‘Revolutionary Summer’: America on the edge of change
Historian Joseph Ellis’ new book, “Revolutionary Summer,” tells the story of America in the summer of 1776, on the cusp of great change. Ellis appears Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Revolutionary Summer” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
The best thing about Joseph Ellis’ vast writings on Early America is his ability to construct unvarnished and original accounts, clear away myth and yet leave the reader with a sense of the color, irony, humor and — dare I say it? — the great good luck present throughout our country’s history.
More than once I’ve had the thought that his award-winning books should be issued to every family with fiercely opposed politics and loyalties, with instructions to read one or more of them immediately prior to Thanksgiving dinner. Just imagine it: intelligent arguments about the character of our nation.
His latest, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence,” is not the fully transporting sort of book, as was his “American Sphinx” on Thomas Jefferson. And it won’t inspire people to become public servants or professors, as I believe his works on John Adams et. al. can actually do.
Yet it is an absorbing read and is aptly named, for it takes a fresh view — as his subtitle puts it — of the birth of American independence.
It requires a kind of donnish confidence to focus on the buildup to a great change, and the University of Massachusetts professor shoves off with a characteristically good one-liner at the start: “By the spring of 1776, British and American troops had been killing each other at a robust rate for a full year.”
He goes on to describe a historical time quite different from the one we still teach in school, of a unifying and noble fight put up by tea-dumping, tax-hating patriots thumbing their collective nose at the British monarchy. In fact, the fight for American independence was much more complex, not unlike the civil rights movement that would follow more than 170 years later. Even people on the same side had radically different notions of what “free at last” would look like and how fast we should get there.
Ellis masterfully exploits the very different views and goals within and between the political leaders and founding fathers in the Continental Congress and the Continental Army led by George Washington. He chronicles the politics, disasters and miracles of the battles between the powerful British army and navy, and their Pyrrhic victories over the decidedly unprofessional, outnumbered American troops on Long Island and Manhattan that summer.
The foibles and blind spots of men often force remarkable turning points in history, and this revolution had plenty. Ellis captures the moments when Washington, the gentleman-general, recoiled from the truth that a strategic retreat could be a canny move. He builds to the moments when British military leaders and brothers William and Richard Howe foolishly assumed that a good whipping (and some bayoneting) would be enough to make Americans forget this rebellion nonsense.
Some of the smaller moments are treasures in Ellis’ hands: Benjamin Franklin consoling a peeved Jefferson that editing by committee is always awful, especially when you’ve written a paean to independence that a bunch of other guys are ruining.
In the end, a reader can’t help but find herself noticing many familiar traits in that long-ago fledgling country; it is a place where the very definition of independence is up for debate, where the citizenry want the rights of a democracy, but are prickly over the need to be taxed to support it.
Its potential for great things lives alongside petty shortsightedness. It is another aspect of Ellis’ unique style that he makes the story enjoyable — and the parallels for today — unavoidable.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.