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77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant
I was particularly excited about reading Joseph J. Ellis' Revolutionary Summer because I had just recently finished Kevin Phillips' 1775. The two books have different focuses: Ellis looks at 1776 as the crucial year of the American Revolution while iconoclastic Phillips puts the emphasis on 1775. Ellis writes that after 1776, "Many fateful decisions and challenges...
Published 14 months ago by Hrafnkell Haraldsson

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56 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Six months in 76
In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis confines himself to the period from May through October 1776, retelling the story of the initial defeat of the Continental Army and General Washington's realization that survival could be enough to achieve victory.

In a brief summary of the final steps leading to conflict, the author argues that there existed the basis for a...
Published 14 months ago by The Ginger Man


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77 of 84 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, May 7, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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I was particularly excited about reading Joseph J. Ellis' Revolutionary Summer because I had just recently finished Kevin Phillips' 1775. The two books have different focuses: Ellis looks at 1776 as the crucial year of the American Revolution while iconoclastic Phillips puts the emphasis on 1775. Ellis writes that after 1776, "Many fateful decisions and challenges remained ahead - Washington's inspired bravado at Trenton, Howe's bizarre decision to capture Philadelphia rather than seal the Hudson corridor, the endurance test at Valley Forge, the crucial French entry into the war - but they all played out within the strategic framework created in the summer of 1776."

Ah yes, Phillips seems to say, but the events of 1776 played out within the strategic framework created in 1775.

Phillips says, rightfully, I think, that "If 1775 hadn't been a year of successful nation building, 1776 might have been a year of lost opportunity, quiet disappointment, and continued colonial status." In Phillips' view, "1775 is the crucial, early-momentum year of the Revolutionary era" - not 1776. Ellis, on the other hand, like other historians before him (for example, David McCaullough) looks to 1776 as the crucial year of the Revolution. But Phillips argues that this is a distortion and that we in the twentieth century are "excessively" immersed in 1776 "as a moral and ideological starting point." The Fourth of July says it all.

Phillips says he started out to prove that 1775 was as important as 1776 only to discover, the further he got along in his research, that 1775 was more important than 1776. Joseph Ellis, on the other hand, barely mentions 1775. He calls 1776 the "crescendo moment in American history" - particularly the five months between May and October. This is the period when, he says, "a consensus for American independence emerged and was officially declared." Phillips does not necessarily disagree. He admits that the Declaration could not have come earlier than it did because "certain preconditions had to be met."

This is true, and Ellis says that "the political consensus" for independence was formed in June and July; but as Phillips points out in his book, that independence was largely already a fact. British government in North America was, by the end of 1775, reduced to Boston. The rest of the thirteen colonies were governing themselves. "Royal authority had been replaced by "de facto American self-rule through local committees of correspondence and safety, trade monitoring committees of inspection, oath -swearing associations, militia organizations, and provincial congresses." We can focus on July 1776, but as Phillips points out, these bodies began to exercise power twelve to eighteen months before the Declaration of Independence.

We could ask, and it would be a good question, if we have focused too much on 1776. And I would recommend that if you read Ellis' book you also read Phillips'. Ellis stresses the importance of the Declaration of Independence but Phillips has a section entitled "The Limited Role of the Declaration of Independence." Phillips argues that "Understanding what the document was - and more important, what it was not - is vital to understanding what happened during the spring of 1776. By doing so, we can move beyond the worshipful preoccupation with the Declaration and the year 1776, which has distorted the study and memory of the early stage of the American Revolution." Phillips argues that "Once read to the soldiers and other crowds, the Declaration, while not forgotten, seems to have receded in importance" until the 1790s.

Ellis' book is both about the political and the military events of the summer of 1776. Phillips has a somewhat larger canvas, addressing not only the political and military aspects of the revolution, but religion, race, and economics as well - even logistics. Ellis writes that his contention is "that the political and military experiences were two sides of a single story, which are incomprehensible unless told together. They were both happening at the same time, events on one front influenced outcomes on the other, and what most modern scholarship treats separately was experienced by the participants as one."

This is a happy approach and Ellis deftly weaves the narrative from front lines to halls of Congress, from the thoughts of private soldier Joseph Plumb Martin to the correspondence and innermost thoughts of John Adams. Nor is the British side ignored. Ellis has quite a bit to say about the Howe brothers and their approach to the grand campaign of 1776, as well as the place of the American Revolution in British memory. There is quite a bit packed into his 240 pages and it is an enjoyable read.

Stylistically, I found Ellis' book to be superior. Revolutionary Summer is very well written and conversational in tone. He is never dry or pedantic and you won't find his book overburdened by footnotes, only some 19 pages of footnotes compared to Phillips' 41 (personally, I love long and conversational footnotes but I know many readers harbor a horror of them). Ellis has a way with words and the ability to turn a memorable phrase at need. His is the shorter book, at 240 pages (Phillips' is 628). They both have maps, though my uncorrected proof of Ellis' book did not have them so I cannot compare them. Ellis' book is also going to have 8 pages of color plates (I counted 16 pages of plates in Phillips' book, none of them in color). I look forward to purchasing a copy of the book in its published form. It is definitely deserving of a place on my shelf, right in between McCullough and Phillips.
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56 of 65 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Six months in 76, April 29, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis confines himself to the period from May through October 1776, retelling the story of the initial defeat of the Continental Army and General Washington's realization that survival could be enough to achieve victory.

In a brief summary of the final steps leading to conflict, the author argues that there existed the basis for a possible compromise between colonies and the Crown. There may have been a majority in the Continental Congress interested in continued unity with England. British military initiatives, however, leading to battles in Lexington in April and at Bunker Hill in June of 1775 began to change hearts and minds. "The shift from a constitutional to a military conflict," advises Ellis, "altered the political chemistry forever."

In August, a Royal Proclamation dissolved the comforting fiction that the King did not support British military activity in America while publication in January 1776 of Paine's Common Sense spread and further inflamed the debate about independence. These developments set the scene for Congressional resolutions in May to replace colonial constitutions as well as the more famous Declaration in July.

On August 27, a British Army in which troops averaged 7 years of service humiliated the Continental Army (6 months average time in the field) at the Battle of Long Island. The Howe brothers, in command of British troops, believed that shock waves from this defeat would shake the foundation of the Rebellion. They did not pursue and destroy the struggling Continental Army. Ellis argues that the Howes saw themselves as peace commissioners as well as military commanders. There was no need to destroy the Continentals as the colonial army would disintegrate on its own. A peace could then be settled with a minimum of mayhem and bad feeling.

Marblehead's John Glover, however, scored a much needed victory over the British at Pell's Point while Washington's troops escaped to White Plains. British troops would be stretched to the breaking point occupying Manhattan and Long Island. "The greater Howe's victories, the greater his difficulties," observes Ellis. "Howe was destined to win his way to defeat." John Adams' classical studies provided the metaphorical blueprint for victory. Like the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, the British had to win the war. Americans, like the Thebans (and perhaps the North Vietnamese in a later conflict), had only not to lose it. Washington learned this lesson well and never again put the survival of his army at risk.

This book is a very quick read from an author who knows the Revolutionary era well. In addition to providing a brief, convincing primer of the summer of '76, Ellis is at his best describing the principals. John Adams, for example, is that rarest of beasts, a "conservative revolutionary." Adams is so early to the cause, explains Ellis, because he was looking for it: "(Adams) had been auditioning for the role of American Cicero in the privacy of his own mind for a decade." Adams comes off more as prudent manager of revolutionary energies than as firebrand, alternately instigating and slowing the process to orchestrate an "evolutionary revolution."

Unfortunately, there are too few portraits such as this in this short tome. Overall, it is entertaining and instructive while seeming a bit rushed. As a non-professional, I appreciate the book but wonder both what it adds to the Revolutionary narrative and whether it gives full attention to the many issues addressed in its relatively few pages. Revolutionary Summer joins a crowded shelf of books covering this important period. I'm not sure, however, how much it adds to our understanding of it.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Forging the Sword of Independence, May 9, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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With "Revolutionary Summer" Dr. Joseph Ellis presents a fresh comprehensive look at the turning point of `The Cause' into the War for Independence. In this impressive book Ellis fills in the blanks that other books on the American Revolution briefly cover as he concentrates on the events during the summer of 1776 when the colonies choose the path that would create a nation.

Ellis has taken this monumental moment of a time in our history when the American colonies stood poised to either wither or bloom and presented it in such a style that the reader can become engrossed with a story we all know how ends. He does this by giving vivid descriptions of the key figures in both the military and political realm without superfluous words.

In this book Ellis presents a look at both sides of the struggle, from Philadelphia where the Continental Congress met where thirteen individual colonies tried to hold common cause to the Parliament in Westminster, London. As well as the political attitudes Ellis covers the military tribulations of the summer of 1776 with a closer look at the commanders. From the problems that General Washington had to contend with such as commanding a rag tag group of inexperienced volunteers, to the over confidence Lord Germain placed in the British commanders Admiral Lord Richard Howe and General William Howe.

Those who hold political offices today need to be reminded what Adams had in mind for our constitutional government when he wrote "Thoughts on Government" in 1776, in particular what Ellis so clearly states "that political power flowed upward from its primal source in "the people" rather than downward from the king."

In "Revolutionary Summer" Ellis gives us history as it should be written, clear, and concise and in a manner that engrosses the reader and makes the subject interesting.

A readable fast paced account of the actions taken during the struggle for Independence. I highly recommend "Revolutionary Summer" and give it 5 Stars.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, well written, and focused on the revolutionary aspects of the summer of 1776, May 14, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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This is an interesting and well-written book concerning the summer of 1776, but let me say at the outset that this is not a military history book, so if this is your primary interest this would perhaps not be the best choice for you. The discussion of the battles on Long Island and on Manhattan in the summer and fall of 1776 are skimpy at best. This is more of a book about the "revolution" in the conceptions that all the participants had about the war. Washington came to realize that with the army he had he could not defeat the British in a traditional battle on open ground. He is depicted as viewing the defeat on Long Island as being personal, but eventually came to realize that so long as he could keep his army from being destroyed he could eventually prevail. He realized that he would have to swallow his pride and fight a war characterized by scattered and defensive actions, and that he would win the war by keeping his army as a fighting force, even if it meant continual retreat from a superior British army. The British commanders, the brothers Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe, thought themselves as peace ambassadors who could end the war by just demonstrating the superiority of the British army and navy and that it would not be necessary, nor preferable, to completely destroy Washington's army. There also was a revolution in the view of the war on the part of the Continental Congress, who came to realize that this was going to be a long war, requiring much more sacrifice than they had imagined. This aspect of the war is told largely from the viewpoint of John Adams, and his struggle to prevent the rest of the colonists from being so dispirited by the failure in the summer of 1776 that they would give up.

Since it covers much the same ground as David McCullough's 1776, I think it would be helpful to compare the two. McCullough's book begins with some background material concerning the events of 1775 and discusses the capture of Dorchester Heights and the resulting retreat of the British from Boston in the spring of 1776. While these events are mentioned in Revolutionary Summer, they are only mentioned in passing. Whereas McCullough focuses on the military aspects of all the fighting in 1776, Ellis focuses much more on the non-military aspects of the conflict and mostly confines his attention to the events of the summer and fall of 1776. Revolutionary Summer also focuses on the Declaration of Independence, the struggles to create a unified government, to get military and financial support from the various colonies and on Adam's formulation of a fledgling foreign policy with respect to France.

All in all I found this to be an interesting book, which I would recommend to those interested in learning more about the US Revolutionary War. However, it is written for a general audience as opposed to scholars of the US Revolutionary War, so they may find little new here and those who are largely interested in military history may likewise be disappointed.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars That revolutionary summer held up to the light, May 7, 2013
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This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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Lovers of books concerning America's Colonial/Revolutionary past (I am one) know the name Joseph Ellis as a gifted author. His books Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson were excellent portraits of America's founding fathers. Ellis, Gordon Wood, Bernard Bailyn and John Ferling, are creating a renaissance in American Revolutionary studies. Their books thus far have been more than mere popular history without becoming leaden tomes of academic interest only. Ellis' latest book, Revolutionary Summer, concentrates on the epochal summer of 1776 when the American nation was literally born. In clear but densely packed prose, Ellis paints a picture of a new nation created not out of high-flown rhetoric and lofty intentions, but small, incremental and perilous steps. Ellis emphasizes the incrementalism of our birth, its improvised nature and the often uncanny luck of our nation's midwives.

As the founding fathers exhibited great wisdom in their construction of a new republic, they also knew they were putting their heads in a noose and fear can be a great motivator in getting things done quickly. That is a lesson those currently in government may need to re-learn. Revolutionary Summer can be savored by newcomers to reading about our revolutionary history as well as old hands because Ellis often provides some new insight, some previously unknown relevant fact that keeps us interested. I enjoyed this book immensely. It is never boring and often quite thrilling as we marvel once again at how the revolutionary generation managed the miraculous feat of turning a small, powerless colonial outpost into the first self-governing republic in a world of powerful monarchies.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Managing chaos, May 20, 2013
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J. Green (Los Angeles, California) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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If you've already read David McCullough's excellent 1776, or some of the other outstanding books by Joseph Ellis such as His Excellency: George Washington or Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation you probably won't find a lot of new information here. What Ellis brings to the summer of 1776, however, is perspective. He dispels any myths we might have retained 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.

Instead, the perspective we get is that of John Adams trying to manage a revolution while events quickly spin beyond his control. 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. We get Benjamin Franklin's confidence that "The Cause" will prevail, and his accusations that the split was caused not by the colonists but by King George himself. And the perspective of just how close it came to going the other way that summer.

Everyone expected great things from Washington after the "victories" in Boston (they were actually British victories, but so very costly for them) but New York was a different situation and was essentially indefensible. Washington's attempts to *try* a defense, however, ended up with costly and embarrassing defeats that had the potential to end the nascent rebellion just as it was beginning. But the Howe brothers failed to deliver a decisive blow that could have destroyed the Continental Army, and perhaps the best perspective I gained from this book was the perspective of General Howe. Having served in America before and having a feeling of brotherhood for the Americans, he 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 other side 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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A short, eloquent examination of the opening months of the Revolutionary War, May 30, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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This book seeks to be three things: first, an examination on how military developments in the opening days of the Revolutionary War affected political developments in the former colonies and vice versa. Second, a Barbara Tuchman-style examination of the opening days of the war. And third, a description of the war through the eyes of regular soldiers, especially of a man called Joseph Plumb Martin.

Ellis succeeds most completely in this second goal. I very much appreciated the nuances in his descriptions of the political postures of leaders in both Britain and the colonies before the war. The strength of the debate in parliament against fighting surprised me, but once George III stated his desire to respond with massive force, no opposition was possible. Ellis argues as well that this ambivalence on the part of many in the English elite explains why William Howe, Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the war, prosecuted the war with such little aggression. He (and his brother, who was leading the English naval forces in the war) believed that a negotiated settlement was best, and likely, once the might of the British army was made clear. He therefore failed to follow up on several opportunities to destroy the continental army in the early days of the war, figuring it would soon surrender to him anyway.

The book describes battles well, and the discussion of the American evacuation from Brooklyn Heights, for example, is nail-bitingly tense. Ellis describes complex engagements cogently, making clear the positions of the troops, and the tactics being used, and the progress of the fighting. I think the discussion of the Battle of Harlem Heights in this book is better than any other I've read.

Ellis lays bare the political difficulties faced by the Americans in clear and memorable terms. He describes the result of the meetings of the Continental Congress in the perfect phrase, "They knew what they were against, but they didn't know what they were for."

I found that two sections of the book held unexpected parallels for modern politics -- first, American commitment to the revolution did not decrease after the continental army's defeat in Brooklyn. Why? It turns out that most American newspapers declined to mention the loss, or even described it as a win. Even in an era with much faster and more comprehensive media saturation, we remain dependent on our choice of news sources and history changes if enough people believe the wrong narratives. Second, the English response to Howe's defeat resembles the process that the United States went through after Vietnam, and may some day go through with regard to our wars in the middle east, trying to apportion blame between the military and the civilian leaders who directed them into a unwinnable war. In the English case, this was complicated by the impossibility of blaming the king.

The book is dense, covering military history, political economy, parliamentary politics, the biographies of the major characters, and more, in only about 180 pages of text. In lesser hands, this might have resulted in a muddle, but in this case I was delighted to see this period in American history explored well from so many angles.

The New York Times Book Review described the book as being mostly a defense of the importance of the continental army, relative to state militias during the war, and criticized the book for being unduly concerned with the social and political elite. I think both points are wrong; while the relative importance of the continental army is discussed in the book, this is only one of many themes. And Ellis discusses popular opinion in his dissection of the coverage of the war in the newspapers of the day and how people responded to the news they received.

The text is appropriate for any reader, and is extensively footnoted for those who want to dig deeper into Ellis's rendition of events.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of Many, Still, Enjoyable, May 22, 2013
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This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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As a reader of American history, one wonders how many different times and ways we can revisit the "Revolutionary Summer". It seems that, as of late, many authors have taken to dabble in during this monumental time, to explain their unusual insights, and highlight different aspects of years that gave birth to our country. Joseph Ellis' "Revolutionary Summer" stands proudly among the best, if not entirely revolutionary in itself.

Ellis' take on this story of America's start is that we cannot divorce the Continental Congress' work in Philadelphia from the hardscrabble efforts of George Washington and the Army fighting the British. He is right in asserting that often, either just one side of the story is told, or if they are both included, it's almost as if each is happening absent from the other. Ellis' marriage of the two works, primarily, because of his knowledge of the events and his ability to reflect one off the other so interestingly and brilliantly.

Dense book, yes. One of many? Yes. But if you are looking at the slate of possible books to highlight your summer, or even your fourth of July, this may be just the book for you.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent history of a few critical months in the development of our country, May 16, 2013
This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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What I liked about Revolutionary Summer is the short timeframe and the depth of insights that were possible by limiting the work to a short period of time. I also greatly enjoyed Ellis's plotting two parallel activities side by side, almost like a crime novel. One set of activities has to do with the war - the Minutemen and Colonials who are organizing to fight the British, and the comedy of errors on both sides that led to Washington's escape from New York. The other set of activities recount the actions in the political realm, in the colonies and in England and France. The book points out many things that we've forgotten or neglected: the significant divisions between the colonies on political matters, the number of people in the colonies who were Loyalists, the division and disagreement about the prosecution of the war in Parliament.

For a short book that covers just a few summer months, Revolutionary Summer does a great job of making the history of the beginning of our country interesting, compelling even. It will make you wonder how we ever managed to win, and glad that we did.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Popular history at its best, June 1, 2013
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This review is from: Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (Hardcover)
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I have never been intimidated by the term "popular history"; good historical writing is good historical writing. And especially given the current proclivities of academic historians to write only for their own colleagues, in their own unique jargon, solid historical analysis aimed at the general reader is to be encouraged. Joseph J. Ellis is undoubtedly well known to the general reader for his string of outstanding books focusing on the founders. His Pulitzer-Prize for "Founding Brothers" attests to his significant impact. But this book was even so much better than I had expected.

Ellis' focus is upon the summer of 1776 just at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. He develops an effective dual focus: the political juxtaposed against the military. In nine chapters, we see the interplay of these two elements--how the military impacted the political developments, and vice versa. Since Ellis has written individual bios of Jefferson, Washington, and especially John Adams, he is well versed with the main characters. Yet, I found his analysis surprisingly fresh and engrossing, especially his recounting of the key early battles in New York where the Americans came perilously close to losing it all.

Ellis is particularly skilled in focusing on the human dimension in his writing; this book is no exception as his insights into Washington and his strategy are most impressive. One can only wonder about the level of GW's military skills, and how lucky he was. Similarly perceptive are Ellis' insights into Lord William Howe, the overall British commander, and how his paradoxical desire for reconciliation overrode his military leadership as he permitted the Continental Army (such as it was) to escape destruction.

Ellis leaves off at the point when Washington has evacuated his troops out of NYC. At this point, several issues are clear. First, it will be a long war since the British blew their chance for early annihilation of the Continental army. Second, no matter how dark the military situation, and the summer of 1776 had been the darkest during the war, the Continental Congress and the American people they represented, would never settle for anything less than total independence.

I found the final chapter, on "Necessary Fictions" especially interesting, as Ellis explodes some myths held by both sides of this military and political confrontation.

There are some helpful notes that demonstrates Ellis solid research, particularly his reliance upon correspondence and documents. There are also three helpful maps and some colorful illustrations. Ellis has produced 240 pages of effective and perceptive analysis that will enthrall both the professional historian as well as the motivated general reader. A vital experience that both can share and benefit from.
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Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis (Hardcover - June 4, 2013)
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