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Jeff Shaara’s Independence

Jeff ShaaraThe son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jeff Shaara inherited a Civil War trilogy in-the-making from his father. With Rise to Rebellion, Jeff's fourth historical novel, documents the cataclysmic events and storied debate that led to the signing of The Declaration of Independence.

"Shaara's novel gives historical figures flesh-and-blood viability," Booklist noted. "I'm not an historian," the author explained. "I'm a storyteller, trying to tell you the story as these characters would tell you."

In fact, personal conflicts drive the novel forward. When the British General Thomas Gage sent each of his eight kids across the ocean to be schooled in England, did he not think his American wife would mind? Can loyalists like Pennsylvania's John Dickinson be convinced to rebel against the crown? And why does Ben Franklin insist on eating breakfast naked, anyway?

But at the heart of Rise to Rebellion, one inescapable question remains: How ever did a handful of colonists, most of whom hadn't met before the first Continental Congress, convince themselves and then a continent to attempt what never before had been done, to break from the world's most powerful nation?

Dave: After your previous three books, how did you approach Rise to Rebellion? This story doesn't take place on the battlefield.

Jeff Shaara: Well, first of all, I don't write "Civil War stories." I write stories about characters in the Civil War. There's a distinction. These books are stories of people. The people tell the stories, through their experiences, through their point of view. The history is absolutely accurate—it has to be or the book loses credibility—but these are novels, by definition, with dialogue and from the perspective of the characters.

I knew I wanted to go back to the Revolution. What I didn't know was exactly who the characters were going to be. As I got into the story, I realized that people like John and Abigail Adams, people like Ben Franklin, who are not soldiers, who are not commanders in the field, what they did prior to the start of the battles is every bit as interesting as what takes place later on and in many ways is much more important. The American Revolution begins with the spoken and written word. That's very different from the way a lot of wars begin.

When the musket fire begins in earnest, really the Revolution has already begun. In some ways, the Revolution has already been won. Even if the British had prevailed militarily by 1781, life never would have been the same. The American colonies would not have gone back to being the little colonies again. Too much was already done. The ideas were already implanted in the people.

Dave: Joseph Ellis begins his recent book, Founding Brothers, with an interesting statement: "No event in American history which was so improbable at the time has seemed so inevitable in retrospect as the American Revolution."

Shaara: I agree with that. However, I disagree with one point he makes in that book, which is that these people were aware they were carving out a legacy in history that would date to what we consider modern times, that they knew they were in the lap of destiny. I don't agree with that. I think they had no idea.

The assemblage of genius, the men who came together at the Continental Congress, was unique in history. It's an extraordinary accident that these people came together when they did. They were concerned with survival, with self-interests.

Many of the people in the Continental Congress didn't want to break with King George. They liked being Englishmen. The thirteen colonies may as well have been thirteen separate countries. And yet they put that aside, came together, and forged a document to break with the ultimate security, the British Empire.

Certainly John Adams understood that if you're going to eliminate the monarchy's control, something has to replace it. But nothing had been proven; there was no precedent to go by other than the English Constitution. They literally built this government out of nothing, from scratch. How would anyone in that situation know it was going to work?

There was a great deal of fear that it wouldn't, and of course the crises that follow over the next hundred years, not the least of which is the Civil War, show that it had flaws. I don't believe they had any idea that this system would become a model for people all over the world, but the fact that we're living under the system still, in essentially its same form, that's the gift, that's what the founding fathers gave us.

Dave: And they faced very real, personal risks. The people we call our founding fathers were criminals against the crown. They would have been hanged if things had turned out differently. But the British really had no concept of the scope of what was going on overseas.

Shaara: No, the distance was too great, certainly, the fact that it took a month for any communication to cross the ocean. Even Ben Franklin didn't really get it when he was in London. He didn't understand the gravity of what was happening in the colonies until the colonies began to call out for their rights as Englishmen and were treated with contempt and disregard by the people in England because they weren't Englishmen, they were colonists. That distinction was news to Franklin. That was the first thing that really made him think that independence might not simply be necessary; it might be inevitable.

Children being born in the colonies weren't being born as Englishmen, but as Americans. The thirteen colonies would continue to grow and prosper. It made the break inevitable, but the English had no idea. Their grasp of the situation was so limited, not only by distance but because their system was so corrupt and clumsy. The people in charge were woefully inadequate to the task. They simply didn't understand what it meant to be an American, the increasing sense of identity. It was only a matter of time. Even if Cornwallis had defeated Washington at Yorktown, in the long run it probably wouldn't have made any difference.

Dave: As we see in the beginning of the book, for years before the first shots are fired, Sam Adams, among others, has been agitating the colonists, trying to convince them to support a break from England. But it's really the scene with Ben Franklin in Ireland, when he sees how the people are treated there, that we begin to see Adams's rhetoric substantiated by legitimate concerns.

Shaara: Sam Adams was a master of propaganda. He was really the first man to understand the power of the newspaper and to make use of it. Franklin, on the other hand, who is so far removed, in London, isn't really sure what Sam Adams is doing or why Adams feels the need to rouse all the rabble. Then Franklin goes to Ireland, essentially on vacation. He's wined and dined by the aristocracy. He's a celebrity, by every definition. But he goes there, and he gets tired of that. He wants to see the countryside, he wants to see the people and how they live, what their farms look like.

What he discovers is that the Irish people have been ground under the boot heel of British domination. There is no love for the English there—as there's very little love for the English in Ireland today. What he sees is that the Irish people have become slaves, essentially, to the English. That's a cathartic moment for Franklin. He realizes, This could happen to the colonies. If the English decide to flex their muscle—and they have considerable muscle; their army is the strongest fighting force in the world at the time—the colonies could suffer the same fate as Ireland. That's the moment that Franklin understands that something must be done.

Dave: Soon after, Franklin returns to America and joins the Continental Congress. But it's not as if there was an established system in place by which these people, these representatives of the colonies, would serve in those positions. It seems completely remarkable that somehow Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, all these visionary figures would converge in Philadelphia.

Shaara: And it is, but they don't all show up in Philadelphia with a consensus. They don't converge to start a revolution. There's enormous conflict and prolonged, heated debate. People like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, probably the staunchest advocate of apologizing to King George, want to drop all this ridiculous talk of independence. We're like the spoiled child, they argue, getting away with murder, and we need to atone for that. Dickinson really leads that charge, and right up until the signing of the Declaration there are people in the Continental Congress who agree with him. It's a very strong force.

Well, as you said, Franklin comes home from England, having been there, having seen it. He's endured the corruption in London. He's been a witness to Parliament. He's been a witness to the abuse that was heaped on him. He's seen Ireland. For him to sit in the Congress in 1775 and 1776 and hear John Dickinson talk about apologizing to King George...Franklin realizes that the people in the colonies pushing for reconciliation just don't get it any more than the people in England who believe it's just a few malcontents raising Cain, a few newspapermen simply feeding the people angry words. A lot of people on both sides don't understand the gravity of what's happening.

It's Thomas Paine, finally, and the impact of Common Sense, that swings probably a third of the population over to the cause of independence, the third that had been pretty apathetic up to that point. Franklin is enormously impressed with Common Sense and realizes that a real power is at work.

Meanwhile, you have people like Sam and John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Franklin, himself, John Hancock, on and on, these people begin to see that the sum is greater than the parts. What they are doing does have significance and they do have the power to change history. What follows is exactly that.

Dave: In your research, was there any particular shortcoming of the British that surprised you?

Shaara: It was just a complete lack of understanding. If there's a modern comparison, maybe it's our involvement in Vietnam. It seems that if you look back on the 1960s, now that a lot of stuff has come to light, there was blunder after blunder after blunder. It seemed like every time we turned around we made a mistake, and we got deeper into the problem. That's exactly what the British did. Whether it was King George, whether it was Lord Dartmouth, Lord Hillsborough, Lord North, all the people who were in charge, running the British government, they just didn't have a clue what they were doing when it came to the American problem. Every time they would do something, they made the problem worse. It started back in the 1760s with The Stamp Act. It causes riots, and they repeal it, but they decide to put a tax on a few other things, instead. Well, that doesn't work, but let's leave the tax on tea. That results in the Boston Tea Party. They just don't get it. The more they try to restrict the colonists, the angrier the colonists get.

Dave: Rise to Rebellion closes as The Declaration of Independence is signed. You're working on the sequel now?

Shaara: Yes.

Dave: How is it different?

Shaara: Washington and Franklin are two characters in Rise to Rebellion that will go forward into the sequel. Washington, of course, because he's the head of the military. Franklin because he's in Paris; it's a wonderful story, Franklin negotiating with the French—it's the French who in some ways save the day for the American colonies, not only with military support but also with money. Most everybody else will be in the sequel in one form or another, but it's those two characters that really lead the way.

Also, the second volume will be more similar to the Civil War stories in that there will be more time spent on the battlefields. You have Washington on the battlefield, and you have people like Benedict Arnold, another wonderful story; Charles Lee; Nathaniel Greene, a man many people have never heard of, the Stonewall Jackson of the Revolution.

On the other side, you'll have Charles Cornwallis, a very good military commander, a good man, essentially, who has to suffer the incompetence of the people above him. Anyone who's read any of the Civil War stories from the Union point of view will recognize that storyline. It's exactly what went on with people like Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Hancock in the latter part of the Civil War, suffering through the incompetence of the Generals above them.

Dave: In this book, on the British side, we meet Thomas Gage. You try to bring out his personal conundrum. He seems like a guy stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Shaara: Thomas Gage is a decent man. He's a good soldier who's worked himself up in the British army. He's the commanding General of all the British forces in America, a Lieutenant General in Boston at the end of the story. He becomes the military governor of Massachusetts in an attempt by the King to put down the rebellion by police occupancy, in a sense, by military occupation of Boston.

What Gage brings to the story is his family situation. Again, the book tells the personal story of these characters as they might have told it. It's not a lesson in civics or a lesson in military strategy as told in a history book. Gage is married to an American woman, a woman from New Jersey. That causes him a lot of grief in London. His wife is a second-class citizen, in terms of how the English feel about her. And she is aware of that. Gage takes their eight children when they reach school age, and he sends them to England, tearing them away from their mother, who's not too happy about it. He believes they can't get an adequate education in the colonies. All of this causes problems for him at home.

There is considerable speculation, both ways, that Margaret Gage may have divulged secrets from her husband's headquarters to some of the revolutionaries like Joseph Warren and Sam Adams. One school of thought says that she had every motivation to do that. Another school of thought argues that a wife of a military commander would never do that to her husband. Well, that's a fact lost to history. We don't know. It's fun for me to speculate a little bit, having done as much research as I did about these people. She may very well have been the source of information that resulted in Paul Revere's ride. That's what's fun for me: to get away from the dry facts and figures and tell the story from a personal point of view, from the characters themselves.

Dave: Certainly one of the more colorful characters in the book is Ben Franklin.

Shaara: I love Ben Franklin. The whole book could have been Ben Franklin. Beyond the fact that he's in the middle of everything in London, the focal point for the King's wrath and a target for the abuses of Parliament, when he finally comes back to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia he's a celebrity. His viewpoint carries a lot of weight. This is a man who assists John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence. That's a fact that many people don't know: Jefferson didn't write the Declaration by himself; he had Adams and Franklin looking over his shoulder, editing it.

But beyond all that, beyond the official, the other side of Franklin is his personal quirks. He loves nudity. He shocks the neighborhood because his habit is to get up in the morning and read the newspaper sitting naked in front of the window. The neighbors tell the children to avert their eyes. I love that about him because it makes him so much more human, so much more real, and, of course, so much more fun to write about. The whole business with the kite and the key and the string and the lightning, that's all true, it happened much earlier, but he also has very interesting theories about health. Here's a seventy-year old man who is actually in pretty good health at this time. He believes in walking and swimming and fresh air. Later on he'll suffer from gout, but he's been a swimmer all his life; the joke is that one day he's going to swim the English Channel.

Dave: As a storyteller, you have a certain amount of leeway writing about historical characters dead so many years. I couldn't help wondering how you'd approach a story closer to modern times. Would the tone work? Would you ever attempt something more contemporary?

Shaara: The research involves original sources wherever possible: diaries, letters...John and Abigail Adams's letters are a magnificent source of information, as is Franklin's work. That kind of information makes me feel comfortable putting words in the mouths of these characters. That's what I'm doing, and ultimately it's a very risky endeavor. If the words seem counterfeit, the book doesn't work.

If I were going to do a modern book, I'd have to do it with the full cooperation of any living character I'm dealing with, or the family of a character. I'm not an historian. I'm not going to write an historical account of Watergate or Vietnam or the Gulf War, whatever it may be. I'm not qualified to do that. I'm a storyteller, trying to tell you the story as these characters would tell you. If I'm going to do that from a modern point of view, I still have to get into the mind of the character, whomever it is. Without that permission, without that opening, it simply couldn't happen.

Dave: You've spoken about how a lot of contemporary books attempt to rewrite history by calling into question the motives or the morals of many of the figures we've been taught are heroes. In your research, you read many different accounts of events. How do you decide what to believe?

Shaara: As much as I can, I have to rely on the words of the characters, themselves. I'm certainly not in the business of tearing down these characters, and it's horrible to me that that's what's in vogue these days: knocking these people off a pedestal is what sells books and movies. But by the same token, I'm not in the business of mythologizing these characters, either, putting them up on the pedestal. These are not marble statues; they're human beings.

I have to learn which characters appeal to me. If the character doesn't reach out to me, I can't tell his story. I had this problem with Thomas Paine. His writing changes history. He influences an enormous amount of people with his ability to put forth the written word. But the man, himself, is utterly unremarkable, utterly ordinary, a curmudgeonly, crabby man who makes enemies everywhere he goes. By the end of his life, he's destitute, lonely, sick, and miserable. This is a man who inspires affection from no one, yet his writing is powerful stuff. I had intended, early in the process, to use Thomas Paine as a main character. I couldn't. I couldn't find him. I couldn't get into his head.

The surprise is Thomas Gage. I knew nothing about him. I knew there had to be an English voice, but I didn't know who it was going to be. George III...I really didn't know. Once I got into the research, Gage emerged as a character that intrigued me. Once I learned of his family situation, his dilemma, and the impossible position King George puts him in, to put down a rebellion without starting a war, he became an appealing character, and it was much easier to get into his head.

In the Civil War, an example of the same problem is Phil Sheridan. He was going to have a chapter at the end of The Last Full Measure at Appomattox. He's in the key place, in command of the field. But he's such a disagreeable human being that I never could find my way into his head. If I can't do that, I can't put words in his mouth. I can't make the story happen.

Dave: You've moved from the Civil War to the Revolutionary War. Has that been liberating at all, to take another step away from your father's work?

Shaara: My publisher said, in describing Rise to Rebellion and the fact that I've moved to the American Revolution, "Now, the training wheels are off." I don't know whether that's accurate. I mean, I appreciate the sentiment behind it, and perhaps she's right, but...

A reporter asked me, actually, if I felt that I was out from under my father's shadow. First of all, I never felt under the shadow in the first place. If by "shadow" he meant influence, well, that influence is a good thing. My father is still influencing me today, and I hope he influences me for the rest of my life. Michael Shaara was a career author who spent forty years of his life perfecting his craft. He won a Pulitzer Prize. And he never saw the recognition or the commercial attention that he earned. If I'm carrying on that legacy and the attention is now coming to me that should have come to him, I take that only in the best way possible. I never feel as though I'm restricted by anything my father did. He paid his dues. He should be sitting here talking to you now.

Dave: His is a story you hear again and again. James Lee Burke is another phenomenally successful author who suffered through rejection letters for years. Michael Shaara wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that took years to publish, then, when it finally won the award, it was ignored commercially. It's got to be humbling. However many books you sell, there's a point where you have to understand that it's completely detached from the product.

Shaara: When I started out in this process, when I was touring with Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, books that are directly connected to The Killer Angels, I would talk about virtually nothing but my father. I would give talks at bookstores and talk about Michael Shaara, his life and his career, and how it led to me doing this. A friend of mine finally said to me, "Okay, fine, your father opened the door for you, but you had to walk through it." I had to step back and absorb that. The same friend said, "I appreciate what your father went through, his sacrifices, but I'd rather hear about you." I was very uncomfortable with that. It took me a while to be able to stand in front of an audience, hold up my book, and say, "Look what I did."

When Gone for Soldiers came out, my third book, I was in Gettysburg and I was speaking to a wonderfully attentive audience—that's preaching to the converted when you go to Gettysburg, a marvelous audience, 300 people under a tent and C-SPAN is taping it—and I'm standing there. I'd made some point, and there was a pause. People were looking at me, and the last thing I said as I closed, I picked up Gone for Soldiers, and I said, "Look what I did!"

I got this really nice round of applause. I'll remember that moment for the rest of my life because it wasn't breaking with my father; it wasn't coming out from under the shadow. Maybe it was understanding that this is what I do now. I can actually be comfortable describing myself as an author. It took me a while. I was my father's son for a long time, that's really the only way I could describe myself, as finishing the story that he deserved to finish. Now, if I've gone to the Revolution, I've gone to a new place, and if my publisher says the training wheels are off, I think what she means is "You are your own author, working on your own themes and your own ideas, your own books." It's taken me a while to realize that's a good thing and that my father would be very happy. My mother certainly is. She's still alive, and she is very definitely a proud Mom. That's a very nice thing to feel.

Dave: Do you have any favorite history books?

Shaara: I stay away from modern histories, modern biographies. I'm always afraid of modern perceptions of who these people are. For that reason, I simply don't read a lot of modern biographies.

Something that jumps into my head right off the bat, if I had to pick out a book that had an enormous impact on me, it was The Passing of the Armies by Joshua Chamberlain, his own description of what happened at Appomattox. That was poetry. I was so happy to be able to write that scene in The Last Full Measure from Chamberlain's point of view because I have his point of view. We have it; it's there. That's what excites me.

For the next Revolution book, which by the way is untitled right now, I have a first edition of the memoirs of Lighthorse Harry Lee, published in 1812. Robert E. Lee's father. He was there with Washington; he was in the Carolinas with Nathaniel Greene and Daniel Morgan. This is a wonderful story, and I have his version of it. That's what I read, and that's what gets me excited.

Jeff Shaara visited Powell's City of Books on August 14, 2001. Colonial history in the summertime at Powell's—what a scene! Alas, last-minute efforts to secure a fire permit for the twelve feet of grill we'd lugged up to our reading space in the Pearl Room went for naught (nothing draws a summertime crowd like a free barbecue), but the red, white, and blue streamers lent a festive atmosphere to the proceedings all the same.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Passing of the Armies Used Mass Market $2.50
  2. John Adams
    Used Hardcover $8.50

  3. Common Sense Used Trade Paper $2.95
  4. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary...
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  5. The Killer Angels
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  6. Gone for Soldiers
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  7. The Last Full Measure (Ballantine... Used Trade Paper $1.95
  8. Gods and Generals
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  9. Rise to Rebellion Used Mass Market $4.95
  10. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary...
    Used Hardcover $7.50
  11. Common Sense Used Trade Paper $2.95
  12. American Scripture: Making the... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  13. The Last Full Measure (Ballantine... Used Trade Paper $1.95
  14. Gods and Generals
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  15. The Killer Angels
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  16. Gone for Soldiers
    Used Trade Paper $0.95
  17. The Passing of the Armies Used Mass Market $2.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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