Benedict Arnold was a great American hero. George Washington was an incompetent bungler. Benjamin Franklin was a conniving fraud. Lafayette was a spoiled child. The Revolutionary War was fought by ill-trained, cruel and inept soldiers who ran at the first sign of danger.
Such is the contrarian view of the founding of the United States presented in “Oliver Wiswell,” a retelling of the War for Independence from the point of view of Americans who were loyal to King George III.
The story Kenneth Roberts tells in the historical novel isn’t exactly new, but it’s encountered so rarely that it’s easy to forget that from some perspectives, the war was less a revolution for liberty than a civil war against public order and stable government. Maybe the national partisan split in the 2016 election was just that same old story, being told once again.
Roberts is best known for “Northwest Passage,” a historical novel about the exploits of Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War. The first half of the book was turned into a movie in 1940 that starred Spencer Tracy and Robert Young, who was later to achieve TV immortality as the implacable and wise father who always knew best and as the non-doctor who played the implacable and wise Marcus Welby on TV.
Also in 1940, “Wiswell” hit No. 7 on the best-sellers chart, then rose to No. 6 in 1941, despite a titular protagonist who despised just about everything about the American Revolution. In those pivotal years of 1940-41, finely balanced between the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, Americans appeared to be open to hearing a full-throated attack on America’s sacred origin story.
I had never heard of the book, but somehow a copy of it wound up resting on our laundry basket for several years before I finally decided a couple of months ago to give it a read.
It was quite a ride. Roberts was an engaging writer and a meticulous researcher, but at 836 pages the book seemed about twice as long as it needed to be. Reading Wiswell’s repeated complaints about the rebels’ perfidy was a bit like taking a long road trip with someone whose opinions you find disagreeable. You start out just trying to avoid a fight and end up half agreeing with him.
Whatever his own beliefs may have been, Roberts makes quite a case for Wiswell, who tells the entire war through his own eyes. He is driven from his home by rebels and forced to evacuate to Boston, where he has practically a ringside seat at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He watches rebels retreat in panic from New York, provides intelligence to swamp-dwelling loyalists, goes on fact-finding missions to London and Paris, witnesses brutal prison conditions, fights at the siege of Ninety-Six in South Carolina and struggles in vain to persuade the British commander to attack Washington’s forces before they can lay siege at Yorktown.
In the end, with the war lost, he helps found a settlement in Canada for loyalists like himself who see no future in remaining Americans. Late in the novel, he has a character say, “About the only thing people have in common around here is commonness. You’re resented if you’re educated; if you’re rich; if you dare speak your mind; if you dare resent anybody’s damned common nosiness! You’re resented most of all if you don’t keep screaming that Americans are the bravest, brilliantest, honorablest, moralest people in the whole world!”
Wiswell is by no means blind to the failings of the British. The generals are with few exceptions, such as that traitor Arnold, portrayed as incompetent, lazy, cowardly and corrupt. The British routinely fail to understand who Americans are and what they want, and repeatedly manage to alienate both their foes and their supporters.
But Wiswell saves his worst assaults for the rebels, who he says were poorly led and disciplined, who confiscated the property of loyalists and sometimes executed them and who railed about liberty while continuing to hold an entire race of people in slavery.
Roberts isn’t making that stuff up: To some extent or another, it all happened. The British even managed to recruit a regiment of slaves, promising them freedom for their service. The regiment never saw action, but many of the slaves still managed to give their lives for their country by contracting smallpox.
An estimated 19 percent of Americans remained loyal to the British crown during the revolution, and some of them paid a terrible price. Even the fabled Rogers’ Rangers fought on the British side.
In some ways, Wiswell is fighting a battle that rages on today between those who argue that our institutions, ineffective and corrupt as they might be, are worth defending from those who want to simply overthrow the entire system. To Wiswell, the rebels were the Steve Bannons of the 18th century, willing to risk chaos to overturn the administrative state.
The Tories, like today’s establishment Democrats and Republicans, stood by the old and familiar ways, corrupt though they might be. Maybe Trump supporters in November were simply the latest example of an old American hostility to entrenched powers.
After traveling across two continents with Oliver Wiswell, I’m not even sure if that is a compliment or an insult.