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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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