Just finished reading Revolutionary Summer, Joseph Ellis' new (published 2013), short, readable accounting of the political and military maneuvering of the Americans and the British, played out in the confines of Long Island and Manhattan in the middle of 1776.
Ellis' prose lacks the style and dramaturgy of David McCullough's 1776, a book that covers the same campaign but opens the action on the other side of the Atlantic, on the clacking London cobblestone streets where an incensed George III makes his way by carriage to Parliament to denounce the American insurgency. (Parallels to the contemporary vocabulary of the War on Terror are not subtle.)
I loved reading McCullough's book and bought extra copies to hand out to friends.
But I'd recommend the Ellis book, too. Revolutionary Summer may not be a treatment anticipating a screenplay, but its chapters are quickly paced and decorated with telling details (e.g.: Jefferson's obsession with preserving his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, before it had been edited by Congress; Franklin's canny, personal correspondence with Lord Howe). Though narrative in structure, Ellis' book as a whole has the feel of a reasoned essay. It's as if Ellis has summarized, for popular consumption, recent scholarship on the American Revolution, and has chosen to revisit key episodes in the year of the Declaration of Independence to throw into relief newer, more nuanced views on the significance of the military conflict.
Surprisingly, Ellis finds, or argues, that the social, cultural and political forces leading up to the decision of the Continental Congress in June, 1776, to declare independence from Great Britain, had a logic of their own that were not dependent on the prospects or performance of the Continental Army, hunkering down in New York.
Acknowledging that it was distinctly possible that the destruction of the Continental Army at the hands of the British and Hessians in 1776 would have altered the establishment of the United States (not posited by Ellis, but perhaps New York and New Jersey would have returned to the "protection of the Crown," or perhaps the British would have systematically occupied the northeastern seaboard?), Ellis nevertheless walks us through how various important and influential American patriots convinced themselves - each in different ways - that "the Cause" would inevitably triumph. Such belief was well-founded. Demography (the population of the States was doubling every twenty years, far outpacing population growth in England) and geography (the Howes would necessarily lose the war by winning it, as each successive occupation depleted the next occupying force) meant that the American states were not reversing their independent course.
The most interesting upshot of the "essay" is found in Ellis' last footnote:
"I solicited the opinions of four distinguished historians of the American Revolution in response to this question: Would the demise of the Continental Army and the capture of George Washington in 1776 have changed the outcome of the American Revolution? Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, and David Hackett Fischer all said no, though all agreed that the way the war played out would have been different. Ed Lengel, editor of the Washington Papers, disagreed on the grounds that Washington was indispensable and irreplaceable."
I hugely admire George Washington. McCullough's book about that summer, Ron Chernow's one-volume biography of Washington's entire life, and other books and stories I have read about the father of our country, all marvel over Washington's amazing physical courage and emotional stamina. If there are any persons with such character in American life today, they must be hidden among the military or business classes; there certainly are no such persons in our national political life.
I want to be really careful here as I warm up to pointing out that Ellis' treatment of Washington is . . . decidedly not hagiographic. No question Ellis cites Washington's physical bravery - he is among the last to evacuate Long Island in the tactical retreat to Manhattan; he exposes himself to British artillery; he must be forcibly led by subordinate officers off the open battlefield as British regulars advance within the range of a Russell Wilson pass - but he also allows that Washington was indecisive.
But Ellis also states that by the fall of 1776 Washington had come to appreciate that the Continental Army needed victories for psychological reasons as much or more than for tactical ones.
Along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the Howe brothers - Richard in charge of the navy, William in charge of the army and the overall commander in chief of British forces - end up being the main characters in Revolutionary Summer. A question I am going to take away from reading the book - or perhaps it is a working thesis to be tested by further reading - is whether the Howe's reluctance to crush Washington's army when the chances to do so presented themselves that summer, whether that reluctance was belatedly prescient: did the Howes also appreciate that that war might only be won in the hearts and minds of the American people?
Image: "the invasion fleet under Admiral Howe assembling in lower New York Harbor off the coast of Staten Island in the summer of 1776." Wikimedia.