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Professor Emeritus Joseph Ellis

Revolutionary Summer: Prize-Winning Author Joseph Ellis Takes a Fresh Look at the Dramatic Events of 1776

This article originally appeared in the August 7 issue of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Staff Writer

One of the most enduring images of 1776 may well be John Trumbull’s famous painting “Declaration of Independence,” showing members of the Continental Congress in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, with key figures like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin in the foreground.

But the subject of that 1817 painting, which hangs in U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is often mistakenly thought to be the actual signing of the declaration. It actually depicts the five-member congressional committee — including Jefferson, of course — assigned to develop the declaration presenting their draft to the full Congress on June 28, 1776.

And as historian Joseph Ellis sees it, there’s sometimes a similar confusion surrounding the events of that historic year. Hindsight may have given us the sense that American independence was inevitable, but in 1776, he says, “Everything was in the balance.”

That theme serves as the central narrative of Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, the latest book by Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Amherst. In his new work, Ellis argues that the summer of 1776 was the decisive moment in United States history, as Congress took the first steps toward forging a free America, even as the Continental Army was on the verge of annihilation in a series of battles with British forces near New York City.

In Revolutionary Summer Ellis also has knit the political and military narratives of 1776 into one story. In a phone call from his home, he said those accounts have typically been presented separately but that his research showed the two stories are intertwined.

“There were many instances in which political decisions influenced military ones, and vice versa,” he said. “They’re really one story. ... If I had felt that wasn’t the case, I don’t think I would have written the book.”

Ellis, who recently turned 70, taught history for many years at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. Last year he taught at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to which he plans to return in the fall.

As a writer, he has long specialized in highly readable studies of the revolutionary era, the early years of the American republic, and the personalities of both; he won a National Book Award in 1997 for American Sphinx, his biography of Jefferson, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers, an analysis of critical moments and players from early U.S. history.

Galvanizing a Movement

In Revolutionary Summer, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Ellis presents a similarly flowing account of how events in spring and then summer 1776 galvanized the American movement for independence. Perhaps the most significant, after some sharp but inconclusive 1775 battles in Massachusetts between colonial militia and British troops, was King George III’s decision to crush the rebellion militarily.

Until that point, Ellis notes, revolutionary fervor in the colonies was largely confined to New England, and in particular to Massachusetts. Many members of Congress, as well as colonists, outside New England still hoped to reach a compromise with England that would allow for a degree of American autonomy but continued participation in the British Empire. Others wanted to remain British subjects or thought it suicidal to oppose the home country’s military might.

“[Americans] had pretty much given up on dealing with Parliament,” Ellis said. “But there was still a hope, or a belief, that King George had some benevolent feelings for the colonies. But it turns out he’s their own worst enemy. ... What turns the tide [in American thinking] is the invasion.”

The invasion, in this case, came in the form of a vast British fleet, numbering some 427 vessels, which ferried 34,000 British troops and Hessian mercenaries to New York harbor in July and August of 1776. There they prepared to engage the Continental Army, which had begun fortifying New York in the spring after forcing the British to evacuate Boston in March, following months of besieging that city.

As Ellis notes, the Continental Army’s success in bloodying the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, and then retaking Boston, had given many Americans, including members of Congress, an exaggerated sense of their army’s capabilities. It was actually, Ellis writes, a rather “motley crew of marginal men and misfits, most wearing hunting shirts instead of uniforms, spitting tobacco every ten paces” — ill-trained, lacking firearms and ammunition, and decidedly smaller than the British army.

Yet confidence in American arms, if ill-founded, helped spur the drive for independence. In his research, Ellis says, he uncovered documents that showed widespread support in the individual state legislatures, and in many towns within those states, for severing connections with England. “It wasn’t just Congress that was pushing for this,” he said.

In recounting the famous story of how the Declaration of Independence was created, Ellis has drawn on his previous work, including biographies of George Washington and John Adams, to sketch engaging mini-portraits of these key players. Adams, the “revolutionary spirit incarnate,” is considerably less enthusiastic about the idea of giving everyone the vote in a new American government. Jefferson sulks when his original draft of the declaration is edited by Congress. Ben Franklin, the eminent sage of American politics, is serenely confident the British will be defeated in the long run, even if the Continental Army loses a string of battles.

And Washington, the commander of American forces, is increasingly disheartened, questioning the fitness of his troops but feeling compelled to defend New York, both because Congress had ordered him to do so and because his own sense of personal honor dictated he give battle to the British. Washington also firmly believed that America had no recourse but to fight for its independence.

“This might well have been the worst period of his life,” Ellis joked. “If you look at his letters from this time, he seems almost clinically depressed.”

Reason for Concern

As Revolutionary Summer recounts, Washington had reason to be concerned. In the Battle of Long Island, fought on August 27 in what is now Brooklyn, the British and Hessians routed the Continental Army, bayoneting a score of American prisoners. The British did not immediately follow up their triumph, though, which enabled the Americans secretly to evacuate across the East River to Manhattan on the night of August 29-30, right under the noses of the British fleet.

Ellis points out that brothers William and Richard Howe, the commanders of British ground and naval forces, respectively, hoped to secure a negotiated settlement with the Americans and thus felt no need to destroy their opponents. One vigorous display of British power, they reasoned, would bring the colonials to their senses, so they proceeded in a rather leisurely fashion after their initial victory on Long Island.

Yet the drive for independence had gone too far to allow any compromise with Britain — even if that drive, as Ellis notes, fell well short of the grand ideals the Americans claimed to be fighting for. Congress allowed slavery to continue, for instance, and women were denied the vote. And no one in Congress or the state legislatures could agree on what form a future American government might actually take.

Still, the Continental Army, after another embarrassing defeat at Kip’s Bay on Manhattan’s eastern shore in early September, rallied to blunt a British advance on the island a few days later. Then the army slipped away to the mainland, surviving to fight another day; Washington had come to realize, Ellis writes, that “his goal was not to win the war but rather not to lose it.”

Could the British have crushed American independence with a more aggressive approach in the summer of 1776, perhaps by intercepting Washington’s forces as they snuck across the East River? That’s one of the great “What ifs?” of history, Ellis says, and ultimately unknowable, but the question points to the larger issue of just how fluid the events of that summer were.

As he writes, it was a singularly “tense moment, when everything was in the balance, history was happening at an accelerating pace, and both sides — especially the Americans — were improvising on the edge of disaster.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.