Book review: Revolutionary Summer

Irked that I couldn’t find the book that I wanted to read by Joseph Ellis, I went looking for other books by him. I landed on Revolutionary Summer.

Why was I even looking for a book by Joseph Ellis? I had been wandering around a bookstore and chanced on a book of his about the American Revolution. I was intrigued. I had just finished listening to the American Revolution episodes of the Revolutions podcast.

Revolutionary Summer covers the extended summer of 1776 (May through October). The constitutional conflict between the American colonies and the English that started with the Stamp Act in 1765 morphed into a military conflict ten years later. In the summer of 1776, the Continental Congress changed from hoping for reconciliation to working towards independence.

John Adams led the way, carefully planning for a clean, orderly step-by-step process towards independence: create state constitutions, form a confederation of states, enter into an alliance with France, and then declare independence. Of course, this orderly process didn’t happen. Once the Pandora box of independence was opened, the revolution was underway.

Adams did have more success in controlling what rights were addressed. The revolution was waged for the freedom of white propertied men. The non-white propertied male segments of the population called for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and the rights of non-propertied men.

Adams was afraid that fighting for these rights would alienate those fighting for the rights of white propertied men and end up jeopardizing the fight for independence before it even got started. In some cases, the cry for rights could not be stilled. Non-propertied white men in Pennsylvania and New York challenged the legitimacy of their elected government as not being the will of the people. Perhaps Adams was right to focus on the rights of one segment of the population, but the avoidance of these prickly issues merely kicked the can down the road, in some cases creating wounds so deep that they are still not healed today but continue to threaten the country and harm those whose rights were denied from the beginning.

Adams suggested that the colonies create state governments modeled off of the English government: executive branch, bicameral legislature, and judiciary. The colonies took to creating their state governments with a vengeance.

As that was happening, the Continental Congress set to drafting a declaration. Strangely, this was seen as less important that the creation of state governments and state constitutions. At least Jefferson felt that way, stuck at the Continental Congress but wanting very badly to be back in Virginia drafting the Virginia constitution.

The Declaration of Independence, for the most part, is a collection of grievances that the colonies addressed to King George. When editing the document, Jefferson and the Continental Congress spent much time on the grievances listed, but little, Ellis points out, on the first 35 words. This list of our rights, the preamble, received scant attention. But the preamble to the Declaration of Independence would go on to have an amazing effect on future liberal individual rights such as the end of slavery, the passage of women’s suffrage, and the recognition of civil rights.

The Continental Congress set up committees to flesh out what the government should look like and what the government’s foreign policy should be. Getting thirteen colonies to work together for independence was hard enough—the Continental Congress had no authority to force the colonies to denote money and men to the Continental Army—but agreeing on what the political entity of the colonies should look like was even harder.

The first committee, which focused on the form of the future government, really couldn’t reach a consensus. The result of their work was the Articles of Confederation, a list of items that provides no clear outline. Some items suggest that power resides in the states, others in a national government. The reason for the lack of consensus was due to the different nature of the colonies: the north/south split concerning slavery, the small/large population effect on the form of representation, and the desire for a confederacy versus a national union.

The second committee, which focused on foreign policy, was much more successful. The guidelines that came out of the committee lasted over a hundred years, and weren’t completely abandoned until after World War II. John Adams drafted a foreign policy that called for commercial treaties but no diplomatic or military treaties. Think of the Washington Doctrine.

By the time that the Howe brothers arrived on American shores as peace commissioners, it was too late. The Continental Congress and the American populace (on the whole) had moved beyond hope for reconciliation. King George’s earlier threat to destroy the colonies and his hiring of mercenaries converted the colonies from wanting reconciliation to wanting independence.

The portrait that Ellis paints of Washington and the Continental Army is equally fascinating. The Continental Army had already been fighting for at least a year, a rather strange fact considering that until 1776 the Continental Congress and the American people were hoping for reconciliation. The army was fighting for independence before a war for independence had been formally declared.

The myth of the militia and the Minutemen is just that, a myth that the Continental Congress believed then and that Americans believe now. Washington’s army was mostly, it seems, comprised of militias. The states would send troops as they saw fit, no matter what the condition or needs of the army—or Washington’s pleas.

The militias were made up of yeoman farmers and rabble. The farmers were only available during the times that they didn’t have crops to tend. The rabble, as Ellis describes, “were not the kind of men you wanted living in your neighborhood.” And these militias were not there for the duration of the war but for short periods of time. Just when they were trained as soldiers, their time of enlistment was up. They went home and a new batch (hopefully) of men arrived who needed to be trained.

The summer of 1776 seems like a time when Washington was figuring out how to fight this war. Originally, he was trying to win it rather than just not lose it. (Later he changed to just trying not to lose it, which worked perfectly.) His focus was on keeping New York City, a site that was originally deemed indefensible. Yet, the Continental Army decided to defend it at all costs. It was a harsh lesson to learn and one that could easily have meant the demise of the Army.

The picture of Washington that Ellis paints in the summer of 1776 is not of a sure-footed, confident commander, but of a man who is unsure and saddled with the 18th century sense of honor. Retreats were anathema to Washington. He would rather die than retreat. In the Revolutions podcast, I had recently learned that Washington was the master of retreats. And in Revolutionary Summer, I read with awe about his perfectly executed retreat of 10,000 men from Long Island to Manhattan.

“The planning had to be precise, the officers and men needed to behave with uncommon courage, the winds and river currents had to be properly aligned, the Royal Navy had to be negligent, and, finally, a dense fog had to make a providential appearance at the end.”

The British too were in awe. (Or maybe astonished would be a better description.)

Ellis’ narrative of these five fateful months in 1776 revealed a lot to me. It solidified information I recently learned from the Revolutions podcast. It suggested how the first 35 words of the Declaration of Independence helped ensure that rights initially brushed over were not brushed over indefinitely. It showed that the depth of the current anti-government stance had its roots in the confederation that formed to fight for independence. It ripped away the myth of the militia as the backbone of American independence—that a lack of professionalism does not spell success but rather brings chaos and disaster. (I would argue that this same revelation could also be applied to government—the outsider who has never head office does not bode well for leading a country.) It taught me that the populace and the government never supported their veterans but subjected them to mob violence and broken promises.

Ellis rips away myths and gently leads readers to see truths—some good, some bad—about the reality that was rather than the story that is taught. He shows us a populace that devolves into mob violence against other Americans, people speaking up for rights that they are still denied, and heroes who are heroes but not necessarily in the ways we originally thought.

Now to find the original book by Ellis that I was looking for—and learn how the form of government was decided after the fiasco that was the Articles of Confederation.