. Having grown up in the 1960s I have a kind of jaundiced view of heroes. But he was just one of those characters who could look at situations and adapt and was born with this inner charisma.

Between Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill you have these 60 days where everything is happening and he’s in the middle of it all. There are his letters to Sam Adams about creating a civil government and the worry that we would slip into a military government. All this stuff was happening and things are getting very tense, yet they’re thinking about issues and that kind of willingness to think philosophically helped save our revolution from becoming like France and being a bloodbath. There was some restraint in the midst of these huge events.

Warren’s relationship with Sam Adams, for instance, how he was sort of tied to the hip with him and ends up being on his own at just the most critical phase of therevolution. And his relationship with (British General) Gage, how he would do direct correspondence with him, even though at that point they were essentially at war. And that for me is exciting to learn. I find the narrative for me is only as good as I’m engaged in it. You never quite know what you’re getting into with a story. There’s got to be discoveries along the way.

NT: I was surprised at the formality and respect with which the British dealt with the patriots, even as political issues turned violent. I was also surprised that there was a feeling among the patriots that this would all have a political solution, would never end up in a shooting war, and that they would simply stay British.

NP: The incredible irony is that the British regard for liberty allowed the patriots to get away with it. They didn’t just come in and lock them down. For nine months the patriots sent out weapons from Boston into the countryside, because marshal law hadn’t yet been declared. On the other hand, if you happened to be a loyalist, the patriots were just brutal. For me I think Americans have a tendency to see this as a triumph of ideology, when in fact it was really a kind of civil war. It was a lot less pretty and clean than we would like.

We look to the traditional idea that we threw off the yoke of tyranny to become America. But it wasn’t really a yoke of tyranny. I see it as an extension of the Mayflower story and King Philip’s War. Their great-grandfathers had fought for this land against the Indians, and more recently the French and Indians had been defeated in the north, and now they were going to claim it for their own. That was as much of a motivating factor as anything.

They referred to England as home, even the one true radical, Sam Adams. And you think, wow, they’ve never even been there and live on the other side of a 3,000-mile-wide ocean, and that’s still their reference point. I think that’s a surprise to people, to hear how blurred the boundaries were and yet how distinct the societies were becoming. And yet on the other side they don’t want to be interfered with financially. Some things never change I guess.

NT: The landscape of Boston itself, which has changed so much, is a big part of this story.

NP: The difference in the landscape of Boston now and Boston then blows me away. The Back Bay was water. It is almost like mental archaeology walking through Boston for me now. You see things differently. In “Last Stand,” the central Montana battlefield is close to what it was then. But in Boston, all the hills, like Beacon Hill, were shaved down and the dirt used to fill in Back Bay.

My interest in history began when we were living in Boston before we moved to Nantucket. Our daughter, Jennie, was just ababyandIhadalotoftimetopushher stroller through the North End, up Copp’s Hill. And I just became curious to what came before. The physical place for me provides the architecture on which I try to reconstruct what it was like.

It is so hard to imagine the way it was, but Boston was this little kind of medieval village with some hills that front on the water. It really was an island, surrounded by these other islands. It’s a landscape that makes it an interesting place for a siege. I really like the chess game out on the islands in Boston Harbor, between the British Navy and the colonials, who had gotten their hands on some whaleboats.

NT: I was surprised at how ill-suited George Washington seemed as he took control of the colonial army. His only real battle experience was a failure that sparked the French and Indian War and his biggest wish was to be a British officer. When he first appears in the book, there is a moment where you can feel as if bringing him in was mistake.

NP: The New Englanders were used to having some input into what happened. They were used to a “raise your hand in town meeting kind of thing,” and that was drastically different from the way things were handled in Britain or in Virginia. And you know New England was even different from the middle and southern colonies. Here they were leaning more toward a democratic process. So when Washington came up he had a southerngentry kind of approach, and he looks at these New Englanders who were dirty and disheveled and yet expect to be treated with respect and listened to and it just kind of blows his mind.

Then there was George Lee, lobbying for Washington’s job. And he was scruffy, surrounded by his dogs. He had not only been an Indian fighter but he had lived among them. He was more colorful. He had been to Boston and done some pre-revolutionary politicking. He had more combat experience. Even later in the revolution you see John Adams and Sam Adams saying that maybe Washington is not destined to be our leader, and looking to people like Lee as an alternative.

You do get the feeling Washington might not work out. He was young, hot-headed, and didn’t know what the hell he was doing. What made him an extraordinary leader is that most of us are who we are and don’t change easily, but Washington was able to learn quickly from situations and take a critical look at himself. It was never in a disparaging way, but in a way that allowed him to make changes and learn how to lead. And that is remarkable in any leader.

NT: How do you tap into the inner lives of people like Warren and Sam Adams and Washington and then follow their interweaving story lines?

NP: I got the overall idea that I wanted to trace Boston through the revolution and then figure out what characters to focus on. So initially I focus on academic books and then begin to realize I need to know more about something specific, say civil unrest. And so then I plunge into that topic. This figure Joyce Jr. (the costumed leader of a tar and feathering committee) wasn’t on my radar screen, and it took me a while to find a lead and find out he was actually the son of a Harvard professor. That blew my mind.

It is almost kind of organic. I write a treatment or proposal but in retrospect that only scratches the surface. I work chapter by chapter. I do the overall research and then each chapter is its own research process. After all the reading and notetaking, you end up with hundreds of pages of notes from reach chapter. It’s like painting a room. All the prep work takes time and the painting is done in a flash. That’s the same for me with writing. There is a lot of prep work.

NT: Giving each character his own story line, within the bigger story, really creates a wonderful lens through which to see the time and the place.

NP: What I’ll do is a series of outlines. I have calendars and time lines and a lot of it is just getting the chronology and seeing where the characters fit into it and how they interact. The newspapers of the day were very helpful. And since there were Loyalist and Patriot newspapers you got different accounts of events.

NT: If anybody was a true revolutionary it was Sam Adams. He seemed like the one person who could see the eventual outcome.

NP: He had the vision thing. He was like a lot of revolutionaries, it is almost an aesthetic commitment to a cause and he could be kind of cold-blooded when it comes to the losses that happen on
the way. Adams was always there, looking for the opportunity, patiently pushing, pushing, pushing.

One of the real surprises for me was how Adams designed a system where towns in Massachusetts could communicate and share opinions. The Committee of Correspondence was a network that was beyond the control of established government and people became invested, they shared opinions, and reacted very quickly to developing events, and bang, suddenly things began to take off in a new direction for the status quo.

You just get this feeling that suddenly militias and regular soldiers are facing off. But it was a bit like the Middle East is now, with texting and twitter getting the word out.

NT: We hear these moments in history applied to today’s politics all the time, the Tea Party for instance. Were there any lessons for today to be found in writing Bunker Hill?

NP: What is that saying about being doomed to repeat the past if you don’t know it? I think we’re doomed to repeat the past even if we know it. I think that’s just the way it goes.

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