Monday, July 01, 2013

What We're Reading: Celebrating American Independence

Revolutionary Summer:  The Birth of American Independence,
by Joseph Ellis

With the approach of the 4th of July, it is timely to note three recently published books on the American Revolution. All three titles center on events in the American colonies in the two years leading up to the Declaration of Independence and, in the case of Ellis’s book, the immediate aftermath as well. The subject of how the consensus for independence was formed, the issues, politics and incipient military actions, are understandably the major focus of attempts to understand the origin and meaning of the American Revolution. These were times of heady excitement, when events seemed to spin out of anyone’s ability to shape or control, when actions and their consequences defied prescience. What happened at this time was formative of the political and military framework that remained in place for the duration of the war. Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor:  The Forging of American Independence1774-1776by Richard R. Beeman, is the book that takes the widest view, largely focused on the building of a national consensus through the debates carried on in the Continental Congress, and the developing role of that body in managing the revolutionary struggle.  Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution examines the events that occurred in the cradle of the revolt, Massachusetts, in the year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in particular the engagements between American militia and British regulars at Lexington and Concord and a few months later at Bunker Hill in Boston. (Note: A review of this book will be forthcoming here on the blog.) 
Of these three books, Revolutionary Summer has the narrowest time frame. It is concerned mostly with the dynamic between the impending arrival of a large British army  in New York (and the subsequent battle for New York) and the political developments just prior to the Declaration of Independence and in its aftermath. Ellis argues that the historic moment of the American Revolution occurred in the summer of 1776, a period which he broadly defines as from May to October of that year. Relative to the other two new books, his book is short.  His major themes are presented tersely, almost epigrammatically, but the major achievement of Revolutionary Summer is that they are woven into an integrated picture of events that will leave readers with an understanding of the period that is new and perhaps provocative. Ellis writes, “My contention in the pages that follow is that the political and military experiences were two sides of a single story, which are incomprehensible unless told together.” And yet it seems one of the ironies of the military and political dynamic described in Revolutionary Summer that the major military engagement of the period--the rather feckless attempt of the Continental Army to defend New York from a British invasion--had little effect on the resolve for independence that had formed in the colonies and had been formally expressed in the Declaration of Independence only a month before. After removing troops from a besieged Boston the previous year, the plan that the British ministry had formed was to occupy the substantially loyalist city of New York and to have troops march north through the Hudson Valley. They were to meet up with British troops headed south from Canada. The strategy was designed to cut off the virulently rebellious New England from the rest of the colonies. 

Knowledge of the British fleet headed towards New York, and especially the fact that it contained a sizable number of German mercenary troops along with the contingent of British regulars, had been perhaps the decisive factor in finally pushing more moderate delegates at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia (those still hoping for reconciliation with Great Britain) into crossing the Rubicon and declaring for American independence. The fleet descending upon New York also removed the last illusions of moderate colonists who had put hope in the fiction that it was an obtuse and hostile Parliament and British Ministry that were their enemies and not their sovereign, George III. Oddly, however, the threat had more impact politically than militarily. The colonies were fearful of creating a large standing army and were determined to rely on local state militias to supplement Washington’s rather poorly endowed Continental Army. Washington came to feel that the need for a more substantial army, while militarily necessary, was politically impossible. And when defeat came for the Americans in New York, a number of things limited the political impact of that event. For one thing, colonial newspapers either didn’t report the event or misrepresented it as an American victory, so there was not widespread public knowledge of what had actually happened. The delegates at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, however, had better information sources and knew what had transpired, and yet there had developed there a sense of optimism, the sense that American independence was a matter of destiny. It was an irrational conviction that seemed impervious to the facts of the disaster. The feeling among many delegates was that once a determination had been made to seek independence, it was going to happen, if not sooner, then later. The rebellious population of the colonies was too large, the landmass too extensive, and the distance too great for Britain to triumph in the end. And then of course there was the not easily dismissed consideration that if the rebellion was suppressed and the demand for independence was recanted, those who had lead the rebellion stood a good chance of being hung.

Ellis argues that during this period the strategic framework for the entire conflict was set, that the Revolutionary War became a conflict the British could not win for political reasons, and that the Americans, because of their fear of creating a strong central authority and a large standing army, could not win for military reasons. The most important and interesting history in Revolutionary Summer is Ellis’s account of the battle for New York. The British sent forces under the command of General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe. The strategic decisions they made in New York may well have decided the fate of the Continental Army and the American Revolution. The Howe brothers hoped that the British show of force would help change revolutionary zeal in the colonies and influence enough patriots and loyalists so that the conflict could be ended with a negotiated settlement, one that in effect rescinded the Declaration of Independence, the fait accompli they faced upon landing in New York. That hope and desire, along with William Howe’s concern about taking heavy casualties among the British regulars (which had happened to him at Bunker Hill the previous year) caused the Howes to be less aggressive against the Continental Army, a relatively meager force they could have bottled up and destroyed on either Long Island or, after its near-miraculous escape from Long Island, on Manhattan. Their motivations and actions in not pressing their advantage have been second-guessed by historians ever since. 
Ellis’s account of the patriot’s side of the conflict and the actions of George Washington is also illuminating. The decision to try to defend New York, which( prior to the British landing) experienced patriot military officers judged to be indefensible against the combined British navy and ground forces, was an ill-advised decision, and was based on what seemed a foolhardy optimism rather than a realistic appraisal of the situation.  And once there, Washington’s sense of honor constrained him: He felt he was obliged to conduct a direct and aggressive confrontation with the British forces, and when that failed he had to be given public cover by others on his staff before he would agree to a retreat. Washington appears here as fastidious, overly concerned with his own sense of honor, and willing to risk the Continental Army and the whole “Cause” itself for its sake. Only later would he come to understand the kind of war he needed to wage, and it seems either providential or lucky that he was given the chance, after his early actions, to learn that lesson. This is one of the refreshing and demythologizing views Ellis gives us in Revolutionary Summer.

Another, which is timely as we approach our annual July 4th celebration, is Ellis’s history of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. He cautions, “But it is important to recognize that the golden haze that eventually enveloped the Declaration had not yet formed. Its subsequent significance was lost on all the participants, including Jefferson himself.” The issue of independence was decided by the votes on resolutions by the Continental Congress, and once a consensus had been formed the writing of a public statement was largely perceived as a matter of propaganda for foreign consumption and a rallying cry to the colonies. “What became the great creative moment was perceived by all concerned as a minor administrative chore.” Those appointed to the committee to draft such a statement left the task mostly to one member, Thomas Jefferson. It is interesting that the editing and revisions that the Continental Congress made to Jefferson’s text, changes he bitterly resented, were all focused on the charges made in the Declaration against the Parliament and George III. The evocative opening words of the Declaration, which expressed a foundation of equality in natural law, and which have had so much impact on the expansion of rights and liberties in our national history, passed unnoticed and without revision. The implications of those subtle and scarcely pondered opening paragraphs would be the great legacy of that revolutionary summer.

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