But many Americans- especially outside of New England and not U.S. history majors- have not a clue of what the Boston Post Road is or was and how important the simple pathway was to the growth and prosperity of a colony that became a nation.
Author Eric Jaffe ably informs the historical novice by retracing the long forgotten past of the Boston Post Road and its undeniable impact on the budding nation in The King’s Best Highway from Simon & Schuster.
Jaffe’s popular non-fiction book is 3/4 light history and 1/4 travelogue. It starts at the beginning of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its first tentative growth outward. To expand, to find new lands, a meandering sometimes coastal, sometimes overland pathway that ran from Boston to New Amsterdam, would become the primary route of travel for a nation.
To keep the reader engaged Jaffe selects some luminaries from U.S. history to chronicle the Boston Post Road’s story. From Winthrop, to Franklin and Washington; Lincoln, Morgan and Barnum, Jaffe demonstrates how the road served the political machinations of the wonderfully seditious founding fathers.
Jaffe’s journalism background helps create solid features within the larger story, spending time to illuminate a story and bring it to conclusion before segueing quite naturally to the next chapter in the road’s history.
Yet The King’s Best Highway is at its strongest is when it’s about the lesser luminaries. Sure the iron-wills of transportation barons is interesting, as is the perfectly sketched out origins of the postal service; but to us the one character that made the whole book worth it was one Lt. Col. Albert Augustus Pope.
We loved Pope because he was a massive proponent of improving and bettering the roadways of America in the late 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was altering the landscape of the United States, turning paths to rails, and eventually rails to highways. But we loved Pope so very much was because the Civil War veteran was also a maniacal proponent of bicycling.
Pope was enamored by the wheeled contraption so much he cornered the market on bike patents, forming the League of American Wheelmen; as well as helping to foster bike travel throughout the east while vigorously defending bicyclist rights against those who sought to infringe upon them.
In The King’s Best Highway it is ironic that the greatest proponent for better roads was a bicyclist. Where today, motorists think they and they alone have the right to asphalt, everyone else should make way and improvements are for their convenience. Think again gas guzzlers! Yet in another ironic twist, Pope’s declaration of freedom enforced by the bike, Jaffe points out, primed the American psyche for the even great travel freedoms of the automobile.
If we’re going to be the skunk at The King’s Best Highway garden party, it would be about the final journey Jaffe takes to track-back the old post road. For some reason we found it a bit rushed, less nuanced and more prose prone.
For New Englanders this book is enticing because it ensconces you in a region you know, with street names that haven’t changed in 400 years, but recalls days long gone and men since forgotten.
Overall however The King’s Best Highway demonstrates time and again that Boston truly gave birth to the ideas, innovations and unbridled ambitions that set the standard for a nation. (We love the audacious vivacity and magnificent scope of NYC, but still Boston is our home and soul.)
We find this book especially appealing, partly because of the impending national birthday, but also because it reminds us that no matter how territorial our instincts make us about our homes, cities, states or yes, even sports teams, that at one point it was ‘us against them,’ ‘colonists vs. an empire.’
And that skinny, rutted wild and dangerous road became a backbone to a people who stood up and declared…freedom.
The King’s Best Highway by Eric Jaffe from Simon & Schuster was received by the Boston Book Bums as a free review copy.