Two chapters near the end of Jeff Shaara’s historical novel Rise To Rebellion focus on Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet Common Sense. Shaara even includes a handful of choice quotes from Paine, making sure the reader understands that Paine was the common man’s advocate for independence, as opposed to the sincere but often elite (and therefore sometimes out of touch) leaders at the Continental Congress. It was Paine’s words more than those of Adams or Henry or Hancock or Franklin that won over the Americans to the cause of revolution.
Is it a coincidence that I read Shaara’s novel at the same time that I read Glenn Beck’s attempt to update Paine’s pamphlet? Either way, the contrast proved useful.
Shaara’s Rise To Rebellion is the best historical novel I’ve ever read. He begins with the Boston Massacre and takes us through the lives, hearts, families, struggles, and triumphs of our Founding Fathers over the course of the subsequent six years, ending with the Declaration of Independence. He makes Franklin and Adams his protagonists, and suavely works in tons of trivia, as well as bringing to vivid, three-dimensional life the human stories that made their achievements even more awesome.
Here we see John and Abigail Adams trying to squeeze out a bare living as they raise a young family and maintain a loving marriage–it doesn’t help matters that John soon finds himself thrust into the middle of controversy, as he grows increasingly strong in his convictions over time.
Here we see Franklin as he tries to manage the office politics of England, at the cost of his own family relationships. He has much to regret despite his fame and fortune, and the chapters near the end where the emotional break between he and his loyalist son are laid bare are genuinely heartbreaking.
Shaara makes no attempt to fool us into thinking that this is a neutral textbook–he approaches the major events of the time in a way that can only be called reverent. The chapters about the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord both had me in goosebumps. And it doesn’t hurt that Shaara is clearly a very gifted writer–he gives us philosophical debate and military action with equally riveting skill. This should be required reading in every school.
Shaara even spends a lot of time taking us into the lives of the British leaders who tried to contain the situation, showing us their motives and frustrations as well. General Gage especially comes across as understandable, even likable. He was a man doing his job the best way he knew how.
And that study into the other side makes it clear what the ultimate villain is in Shaara’s telling of the story: aristocracy. A British empire grown so complacent, so bureaucratic, that vain corruption was the natural result of such bloated entitlement. They had glutted themselves on power for too long, which caused a narrow-minded, short-sighted way of thinking that doomed them.
Shaara may not have been intentionally drawing a parallel with contemporary America, but if so, I’m inclined to think his summary of the modern condition is better than Beck’s.
Beck’s little book is certainly not a great manifesto of conservative principles, but it’s not supposed to be. The subtitle makes the specific target clear: The Case Against An Out-Of-Control Government, Inspired By Thomas Paine.
To his immense credit, Beck includes Paine’s original Common Sense as an appendix in his own book. For his part, Paine never pulls punches when indicting the monarchy, which he sees as an inherently corrupt, inauthentic means of government. The very choicest of his venomous invective is always saved for King George. After establishing the base of his argument on this matter, he goes on to demonstrate that America can–and eventually must–thrive on her own. He even offers a few suggestions for what a new republican government might look like.
Beck likewise goes after our current leaders, placing the blame squarely on their shoulders for most everything that’s wrong these days. His issues are obvious and important, his facts helpful and appropriate, but the case he makes is anemic. Both parties are corrupt, says Beck. They’ve broken their promises and do things just to gratify their careers and supporters. This is actually his thesis, and he treats it on each page like a major revelation.
Furthermore, his proposed solutions are desperate, lame, or both. His main suggestion is that we vote out all the current, corrupt leaders, and get better people in office. That’s all fine and good, but how exactly do we do that? (Beck’s book is full of such empty rhetoric–here’s a fun game: count how many times he says, “We need to send a message to Washington,” or “The people need to wake up and make their voice heard,” or some other such clichéd bit of bombast that doesn’t really mean anything.) Beck’s two biggest ideas are term limits and campaign finance reform. That’s ironic: given his constant cry for a return to greater freedom throughout the text, Beck’s only advice is for us to use the law to further restrict it.
Glenn Beck’s Common Sense isn’t bad–if you’re unfamiliar with the conservative argument for smaller government or criticism of recent administrations, it’s a fun and easy introduction–but there are many things you’d be better off reading, such as the books Beck recommends at the end, or, for that matter, Jeff Shaara’s Rise To Rebellion.
Shaara has a sequel called The Glorious Cause, which completes the Revolutionary War and shows the creation of the Constitution. I’ll read it next July.
Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: C+
Jeff Shaara’s Rise To Rebellion: A+