Revolutionary Summer: A book review by Bob Morris

RevolutionaryRevolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
Joseph J. Ellis
Alfred A. Knopf (2013)

How and why “the political and military experiences” from May to October in 1776 “were two sides of the same story”

True to form, in the Preface, Joseph Ellis “sets the table” for the material to follow with these two passages. First: “There are two intertwined strands to this story [of events leading up to and following the Declaration of Independence] that are customarily told as stand-alone accounts in their own right. The first is the political tale of how thirteen colonies came together and agreed on the decision to secede from the British Empire. Here the center point is the Continental Congress and the leading players, at least in my version, are John Adams, John Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.”

Then: “The second is the military narrative of the battles on Long Island and Manhattan, where the British army and navy delivered a series of devastating defeats to the American army of amateurs, but missed whatever chance existed to end it all. The focal point of this story is the Continental Army, and the major pact ors are George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and the British brothers Richard and William Howe.”

These two passages identify the separate but interdependent plots” to the multi-dimensional stories and the primary “characters” in each. With regard to major conflicts other than the obvious such as British professionals versus Colonial “amateurs,” they include federal consolidation and unification versus autonomous states, professional (“standing”) military forces versus volunteer or conscripted militias. As Ellis observes, there were two oddly shaped features of the terrain during the expansively defined summer of 1776: The first is a distinctive sense of honor, a lingering vestige of the medieval world that was still alive and pervasive, especially within the military culture of the eighteenth century.” Also, although we know that the American Revolution eventually led to the creation of a consolidated nation-state and subsequent world power, “in truth, no shared sense of nationhood existed in 1776, even though the Continent al Congress and the Continental Army can be regarded as embryonic versions of such.”

After having read the book and then reviewed highlighted passages, my own take on all this is that an undeclared war throughout 1775 need not have led to the Declaration of Independence had the British monarch and parliament negotiated all reasonable grievances in good faith, accepted taxation with appropriate representation, and accommodated other legitimate needs and concerns. Instead, a huge British fleet was preparing to sail across the Atlantic as Ellis’s riveting narrative begins.

These are among the dozens of subjects of greatest interest to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Ellis’s coverage.

o King George III’s rejection of reconciliation initiatives (Pages 10-12)
o John Adams and “the pieces of a puzzle” of unanimity (13-24)
o Drafting of the Declaration of Independence (57-67)
o Washington’s preparations to defend New York (72-78)
o Richard Howe’s friendship with Benjamin Franklin (81-84)
o Franklin’s unique combination of prescience and patience (104-107)
o The Battle of Long Island & Washington’s evacuation (110-118)
o The decision to defend Manhattan (138-140)
o The Battle of Harlem Heights (152-155)
o Evacuation of Continental Army from Manhattan (165-170)

In the final chapter, “Postscript: Necessary Fictions,” Ellis cites Washington’s opinion –expressed in a letter to Nathaniel Greene — that the true story of the improbable American victory would never get into the history books, that “it will not be believed that such a great force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this country could be baffled…by numbers infinitely less, composed of men oftentimes half starved, always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.” (8 July 1783)

This opinion proved false, of course, but it addresses one of the “necessary fictions” that Ellis discusses. They are best revealed in context. However, I feel comfortable when disclosing Joseph Ellis’s deference to “the balance of historical scholarship over the last forty years.” I hope that he examines various “necessary fictions” in much greater depth in another book yet to be written.

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