The Declaration of Independence was adopted in early July, 1776, in Philadelphia. At the same time, the newly formed Continental Army, under the command of George Washington, found itself in desperate straits in New York City, nearly surrounded by a clearly superior British army and cut off from any retreat by the British navy. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph Ellis has delivered a fast paced narrative and lucid analysis of the political and military events of that dramatic time in Revolutionary Summer.
The British had attempted to subdue colonial unrest the previous year by occupying the City of Boston, which they rightly perceived to be a hotbed of revolutionary fervor. Their military position became untenable, however, when the newly formed Continental Army, augmented by large numbers of militiamen from the surrounding countryside, surrounded the city. After gaining a largely Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill, the British thought it wise to repair to Halifax until a more formidable force could be assembled.
Ellis observes that the events of the summer of 1776 have often been told from a purely military or a purely political viewpoint, but he believes they can be truly understood only as an interplay between the military and the political.
Representatives of each of the thirteen colonies convened the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia without a clear agenda. Only some of the delegates desired independence in the early days of the Congress. Many delegates pledged their loyalty to George III, blaming his ministers for the benighted policies of the North administration. [Lord North was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1770 to 1782.] Two developments caused the delegates to become overwhelmingly disposed to independence. First, they learned that the king himself had decided to punish the Bostonians and other insurrectionary colonists by assembling a large armada to carry a fighting force of British regulars and Hessian mercenaries. Second, the delegates were emboldened by what they mistakenly perceived to have been a military success in Boston the previous autumn.
Ellis’s description of the politics of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence is amusing. Franklin was offered the job first, but he declined on the ground that he did not want his writing to be subject to editing by a committee. Jefferson took on the task, but spent much of the ensuing months grousing over the changes that the editing committee saw fit to make.
John Adams is described as the driving force behind a relatively unified movement to independence. He was aware that as yet there was little or no sense of nationhood among the delegates. He also understood the profound differences in attitudes between the southern and northern states to the issue of slavery, but convinced the delegates to defer their disagreements until after independence had been won.
Meanwhile, George Washington correctly intuited that the British would try to take the city of New York. He moved the bulk of the Continental Army to New York in the hope of defending the city. This was a military blunder because New York is situated on three islands (Manhattan, Staten, and Long), and the British navy had the ability to control the sea and provide logistical support and operational flexibility to the army that the Continentals could not hope to match.
Ellis provides a pulse-raising description of the hopeless situation of the Continental army on Long Island and its extremely lucky (miraculous?) escape to Manhattan, only to find itself once again trapped on an island! Washington once again proved up to the task of extricating the army to the mainland, after putting up a token resistance at Harlem Heights. While Washington longed to fight a large, decisive battle, his generals, more realistically assessing the American army as comprised of “unqualified officers, wholly undependable militia, and short-term enlisted troops,” reined him in. Ellis credits Washington’s army in the final analysis with being better at avoiding battles than actually fighting them. He cites that skill as one reason Washington was able to fight another day under more favorable circumstances.
Ellis also attributes much of Washington’s success in saving the army to the disinclination of the British military commanders [the brothers Admiral Sir Richard Howe (navy) and General William Howe (army)] to destroy the Continental army. Richard Howe viewed his role as a peace envoy who would sweet-talk the colonists into submitting to Royal authority. William Howe was reluctant to incur needless casualties, which he, having been at Bunker Hill, thought would be inevitable in a pitched battle once the Continentals had dug into defensible positions. Moreover, colonists had thought so highly of their older brother, Lord George Howe, killed in the French and Indian War, that they had funded a monument in his honor in Westminster Abbey. The surviving brothers hadn’t forgotten. [Elsewhere (“Escape from Brooklyn,” MHQ, Summer, 2013 at p. 28), historian Thomas Fleming conjectures that the opposition of the brothers to King George III also may have increased the sympathy of the two Howes with the grievances of the Americans.]
At the end of the book, Ellis raises the historical contrafactual of what might have happened to the independence movement if the British had moved aggressively against the Continental Army in New York. He assumes the American army would have been annihilated, but points out that another army could have been raised. He opines that the Continentals would have prevailed simply by surviving.
Evaluation: Ellis probably has not added many facts to our understanding of the events leading to independence, but his book is a trenchant and stimulating retelling of those facts. I listened to the audio version of this book, read capably by Stefan Rudnicki. I highly recommend either the written or audio version of this excellent overview of a crucial period of American history. It also serves as an excellent follow-up to Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick (see our review, here).
Published unabridged on 6 compact discs by Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013