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Sam Willis

The Struggle for Sea...

We think we have a firm grasp on the key events of the American Revolution. Massachusetts rebels drive the British out of Boston and down to New York in 1776. There the war stalls, New England inflamed, and Washington’s rag-tag army powerful enough to jab at the British, but not defeat them. Unable to corner Washington, the British then order General John Burgoyne’s army to march south from Canada in 1777 to seize the line of the Hudson and isolate the rebellion in New England, while General William Howe marched an army of redcoats up from New York to unite with “Gentleman Johny” and strangle the rebellion in its crib. Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in 1777 encouraged France and Spain to enter the war against Britain. Determined to exploit the alliances, Washington inspired his crumbling army to hang on. Desperate to terminate the costly, distracting war in America, the British abruptly switched their focus from North to South, taking Savannah and then Charleston in 1780. London would build Loyalist support in the South, and then advance north to crush the revolution. As Cornwallis moved through the Carolinas into Virginia, Washington secured a promise from Admiral Francois de Grasse to sail his French fleet from the West Indies to blockade the British army at Yorktown. The combined French and American armies descended on the Chesapeake from New York, joined with de Grasse, encircled Cornwallis’ 9,000-man army and won the war in 1781.

But that’s just half the story. Sea power played in the background of the long, bruising American war like white noise. Most students of the Revolution realize that the French and Spanish converted it into a world war to seize British colonies in India, the West Indies and Florida, or take back land like Gibraltar and Minorca. In this fine book, Sam Willis shows just how vital those far-flung naval campaigns—undertaken by all but bankrupt French and Spanish fleets—were to American independence. (France would tumble into revolution because of its arguably misguided expenditures, Spain into deeper irrelevance.) The British would probably not have lost the war were it not for the exhausting sacrifices demanded by French raiding in India and the Cape, the Franco-Spanish sieges of Gibraltar, the Spanish assault on the Mississippi Delta, French attacks in the Caribbean, and the constant threat of an Allied invasion of England.

In this brisk, colorful book, Willis elevates sea power to its primary place in the war. It both facilitated Britain’s attempt to defeat the American colonists, and ultimately doomed those attempts. Willis’ narrative skills and strategic analysis are outstanding. His ability to convey the look and feel of the Caribbean ports, the gloom of Gibraltar, the bustle of American wharves, or the rigors of service in any of the fleets in the war makes this a particularly stirring read.

Geoffrey Wawro
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Fergus M. Bordewich

The First Congress

The little known story of a watershed moment in the making of America: the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791.

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Additional Selections

Elizabeth Norton

The Temptation of El...

A master historian brings to life the fraught drama that engulfed the Tudor court after the death of Henry VIII in 1547.

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Edward Foley

Ballot Battles

Ohio State Law School professor Edward Foley is almost certainly the country’s leading specialist on a quite esoteric, but altogether important, area of election law: how should disputes that arise during vote counts be resolved? Ballot Battles is necessary reading for anyone with a professional interest in election law or the design of electoral procedures.

But general readers as well should be captivated by the sheer treasure trove, suggested by the title, of fascinating stories about the election disputes themselves. They arose early, immediately after the foundation of the new country following the Revolutionary War, at both the state and national level. One reason is that there was almost no precedent for carrying out elections to select one’s leaders. Governors had been appointed by the King, not elected by “we the people” (or, at least, that subset of the people entitled to vote). The Framers, whether of the U.S. Constitution or equally important state constitutions, had not thought through what the proper response should be if elections were sufficiently close to generate accusations that some votes should be disqualified because of irregularities, thus changing the results of the elections.

Moreover, 18th-century constitution drafters were almost desperately resistant to the idea of political parties, viewed by the 1787 Madison as “factions” inimical to the “public interest.” This, of course, was a futile hope, and election disputes almost immediately took on decidedly partisan overtones. Foley makes it clear, for example, that the New York gubernatorial election of 1792 was almost certainly stolen from the Federalist John Jay by partisans of the incumbent George Clinton; the same would have been true in the 1806 Massachusetts election had public opinion not revolted against the depredations of state Democrats, who were shamed into giving the governorship to their political opponent. And these are only the initial stories Foley vividly tells!

The book marches through episode after episode, all of them fascinating in their own way. There is Lyndon Johnson’s 87-vote, highly debatable, victory over Coke Stevenson in the 1948 senatorial election and, of course, the Florida vote of 2000, with its “hanging chads” and remarkable episodes of judicial intervention; instead of calming things, for many it simply served to exemplify the partisan warfare itself. Republicans chastised the Democrats on the Florida Supreme Court; Democrats, the five Republicans on the United States Supreme Court who ended the election and in effect handed the Oval Office to George W. Bush. But later years saw a disputed gubernatorial election in Washington State and the long controversy over the senatorial election in Minnesota (ultimately won by Al Franken) in 2008.

The central question that obsesses Foley, and should obsess us, is the development of a process of vote counting that will in fact genuinely be recognized as fair and end disputation. The book is not only a marvelous read, but also is concerns a topic central to our future as a democratic political order.

Sanford Levinson
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