What could be a better time to read Joseph Ellis’s engrossing account of the events of the summer of 1776 than in the days leading up to the 237th anniversary of that momentous time? In this brief, accessible volume, Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellis (FOUNDING BROTHERS) offers what he calls “the story of the birth of the American Revolution,” making a persuasive case that in that long-ago summer, the fledgling nation’s fate hung in the balance, its destiny far from assured.
Ellis weaves together two strands to create his narrative. One is “the political tale of how thirteen colonies came together and agreed on the decision to secede from the British Empire.” The other 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 an American army of amateurs, but missed whatever chance existed to end it all.” Both “are customarily told as stand-alone accounts in their own right,” Ellis notes, but he demonstrates here that the understanding of one informs and enriches our appreciation of the other.
Of the two story lines, the second --- probably less well known to the casual student of history --- is by far the more compelling. Ellis frankly reveals how a healthy amount of luck and the irresolution of the British commanders allowed the Continental Army, “a motley crew of marginal men and misfits,” and one that was “neither continental in character nor an army in anything like the professional sense of the term” to escape what would have been a disastrous defeat at the hands of a far larger and militarily superior fighting force.
"REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER doesn’t break new ground, but it serves the general reader well as a lively introduction to these epochal events. There’s plenty here to whet the appetite of anyone who wants to dig deeper into our country’s creation narrative."
Fresh from the successful defense of Boston, George Washington led a dubious army of 25,000 men, some one-half of them untrained and untested militia, against a British force of 42,000 that included 427 ships and 1,200 cannons, to defend New York City. That force’s brief and bloody confrontation with the British on Long Island on August 27, 1776, turned out to be as disastrous for the Americans as expected. A combination of the reluctance of the British commanders --- the Howe brothers, Admiral Lord Richard and General William --- who clung to the hope of a negotiated settlement that would keep the colonies as part of the British Empire, and a fortuitous fog bank allowed the American force to flee undetected to Manhattan, in “one of the most brilliant tactical withdrawals in the annals of military history.” Although the retreat offended Washington’s well-developed sense of honor, it established what Ellis calls the “strategic framework” for the ultimate victory, as Washington realized “his goal was not to win the war but rather not to lose it.”
Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Ellis brings to life in quick strokes the main players in the saga of the Continental Congress as its members rallied to “The Cause” in that steamy summer. He focuses much of his attention on the efforts of John Adams, the “revolutionary spirit incarnate,” to orchestrate something approaching unity among the often fractious delegates, while providing civilian direction of the war effort as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance. (Adams made up for the lack of military experience the job called for by reading volumes of Roman history.) Thomas Jefferson, the principal, if reluctant, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, the “core statement of America’s most elemental principles,” would have preferred to have been in Virginia, participating in the debates over its new constitution. Ellis appears to have real affection for Benjamin Franklin, a “latecomer to the cause of American independence,” who ceded the role of drafting the declaration to Jefferson because he refused to allow his work to be edited by a committee, and offered a cagy, and ultimately correct, assessment of the flawed British strategy that helped the Americans persist through those challenging months.
Ellis emphasizes that the debates that fateful summer on issues like slavery and the balance of power between the fledgling national government and the states prefigured issues that would roil our public life for generations to come. In the interest of preserving the fragile unity of the young country, Adams was willing to allow these contentious issues to fester, but he recognized that tactical evasion only delayed what someday would have to be a more painful reckoning.
As we look back on the summer of 1776, it’s easy to assume that the outcome was preordained, but Joseph Ellis skillfully reminds us that it was anything but that. REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER doesn’t break new ground, but it serves the general reader well as a lively introduction to these epochal events. There’s plenty here to whet the appetite of anyone who wants to dig deeper into our country’s creation narrative.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 3, 2013