Decisions made by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and the Continental Army in New England between May and October of 1776 were crucial to everything that happened later in the American Revolution. Members of those groups were committed to what each understood to be independence—or “the Cause,” as it was called—but there was wide disagreement on what independence actually meant. Though the actions of the Congress were strongly influenced by what the Army did, and vice versa, they were often not in sync. For example, George Washington understood that the troops he was leading were part of a unified American effort to leave the British Empire even before delegates meeting in Philadelphia had made an official statement to that effect.
As Joseph J. Ellis, a master historian of early American history, writes in his magnificent new book Revolutionary Summer, the political and military aspects of the Revolution are “two sides of a single story, which are incomprehensible unless told together.” Ellis tells that story with his characteristic clarity and insight, taking events we think we know about and making them fresh and compelling.
By viewing the complex mix of events from many angles, including the decade of decisions that led the colonies to break with Britain and British military strategy when the largest armada to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean reached New York, Ellis shows how close the American Revolution came to not happening. One key difference of perspective between the Congress and the Army was regarding the Army itself. Washington felt keenly that only a standing professional army could defeat the British, who had a huge advantage in numbers and experience; a militia alone would not be enough. Many delegates to the Congress hoped for a diplomatic solution, but, if it came to war, they wanted to win. Yet they opposed a “standing army” as a threat to republican principles. John Adams, as chair of the Board of War and Ordnance, was the vital link between the Congress and the Army, trying to keep both focused on the ultimate goal.
Of all the many important roles Adams played in public life, Ellis believes that this was his finest hour. But then, Adams did so much in the Congress. He was to claim in later years, for example, that it was his resolution of May 15, 1776, to replace colonial constitutions with new state constitutions that was the real declaration of independence. His resolution was distinctive in that it rejected British authority but also asserted the need to create state governments to replace discredited British rule. In addition, it was the first time an official document from the Congress implied that the king was an accomplice in the conflict. Jefferson’s declaration came six weeks later.
Ellis devotes much attention to the Army’s attempt to defend New York, where a large segment of the population remained loyal to the crown and did not wish to be defended. Yet there had been little discussion in the Congress about the wisdom of trying to defend the city. And it didn’t help that the Congress ordered Washington to release six of his regiments to support an ill-conceived plan to capture Quebec. The serious mistake Washington had made in trying to defend New York led to devastating losses and humiliating retreat. The valuable lesson, however, that Washington took from that experience—and it was contrary to all his instincts—was that his goal was not to win the war but instead not to lose it.
From the British side, if its military leaders in North America, Richard Howe and William Howe, had prosecuted the war more aggressively, the Continental Army would have been annihilated and the American Revolution would never have gone forward. Instead, they chose to defeat the enemy rather than completely crushing it, and the war continued. The Howe brothers aspired to be diplomats and hoped that they could negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize (for Founding Brothers) and the National Book Award (for American Sphinx), gives readers an engrossing narrative that skillfully conveys the improvisations of both the Congress and the Army as they sought to achieve independence. This extremely readable book is an authoritative and sophisticated gem that can be enjoyed whether one knows a little or a lot about the American Revolution.