Empire and Independence by Richard Van Alstyne

Don’t make the mistake of thinking an older, out-of-print book can’t offer interesting information and points of view. For me, a book written in 1965 by Richard Van Alstyne, Empire and Independence, is an example of time well-spent reading a book you can only find in quaint used book shops or on similar Internet sites. Van Alstyne’s book is brief and written for someone with a keen interest in the American Revolution. His topic pertains to the foreign relations involved in the War of the American Revolution. As such, he examines how the new “united States” struggled to manage its relations with France, Spain, Holland, England, and Russia from 1775 to 1783. As you know, I’m fascinated with the American Revolution. I found the book intriguing and filled with new insights into an oft-overlooked aspect of our nation’s founding. The heart of the book is about the tangled complexities in the three-way relationship between the rebel states, England, and France. Many American leaders understood early and clearly that aid from abroad, especially France, would be essential to military and political victory over England. These leaders weren’t the only clever people, and thus their British and French counterparts realized the same thing. The result was a bewildering, complex, and frequently chaotic set of interactions between the three primary players. Van Alstyne has his heroes and villains in the story. For him, Benjamin Franklin is masterful in his handling of the French, while John Adams is nothing short of imbecilic and deceitful as a diplomat (whether in dealings with foreign nations or his colleagues). The interplay between the two men, along with other American representatives sent at various times to Europe, is an excellent example of the pitfalls of a team at odds with itself. Everyone had the same end—American independence and the relations with European nations that would facilitate it—but they differed on to achieve it and bickered with each other to the point of undermining their common cause. Many of the team members were extraordinarily talented. The problem was that, by itself, talent was no guarantee of success. Even in hindsight, talent was clearly not enough to account for the ultimate success of the Americans’ diplomatic efforts. From the viewpoint of application for our lives today, this part of the story offers a lesson for thoroughly understanding the make-up of a team and how it operates. Van Alstyne offered fresh information to me. I’ll give two examples. First, until I read the book I didn’t know about an attempt by France and Spain to invade England in 1779, a latter-day version of the Spanish Armada. A series of missteps prevented the invasion from occurring. Had it happened as planned, the course of the war would have been entirely different. The implications for the founding of the American nation would have been profound. Second, though I was aware of the tenuousness of the American cause in late 1770s and early 1780s, I didn’t fully appreciate the entirely haphazard way in which French naval forces came to aid George Washington in mid-1781 and make possible the British surrender at Yorktown. It gave me yet another reason to admire Washington’s ability to push ahead in the face of overwhelming obstacles and pessimism and to risk everything on the thinnest of chances. Though not a narrative in the McCullough or Ambrose sense, Empire and Independence will offer you a clear view into a little-known corner of the American Revolution.