When the British colonies in the New World began to chafe under the autocratic rule from London, they appealed to the king, as the king’s subjects.
When he ignored their requests to listen to grievances involving taxation, they addressed him again … on the battlefield.
The story of these “radicals,” whom author Les Standiford refers to as “Desperate Sons” in his new book on the subject, is wholly fascinating. Standiford’s book provides a gritty, well-researched look at the men who made the country.
Somewhat similar to the conditions that existed immediately before the U.S. entry into World War II, “Desperate Sons” presents profiles of those who knew what was coming, but they first had to convince their fellow countrymen, many of whom saw them as traitors or deranged.
Much has been written about the hallowed names Hancock, Washington, Jefferson, et al. That is not exactly where Standiford goes in “Desperate Sons.” Rather, he focuses on the admittedly radical activities of lesser-knowns who provided the lead-up work to the Revolution itself. In this book, the reader will learn about the Albany “riots” and the burning of the HMS Gaspee, among others.
It’s quite a wild ride.
Standiford provides a rolling narrative that is so well-written and engaging, one gets the feeling he’s reading a revolutionary journal.
Get a load of this passage: “On the moonless night of November 1, 1765, sentries at watch atop the walls of Fort George, the British garrison at the tip of New York Island, stared warily northward as a crowd of torch- and candle-bearing men moved down Broadway ever closer to their post. Church and meetinghouse bells in the city began to toll incessantly, and scraps of angry shouting drifted from the direction of the city commons, a mile away.”
Wow. For those who can see words visually, it isn’t hard to imagine Ronald Coleman staring down coldly at an approaching Spencer Tracy and his rabble.
Elsewhere, Standiford describes just how reluctant the “farmers, merchants, blacksmiths and journeymen” were to mount an armed insurrection. Yet, the afternoon of Oct. 1, 1769 was a turning point: The British occupied Boston.
Remember, there were the days before cell phones and the Internet, and Samuel Adams recognized that the people would have to know and understand the issues before they’d be ready to fight for liberty and independence. He undertook to print and distribute such material.
“Put the soldiers on the unsettled frontier where they might be useful,” Standiford writes, “perhaps, [Adams] said, but keeping them in Boston to enforce the unconstitutional acts of Parliament was simply a mark of that body’s intention to subjugate the colonists and deprive them of their rights.”
That sight of 700 British soldiers coming ashore, pulling artillery, was one of the matches that lit the revolution. Desperate son Sam Adams saw to it that his fellow countrymen knew about it.
And lest the reader think the tales of the Revolution are some abstract parchment too dusty to fully uncover, consider this portion of Standiford’s hard-boiled narrative outlining the burning of the Gaspee: “Without hesitation, Bowen handed over his musket. Bucklin steadied himself, aimed at the white-shirted figure at the gunwale of the Gaspee, and fired. There was a groan, and Dudingston’s figure disappeared from atop the railing.
“Bucklin turned back to Bowen with satisfaction as the longboats surged forward,” the tale continues. “‘I have killed the rascal,’ he said, handing over the musket.”
It is also important to remember that the intense fervor built up over time by the desperate sons was not met with conciliatory gestures across the Atlantic. The British were ruthless in their assessments of the radicals, and determined to meet force with force.
Indeed: “Despite such hopes, there was not much sign of concession in England [by 1775]. When the petition of the congress finally arrived in London in mid-December and the king was apprised of its contents, his reaction was swift. If such behavior kept up, he said, there would be ‘slaughter’ in the colonies.”
Standiford’s description of a pitched battle at Concord is further reminder that our present, imperiled liberties were bought at great price: “As one soldier wrote of the experience, ‘I never broke my fast for forty-eight hours, for we carried no provisions. I had my hat shot off my head three times. Two balls went through my coat, and carried away my bayonet from my side.'”
All in all, the men viewed as traitors by some should be applauded by all of us today as patriots who shook off the shackles of tyranny. Two centuries on, many of us are still grateful.
We should also be grateful too, to historians like Les Standiford. His “Desperate Sons” arrives at precisely the right time in American history.