December 28, 2017


Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition. By Stephen R. Bown. Da Capo. $28.

First Founding Father: Richard Henry Lee and the Call to Independence. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $28.

     There will never be a shortage of untold, or at least under-told, stories of historical events, so history buffs will always have plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in tales of triumph and failure, heartbreak and drama, assembled by writers with a knack for delving into primary sources and turning complex and confusing narratives into comparatively straightforward tales whose plots move with novelistic surety. Stephen R. Bown and Harlow Giles Unger are adept at this sort of historical exegesis, and readers whose interests lie in these comparatively rarefied environs will not be disappointed with the latest Bown and Unger books. Bown’s innocuously titled story of a very extended, horrific exploratory trip that was ultimately successful in many ways and tragic in many more revolves around the last and greatest voyage of Vitus Bering (1681-1741), for whom the Bering Sea and Bering Strait are named. Bering, who was Danish, came to Czarist Russia when Peter the Great significantly expanded the Russian Navy and made clear his ambition to show that Russia was on a par for exploratory prowess with the greatest maritime nations of Europe. Czar Peter’s determination led to a decade-long, three-continent voyage known as the Great Northern Expedition, with Bering as Captain-Commander until his death in the midst of the journey. Starting in 1733, Bering led a task force – one that ended up including nearly 3,000 scientists, explorers, soldiers, interpreters, surveyors and others – from the Imperial capital of St. Petersburg across 6,000 miles of mostly forbidding Russian terrain. It was a three-year trek so harrowing, so filled with fighting and suffering, that it is hard to believe there could be worse to come. After reaching the Pacific Ocean, the expedition – bolstered by laborers and others commandeered from Siberia during its lengthy travels – built two ships that would sail into the Pacific Ocean. One of these, the St. Paul, sailed south under the command of Aleksey Chirikov (1703-1748) and eventually made Russia’s first contact with Japan. Bering commanded the other ship, the St. Peter, which sailed through what is now the Bering Strait – proving that Russia is not connected with America – and reached Alaska. But there was scarcely unalloyed triumph. The vessel was shipwrecked on an isolated Aleutian island, where Bering and many crew members died before the survivors were able, remarkably, to build another, smaller ship from the wreck of the first and eventually return to Russia with a tremendous amount of scientific information. The trials and turmoil of the expedition come through vividly in Island of the Blue Foxes, and Bown has done his usual meticulous research using diaries and letters as well as official reports and other secondary sources. The findings of the Great Northern Expedition really were remarkable – for example, one scientist, Georg Steller, provided the first-ever descriptions of animals that now bear his name, including Steller’s sea lion, Steller’s sea cow, and Steller’s jay. In terms of accomplishments, the expedition must be labeled a success – but Bown effectively balances that evaluation with strong, often gruesome scenes of what the explorers endured, notably on the island of the book’s title. This is where Bering’s ship was wrecked, and anyone who thinks that animals that have never encountered humans will be well-disposed toward us will be brought up short at what happened on that island: the feral foxes were extremely vicious, to the point of attacking and eating still-living but desperately ill men with aggressiveness that was not hampered by human counterattacks. It is not the scientific findings but the daily depredations of the shipwrecked crew that will likely stay most strongly with readers of Bown’s book – readers who, before picking up Island of the Blue Foxes, may have known little about Alaska beyond the fact that Russia sold it to the United States in 1867.

     Those who look into Unger’s biography of Richard Henry Lee will likely know only, or primarily, of one of Lee's relatives – either “Light-Horse Harry” Lee of the Revolutionary War or Robert E. Lee of the Civil War. And readers who know Unger’s other works may be taken aback by the title of this one, since Unger has already written The Last Founding Father (about James Monroe). What Unger wants to do in The First Founding Father is to rescue this Lee (1732-1794) from comparative obscurity. Unger pointedly says that Richard Henry Lee was the first Founding Father to call for independence, the first to call for union, and the first to call for a bill of rights – echoing, surely on purpose, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy in which he described George Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Richard Henry Lee was friendly with Washington, as well as with Jefferson and Madison and other Founding Fathers, although the friendships became strained in time and did not always lead to unanimity of purpose: Lee, for example, thought the Constitution an invitation to federal overreach on taxes and the raising of armies, which is one reason he became instrumental in adding the Bill of Rights to it. Lee certainly had political bona fides, serving in the Continental Congress and as a U.S. Senator. But Unger is more interested in the ways in which Lee helped foment and further the American Revolution – for example, by directly threatening King George III with rebellion unless the notorious Stamp Act were not annulled. Lee also helped Samuel Adams put together a spy network (which included Lee’s two youngest brothers) to watch British troop movements and provide intelligence from England; and at the First Continental Congress, Lee pushed for a total embargo on British goods. Lee was a noncombatant during the war itself, so the battles become background in The First Founding Father as Unger shows what Lee was doing, when and why, while the fighting dragged on. For example, he parallels Washington’s difficult maintenance of the fighters at Valley Forge in 1778 with Lee’s holding together of the Continental Congress in York, Pennsylvania, at the same time, after the British took the national capital of Philadelphia in September 1777. Significantly, it was Lee’s motion for independence that Congress approved on July 2, 1776, the day than Benjamin Franklin thought would be celebrated as Independence Day (a title that, however, was bestowed on July 4, the day when the motion was widely proclaimed). Unger does his usual creditable job of showing the importance of his biographical subject, and offers some interesting historical sidelights along the way, such as the fact that most Americans wanted a form of local self-determination and self-rule within Britain, not full independence from the mother country. Lee is ultimately not as interesting a human being as other Founding Fathers of whom Unger has written, but his contributions to the early history of the United States were many and profound, and they deserve to be far more widely known than they are – a situation to whose redress this intelligently written book is dedicated.

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