Wednesday, July 3, 2013


If you've already read David McCullough's excellent 1776 you might not find a lot of new information in Joseph Ellis' newest book, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. In fact, I think Ellis himself has already covered some of the same ground in his other books such as His Excellency, First Family, and Founding Brothers. What Ellis brings to the summer of 1776, however, is perspective.

We get a perspective of John Adams trying to manage a revolution while events quickly spin beyond his control. Adams could see that any attempt at reconcilliation with Britain was pointless, but not everyone in the Continental Congress was as convinced. In May he wrote what has come to be known as the Preamble to The Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, he orchestrated things as well as he could in Philadelphia, got someone else to write an 'official' Declaration, and as the head of the Board of War and Ordnance was one of the few who knew just how badly things were going with the army. All the while he had to worry about his family in Boston, who was dealing with an enemy even more feared than Great Britain: smallpox.

We get the perspective of George Washington, trying to live up to the expectations of the Continental Congress and assemble an army bearing some semblance of order to face the well-trained and professional army just arrived from overseas. Everyone expected great things after Bunker Hill (which was actually a British victory, but so very costly for them) but New York was a very different situation. The city and its islands were essentially indefensible, and the sympathies of the inhabitants leaned more toward the British. Washington’s attempted defense ended in a costly and embarrassing defeat that had the potential to end the nascent rebellion just as it was beginning.

We get Benjamin Franklin's confidence that "The Cause" would prevail. He even accused King George of being the cause of the rebellion. If not for the way he treated the colonies by sending armies and foreign mercenaries to oppress them, the colonists would have been happy subjects.  The king's actions had effectively started the war according to Franklin's logic.

And we get the perspective of just how close it came to going the other way that summer. Ellis dispels any myths we might still have from our grade-school education that the American Revolution was accomplished with the signing of The Declaration of Independence, or that the war was won handily by a rag-tag bunch of scrappy colonists confidently and enthusiastically backing the American Cause. In fact, few people considered themselves "Americans" at the time; instead they were Virginians, Pennsylvanians, Bostonians, etc. Unity would come, but it was precarious in 1776.

But the best perspective, in my opinion, was why General Howe (and his brother Admiral Howe) failed to deliver a decisive blow in New York that could have destroyed the Continental Army. Having served in America previously and having a feeling of brotherhood for the Americans, General Howe wanted to go softly and play the part of the diplomat – ending the rebellion with minimal loss of life on both sides. It's a surprisingly human perspective we don't usually grant to the "enemy" in the war. And to me that was the main value in this short book, and why I always jump on the opportunity to read a book by Joseph Ellis. (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

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