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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.