Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence

  • Joseph J. Ellis
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 240 pp

In his trademark storytelling style, the author focuses on a period of several months in which liberty-seeking Americans decided there was no turning back.

When did the Revolutionary War begin? The usual answer is April 18, 1775, when, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, farmers at Lexington and Concord “fired the shot heard round the world,” and both redcoats and Americans fell. Or perhaps the answer is June 17, 1775, when far more blood flowed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. In Revolutionary Summer, Joseph J. Ellis answers with another date: July 2, 1776, when the majority of delegations to the Continental Congress voted for independence.

For 10 years before that day, Ellis writes, “the American colonists had engaged in a constitutional duel over the powers of Parliament.” To complicate matters, many colonists, particularly those outside of Massachusetts, insisted that King George III was being misled by his ministers. A large group — perhaps 20 percent or more of the population — called themselves Loyalists and opposed thoughts of revolution, and many of them would even later take up arms and fight on the king’s side.

But in April 1776, armed conflict overwhelmed both colonial debates concerning parliamentary authority and suspicions of a conspiracy to deceive the king. General George Washington led the Continental Army toward New York and an invading British army: “Military events were dictating political decisions.” And on July 1, when the delegates in Philadelphia took up the question of independence, there was no turning back. The revolution became the Revolutionary War.  

Ellis, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, is always a dependable guide through the early days of the new nation. Although the book introduces no new material, for anyone to whom the revolution is a new subject, this will be a useful book. For those who know something about the happenings in 1776, Revolutionary Summer offers little more than exactly what the title describes: a tight focus on a few months of the revolution. As is his habit, Ellis tells of these familiar events and heroes using “a story, which means that narrative is presumed to be the highest form of analysis.” His narrative is a series of events, looked at in a format that resembles that old television show that looked back on history, “You Are There.”


The history of the summer of 1776 is usually told from an American point of view. Ellis shows us his heroes in Congress and in battle, living in peril and in doubt. Here is Adams, anxiously looking beyond the war: If we win, will we be able to agree on a way to govern? And Washington, defeated and battered in New York, discovering that his men have the ability to fight but doubting that they have the will: “And if the men will stand by me (which by the by I despair of), I am resolved not to be forced from this ground while I have life.”


Ellis also crosses the Atlantic and, in a counterpoint to the war in America, looks at what is happening in Parliament. To blame the king for a useless war would be a treasonous act. So members of the House of Commons blame General William Howe for failing to follow through on his victory in the battle of Long Island. But, as Ellis shows, the fault was with Parliament, not with the king or Howe. As a British officer said in defense of Howe, “the force sent to America was at no time equal to the subjugations of the country,” and Parliament had determined the size of that force. 


On this side of the Atlantic, the war was not a matter left entirely to generals. Hovering over that first summer of war was a commitment to “The Cause,” the mystical name for what the new nation was fighting for. Rather than give the reader a definition of “The Cause,” Ellis leaves that task to the words and deeds of people of who lived through the days that began America. For example, this from the July 2nd general orders of Washington: “Let us … show the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.” Ellis gives us a feeling of that time when the quest for liberty began, and we come away knowing that those who took up that quest would not waver and, against all odds, they would win.


Thomas B. Allen is the author of Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War and George Washington, Spymaster. 


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