Review of ‘Revolutionary Summer’ by Joseph J. Ellis

Revolutionary Summer Joseph J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (New York: Alred A. Knopf, 2013). $26.95, 240 pages. Hardcover / Kindle

Although the American Revolution can be viewed from many perspectives, history books typically emphasize the political and military ones, and for good reason. The Revolution was a bid for political independence that needed to be secured by force of arms. Revolutionary Summer is the latest history book aimed at a popular readership that tells the story of how political and military concerns interacted from May through October 1776.

During those months, the American colonies—heretofore divided among patriot, moderate, and loyalist factions—coalesced toward independence, coalescence helped along by the British invasion of New York.  From a military perspective, the British missed several opportunities to destroy Washington’s Continental Army in New York, misses that were harshly criticized after the war. At the time, however, British military leaders were hesitant to take decisive moves lest they further politically alienate the American colonists.

The colonists faced the opposite problem. Politics were their strength, but the military was their weakness. The Continental Army was chronically underfunded, undersupplied, and made up of militias that were more committed to their states than to the newly declared United States. It would win the war by not losing it. And what kind of union did these states have anyway? A confederation? A union?

Joseph J. Ellis narrates the history of these crucial months, and the answers to these questions, with his typically graceful prose. I read Revolutionary Summer after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, which focuses on the rise and progress of the revolution in Boston in 1775. Both books are excellent examples of how history can be written for a broad readership. And they are useful reminders that, far from a foregone conclusion, the success of the American Revolution was a close-run thing.

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