Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Ellis (audio)

Like Levin’s George Washington: The Crossing, which I read earlier this month, Revolutionary Summer is another new Revolutionary War era book that caught my eye at the library. We received both the hardcover book and the audiobook. I went with the audio.

FROM THE PUBLISHER: A distinctive portrait of the crescendo moment in American history from the Pulitzer-winning American historian, Joseph Ellis. The summer months of 1776 witnessed the most consequential events in the story of our country’s founding. While the thirteen colonies came together and agreed to secede from the British Empire, the British were dispatching the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic to crush the rebellion in the cradle. The Continental Congress and the Continental Army were forced to make decisions on the run, improvising as history congealed around them. In a brilliant and seamless narrative, Ellis meticulously examines the most influential figures in this propitious moment, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Britain’s Admiral Lord Richard and General William Howe. He weaves together the political and military experiences as two sides of a single story, and shows how events on one front influenced outcomes on the other. Revolutionary Summer tells an old story in a new way, with a freshness at once colorful and compelling.

Ellis focuses on both the military and the political action of the period from roughly May through October 1776. Most historians, he explains, tend to focus on one or the other, but the people of the time experienced both together. Throughout the book he reminds us that the people of the time were experiencing both together and did not, of course, have the benefit of hindsight. What the “summer” of 1776 did and why it should be studied is that it created the framework that lasted throughout the war, even if other elements (like French support) entered the fray at later dates.

Balanced throughout this book are the tensions between the military and political issues and groups of this time period. Specifically:

  • The Continental Congress:  a group of men who knew what they were against, but not what they were for. They were full of ideals and wishful thinking. They knew an army was needed to fight the British, but a standing army was at odds with republican ideas. However, this was a period when virtue was waning and the rise of interests was gaining ground. Everything would have to be negotiated.
  • The Continental Army: was in the process of formation, had very little armament or basic supplies, had to deal with ineffectual militia and beg congress for more man power from each state as well as longer enlistment requirements.
  • The British Empire: wasn’t willing to look at how its own policies were the instigator of the problem. It also underestimated the widespread colonial support for the revolution and thought they could easily squash the rebellion with their military power. 

In other words, there was lots of wishful thinking and denial going on among all parties involved. It is the nature of revolutions to be chaotic and unpredictable.

Some issues that stuck out for me:

  • One major myth of the Revolutionary War that Ellis is intent on dismantling is that the militia or Minute Men were the ones who did the fighting and won the war. However, in reality, the militias were a mess. They lacked experience, discipline, and standards. In many situations the men and officers ran away at the start of a battle. In at least one instance they ran past Washington who was moving toward the action. Washington’s attempts at motivating the men fell on deaf ears and they disobeyed his orders to stand and fight. The Commander in Chief was left wondering what sort of men he commanded. The morale in the military was low for much of this summer to the point that  Washington wondered about implementing the Roman tradition of executing every tenth man in a unit by way of example to pull themselves together.
  • Newspapers lied about lost battles to make things look better for their readers. Journalistic integrity became almost treasonable.
  • Benjamin Franklin was a late comer to the revolution. He’d been in England and was trying to work a compromise. But his patience was stripped away by the willful blindness of the British leaders. After a public dressing down, he instantly joined the revolution and never looked back. 
  • Late in the summer of 1776 one signer of the Declaration of Independence reneged and signed an oath of fidelity to the King of England. The audio version doesn’t name this person, but I imagine the book had a footnote.
  • Like Thebes in the Pelopenisan War, the Americans didn’t have to win the war agasint the Spartans, they just needed not to lose the war. The British had to win it and due to logistics and colonial support for the revolution, that was not possible.

On the audio version:
The narrator’s reading often sounded a bit snooty and his voices for various persons came off sounding like cartoonish caricatures. Also, each CD ended without announcement and simply started replaying again from track 1.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
Joseph J. Ellis
Random House Audio, June 4, 2013
Read by: Stefan Rudnicki
4/5 stars
Read for War Through The Generations American Revolution reading challenge.

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