George Will

WASHINGTON -- For your Fourth of July reading, open a mind-opening book about an immensely important American war concerning which you may know next to nothing. King Philip's War, the central event in a best-seller that is one of this summer's publishing surprises, left a lasting imprint on America.

Americans in this era of sterile politics have an insatiable appetite for biographies of the Founders. But why are so many readers turning to a book -- ``Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War'' by Nathaniel Philbrick -- that casts a cool but sympathetic eye on an era usually wrapped in gauzy sentimentality?

One reason might be that it is fun to read about one's family: Philbrick estimates that there are approximately 35 million descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower. (Do the math: 102 passengers; 3.5 generations in a century. But remember, 52 passengers died of disease and starvation before the first spring.) Perhaps a second answer is that the story is particularly pertinent as America is engaged abroad in a clash of civilizations, and is engaged at home in a debate about immigration and the common culture.

``In the American popular imagination,'' Philbrick writes, ``the nation's history began with the Pilgrims and then leapfrogged more than 150 years to Lexington and Concord and the Revolution.'' That version misses, among much else, the history-turning 14 months of war in 1675 and 1676 that set in train events that led to Lexington and Concord. The war was between the English settlers and the Pokanoket Indians led by Metacom, whose English name was Philip.

In a six-decade downward spiral of mutual incomprehension and unintended consequences, the uneasy but growing coexistence of English settlers and Native Americans dissolved in mutual suspicions, conflicts and retaliations. During the war, the colony lost 8 percent of its men (compared to the 4 percent to 5 percent of adult men killed in the Civil War). But Native Americans fared far worse. Of the 20,000 in the region at the war's beginning, 2,000 died of wounds, 3,000 of sickness or starvation, 2,000 fled west or north -- and 1,000 were shipped to the West Indies as slaves. Taxation and other costs of the war so injured economic life that a century passed before New England's per capita income returned to the pre-war level.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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