Through two decades of writing terrific books on America’s founding era, Joseph J. Ellis has sounded a theme he repeats at the beginning of “Revolutionary Summer”: Narrative is “the highest form of analysis.”
Ellis’s dictum is misleading. His books are chock full of penetrating analysis, from their often-innovative structures to the provocative insights woven into their narratives. “Revolutionary Summer” is no exception. But his dictum reflects the fundamental truth that by caring deeply about storytelling, by first engaging the reader’s imagination and curiosity about the human beings trapped in historical events, the writer can win an audience that will appreciate the larger truths that emerge from that narrative.
Ellis keeps the focus tight in “Revolutionary Summer,” “exploring a few months of intertwined political and military events surrounding the colossal decision to claim independence from Great Britain in 1776. For the political story, he highlights the inspired work of John Adams in the fractious Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The military story follows Gen. George Washington’s serial blunders through weeks of the nearly catastrophic Battle of New York.
In Philadelphia that summer, the revolutionary spirit inhabited Adams. During those months, the prickly Massachusetts lawyer felt deeply the pulse and rhythm of the moment. As he relentlessly pressed Congress toward independence, events almost obediently supported his cause. In pivotal Pennsylvania, whose congressional delegates shied away from independence, a grass-roots movement brought in a provisional state government that gave him crucial support. A similar movement in New York broke down that state’s resistance to independence.
Ellis’s admiration for Adams is infectious. In truth, it is difficult not to be charmed by a politician who exchanged such genuine and intelligent letters with his wife, Abigail, and who, when forced to evaluate military strategy, sought ideas from the classical historian Polybius. That no record survives of Adams’s great speech to Congress on June 28 — a silence that has allowed Jefferson’s magisterial Declaration of Independence to dominate the independence drama — is one of the irreparable vagaries of history.
When Ellis turns to the military scene, he finds a leader hobbled by traditional notions of honor and virtue. Washington, yearning to win a decisive, set-piece battle, dangerously flirted with the prospect of squaring off against the British as they drove the Continental Army across the islands of New York Harbor. The Americans’ hair’s-breadth escapes depended at different times on a clever 20-year-old named Aaron Burr and a providential early-morning fog.
Washington resisted what others could see clearly: that in a pitched battle, hardened British regulars would maul his army of “unqualified officers, wholly undependable militia, and short-term enlisted troops.” America’s finest citizen-general, Nathanael Greene, understood how ill-prepared his men were for the close-up slaughter of the 18th-century battlefield: “To march over dead men, to hear without concern the groans of the wounded, I say few men can stand such scenes unless steeled by habit or fortified by military pride.”
Against his core warrior instincts, Washington slowly accepted that his first duty was not to seek battlefield glory but to preserve the army. “The strategic center of the rebellion was not a place,” Ellis explains, “but the Continental Army itself.” Tracing how a great leader grudgingly abandoned cherished values, he teaches the importance of adapting ideas to the real world of events and circumstances.
Equally valuable is Ellis’s account of the political stalemate when Congress tried to draft a new charter of government, the ill-fated Articles of Confederation. “Beyond independence,” he observes, “Americans had no consensus on what being an American meant.” Through the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and 27 constitutional amendments, Americans have continued to grope for that consensus.
Like any first-rate history, “Revolutionary Summer” leaves the reader wanting to know more. When asked who was the most important single actor in making the revolution, Adams answered: King George III. Perhaps Ellis next will turn his gifts to the other side of the Atlantic and explore how the British king went so far wrong.
“Revolutionary Summer’s” one modest misstep comes unexpectedly in its final paragraph. Ellis poses a provocative question: If the British had destroyed the Continental Army in New York in 1776, would they have quelled the revolution? He offers a diffident and unsatisfying answer: that “the balance of historical scholarship over the last forty years has made that a highly problematic assumption.” An endnote reveals that Ellis polled four eminent colleagues on the question and that they split 3-1 in favor of the revolution surviving the loss of the army, but he never offers his own answer.
The Birth of American Independence
By Joseph J. Ellis
Knopf. 219 pp. $26.95