I really enjoyed Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis. This book offers several fascinating and new (to me) insights on that seminal time frame from May to October of 1776, which Ellis calls “the crescendo moment” in American History.
Ellis puts a somewhat sympathetic focus on General William Howe. Ellis explains the thought process behind Howe’s cautious military strategy, particularly his aspirations of diplomacy. Rather than crush the rebellion, Howe wanted to return to Britain having brought the Americans back into the fold. He believed, as did many of his countrymen, that the cry for independence came from a loud minority and not from the general American public. This was reinforced by the welcome he got when he landed on Long Island, then the largest concentration (with New York) of loyalists to the crown. Howe’s strategy was to demonstrate his martial dominance, thus bringing the Americans to their senses, and then negotiate peace with them. He had several opportunities early on to end the war with a decisive blow, but held back. Ellis adds a whole new intrigue to the dance between Howe and Washington, as we see each misinterpreting the other’s motives and moves.
Ellis also seeks to dispel the myth of the Minutemen, whom fables (and even schoolbooks) have credited with beating the British. In fact, these state militias were just that … only in for a minute. They were the last to show for battle and the first to desert. Washington complained to John Hancock, “great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.”
Instead, it was the trudging, poorly-rationed regulars of Washington’s Continental Army, who fought the hardest and who kept up the battle, which became a drawn-out war of attrition. The states preferred to outfit their own militias, or Minutemen, rather than supply a unified army. This was partially due to regional loyalties, the beginnings of the state vs federal clash, and also because “the very idea of a robust Continental Army was generally regarded as an American version of the British Army.” This mistrust promoted word-of-mouth praise of Minutemen accomplishments. The press happily went along and reinforced this.
Indeed, I was a bit shocked to discover how controlled and complicit the press was in furthering “the Cause.” While they prominently reported unfavorable news about Howe and the British, they kept silent on Washington’s dramatic setbacks. “Most of the population remained ignorant that the Continental Army had suffered any kind of defeat at all … American newspapers did not report it.” Very interesting considering that “freedom of the press” would ultimately be such a cornerstone of our constitution.
Ellis also spends a great deal of time on the Dickenson Draft, the first outline of the Articles of Confederation. Already there are kernels of unrest between those who would later become federalists or states’ rights advocates. And already there is a giant schism between the north and the south over slavery, so much so that southern states threatened “an End of the Confederation.”
Overall, Ellis kept me thinking and rethinking a period which I have read so much about. He peppers his arguments with erudite allusions to Aquinas, Thebes, Tolstoy, the Peloponnesian Wars, and such comparisons as Howe to Hannibal and John Adams to Cicero.
I highly recommend Revolutionary Summer! A stirring read with so much information for such a short book (only 185 pages). Those who don’t normally read historical non-fiction will be quickly drawn in, and history buffs will find several new aspects to consider. Finally, I also highly recommend Ellis’s book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
Revolutionary Summer (Knopf)
Joseph J. Ellis official website
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