Bishop -- Birth of the U.S.

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Bishop -- Birth of the U.S.

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feb. 26, 2008, 2:54pm

Has anyone read The Birth of the United States by Jim Bishop? I finished a few weeks back. It doesn't really do enough of what it claims to do, which is to focus in on what was happening from July 1 through July 4, 1776, because it spends at least half of the book providing background information.

Still, I found it pretty interesting, and Bishop does provide very good accounts of what happened at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Any thoughts on this book?

feb. 27, 2008, 4:29pm

I haven't read it, no. So what follows may justifiably be viewed as a tangential rant.

Constraining oneself to a few days seems difficult and somewhat arbitrary, since events that happen on those days, to be fully understood, really need to be put in context -- which explains to me why so much of the book was devoted to providing that background context.

I thought that 1776 was similarly constrained, even though it has a whole year to go through. In part, I think McCullough does better when he has lots of room to run and follow up with all sorts of details.

Picking dates (or battles or whathaveyou) as bookends just seems like an arbitrary way to view history to me, since events and people don't organize themselves based on a calendar or chronology, but rather use it as a tool to organize what has occurred or what they've done. Since they're arbitrary to some degree, the particular date of importance is subject to debate and can change with historical perspective (what may appear to be a historic date today may later be viewed as less important as another later on).

To some degree this line of argument may be more appropriate for distinguishing eras of history rather than narrowing a book topic.

::end rant::

feb. 28, 2008, 12:44pm


Your points are well taken. I should have been a bit more specific about the stated range of the book, though, which wasn't what was happening all over the country during those four days, but what was happening within the closed doors of the Continental Congress over that time period, and what led up to those events. In other words, what was behind the final decision to issue the Declaration of Independence and what was the process by which Jefferson was chosen as author and then the final draft was arrived at.

As you say, nothing occurs in a vacuum. Every event has antecedents and consequences. However, I do think it's interesting and of value to sometimes focus in on individual time frames and events, especially momentous ones, and really examine them in detail. I suppose the good historian will find the line, depending upon subject matter, between providing background and assuming a certain amount of knowledge from his or her readers.

In the case of this book, I would have liked to spend more time inside the four walls of the Congress hall, or more time with the individual members of Congress, via their journals and letters, for example, and less time getting a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Bunker Hill, as good as that account may have been. It's a matter of degree. I picked up the book expecting one thing and got much less of that thing than I was led to believe I was going to get.

It's not a huge complaint. I'm still happy I read the book. I was just wondering whether anyone else here had read it and if so what they thought.