Understanding 1776

Paul O’Connor, contributing editor, is wandering the United States this summer, listening to audio books that enrich his travels, and reviewing those books for Briar Patch. Here’s a look back at 1776, just in time for Independence Day enlightenment.

By Paul T. O’Connor

REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER: The Birth of American Independence. By Joseph J. Ellis. Read by Stefan Rudnicki. Random House Audio. 6 CDs, 7 hours. $35.

Historian Simon Schama opened his 1990 book, Citizens, with a question once asked of Chinese Premier Chou En Lai: What was the significance of the French Revolution?

More than a century and a half after the revolution, Chou answered that it was still too early to tell.

Schama used that anecdote to make the point that we need time and distance from an event to see it clearly and to grasp its true historical significance.

Joseph Ellis, in his latest little history of the American founding, says at one point that it is only after the American experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan that we know to ask the most pertinent question about the Revolutionary War.

The question is not, as many of us have asked over 237 years, ”What chance did the Americans have to win against the mighty British Empire?” The better question is, “What chance did the British have to win given the enormity of the American continent and the military limits of the day?”

Ellis, professor emeritus of history at Mount Holyoke College, has written a string of excellent, prize-winning histories all aimed at a broad audience. And, in each of them, he focuses narrowly on the early days of our republic, bringing new insights and perspectives to our understanding of the people and developments of the time.

Revolutionary Summer spans more than that actual season of 1776, more like late spring until mid-fall, but we can forgive him that. He notes that histories of this time often focus either on military events or political developments. Such histories are flawed because they fail to explain how the military shaped the politics and the politics shaped the military.

Ellis focuses his military reporting almost entirely on the Battle of New York in late summer. General George Washington had arrived on Manhattan months before to prepare the city for an expected British attack. Throughout that summer, the preparations and Washington’s battle planning were influenced as much by political concerns as military ones.

At the same time, the Continental Congress was moving toward a declaration of independence, timing their decisions to coincide with military developments. One side depended on the other. Military preparations and British aggression helped forge the spirit of independence, and political considerations led to Washington’s plans to fight on Long Island and Manhattan, hoping to bloody British forces, even if he lost the field, as a way of undermining British support for the war.

In this book, the Howe brothers, William the general and Richard the admiral, who led the invasion, come off as the smart guys. Not for their military decisions but for their understanding that the British could not win this war, that an island nation, even if it had the most powerful navy in the world, could not subdue militarily a people scattered across an undeveloped continent, especially when those people were politically committed to independence.

So, Ellis tells us, General Howe chose not to destroy the Continental Army when he might have. Instead, he sought only to bloody it in hopes that the American people would lose their taste for war and rescind their secession from the British Empire. He appears to have understood that only a political choice, and not the destruction of Washington’s army, would bring the Americans back.

As usual, Ellis writes with a clarity defying his profession. And his reader for this audio book, Stefan Rudnicki, is one of the best.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.

One response to “Understanding 1776”

  1. OK, so General Howe thought that destroying the Continental Army would only make martyrs of them and ultimately provide fuel for the revolutionary fervor. He hoped instead that an ugly taste of war might put out that flame before it became a conflagration he knew Britain could never extinguish. Clever deduction by Mr. Ellis. I’m anxious to read his evidence. Thanks for the review.

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