*****Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence

Declaration of Independence, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson (graphic: wikimedia)

By Joseph J. Ellis – What a wonderful way Pulitzer Prize-winner Ellis has of distilling complicated historical events and people into a readable narrative! I’ve read his His Excellency, George Washington, too, and for the first time truly appreciated our first President. Both books are relatively short—around 200 pages—so if you need a doorstop, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis takes the reader through the events of 1776, both before and after the Declaration of Independence. He says most histories of that era concentrate either on the political machinations within Independence Hall or on the travails of George Washington leading the ragtag Continental Army. Ellis’s contention is that the two threads—military and political—are inextricably intertwined, and the fates of each depended on the other.

As an example, the individual colonies-cum-states put their local political autonomy (an early manifestation of “states’ rights”) above the needs of the combined entity that the delegates in Philadelphia were promoting. While they’d occasionally contribute a few ill-trained and ill-equipped militias to the cause, they wouldn’t necessarily respond to Washington’s pleas for more.

On the political side, says Ellis, “Virginia regarded itself as the most important player in this political crisis, and the Virginians sent their resolutions [regarding independence] to all the other colonies on the assumption that they set the standard for others to imitate.” This mindset accords perfectly with genealogical research I’ve done about my family, in which early Georgia settlers from Virginia generally held themselves in much higher esteem than the “uncouth and rowdy” settlers from the Carolinas (my people!).

On the military side, Ellis makes the interesting point that “both (the British and American) armies would have been better served if their respective commanders had exchanged places. For Howe, in targeting the territory rather than the Continental Army, pursued the cautious strategy when he should have been bold. And Washington, in his very decision to defend New York, pursued the bold strategy when he should have been cautious.”

This book is a highly readable refresher if you’ve neglected your American History since, say, 10th grade. The United States has a great historical legacy, but by and large greatness is not necessarily found in the teaching of history nor in its textbooks. Revolutionary Summer is a bracing corrective.