On Nov. 16, 1776, an American ship bearing the new Continental Congress flag sailed into port at the Dutch West Indies island of St. Eustatius. In the tradition of international etiquette, the American ship fired a salute. In the spirit of national equality, the Dutch governor ordered that the salute be returned.
It was a small incident, one rarely mentioned in most re-tellings of the American Revolution. But it is around this point that Barbara Tuchman weaves her latest book.She uses this naval salute - the first time an American ship was thus recognized as an independent player - as a table on which to spread a meal of international flavor. The course of the American Revolution served up here is not so much a pitting of upstart colonies against a mother country as it is one episode in a broader power struggle among European nations.
The Dutch are invited in because they owned St. Eustatius and ordered the return salute. But as long as they are here, we may as well look back to the 15th and 16th century Dutch struggles for independence from Spain, which in their way were a precursor of the cause of political liberty taken up by the Americans.
The French wanted their own share of the pie and were willing to contribute money, ships and soldiers in hopes of seeing their English enemies upset. Their expenses had significant consequences in their own country and played a part in the French Revolution to come.
And even the English tended to look beyond the American colonies to the bigger picture of colonial and commercial ventures. They seemed to think their holdings in the West Indies were actually the more valuable real estate.
With her usual skill, Tuchman weaves all these elements together to provide a look at the bigger picture.
The prevailing notion of the times seemed to be "he who rules the seas, rules"; and thus the story is largely one of ships and their commanders, of navies and outdated "Fighting Instructions," of trade and exports and sailing ventures.
A recurring theme is one Tuchman developed in her "March of Folly" - that governments often don't act in their own best interests:
"Britons faced with the American Revolution were not interested in Americans or in their magnificent continent reaching from ocean to ocean. No British monarch had ever seen his domain across the Atlantic, and no British minister in the 15 years, 1760-75, when insurgency was brewing to a boil visited the colonies to learn what was exercising the unruly subjects or what kind of people they were. The consequence was ignorance, which is a disadvantage in war."
If anything suffers from this smorgasbord approach to history, it is perhaps chronology. Without a timeline, it is sometimes a challenge to keep events in proper order as we skip around the table. We start with the first salute and don't pick up the American cause again until the campaign of Yorktown and the defeat of Cornwallis. The reader who is not at least acquainted with the story of the revolution may find it more difficult to connect it all.
But this is a minor inconvenience, given the profusion of two Tuchman trademarks: insight and attention to detail.
Here's just one taste: "Cornwallis was a man who could have thrust his hand in a flame if necessary, but not a man to organize the logistics and arrangements of a large campaign with a likely risk of failure. The smooth face in the Gainsborough portrait with no lines of thought or of frowns or of laughter - with no lines at all - tells as much. It is a face composed by a life of comfort and satisfaction without any need of desperate attempts."
In the end it all comes together quite nicely - illuminating, informing, entertaining - a look not only at the birth of our nation but at "the hour of change to a democratic age," the beginnings of the Western world as we know it today.