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With 'Bunker Hill,' author eyes humanity in history

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 8:36 p.m.
Ellen Warner
History writer Nathaniel Philbrick
'Bunker Hill' by Nathaniel Philbrick

The iconic story of the Boston Tea Party assumes the colonists who dumped tea into Boston Harbor were enraged victims of burdensome taxes.

That's partly true: The perpetrators — less than 100 in number — were upset about taxation. The taxes levied on them by Great Britain, however, were a pittance compared to those paid by other British subjects. Tea was actually offered to the Massachusetts colony at a reduced price (two shillings per pound) with a relatively minuscule tax (three pence per pound).

“A lot of people assume, in the rhetoric of the revolution, there was British tyranny versus American wish for liberty,” says Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of “Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution.” “It was lot more complicated than that. The reality of it was the colonists were the freest, least taxed people in the British Empire, and they didn't have all that much to complain about.”

Philbrick appears May 16 at the Carnegie Library Lecture Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

A Pittsburgh native who graduated from Allderdice High School in 1974, Philbrick's new book continues his interest in the roots of America. His other works include “Mayflower,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and “In the Heart of the Sea,” winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.

Like Pittsburgh native Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, Philbrick's goal is to illuminate history through the letters, correspondences, newspapers accounts and documents of the era. Both men attended Linden Elementary School in Point Breeze.

“When you do that, instead of generalities and dates and the history we get when we are young, you get people,” Philbrick says. “They become human beings in very different times, and that's part of what's interesting, how different it was. But there's also a universal, essential humanity that comes out.”

The actions of the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773, were motivated by multiple issues.

Philbrick writes that the British ministry made a “tactical error” by allowing only a handful of privileged loyalist consignees to act as agents for the East India Company, the entity that controlled tea distribution. But the patriots also were motivated by “less noble reasons,” including the sale and distribution of smuggled Dutch tea and a personal dispute the patriot businessman John Hancock had with the Quaker merchants on Nantucket who controlled the whale oil market.

What prevented mediation and reconciliation between the colonists and the British ministry was a lack of communication caused by an impossible gulf: the Atlantic Ocean.

“Part of the problem is the fact there's 3,000 miles of ocean between (North America and Great Britain),” Philbrick says. “Communications take at least three months, so misunderstandings snowball. Once things started to go bad, that communication gap almost ensured they would continue. ... Communication is such a big part of this story, and going into it, no one is talking about independence. Even the radicals, for them this wasn't part of it. You could argue if they could have Skyped each other, perhaps a solution could have been made.”

“Bunker Hill” is populated by the some of the iconic figures of the American Revolution: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Adams and, at the end of the story, George Washington. But Philbrick also explores forgotten lives:

• The patriot Josiah Quincy, the “most eloquent lawyer in this town (Boston) of eloquent lawyers” who was one of the first to recognize there was a consensus building through the colonies about a possible conflict with Great Britain.

• Thomas Gage, the British military commander and royal governor of Massachusetts who was charged with dealing with the thorny problems presented by the colonists.

• Colonel William Prescott, whose strategy during the Battle of Bunker Hill may have prevented the colonists from striking a decisive blow against the British forces.

But most of all, there is Dr. Joseph Warren, a charismatic physician who died at the Battle of Bunker Hill. If he had not been killed, Warren may have superseded Washington as the country's most noted founding father.

Peter Oliver, a loyalist who wrote an account of the revolution in 1782, thought Warren's persona and leadership would been transformative.

“(Oliver) said if Warren had not died at Bunker Hill, Washington would have been an obscurity,” Philbrick says. “I think the one thing that is clear is that Warren was a unique kind of leader. He was wired to do it. If he had lived, who knows, there could have been an incredible partnership between him and Washington. It was pretty clear that he operated at such a level, not only in terms of his personal presence, but in terms of his writing, his eloquence, that he was of the caliber to rank with any of the founding fathers we still talk about today.”

Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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