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Book review

‘Revolutionary Summer’ by Joseph J. Ellis

lesley becker/globe staff

What was the most remarkable summer in American history? The one 150 years ago when Gettysburg and Vicksburg altered the course of the Civil War? The one in 1944 when the Allies invaded Europe and began the march toward victory against the Axis powers? The one a year later when the nuclear age began with the dropping of the atom bombs that hastened victory in the Pacific?

Joseph J. Ellis has perhaps the winning answer. It’s the summer of 1776 when the Colonies declared their independence; the broad outlines of democratic government began to emerge; and the British undertook in earnest to suppress their rebellious subjects.

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And so Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Mount Holyoke College, presents us with both a political and military tale: parallel stories, each incomprehensible without the other, each affected by the other, each heroic in its own right.

This is his great insight: The imminent British invasion of New York galvanized the colonists into realizing that they could — that they must — declare independence. That was the giant leap of the summer, for as Ellis points out, the Continental Congress that we think of as being revolutionary was anything but, at least in the spring of 1776, when ties between the colonists and their London masters were frayed but still very much intact — so much so that George Washington wrote his brother that the delegates to Philadelphia “are still feeding themselves on the dainty food of reconciliation.’’

The result was a political equilibrium that could not long persist. Colonists were being killed. Their leaders were forced to create an army. And the figure we in comfortable conventional reflection regard as the mildest of men, and also the most patient, was in fact growing impatient. “Washington,’’ Ellis explains, “did not believe he could send brave young men to their deaths for any cause less than American independence.’’

The army that increasingly believed it was fighting for freedom and the Continental Congress that steadfastly held onto its resolve that independence be a last resort represented the two colliding convictions of the time.

Few books of such brevity and crispness possess so much wisdom; here the ratio of verities to verbiage is especially high. We learn, for example, that the ethnic diversity of the middle states created a tolerance, and thus a sense of moderation, that wasn’t replicated in the Northeast, where the population was much more homogeneous. “It was no accident,’’ Ellis tells us, “that Benjamin Franklin could become the self-invented paragon of benevolent equanimity only after moving from Boston to Philadelphia.’’

What was the most remarkable summer in American history? Joseph J. Ellis believes it was that of 1776 when the imminent British invasion of New York pushed the colonists to the realization that they must declare independence.

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There were other fault lines: In England, between those who wanted to crush the colonists and those, William Pitt and Edmund Burke most prominent among them, who wanted to appease them. In America, between those who thought war winnable and those who feared it would lead to catastrophic losses and harsh defeat. In the American army, between those who believed in the democratizing ideal and those who believed in the discipline of the traditional military command structure.

The bursts of gunfire from spring 1775 to summer 1776 pushed the moderates aside on both sides of the Atlantic, their positions undermined fatally when King George III declared the colonists in rebellion, froze colonial assets, blocked American trading ships from British ports, and prepared, with the help of German mercenaries reviled in the Colonies, what he expected to be a decisive military operation.

A continent away, the great revolution possessed a great contradiction, which Ellis confronts with more honesty than most of the men whose work he describes. The new republic of liberty denied liberty, or even a meaningful place in the republic, to women and blacks. By subsuming principle to prudence, Ellis says, the colonial leaders shortchanged the revolution — but also set the table for the politics of the American future.

Even so, idealism fueled the new American army. “May the sacredness of our cause Inspire our Soldiery with sentiments of Heroism, and lead ’em to the performance of noblest exploits,’’ Washington said. He knew, but didn’t say, that inspiration and heroism were not nearly sufficient for an army whose recruits often carried spears instead of muskets and was girding to fight a force of 2,000 new troops arriving on 150 ships with a six-month supply of munitions and food.

Throughout this volume we see the clear-eyed mastery of a historian with the acuity to distill a historical moment into a clash for the ages: “It was the coercive power of an empire against the consensual potency of a fledgling republic.’’ But in describing the significance of these momentous events he does not boil off the romance of them:

“[T]here is something almost elegiac about the picture of ordinary farmers, most accustomed to meeting for discussions about local property lines or regulations against roaming cows or pigs, gathering in the meetinghouse to debate the fate of America’s role in the British empire.’’

And while today American government is more divided than the people it represents, the government of the former United Colonies grew more united than the people they represented, many of whom still harbored doubts, some of whom would later flee to safer harbors.

Soon — by midsummer — the political unity created by the drive for independence was fractured by fights over slavery and the character of the new government. Those debates were not resolved in 1776, and their postponement would shape the country that emerged from that fateful summer.

The American army suffered defeats at Long Island and New York and supplying the forces and raising troops remained a problem — a “deplorable situation’’ in Ellis’s estimation. But the point is that the military integrity of the army, which Washington described as “half starved, always in Rags, without pay’’ was, as Ellis puts it, “the strategic center of the rebellion.’’ It prevailed, and with it, so did the new nation.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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