Field of Science

Book review: The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

When the British army of regulars captured American troops during the Battle of New York, they contemptuously noted how they were surprised to see so many ordinary people among them – tanners, brewers, farmers, metal workers, carpenters and the like. That observation in one sense summed up the difference between the British and American causes: a ragtag group of ordinary citizens with little battle experience pitted against a professional, experienced and disciplined army belonging to a nation that then possessed the biggest empire since the Roman Empire. The latter were fighting for imperial power, the former for conducting an experiment in individual rights and freedom. The former improbably won.

Rick Atkinson shows us how in this densely-packed, rousing military history of the first two years of the Revolutionary War. The Americans kept on foiling the British through a combination of brilliant tactical retreats, dogged determination, improvisation and faith in providence. His is primarily a military history that covers the opening salvo in Lexington and Concord to the engagements in Princeton and Trenton and Washington's legendary crossing of the frozen Delaware. However, there is enough observational detail on the social and political aspects of the conflict and the sometimes larger than life personalities involved to make it a broader history. The account could be supplemented with other political histories such as ones by Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and Joseph Ellis to provide a fuller view of the politics and the personalities.

Atkinson’s greatest strength is to bring an incredible wealth of detail to the narrative and pepper it with primary quotes from not just generals and soldiers but from ordinary men and women. His other big strength is logistical information. No detail seems to escape his eye; the number and tonnage of food and clothing provisions and shipping, sundry details of types of weapons, ships, beasts of burden and ammunition, the kinds of diseases riddling the camps and the medieval medicine used to treat them (some of them positively so - "oil of whelps" was a grotesque substance concocted from white wine, earthworms and the flesh of dogs boiled alive), ditties and plays that were being performed by the soldiers ("Clinton, Burgoyne, Howe, Bow, wow, wow"), the constantly-changing weather, the political machinations in Whitehall and the Continental Congress…the list goes on and on. Sometimes the overwhelming detail can be distracting – for instance do we need to know the exact number of blankets and weight of salt pork supplied during the eve of a particular battle? – but overall the dense statistics and detail have the effect of immersing the reader in the narrative.

The major battles – Lexington and Bunker Hill, Long Island and Manhattan, Quebec and Ticonderoga, Charleston and Norfolk, Princeton and Trenton – are dissected with fine detail and rousing descriptions of men, material, the thrust and parry at the front and the desperation, disappointments, retreats and triumphs that often marked the field of battle. The writing can occasionally be almost hallucinatory: "Revere swung into the saddle and took off at a canter across Charlestown Neck, hooves striking sparks, rider and steed merged into a single elegant creature, bound for glory". The accounts of the almost unbelievably desperate and excruciating winter fighting and retreat in Canada are probably the highlights of the military narratives. Lesser-known conflicts in Virginia and South Carolina in which the British were squarely routed also get ample space. Particularly interesting is the improbable and self-serving slave uprising drummed up by Lord Dunmore, Virginia's governor, and the far-reaching fears that it inspired in the Southern Colonies. Epic quotes that have become part of American history are seen in a more circumspect light; for instance, it’s not clear who said “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” during Bunker Hill, and instead of the famous “The British are coming” cry that is attributed to Paul Revere, it’s more likely that he said “The regulars are coming.” Also, the British army might have been experienced, but they too were constantly impacted by shortage of food and material, and this shortage was a major factor in many of their decisions, including the retreat from Boston. Brittania might have ruled the waves, but she wasn’t always properly nourished.

The one lesson that is constantly driven home is how events that seem providential and epic now were so uncertain and riddled with improvisation and desperation when they happened; in that sense hindsight is always convenient. Atkinson makes us aware of the sheer miserable conditions the soldiers and generals lived in; the threadbare clothing which provided scant protection against the cold, the horrific smallpox, dysentery and other diseases which swept entire battle companies off the face of the planet without warning and the problems constantly posed by loyalists and deserters to American patriots. There were many opportunities for men to turn on one another, and yet we also see both friends and enemies being surprisingly humane toward each other. In many ways, it is Atkinson’s ability to provide insights across a wide cross-section of society, to make the reader feel the pain and uncertainty faced by ordinary men and women, that contribute to the uniqueness of his writing.

Atkinson paints a sympathetic and sometimes heroic portrait of both British politicians and military leaders, but he also makes it clear how clueless, bumbling and misguided they were when it came to understanding the fundamental DNA of the colonies, their frontier spirit, their Enlightenment thinking and their very different perception of their relationship with Britain. A excellent complement to Atkinson’s book for understanding British political miscalculations leading up to the war would be Nick Bunker’s “An Empire on the Edge”. While primarily not a study of personality, Atkinson’s portraits of American commanders George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Henry Knox, Charles Lee, Israel Putnam and British commanders William and Richard Howe, George Clinton, Guy Carleton and others are crisp and vivid. Many of these commanders led their men and accomplished remarkable feats through cold and disease, in the wilderness and on the high seas; others like American John Sullivan in Canada and Briton George Clinton in Charleston could be remarkably naive and clueless in judging enemy strength and resolve. Atkinson also dispels some common beliefs; for instance, while the rank and file were indeed generally inexperienced, there were plenty of more senior officers including Washington who had gained good fighting experience in the ten-year-old French and Indian War. As a general, Washington’s genius was to know when to retreat, to make the enemy fight a battle of attrition, to inspire and scold when necessary, and somehow to keep this ragtag group fighting men and their logistical support together, emerging as a great leader in the process. He was also adept at carefully maneuvering the levers of Congress and to keep driving home the great need for ammunition, weapons and ordinary provision through a mixture of cajoling and appeals to men’s better angels.

For anyone wanting a detailed and definitive military history of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson’s book is highly recommended. It gives an excellent account of the military details of the “glorious cause” and it paints a convincing account of the sheer improbability and capriciousness of its success.

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Life And Death In New Jersey

On a whim I decided to visit the gently sloping hill where the universe announced itself in 1964, not with a bang but with ambient, annoying noise. It’s the static you saw when you turned on your TV, or at least used to back when analog TVs were a thing. But today there was no noise except for the occasional chirping of birds, the lone car driving off in the distance and a gentle breeze flowing through the trees. A recent trace of rain had brought verdant green colors to the grass. An antelope darted into the undergrowth in the distance.
The town of Holmdel, New Jersey is about thirty miles east of Princeton. In 1964, the venerable Bell Telephone Laboratories had an installation there, on top of this gently sloping hill called Crawford Hill. It was a horn antenna, about as big as a small house, designed to bounce off signals from a communications satellite called Echo which the lab had built a few years ago. Tending to the care and feeding of this piece of electronics and machinery were Arno Penzias – a working-class refuge from Nazism who had grown up in the Garment District of New York – and Robert Wilson; one was a big picture thinker who enjoyed grand puzzles and the other an electronics whiz who could get into the weeds of circuits, mirrors and cables. The duo had been hired to work on ultra-sensitive microwave receivers for radio astronomy.
In a now famous comedy of errors, instead of simply contributing to incremental advances in radio astronomy, Penzias and Wilson ended up observing ripples from the universe’s birth – the cosmic microwave background radiation – by accident. It was a comedy of errors because others had either theorized that such a signal would exist without having the experimental know-how or, like Penzias and Wilson, were unknowingly building equipment to detect it without knowing the theoretical background. Penzias and Wilson puzzled over the ambient noise they were observing in the antenna that seemed to come from all directions, and it was only after clearing away every possible earthly source of noise including pigeon droppings, and after a conversation with a fellow Bell Labs scientist who in turn had had a chance conversation with a Princeton theoretical physicist named Robert Dicke, that Penzias and Wilson realized that they might have hit on something bigger. Dicke himself had already theorized the existence of such whispers from the past and had started building his own antenna with his student Jim Peebles; after Penzias and Wilson contacted him, he realized he and Peebles had been scooped by a few weeks or months. In 1978 Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize; Dicke was among a string of theorists and experimentalists who got left out. As it turned out, Penzias and Wilson’s Nobel Prize marked the high point of what was one of the greatest, quintessentially American research institutions in history.
I drove up Crawford Hill with a cousin on a bright May Sunday, half-expecting a chain link fence to block us. But the path was wide open and there wasn’t a soul in sight. As we approached the antenna we saw dilapidated shacks and sheds with equipment strewn around. A tractor hung there with its axel visible and rusting. The pigeon droppings were back. The antenna is not completely forgotten because the National Park Service has a plaque there designating it as a National Historic Landmark, but there’s nothing else; no account of the discovery itself expect a recognition that it happened. At the foot of the antenna is more equipment – cables, tanks of liquid nitrogens – with their function and fate uncertain. A few dozen yards from the horn antenna is another Bell Labs installation, this one looking like something straight out of Greek or Roman ruins, a crumbling monument to lost glory. Rusty gas tanks and scaffolding, more cables and wooden structures in various degrees of decay and neglect surround the engineering artifact.
As you walk away you can’t help but feel a profound sense of loss and sadness. Echoes of a distant past impinge on your heavy heart, much like the radiation that Penzias and Wilson discovered here that will continue to quietly fill the ever-expanding void long after we have all disintegrated into our atomic essence. With everything going on, this distant memory from the era of American innovation seems like a timekeeping ghost that will continue to haunt the future. Bell Labs was the most productive research laboratory in the world for almost five decades. A “Member of Technical Staff” title there was probably the most prestigious professional job title anywhere. As Jon Gertner so ably describes in his biography of the laboratory, “The Idea Factory”, not only did the lab invent revolutionary commercial products like the transistor and satellite communications that completely transformed our way of life, but it also produced a dozen Nobel Laureates like Penzias and Wilson who completely transformed our view of the cosmos. As if to drive home the stunning fall of this giant of American science and technology, the sign in front of the modest, gray building bids you farewell – “Nokia Bell Labs”. Fifty years from now, would we see that beautiful little hill as the hill on which American innovation chose to die?
Drive west about fifteen miles and you see another kind of death. It’s the death of two friends who are buried only a few feet from each other. There are hundreds of beautiful gravestones in Princeton Cemetery, and I realized that unless I asked someone, I would end up wandering around for hours looking for what I wanted. The groundskeeper drove me around in his little cart – “This is where the scientists are all buried”, he said. Is there a plot expressly reserved for the scientists, I asked. No, he said, but sometimes they like to be near each other.
The sun was still shining bright on a beautiful day, and I could take my time. Among the several similar-looking gravestones was the one I was looking for. “John von Neumann, 1903-1957”. Right below is the name of Margaret von Neumann, 1881-1956. The dates are instructive. John von Neumann – mathematician, child prodigy who knew calculus and six languages by the time he was ten, computer scientist, economist, physicist, polymath, widely deemed to be the fastest and most wide-ranging mind of the 20th century. His mother Margaret – married to Johnny’s father Max, a rich banker in glittering, turn of the century Budapest. Both refugees from fascism. When Margaret died in 1956 Johnny was heartbroken. His mother had doted on him. This first-generation immigrant who was a patriot, who had created game theory, modern computing and the mathematical underpinnings of quantum theory, who had presidents and generals and senators eagerly seeking his every word; this titan of modern science was just Jancsi for her. When Jancsi heard of his mother’s death, it compounded his own tragedy, for he was then less than a year away from the cancer that would kill him at age fifty-four, while he was still at the height of his powers. Five years later his wife Klara would walk into the Atlantic Ocean, bedecked in fine jewelry. Now I stood in front of his grave, the fastest thinker of his time having consigned his body and soul to the limitlessly slow processes of disorder and geological time.
Just a few feet away from von Neumann’s resting place lies an owlish, elfin man who arrived in the United States in the spring of 1940 after taking a long route through Siberia and the Pacific to avoid the difficulties of crossing a U-boat-riddled Atlantic. “Kurt F.” had finally deemed the situation in Europe too dangerous to continue living in Vienna, that now crumbling cradle of mathematical, philosophical and artistic thought. His friend Johnny who had come to the country seven years before had written several letters petitioning his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, to help Kurt Gödel obtain a visa and flee from the Nazi menace. The institute had become a haven for von Neumann, Einstein and others persecuted in Europe, providing them with the land of liberty that had beckoned the Pilgrims of Massachusetts three hundred years ago. In his letters Johnny said that Gödel was the most accomplished logician of the century and that he would be a wholly unique addition to the institute faculty. Later, when Gödel’s eccentricities – throughout his life he was plagued by deep insecurities and paranoia – and an insufficient appreciation of his work led to delays in his promotion, von Neumann asked, “How can any of us call ourselves ‘Professor’ if Gödel cannot?”. A year before von Neumann died, Gödel wrote him a letter in which, after expressing shock about his cancer and hope that he would be cured, he conjectured what is considered the first description of the famous P=NP problem in computer science, a reference all the more remarkable given that Gödel had never expressed any serious interest in Johnny’s pioneering computing work.
More than ten years before, Gödel had made a mathematical announcement which was every bit as important as Penzias and Wilson’s announcement of the universe’s birth. While the Big Bang theory told us the near certainty of how the universe was born, Gödel’s announcement told us about the fundamental uncertainty of knowledge itself. His famed incompleteness theorems drove a nail into the coffin of a grand project of axiomatizing all of mathematics and showed that every mathematical system without exception had a kernel of either incompleteness or inconsistency at its core. In other words, every mathematical system contained statements that would be both true and false, whose truth value could never be determined. What was even more damning was a parallel finding; that there would also be statements which would be true but which could not be proved to be so in the same mathematical system. As with many seminal scientific advances, Gödel’s announcement at a 1929 Königsberg conference caused hardly any ripples. But there was one person in the audience who understood the profound implications of his work for the fundamental uncertainty of knowledge – John von Neumann. After the talk von Neumann spoke to Gödel, and in a few days his lightning-fast mind had expanded Gödel’s initial idea to what was called the Second Incompleteness Theorem, a conclusion which young Kurt had already derived.
Since then the two had become friends, and von Neumann was instrumental in getting the institute to hire Gödel. However, it wasn’t he who was Gödel’s best friend. That honor belonged to a fading icon who was considered too behind the times by mainstream physicists because of his unhappiness with the meaning of quantum theory. Einstein was more of an institution than an active physicist in the 40s and 50s – the sharp-tongued Robert Oppenheimer who was the institute’s director called him “a lighthouse, not a beacon” – but Princetonians still saw him walking to and back from the institute in his baggy trousers and hat. They also noticed his daily walking companion, an owlish man who seemed to dress in heavy woolen coats even in the balmiest of summers. In his later years, Einstein said that his own work didn’t mean much to him, and that he came to work mainly for the privilege of walking home with Kurt Gödel.
Gödel’s gravestone is a little more ornate than von Neumann’s; perhaps his family wanted it that way or perhaps it spoke to his whimsical love of ordinary, earthy things like children’s fairy tales. It lists the name of his beloved wife Adele, a nightclub dancer who was deemed too ordinary and unsophisticated for Kurt by his family. But Adele nurtured Kurt through his many imagined and real illnesses and once defended him with an umbrella from Nazi hecklers. In Princeton Adele became his caretaker, guiding him through a deeply insecure, literal view of the world which gradually turned into paranoia that there were dark forces at work threatening to poison him. Soon he would only eat food that his dutiful wife had prepared for him. After Adele herself had to spend an extended spell in the hospital because of an illness, Kurt stopped eating altogether. In 1978 he entered Princeton Hospital, weighing not more than eighty pounds, and died essentially of starvation and self-neglect. For the man who had discovered the most rational uncertainty at the heart of the most rational field of human inquiry, his own end was tragically irrational.
Johnny’s end was even more heartbreaking. A man whose only purpose in life seemed to be to think, when he found out he had cancer, he realized that one day his mind would simply cease to think. This he simply could not fathom. Johnny had been instrumental in the United States’ supremacy in both atomic weapons and ballistic missile technology, and because of his importance to national security he was given a special hospital suite at Walter Reed Hospital near Washington D.C., and a coterie of air force officers was posted round the clock, tending to his every need; part of the reason for the armed guard was to ensure he would not give out secrets in his sleep, even as the cancer had relentlessly spread to his brain. He had been recently appointed to the prestigious Atomic Energy Commission and had received the Medal of Freedom from President Eisenhower, but the hand of death tugged at him with relentless certainty. Another high-ranking atomic energy commissioner named Lewis Strauss remembered an unforgettable scene in the hospital – this first-generation immigrant surrounded by the secretaries of the army, navy and air force and the joint chiefs of staff, hanging on to his every word before it disappeared into history’s scorecard.
The end when it came was cruel. To feel reassured that his mind was still working, von Neumann would ask his daughter Marina and his friends Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam to ask him simple arithmetic questions, such as the sum of four and seven. They would come out of his suite shaken and heartbroken. Just like his friend Kurt, Johnny’s ultra-rational mind succumbed to the irrationality of believing that he would be saved by religion, and he asked a Catholic priest to convert him to religion and carried out learned discourses with him in Latin and Greek, the kind of discourses which he had awed his father’s friends with as a child prodigy in Budapest. When he asked his brother to read to him from Goethe’s Faust, his photographic memory would start reciting the next few sentences. John von Neumann died in February 1957; on his hospital bed lay a set of notes comparing the brain with the computer and proposing new directions for neuroscience and computing. At his burial in Princeton Cemetery were both Robert Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss, sworn enemies of each other; somehow Johnny always managed to be friends with people who were each other’s enemies.
But none of that mattered in Princeton Cemetery. As I stood there, I could not help but notice something striking – that Gödel and von Neumann’s graves were basically indistinguishable from those of hundreds around them; two of the most important minds in scientific history lying in the middle of other merely very good ones. Men and institutions have an expiry date, just like civilizations. It’s the one certainty that even Gödel cannot overturn. Ultimately the universe exerts a great leveling effect and we are all the same, beginning and ending in the same way. But our ideas are what make the difference. Gödel discovered a paradox at the heart of seemingly certain mathematical knowledge: he found that permanence is transient. And yet his and von Neumann and Bell Labs’ lives, vanishingly brief compared to the intervals between stars, showed us the opposite: that transience can lead to permanence through ideas. Ultimately we may begin and end in the same way, but whether it’s Gödel or von Neumann or a little antenna on the top of a hill, it’s our middles that distinguish us. And over those middles we seem to be able to exercise an inordinate degree of control.
First published on 3 Quarks Daily

Book review: The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

The Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionThe Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

While a slightly academic and challenging read, this book (first published in 1967 and then reprinted twice) is a seminal contribution to revolutionary and pre-revolutionary history and a must-read, not just for understanding the American Revolution but also some of the most important issues we grapple with now. The book is entirely based on pamphlets - essentially the Twitter of their times, but far more intelligent - that were written by people across all social strata in response to events in the 1750s and 1760s. These pamphlets were remarkably flexible, spanned anywhere between ten and seventy pages, and contained a wide variety of writing, from scurrilous, sarcastic, bawdy polemics ("wretched harpies" was a favorite derogatory term - I have long since thought of making a list of choice insults of those times) to calls for populist revolution to reasoned, highly erudite writings. More than any other written form of the era, they contain a microcosm of the basic thinking that led to the revolution.

Perhaps more than any other book I have come across, Bailyn's book helped me understand how far back the roots of the revolution went, how entrenched in English political philosophy and especially libertarian philosophy they were, how simplistic and incomplete the textbook version of “no taxation without representation” is, and how many of the central issues of both 1776 and 2019 are rooted in the core of Americans’ view of their own identity and geography going back all the way to the settlers.

A few key takeaways:

1. It's easy to underestimate the outsized impact that geography had on the colonists' thinking. Decentralized control was almost de rigueur in the vast wildernesses bordering Virginia or Massachusetts, so the idea of central control - both by Parliament in the 1760s *and* by a federal government in 1787 - was deeply unpalatable to many people. The abhorrence toward virtual representation in Parliament was only a logical consequence. You gain a much better understanding of Americans' fondness for states' rights and their fears of federal power by understanding this background.

This decentralized thinking also led quite naturally to freedom of religion - Bailyn cites the prominent struggles by baptists in western Massachusetts against taxation by the Congregationalists as an example - and more haltingly and less successfully, for calls to abolish slavery which although they did not make their way into the Constitution, did lead individual states to abolish the institution and to stop the slave trade.

2. Almost the entire debate about independence was about where the seat of sovereignty lay. For the English it lay in Parliament, but the colonists argued that while Parliament did have some central rights (there were some strenuous attempts to distinguish between "external" taxation that Parliament could impose and "internal" taxation that was the people's right - this argument was rapidly dropped), the people had "natural" rights that were outside all authority including parliament's.

The colonists were inspired in this thinking by Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Hume and this foundation is well known, but Bailyn makes a convincing case that they were inspired even more by the early 18th century English libertarians John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon and their predecessors, who in writings like the famous "Cato's Letters" argued against standing armies, lack of due process and absolute and arbitrary power. Some of these arguments went back to Charles I and the English revolution of the 1640s, so many of the leaders of the revolution had assimilated them way before 1776; Pennsylvania and New York even had written documents outlining some of the key provisions in the Bill of Rights as early as 1677. By the time the Stamp and Townshend Acts were imposed in the 1760s, taxation (which was a relatively minor grievance anyway) was only the last straw on the camel's back.

The biggest strength of the book is that it beautifully illustrates how thinking about decentralized control, natural rights and English libertarian philosophy was a common thread tying together so many disparate themes - independence, taxation and representation, abolitionism, religious freedom, geographic expansion, and finally, the great debate about the Constitution. The volume really reveals the core set of philosophies on which the country is founded better than any other that I have read. A groundbreaking contribution.

Book review: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped AmericaThe Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto

About a decade ago when I was living in New Jersey, I used to drive every weekend from New Jersey to Massachusetts to see my then-girlfriend. While driving back I used to take a road called the Saw Mill Parkway, near a town called Yonkers, on the way to crossing the Tappan Zee bridge. Both reference points seemed completely nondescript to me then. What I did not know until now was that both Yonkers and the Saw Mill Parkway are the only tributes in this country to a remarkable man and a lost time which, if it had endured, could have significantly influenced the history of this country.

The remarkable man was Adriaen van der Donck, a Dutchman who brought the liberal outlook of 17th century Amsterdam to the Dutch colony of New Netherlands, with its capital New Amsterdam. He was known as a 'Jonkheer' or 'young lord', and on his estate up the Hudson river he built a saw mill. Hence Yonkers and the Saw Mill Parkway.

Today about the only two things that most people know about the place was that it was bought from the Indians in 1626 for the seemingly laughably small sum of 60 guilders or 24 dollars, and that New Amsterdam became New York when the English took over it in 1664. During that period it became the most progressive European colony in America, reflecting the liberal, multicultural, intellectual and progressive spirit of the Netherlands, but its history is basically taught today as an English history. Russell Shorto's engaging book charts the history of this remarkable and forgotten colony, from the discovery of the location by Henry Hudson in 1608 (about the time that Jamestown was founded) to its takeover by the English.

Much of the book centers on two larger-than-life characters; Adriaen van der Donck and Peter Stuyvesant who were sort of opposites; the former is virtually forgotten while the latter lives on in the form of names like Stuyvesant High School. Van der Donck was educated at Leiden which then had a university rivaling Oxford in its embrace of natural philosophy and logic, and the Netherlands was already serving as a refuge for religious apostates like pilgrims and Rene Descartes. Inspired by his law studies at Leiden, Van der Donck had a scientists' eye for observation and objectivity. He made friends with the Indians, lived with them, studied the plants, animals, mountains and rivers in the vast landscape of what is now the Albany region and wrote a book describing the land that became a bestseller. He brought principles of representative government and religious freedom to New Amsterdam.

Stuyvesant who had fought the Spanish in South America and lost a leg to a cannonball belonged to the conservative old guard and believed in exercising the will of the company of which he was director - the Dutch West India Company which was then scouting around the world looking for natural and human resources. Although Stuyvesant and van der Donck were on good terms before, Stuyvesant's heavy-handed management of the colony led van der Donck and a select few settlers to write protests to the Hague laying out some remarkably forward-looking principles of secular governance for the colony.

And yet somehow, between Stuyvesant's authoritarian but dogged direction and van der Donck's progressive views, New Amsterdam for a few decades became a model for secular civilization that later defined New York City as a melting pot, a unique place with a ragtag band of seamen, traders, brewers, prostitutes, soldiers, farmers, freethinkers, frontiersmen and people from all countries and professions which encouraged multiculturalism and religious freedom, in significant contrast to the monocultural, religiously rigid Puritan colonies of New England to the North; in fact it served as a refuge for persecuted Englishmen and women from New England who settled mainly in Long Island. It also largely regarded the neighboring Indian tribes as equals and traded beaver furs and wampum with them, and unlike the English at Jamestown rarely engaged in murderous conflict with the natives. Under van der Donck's leadership, the Netherlands was going to institute a bonafide progressive government in the place - the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 had inspired a general sentiment of tolerance and peace - but sadly the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch wars led the country to again cede authority to the West India Company, and Stuyvesant again had the upper hand. Nonetheless the colony still flourished because of its decentralized nature.

The book describes how the colony bequeathed many Americanisms, among them "boss" (from "baas"), "coleslaw" (from "koosla") and "cookies" (from "koekje"). A lot of upstate New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, (the name Schuylkill is Dutch) and especially New York City have a deeply embedded Dutch heritage, and there's even a non-trivial amount of Swedish and Finnish heritage that came from a Swedish colony that endured for about twenty years in what's now Delaware before it capitulated to the Dutch. The end of the colony came when the English first under Cromwell and then under Charles II realized the lucrative advantage that the location would provide in exploring the interior up the Hudson river, along with a strategic waypoint for the then exploding slave trade. Van der Donck sadly died in an Indian raid while Stuyvesant lived out his life in his colony and was buried there in 1672. The golden age of Dutch civilization and free thought was on the decline, and England - and the English version of history - took over.

There is no doubt that New Amsterdam was a model of religious and cultural tolerance that needs to be remembered, largely because there was no system of top-down governance there for a long time, but perhaps Shorto overstates the influence it had on future developments in the United States including the Constitution; nobody knows how exactly history would have turned out had there been two dominant colonies - the English to the North and the Dutch to the South, but it would have been very interesting indeed. Ironically, in his zeal to demonstrate how forgotten secular New Amsterdam was, Shorto fails, even when mentioning New England in some detail, to mention even once the equally secular and remarkable secular experiment to the North which I wrote about earlier - Roger Williams and his founding of Rhode Island. Seems like someone's always forgotten.

Book review: An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America

An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight AmericaAn Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker

A highly illuminating, novel account of the lead-up to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution from the British side, covering the critical years 1772 to 1775. British politics and economics played a seminal role in inciting the conflict (who knew that smuggling which drastically undercut the prices of tea and other commodities played such a huge role in the revolution). As an Englishman Bunker offers a very thoughtful and sympathetic but still fair and balanced portrait of British political leaders and convincingly demonstrates how they were complex characters with far from outright villainous intent.

Unlike the simplistic textbook version of events, Bunker explains in painstaking detail (sometimes too much detail) how the British simply misunderstood the colonists rather than actively oppressed them, seeing them as sources of revenue and little more, largely ignoring them until 1773. Occupied with extending their empire in other parts of the globe and chronically afraid of the French, they thought of the American colonies as a reliable outpost which they would never have to worry about, even as they were losing their grip both on the vast, overstretched geography as well as the hearts and minds of the colonists. They also badly misunderstood that what were for them simple matters of (modest) taxation were for the colonists fundamental matters of religion, individual rights and free trade; unlike other British colonies like India, the North Americans already had a lot of freedom and individual rights, which made England's petulant, scolding attitude highly inflammatory and the decision to separate from the mother country consequently easier.

Even after the Tea Party there was a huge gulf of misunderstanding between King George III, prime minister Lord North, the colonial secretary Lord Dartmouth and the colonists that led to missed opportunities. Support for taking hard measures against the colonies was also far from monolithic, with many famous members of parliament like Edmund Burke delivering fiery speeches against North, and the quality of British democracy was commendable, with even riotous events like the Boston pamphlets and the Tea Party needing proper legislative procedure, witness accounts and documentary evidence to prosecute (the book makes it clear that even by the 1770s the King could make almost no law without parliament's consent). News (including scurrilous "fake news") also took at least a month to travel from one shore to another during those days, compounding the misunderstanding.

The British also made a critical mistake by getting obsessed with Boston and Massachusetts which, although symbolically important, were politically as well as economically much less important than the Southern colonies and the Hudson Valley. After the tea was dumped North basically thought he could quell the rebellion through a targeted local war in Massachusetts or Rhode Island (the most radical state); little did he know that the colony shared deep resentments with other colonies. In a curious sense the British understanding of the colonists was as impoverished as the later American understanding of the Vietnamese. Just like an American General could never see through the eyes of Ho Chi Minh or a Vietnamese peasant, North and his ministers were simply too different from an Ethan Allen or Thomas Young.

Essentially this was a story of many missed opportunities. if they had played their cards right England could well have turned North America into a country like Australia or Canada, essentially an independent republic with intimate ties to the commonwealth, or even defused the budding revolution in 1772 by extending an olive branch of the right kind, perhaps dividing North from South, until it was too late. As it turned out, the two countries indeed turned out to be two nations separated by a common language.

Computer simulations and the Universe

There is a sense in certain quarters that both experimental and theoretical fundamental physics are at an impasse. Other branches of physics like condensed matter physics and fluid dynamics are thriving, but since the composition and existence of the fundamental basis of matter, the origins of the universe and the unity of quantum mechanics with general relativity have long since been held to be foundational matters in physics, this lack of progress rightly bothers its practitioners.
Each of these two aspects of physics faces its own problems. Experimental physics is in trouble because it now relies on energies that cannot be reached even by the biggest particle accelerators around, and building new accelerators will require billions of dollars at a minimum. Even before it was difficult to get this kind of money; in the 1990s the Superconducting Supercollider, an accelerator which would have cost about $2 billion and reached energies greater than those reached by the Large Hadron Collider, was shelved because of a lack of consensus among physicists, political foot dragging and budget concerns. The next particle accelerator which is projected to cost $10 billion is seen as a bad investment by some, especially since previous expensive experiments in physics have confirmed prior theoretical foundations rather than discovered new phenomena or particles.
Fundamental theoretical physics is in trouble because it has become unfalsifiable, divorced from experiment and entangled in mathematical complexities. String theory which was thought to be the most promising approach to unifying quantum mechanics and general relativity has come under particular scrutiny, and its lack of falsifiable predictive power has become so visible that some philosophers have suggested that traditional criteria for a theory’s success like falsification should no longer be applied to string theory. Not surprisingly, many scientists as well as philosophers have frowned on this proposed novel, postmodern model of scientific validation.
Quite aside from specific examples in theory and experiment, perhaps the most serious roadblock that fundamental physics seems to be facing is that it might have reached the end of “Why”. That is to say, the causal framework for explaining phenomena that has been a mainstay of physics since its very beginnings might have ominously hit a wall. For instance, the Large Hadron Collider found the Higgs Boson, but this particle had already been predicted thirty years before. Similarly, the gravitational waves predicted by LIGO were a logical prediction of Einstein’s theory of relativity proposed almost a hundred years before. Both these experiments were technical tour de forces, but they did not make startling, unexpected new discoveries. Other “big physics” experiments before the LHC had validated the predictions of the Standard Model which is our best theoretical framework for the fundamental constituents of matter.
The problem is that the basic fundamental constants in the Standard Model like the masses of elementary particles and their numbers are ad hoc quantities. Nobody knows why they have the values they do. This dilemma has led some physicists to propose the idea that while our universe happens to be the one in which the fundamental constants have certain specific values, there might be other universes in which they have different values. This need for explanation of the values of the fundamental constants is part of the reason why theories of the multiverse are popular. Even if true, this scenario does not bode well for the state of physics. In his collection of essays “The Accidental Universe”, physicist and writer Alan Lightman says:
Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes, with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are mere accidents – random throws of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining these features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.
Lightman also quotes the reigning doyen of theoretical physicists, Steven Weinberg, who recognizes this watershed in the history of his discipline:
We now find ourselves at a historic fork in the road we travel to understand the laws of nature. If the multiverse idea is correct, the style of fundamental physics will be radically changed.
Although Weinberg does not say this, what’s depressing about the multiverse is that its existence might always remain postulated and never proven since there is no easy way to experimentally test it. This is a particularly bad scenario because the only thing that a scientist hates even more than an unpleasant answer to a question is no answer at all.
Do the roadblocks that experimental and theoretical physics have hit combined with the lack of explanation of fundamental constants mean that fundamental physics is stuck forever? Perhaps not. Here one must remember Einstein when he said that “Our problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that created them”. Physicists may have to think in wholly different ways, to change the fundamental style that Weinberg refers to, in order to overcome the impasse.
Fortunately there is one tool in addition to theory and experiment which has not been prominently used by physicists but which has been used by biologists and chemists and which could help physicists do new experiments. That tool is computation. Computation is usually regarded separately from experiment, but computational experiments can be performed the same way that lab experiments can as long as the parameters and models underlying the computation are well defined and valid.  In the last few decades, computation has become as legitimate a tool in science as theory and experiment.
Interestingly, this problem of trying to explain fundamental phenomena without being able to resort to deeper explanations is familiar to biologists: it is the old problem of contingency and chance in evolution. Just like physicists want to explain why the proton has a certain mass, biologists want to explain why marsupials have pouches that carry their young or why Blue Morpho butterflies are a beautiful blue. While proximal explanations for such phenomena are available, the ultimate explanations hinge on chance. Biological evolution could have followed an infinite number of pathways, and the ones that it did simply arose from natural selection acting on random mutations. Similarly one can postulate that while the fundamental constants could have had different values, the ones that they do have in our universe came about simply because of random perturbations, each one of which rendered a different universe. Physics turns into biology.
Is there a way to test this kind of thinking in the absence of concrete experiments? One way would be to think of different universes as different local minima in a multidimensional landscape. This scenario would be familiar  to biochemists who are used to thinking of different folded structures for a protein as lying in different local energy minima. A few years back a biophysicist named Collin Stultz in fact made this comparison as a helpful way to think about the multiverse. Computational biophysicists test this protein landscape by running computer simulations in which they allow an unfolded protein to explore all these different local minima until it finds a global minimum which corresponds to its true folded state. In the last few years, thanks to growing computing power, thousands of such proteins have been simulated.
Similarly, I postulate that computational physicists could perform simulations in which they simulate universes with different values for the fundamental constants and evaluate which ones resemble our real universe. Because the values of the fundamental constants dictate chemistry and biology, one could well imagine completely fantastic physics, biology and chemistry arising in universes with different values for Planck’s constant or for the fine structure constant. A 0.001% difference in some values might lead to a lifeless universe with total silence, one with only black holes or spectacularly exploding supernovae, or one which bounced back between infinitesimal and infinite length scales in a split second. Smaller variations on the constants could result in a universe with silicon-based life, or one with liquid ammonia rather than water as life’s essential solvent, or one with a few million earth-like planets in every galaxy. With a slight tweaking of the cosmic calculator, one could even have universes where Blue Morpho butterflies are the dominant intelligent species or where humans have the capacity to photosynthesize.
All these alternative universes could be simulated and explored by computational physicists without the need to conduct billion dollar experiments and deal with politicians for funding. I believe that both the technology and the knowledge base required to simulate entire universes on a computer could be well within our means in the next fifty years, and certainly within the next hundred years. In some sense the technology is already within reach; already we can perform climate and protein structure simulations on mere desktop computers, so simulating whole universes should be possible on supercomputers or distributed cloud computing systems. Crowdsourcing of the kind done for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or protein folding would be readily feasible. Another alternative would be to do computation using DNA or quantum computers: Because of DNA’s high storage and permutation capacity, computation using DNA can multiply required computational resources manyfold. One can also imagine taking advantage of natural phenomena like electrical discharges in interstellar space or in the clouds of Venus or Jupiter to perform large-scale computation; in fact an intelligence based on communication using electrical discharges was the basis of Fred Hoyle’s science fiction story “The Black Cloud”.
On the theoretical side, the trick is to have enough knowledge about fundamental phenomena and to be able to abstract away the details so that the simulation can be run at the right emergent level. For instance, physicists can already simulate the behavior of entire galaxies and supernovae without worrying about the behavior of every single subatomic particle in the system. Similarly, biologists can simulate the large-scale behavior of ecosystems without worrying about the behavior of every single organism in them. In fact physicists are already quite familiar with such an approach in the field of statistical mechanics where they can simulate quantities like temperature and pressure in a system without simulating every individual atom or molecule in it. And they have measured the values of the fundamental constants to many decimal places to use them confidently in the simulations.
In our hypothetical simulated universe, all the simulator would have to do would be to input slightly different values of the fundamental constants and then hard-code some fundamental emergent laws like evolution by natural selection and the laws of chemical bonding. In fact, a particularly entertaining enterprise would be to run the simulation and see if these laws emerge by themselves. The whole simulation would in one sense largely be a matter of adjusting initial values, setting the boundary value conditions and then sitting back and watching the ensuing fireworks. It would simply be an extension of what scientists already do using computers albeit on a much larger scale. Once the simulations are validated, they could be turned into user-friendly tools or toys that can be used by children. The children could try to simulate their own universes and can have contests to see which one creates the most interesting physics, chemistry and biology. Adults as well as children could thus participate in extending the boundaries of our knowledge of fundamental physics.
Large-scale simulation of multiple universes can help break the impasse that both experimentation and theory in fundamental physics are facing. Computation cannot completely replace experiment if the underlying parameters and assumptions are not well-validated, but there is no reason why this cannot happen as our knowledge of the world based on small-scale experiments grows. In fields like theoretical chemistry, weather prediction and drug development, computational predictions are becoming as important as experimental tests. At the very least, the results from these computational studies will constrain the number of potential experimental tests and provide more confidence in asking governments to allocate billions of dollars for the next generation of particle accelerators and gravitational wave detectors.
I believe that the ability to simulate entire universes is imminent, will be part of the future of physics and will undoubtedly lead to many exciting results. But the most exciting ones will be those that even our best science fiction writers cannot imagine. That is something we can truly look forward to.

First published on 3 Quarks Daily.

Book review: Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry

If anyone wants to know what makes the United States unique, part of the answer can be found in this book. At its center is a wholly remarkable, extraordinary, awe-inspiring individual who was light years ahead of his time. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island (then Providence Plantation) in 1636 and it became the world's first model of both full religious tolerance as well as individual rights, and it established government by the consent of the governed as a foundational principle. At that time nothing like it existed anywhere, and certainly not in Europe where Catholics and Protestants were killing each other over absurdly trivial matters like the age for baptism and Calvinist predestination. Williams's teachings and writings set the stage for fundamental debates about the role of religion and the state in individuals' lives with which we are still grappling.

Williams had fled from England when Charles I intensified his father James I's campaign to persecute Protestant Puritans who wanted a purer, more rigorous form of worship. Growing up in London, Williams had been enormously influenced by Edward Coke and Francis Bacon, two men who ironically were sworn enemies. Coke was the most eminent jurist in English history and had challenged the divine right of kings and emphasized rights to property and due process. Bacon was one of the fathers of the scientific method and put a premium on evidence and observation. From both these men Williams imbibed a deep set of ethics about free, secular thinking.

He arrived in Massachusetts a decade after the Mayflower docked at Plymouth and a few years after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by John Winthrop, the "city on a hill". A talented lawyer, minister and linguist who was steeped in Bacon's scientific method, he became friends with the Indians, learnt their customs and and became fluent in their language. He was received with great respect and offered the post of minister in the newly-established Boston's first church. His time in history came when he made a historic break by opposing two basic tenets of the Puritans and Christians in general: that the state should have no authority to enforce the first four commandments dealing with God, and that Indians had property rights too and the Puritans did not have the authority to simply seize them and needed to buy their lands. This went not just against the fundamentalist religious beliefs of the colony but was something wholly new that directly contradicted both the meld between church and state and in fact all the political and religious philosophy that existed at the time.

For his novel views Williams was duly banished from Massachusetts under threat of execution, but he kept on privately preaching his creed in the more tolerant Salem. When Massachusetts sent out a squad of soldiers to haul him onto a ship bound for England for imprisonment, they found that (goaded by a tip from Winthrop), Williams had already escaped into the bitter, snowy winter wilderness. The only reason he remained alive was because he found refuge and friendship among the Narragansett and other Indians who lived in the area, and the fact that his friends and colleagues had denounced him while strangers had saved his life fundamentally changed his views of race, of religion, of Native Americans, of freedom and individual rights, of how much control men should have over other men. His colony became a refuge for the rejected, the denounced, the banished of Massachusetts, Plymouth and Connecticut; the three major colonies of the time.

He decided to codify his beliefs in a formal document. Massachusetts kept on being threatened by its freethinking neighbor to the South and kept on trying to usurp its territories, so Williams went back again to the same England from which he had fled about fifteen years ago. At this point England itself had become roiled up in what was going to lead to the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I. He befriended Oliver Cromwell and managed to get a charter for Rhode Island written and later endorsed by Charles II (who seems to have forgiven his friendship with Cromwell). In an age when almost every piece of paper including the founding charter of Puritan Massachusetts was infused throughout with the names of God and Christ, the Rhode Island charter is an extraordinary document, not mentioning God even once. It established almost complete freedom of religion and made it clear that no one should be persecuted simply for their beliefs; a groundbreaking assertion at a time when even minor differences in religious beliefs between Catholics and Protestants, let alone ones between Protestants and Jews or Quakers, were enough to ignite religious wars that killed thousands. Finally, with his charter safely establishing the legality of Rhode Island, Williams returned back to his colony and lived to be an old man, still preaching the gospel of tolerance.

Williams's writing serve as the foundation for the novelty of the American experiment. He was a devout Christian who conceived a separation of church from state, private from public activity. He might have been the first bonafide libertarian. There is a straight line between his teachings, John Locke, the Declaration of Independence and all the worldwide events that the American Revolution inspired. No wonder that when the tide of history met the shores of fate, not only did Rhode Island become the first to protest against unlawful behavior by the English even before the Boston Tea Party, but it became the first state in the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776.

Book review: Fur, Fortune and Empire

Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in AmericaFur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America by Eric Jay Dolin

A marvelous and highly revealing history of the fur trade in America, right from the first permanent European settlements in the 17th century to the end of the 19th century. A story of inspiring doggedness against an incredibly unforgiving environment and of the tragic clash of civilizations.

Dolin's basic thesis is that fur was to the 17th and 19th centuries what oil was to the 20th, and it was the possibility of buying beaver furs in unprecedented quantities for fashion-hungry Europe from Indians that largely drew first the Dutch and French and later the English to North America, so the settling and expansion of North America especially to the West tracks very closely with the fur trade. Having access to the Mississippi and the Hudson rivers, the former were much better placed to buy fur in exchange for European goods, at first trinkets like utensils and clothing but later deadlier commodities like guns and alcohol. The Dutch started trading for beaver pelts in their New Amsterdam colony, while the French swept in from Canada and controlled the Mississippi. This led to an inevitable clash between the British and the French for control of the Great Lakes region. After the French and Indian War, clashes arose between the British and the colonies regarding jurisdiction over the newly-opened vast Ohio territory and its lucrative fur possibilities, and this was at least one of the factors leading to the American Revolution. Americans continued to duke it out with the British even as both expanded into the Northwest, this time killing sea otters in unprecedented numbers for trade with China with brutal techniques and gleeful avarice. The Lewis and Clark expedition was at least in part a quest to map lucrative locations for the fur trade.

One of the highlights of the book is the light it sheds on early European-Indian relations which were much more benign compared to later years. In almost every case the Indians welcomed the Europeans at first contact and were in awe of their guns and other modern technology. Partly out of necessity - the Europeans were completely dependent on the natives at first for fetching furs from the deep interior - and partly out of genuine respect and curiosity, Europeans established trading relationships with the Indians through trading posts, and the Indians were often canny enough to play competing French and British trappers and companies against each other to get the best price. The relationship started changing when the Europeans became more land-hungry and when they started taking advantage of the Indians by plying them with alcohol; the independent forays of European trappers also started reducing their dependence on native fur acquisition. But there were violent clashes on both sides, sometimes instigated by Indians but more often invoked by European greed.

The book has memorable portraits of key fur trappers, sailors and soldiers who braved unbelievable rigors of starvation, predation and hostile engagements with Indians to get the furs, living for months in inhospitable, sub-zero temperatures in the Midwest and the Great Plains. One of these "mountain men" was Hugo Glass who was mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead before he endured an astonishing foot journey to reach civilization; Glass was the inspiration for the movie "The Revenant". The mountain men are fascinating; mostly originating from Kentucky, Tennessee and other border states, they were the most free-lancing among the free-lancing trappers, traveling with aplomb whenever and wherever they wanted, yet 80% of them were married and a third took Indian wives. What is truly interesting is that these uneducated, hardy men were often as well read as an East Coast businessman and practiced a kind of equality among themselves and their wives, often living in communal camps, that might have been unique on the continent for the times. Other memorable characters include John Jacob Astor, one of America's first millionaires who thrived on and greatly expanded the fur trade, Captain James Cook who was the first to discover the Northwest before he was killed in Hawaii and frontiersmen like Kit Carson, Daniel Boone and Manuel Lisa.

The last part of the book deals with the tragic effects the fur trade had on America's fauna as well as on the Indians. By the 1850s or so Europeans and Indians had both hunted the beaver nearly to extinction before they discovered a new source of fur: the American buffalo or bison. With that discovery began probably the greatest episode of manmade carnage in history. At the beginning tens of millions of buffalo roamed the Great Plains and the Southwest; by the end of 1890 there were a few hundred. The building of the transcontinental railroad sealed the fate of both the buffalo and the Indians in whose life the buffalo was so intimately integrated that they would use and consume every single part of it, including the scrotum and the tail, the heart and the blood. Meanwhile, Europeans started killing the animal for sport, sometimes lazily shooting it from train compartments and leaving the carcasses rotting. The long-range rifle made it possible for a single hunter to kill dozens in a day and waste most of their meat. Soon the plains were literally dotted with rotting carcasses and skulls for as far as the eye could see. The westward expansion also split the Indian population into small groups which were at the mercy of settlers and the U.S. Army, leading to their complete subjugation. This was truly a sad chapter in the history of the United States, and one that frankly brought tears to my eyes.

Not just the buffalo but the beaver and the sea otter were killed in the tens of millions and hunted to near extinction, so it's perhaps a miracle that they are still around. While the history of the fur trade tells the story of expansion, greed, killings and conquest along with one of resilience, doggedness and adventure, its aftermath tells a story of hope even as Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Thoreau and others reminded Americans of humans' deep connection to nature, made a strong push for conservation and assigned large areas of the country to conservation where bison, otters and other animals killed during the fur trade started thriving again. A few years ago a beaver was spotted on the Bronx River in New York for the first time in two hundred years. Perhaps there is a kernel of compassion and hope in the gnarly undergrowth of man's cruelty after all.

Book review: Miracle at Philadelphia

Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 by Catherine Drinker Bowen

A superb, must-read day-by-day account of the Constitutional Convention which took place in Philadelphia between May and September 1787. The writing and description of not just the deliberations and the personalities but the stuffy, hot, Philadelphia weather, the shops, the clothes and the impressions of European visitors of a society that snubs its nose at class are so vivid that you get the feeling you are there. I have read a few other accounts of this all-important episode, but none so revealing as to the spirit of the times.

Present here are the great men of American history in all their glory and flaws: Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, Gouverneur Morris (from whose pen came “We the people” in the preamble to the Constitution), and even a lobbyist for land companies, Manasseh Cutler, who helped draft the Northwest Ordinance that created the vast Northwest Territory and sealed the fate of millions of Indians. Exerting their influence subtly from Europe were Jefferson and Adams. There were fiery speakers both for and against a central government - George Mason and Edmund Randolph from Virginia, Luther Martin from Maryland, Hamilton from New York, Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts (from whom comes one of my favorite quotes: “The evils we have stem from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots”) - who made no secret of their feelings. They formed the Federalists and Antifederalists who were to have such bitter debates later.

Discussed were issues both trivial and momentous: the exact terms for Senators and Congressmen, whether the President should be appointed for life, the regulation of trade with other countries, the requirements for voting and citizenship, the provision for a national army. But the three most important issues were taxation, representation in both houses, and Western expansion. In many ways these issues encapsulated the central issue: states’ rights vs a strong national government. The small states were afraid that proportional representation would diminish their influence to nothing; the large ones were afraid that incomplete representation would harm their economy, their manufacturing and their landed gentry; sparsely populated ones worried that it would harm Westward expansion and slavery. Many people spoke openly against slavery, but it was out of concerns for the Southern states’ objections that the Constitution adopted the infamous three-fifths clause relating to “other persons” (there was consolation in the fact that the convention at least set a 1808 date for the ending of the slave trade). To soothe concerns on both sides, Roger Sherman of Connecticut offered the Sherman Compromise which proposed that the House would have proportionate representation while the Senate’s composition would be fixed to two from each state.

Women, white men without property, Africans and Indians famously got fleeced. As Jill Lepore wrote in her history “These Truths”, while Africans were degraded as slaves and considered as three-fifths of men, women fared almost as badly and were completely left out of the Constitution: in 1776, Abigail Adams memorably wrote to her husband, "Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation”, but her words were far from anyone’s mind in 1787. Women’s rights as we know them were non-existent then. But the Constitution was at least a triumph of religious freedom when, in the face of objections by some prominent Americans, it did away with any religious test for becoming a citizen and for holding office. This was a revolutionary move for the times.

Bowen’s book also does a fantastic job of letting us see the world through the eyes of these men and women. It’s very difficult for us in the age of the Internet to realize how slow communication was during those times and how disconnected people felt from each other in the unimaginably vast expanse of the country and the frontier to the West. The states were so loosely bound to each other by the previous Articles of Confederation and had such disparate geographies and cultures that in some cases they were threatening to fracture (for instance Maine wanted to separate from Massachusetts, and Virginia was planning to form a navy to defend herself against other states) So many of the concerns arose from legitimate worries that a Senator or President from Washington would never understand the concerns of a farmer from South Carolina, or that a farmer from South Carolina would never understand the concerns of a New England artisan. The fear that a central government would run roughshod over individual states was a very real one, although seventy years later it manifested itself in an ugly incarnation. There was also deep skepticism about “the people” (as Hamilton had put it, “If men were angels, governments would be unnecessary.”), and many vociferously asked that the preamble should say “We the states”.

Another revealing aspect of the book is to communicate how many measures were either defeated when they were first proposed or passed by a slim majority; sometimes the delegates even changed their votes. This was democracy in action; giving everyone a chance to voice their concerns while still obeying the wishes of the majority. Fun fact, especially in light of the present times: the presidential veto was struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. And, in what today seems like the most incomprehensible move, a Bill of Rights was also struck down ten-to-one when first proposed. The main argument was: if Americans are already free, why do they need a separate Bill of Rights? And if you are already laying down rules for what the government can do, why is it necessary to explicitly state what it cannot do? It was only after the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification that Massachusetts proposed adding a bill of rights; in fact some of the amendments in the Bill or Rights mirror Massachusetts’ own proposals for a state bill of rights. Once the powerful states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania ratified, the other states quickly fell in line.

It is wonderful to see Antifederalists who had opposed the Constitution immediately concede to the wishes of the people, often in generous terms, when it is ratified by individual states. In fact that is perhaps the single-most important fact that comes across in Bowen’s account; that men with widely differing views reached a compromise and forged a document which, although it contained important flaws, became a trailblazing, unique, enduring piece of work asking for a “more perfect Union” that led to a clarion call for individual rights and liberty not just in the United States but throughout the world.

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