Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Desperate Sons

We don't run a lot of straight reviews at this blog, but every now and again a publisher asks us to ... and so we do. Here is a review of Les Standiford, Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock and the Secret Band of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War by blog reader, teacher, and friend Kevin Aycock.


In his work Desperate Sons, Les Standiford chronicles the development of political and social upheaval in British North American prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. The premise of the work seeks to examine the development of the “Sons of Liberty” and its leaders as the main force behind the drive for colonial independence. While the book presents a detailed account of colonial discontent, the author fails at proving his thesis regarding the influence of the Sons of Liberty on the overall political climate of the eighteenth century.
     Desperate Sons presents a through account of colonial resistance to the various prerevolutionary British measures against the colonies (Stamp Act, Tea Act, Intolerable Acts, Quartering Act et.), but fails to provide significant contributions of the Sons of Liberty to these events. The Sons are mentioned in passing, but given the lack of cohesion among the individual groups, even the author himself admits it is difficult to account for the various groups who took on the moniker. Given this difficulty, the majority of the work focuses on the political upheaval in colonial Massachusetts and New York with the central characters in this movement being Samuel Adams and the various British political and military leaders of the eighteenth century.
     Standiford’s work provides a detailed account of colonial struggles against primarily two British economic measures: the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Tea Act of 1773. While other colonies such as South Carolina and Virginia are mentioned in passing, Standiford focuses the majority of the work on the actions of the colonists of Massachusetts and New York. In each colony, Standiford provides a detailed account of the political, social and economic means by which the colonists attempted to force Parliament into repealing the acts. The central argument employed throughout the narrative was the colonist’s belief Parliament lacked the authority to impose internal taxes on its North American possessions. Adams and others frequently assert this is a matter for the colonial legislatures and not the British parliaments given the colonists have any representation in the body (“No taxation without representation).
     At times the narrative becomes heavy laden with names and minute facts, which make it difficult for the reader; however, the work is overall a quick read. Standiford provides significant support from primary sources, though secondary scholarship is often mentioned in passing, and paints a detailed image for the reader. In addition, frequent comparisons to current events allow the reader to develop a historical context for the events of the eighteenth century.
     Given the breadth of the topic under investigation, the title seems misleading given the contents. While the Sons of Liberty are mentioned in passing, it is difficult to make the connection with their actions and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. At times in the narrative, the author makes a more convincing argument for the Committees of Correspondence as the chief impetus for the conflict. The work of the committees and the Sons often overlapped, and both organizations shared similar membership in most colonies. Overall, a more compelling argument can be made for the Committees of Correspondence as opposed to the Sons of Liberty.
     Standiford concludes by asserting the centrality of Samuel Adams in the prerevolutionary movement. It is his prolific writing on behalf of the radicals that Standiford believes became the driving force for revolution. Given his role in the Stamp Act and Tea Act crisis, as well as, organizing the Committees of Correspondence and the First and Second Continental Congress, Adams does become overlooked in the independence story by his contemporaries (Washington and Jefferson).
     Desperate Sons provides a “popular history” approach to the prerevolutionary period in the colonies and makes a good read for the novice historian of the period. However, for serious scholarly study, the work requires more investigation and evidence to support the claim the Sons of Liberty led the colonies to war.

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