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Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 4, 2013
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In Revolutionary Summer, the eminent historian Joseph Ellis describes the events surrounding the birth of America during the summer of 1776 (loosely defined as May through October of that year). Ellis's stated aim is to treat the military and political events of the period in tandem, and he skillfully establishes that there were two different sets of goals at stake: George Washington’s Continental Army considered independence an inevitability, while the Continental Congress considered it a last resort. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winner, Ellis recently retired as the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Reading Revolutionary Summer is like receiving a distinguished lecture from a man who has dedicated many fruitful decades to breathing life into our understanding of history—he makes Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and others of the era come alive for the reader. —Chris Schluep
A specious coherence marks narratives of 1776 in which the Declaration of Independence inevitably occurs while the Continental army’s doughty defense of New York ensures that independence would become fact. Events are not, however, so tidily told, avers historian Ellis, who restores contingency to his account of the storied summer and fall of 1776. Identifying a central problem of the historical situation—“Was there any realistic chance for the British to win?”—Ellis recounts efforts of moderates within each warring party. On the American side was the rout of anti-independence John Dickinson by the radical John Adams, while Ellis portrays the British side as misunderstanding the colonial rebellion. The commanders George III sent believed in reconciliation with the Americans, and so William Howe conducted the battles of New York cautiously, negotiated futilely with a Ben Franklin serenely sure of American success, and never delivered the decisive blow against George Washington’s army. Even had Howe destroyed the Continental army, Ellis suggests that the British still would have confronted strategic failure against an enemy determined to continue the war. With cogent argument and compact prose, Ellis augurs to attract the history audience. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Ellis commands a 100,000-plus print run for his latest installment on the American Revolution, tapping his popularity built on such standards as American Sphinx (1997), Founding Brothers (2000), and First Family (2010). --Gilbert Taylor
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In one sense, the American Revolution began a full year earlier with the April 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, where colonists and British traded lead in anger in a war that would last over 8 years. American luminaries such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Hancock were taking their places on the world stage, along with lesser lights like Thomas Paine. In fact, it is the contribution of the heretofore unknown Paine - Common Sense - that lights the fire under the revolutionary faction of both the Continental Congress and the American public.
Ellis dedicates his work to showing in excellent detail the goings-on from the American point of view. He picks up this historical jewel and examines it from all sides, checking and finding stress, controversy and contentious debate. This was an exercise that needed to be done - one does not break away from the greatest power in the world on a whim.
Unbeknownst to the Continental Congress, the Howe brothers (Admiral Richard and General Sir William) were getting ready to meet up in New York City bearing an iron fist inside of a silk glove. William was forced to leave Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill and would lead the ground assault on America's prized port if the colonists refused to come to their senses. Seeing that the Howes were both "Peace Commissioners" and the leaders of battle should it be given rightly gave the colonial representatives pause.
Of course, given British arrogance in refusing to treat the colonials with respect (which continues right up to Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown) leads to the war that we come to read about. In the midst of trying to make names for themselves by even after declarations of war to bring the colonies home, the Howes refuse to engage the Colonial Army in a manner that would end the war in a decisive victory. The brothers mistakenly believe that all that is required is to bloody the nose of Washington and his troops, and they will see the light. It is a mistake that proves costly as the Colonial Army soon begins to believe they can win and Congress believes they can do it.
Ellis crafts a good narrative of the events, spinning them as a good story with backstories. He also takes the effort to show the failings of Washington the general, yet placing it within the context of the code of honor among gentlemen of the 18th century. An army wouldn't fight like that today, but absent that, there were strategic blunders that almost got the Revolution strangled in the cradle.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent book for the turbulent events of 1776.
Revolutionary Summer is a good addition but not great to analyses of American independence. First, Ellis' writing remains strong and I would recommend the book foremost because of his skill at creating fluid, engaging prose. Second, Ellis makes an interesting argument about the pivotal nature of military and political decisions in the summer of 1776. He argues that American political unity, British political intransigence, and most critically, British military caution made eventual American triumph inevitable. His examination of both military and political decision-making - on both the British and American sides - is helpful and insightful. He is persuasive in arguing the pivotal nature of these months and decisions.
However, there are a few problems with the book. First, most of his arguments are not new, although he tells the story well. Second, and more importantly, is he ends the analysis abruptly in late summer 1776. He argues that American victory by this time was basically assured; it might be a long and difficult journey but the pieces were in place for successful independence. This discounts how precarious the American military situation continued to be and the importance of Washington's victory at Trenton in December. Maybe Ellis is correct but I do not find his argument persuasive. David McCullough, in his book 1776, argues more compellingly for the uncertainty of the American cause far beyond Aug/Sep 1776 and for the central role played by Washington. This is more in line with the consensus among historians, I believe. It is ironic that McCullough, who has been criticized for being a 'Barnes and Noble' historian has made what I would consider to be a more persuasive analysis than the esteemed Ellis.
With all that in mind, Ellis remains an engaging, enjoyable writer and I recommend this book.
In a remarkable insight, Ellis notes that Americans now--in the shadow of our experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iran--can better understand the nightmare of the British in attempting to maintain a war and an occupation in a distant land. The question ought not to have been "How can the American Revolution possibly be won?" but rather "How can the British Empire possibly hope to defeat and retain their American colonies?" Wow.