Recreating the Spirit of '76
The heroes of 'Sparrowhawk' have touched a chord
with readers who dream of freedom
[February 5, 2006]
I first pondered the task of researching and writing the Sparrowhawk series of
novels, I asked myself: What was it that I wanted to accomplish, aside
from recreating 18th century Britain and America and the conflict between
them? What would be the primary purpose of the story? And how could that
purpose best be dramatized?
My purpose was to make real the caliber of men who
made the Revolution possible. It was as simple as that. What needed to be
dramatized was a stature conspicuously absent in most men today. Ideally,
a writer writes for his own pleasure, for his own ends. My pleasure and my
end were to recreate such men as an exercise in sanity, to escape the
droning, enervating miasma of today's culture and politics and recreate a
world, to paraphrase Ayn Rand on the value of Romantic fiction, populated
by men who should have been my neighbors.
But that simple purpose required a stupendous task
to accomplish it. And the first precondition to ensure completion of that
task was that I accept as fact, as the undisputable, incontestable given,
that the United States was not an accident of history, not a lucky
symbiosis or combination of political or economic influences; that,
instead, it was a conscious, premeditated goal and a product of men's
commitment to reason and justice. Nothing less than that commitment to
freedom could have moved men in that period to pursue it and achieve it in
the face of odds that virtually guaranteed failure and defeat.
This had always been a given of mine. The rest was
I stress the term "comparatively." It was not a
costume drama that I wanted to write, nor a story in any way poisoned by
the cynicism, nihilism, epistemological myopia, or crudeness of our times.
It was important to capture the spirit of that period, when men glimpsed
an inestimable value -- liberty, or the freedom to live on earth without
fetters or manacles, literal or mental -- and took actions in pursuit of
This was not so easy a task, to make real, or
concrete, that spirit, when all around me men were surrendering to fiat
power, to tyranny, running from the knowledge that they were being
enslaved, evading the knowledge that they were victims of or parties to an
enormous, extortionate, life-suffocating fraud, otherwise known as the
welfare state. I had never a problem projecting the "Spirit of '76" in my
own mind. But, how could I translate it, or objectify it, for others, and
depict its discovery by men and their subsequent loyalty to it? How was I
to illustrate the transition from discovery, to potential, to the actual?
To make that spirit intelligible and credible for readers to whom such a
spirit was unknown or alien, or in whom such potential existed, or in whom
it did exist?
In short, how, if my task was to communicate an
idea, could I project that spirit in terms that would render it as real in
the minds of others as it was in my own?
The answer lay in the characters of Jack Frake and
Hugh Kenrick, and to introduce them in the formative years of childhood,
to better be able to trace their development from discovery to an
awareness of their potential, and on to its actualization in adulthood.
The potential at issue is an independence of mind and a commensurate
independence of spirit.
Do they achieve that dual independence? Of course.
Jack and Hugh, from the very beginning, see the potential within
themselves and in their lives, and refuse to relinquish it or betray it in
any manner. Consequently, they set the terms of their own lives, terms
that are in direct conflict with the submissive norm of most men they
encounter and with the political and moral culture of their time. And, in
other ways, that development of a dual independence is also traced in
several minor characters, such as Glorious Swain, one of the Pippins,
Dogmael Jones, the barrister and member of Parliament, and John Proudlocks,
the Indian who disowns his primitive heritage. Therein are the integrated
threads of discovery, potential, and actualization in the characters. And
therein is the premise of the major plot and of all the subplots in the
How did I arrive at the conclusion that the best way
to concretize that development was in dramatizing the moral and
intellectual growth of especially the story's principal heroes, Jack and
Hugh? There was one expression of the sense of life that I had always
loved, and it occurs in Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged: "To hold an
unchanging youth is to reach, at the end, the vision with which one
started." It appears on the dedication pages of Books Four through Six.
Jack experiences it one night on the cliffs of the
Cornwall coast, Hugh during a fireworks celebration in London. It was as
necessary to begin "in the beginning" in Sparrowhawk as it was for Rand to
portray the early lives of her heroes in Atlas Shrugged. The
difference between her novel and mine is merely in technique. The youth of
her adult heroes is shown with the device of flashbacks, while I steadily
progress in tiers of instances from youth to adulthood. And the sense of
life of my characters, as with hers, is inexorably tied to their vision of
freedom as rational men who see life as a glorious, unobstructed,
limitless adventure. All through the series, Jack and Hugh retain their
"unchanging youth," not out of desperation or as an escape into nostalgia,
but because it is their normal approach to life. And throughout to the end
of the series, it is their "unchanging youth" that allows them to face
terrible conflicts and make life-changing decisions. It imbues within them
a resilience in mind and action unknown or impossible to men of lesser
Jack and Hugh, and many of the secondary characters
in the story, are practicing heirs of the Enlightenment. While it is
possible that a man born in the Dark or the early Middle Ages could have
shared their notion of an "unchanging youth," he could not do much about
it in it in practical terms, that is, live his life unimpeded by church,
state, or looting feudal lords. We can see the consequences of such an
attempt in the tragic lives of many outstanding thinkers and innovators
even during the Renaissance that followed. Overt, conspicuous independence
of mind and spirit was perilous to anyone who showed evidence of them.
One's reward was usually the rack, the stake, or imprisonment.
But by Jack and Hugh's time, it was possible to
develop such a vision of life and be loyal to it in practice without
risking death or much in the way of persecution. The Dark and early Middle
Ages would have been oppressively alien to Jack and Hugh, and especially
to any of us today, and in the Renaissance our relative independence would
likely be precariously founded on the tolerance and patronage of a
powerful lord. We take freedom of thought and action so much for granted,
that our demise in those cultures would have been virtually guaranteed. It
was not until the late 18th and early 19th century that writers, artists,
businessmen and entrepreneurs were able to fully cut the umbilical cord of
dependence on lordly patronage and subsidy.
The new enemy of liberty or of the independent man
in Jack and Hugh's time was no longer the church, whose power to dominate
men's lives was fading, but the state. Nominally and traditionally, the
British monarch ruled by the grace of God, and his power was unlimited.
During the secular evolution of British government, Parliament wrested
that power from the monarch, and ruled by grace of a corrupted majority. I
dramatize this in part in the trial of Redmagne and Skelly in Book One,
and of the Pippins in Book Two.
The "Spirit of '76" is not in evidence in America
today, except in a minority of individuals marginalized by the dual
phenomena of collectivism in politics and the revival of religion. I am
happy to report, however, that the heroic characters of Sparrowhawk seem
to have touched a chord in many readers of the series, a repressed form of
that spirit. My fan mail represents a collective "yes" to what my readers
have encountered in the story. They recognize what they have never been
taught, or have been taught to forget, or have never discovered until now.
Their letters and emails to me range in expression from pleased
astonishment to wild enthusiasm to solemn relief. Their common denominator
is "thank you for having written this."
Only the critical establishment remains oblivious to
Sparrowhawk; no one in that debauched profession has acknowledged its
existence, at least not in any major periodical or newspaper. For that I
am grateful, for I can only imagine what verbose bile the New York Times
or the Washington Post would offer in the way of esthetic guidance.
Critics are members of a culture's intelligentsia, and ours are simply
proving Ayn Rand's contention that this country's intellectuals are
philosophically, morally, and esthetically at odds with America and
It is the American readership that is discovering or
rediscovering the "Spirit of '76" in Sparrowhawk, and that certainly
matters. My own reward has been two-fold: the work is done, my ambition
has been realized, I am happy with it, it is now a part of the existing
culture; and, I have been proven right, that it was offered to men, and
they said "yes" to what it represents as literature and as inspiration.
All those things can be said to contribute to what Ayn Rand identified as
an "unchanging youth."
Edward Cline is the
author of First Prize
and Whisper The Guns,
and has written for a variety of publications including the Colonial
Williamsburg Journal and Marine Corps League. His essay on John Locke was
reprinted in the college textbook Western Civilization II, published by
up for CAC's Newsletter
Keep up with the latest news—type
in your e-mail address and click Go!
You ask the
tough questions and we answer them.
The Moral Basis of Capitalism
the only moral social system. Learn why.
The Moral and the Practical
practical for the same reasons that make it moral.
Capitalist Book Club
Purchase the essential
texts on capitalism.
Learn about the
News mentions, press releases and speakers.
Send us a comment or
ask a question—we want to hear from you!