Monday, June 30, 2014

Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Ellis

I really love American history, especially the Revolutionary period. I have read tons of books and articles highlighting this period, but even with all that, I was pleasantly surprised to find Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Ellis, fresh and insightful.

He begins by stating that he will interpret “summer” rather broadly and incorporate May - September of 1776. His general thesis is that the story of the military during this time as well as the political story going on simultaneously both contrast and provide for a fuller understanding of the times. It was the summer that America became America. Therefore, he switches back and forth throughout the book between the military campaign, led by George Washington, and the political situation mostly led by John Adams, with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

He points out what should have been obvious to me, but I missed it. Before we ever signed the Declaration of Independence, America had been fiercely battling British troops for over a year. This struck me as unbelievably odd. We had a General, and an army, and were already going toe-to-toe with the Red Coats, yet were actually still part of Britain. Imagine the Tea Party today creating an army, with a General, soldiers, officers, munitions, hospitals, supply lines, and battle plans, and then actually daring to fight the American military. Unthinkable. Yet that is what the colonists were doing by the summer of 1776. The politicians debated, and ostensibly remained loyal subjects of the King, while the military acted and slaughtered the King’s men. It’s almost as if the military side and the political didn’t know the other existed.

Despite the doubts of Congress, Washington knew independence was a foregone conclusion. How could he send young men to die for any less a cause? Reconciliation and compromise were out of the question. King George III, in sending all of his forces as well as hired mercenaries, actually became the staunchest advocate for war. The politicians could quibble and pretend it mattered, but war was already declared by both sides. Adams was one politician who saw this clearly and knew declaring independence was the only outcome possible.

Yet even as Adams embraced a call for independence, with the beginning of actual military hostilities, he feared the move to separate might actually be going too fast. He worried America did not yet have the institutions and mentality to support independence.  He worried that treading down that path too soon could unleash forces leading to “Discontent and perhaps Convulsions.” He rightfully feared tyranny or anarchy as potential outcomes of a hurried realignment. Fighting for rights thought to be inalienable plausibly opened the door for other groups to fight for their rights. The infant nation might be suddenly killed in the crib if chaos resulted from the logical extension of revolutionary principles. Therefore, he was forced to tread a narrow line between advocating for the move and slowing it down at the same time. This helps explain some of the schizophrenia apparent in the military/political divide.

But the debate on independence and its ramifications would not wait. The colonies had already begun drafting new constitutions and the federal congress needed to begin discussing exactly what kind of a nation America would be. The genie was out of the bottle and Adams could not stop it. The conversation had started, yet he recognized that  this new nation “could easily fall victim to different notions about the future character of an independent American republic.”

That the military still had to defeat the greatest force on the planet did not dissuade congress from spending their time deciding what to do after the “inevitable” victory. They believed deep down, that free men, fighting for a Cause they believed in, would inevitably triumph. No matter how improbable, they believed it to be our destiny. Meanwhile, Washington had to convince a congress, who believed, and represented a people ,who believed, in eschewing a standing regular arm, that the only way to defeat the British was with a regular army. It quickly became apparent that, despite our romantic version of the tale, militia were simply insufficient to the task. Yet the congress held fast to the notion of The Cause, not a regular army, would ensure victory. 

Knowing the King was sending the Howe brothers to try to end the rebellion in New York City, and knowing that without some “Grand Plan” given him by an up and running government, he would have to allow the British strategy to dictate his moves, Washington moved his army to New York. “The multiple toasts to Washington in the towns and villages through which he and the army passed echoed the patriotic chords of a hymn to ‘The Cause,’ which was simultaneously glorious and invincible. A more detached assessment would have produced a more ominous tune, with lyrics about a quasi-army of marginal misfits, led by a team of overconfident amateurs, marching to defend a strategically significant city that, truth be known, was indefensible.” Washington was counting on a miracle to occur because of the rightness of “The Cause.”

Meanwhile, Adams convened a committee on June 11 to draft a Declaration of Independence. At the time, with events quickly coalescing in the colonies, it did not seem that momentous. All the action was focused in the state legislatures as they convened and decided what to direct their representatives to do on the question of independence. But Adams, being Adams, wanted a document ready to sign once the votes were in place. Jefferson was selected to do the drafting of it because of his previous work on American documents relating to similar subjects. As such, he claims he didn’t look to any other sources in the writing of it. Actually, he didn’t need to. Much of the Declaration was a restatement of his previous writings. It seems odd to us now with the benefit of hindsight, but neither Jefferson nor the other members of the congress recognized the revered place the document would hold in American history. They opening phrases, the ones we hold so dear today, “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” evinced nary a comment. Most of the controversy took place over the wording and specifics of the charges against the King. Jefferson stewed silently as his carefully thought out denunciations fell under the knife of the committee. (So perturbed was he, that he ordered multiple copies of his original made for posterity's sake.)

The day the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Continental Congress, June 28th, General William Howe arrived in Long Island with 113 ships and 9,000 troops. “The ideals that Jefferson had so eloquently articulated were designed to be universal and eternal. But whether they would endure forever or die an early death over the next few weeks was a question soon to be decided by soldiers on the battlefield and not by an inspired young statesman in his study.”

The Howe’s actually considered themselves ambassadors for peace, although equipped with the entire British military. After easily clearing any American defenses, they offered peace terms to Washington. Tellingly, they would not and could not address Washington by his official title. To do so would have given legitimacy to a rebellious people. Without the official recognition, Washington refused to meet with them. Therefore, they needed either a crushing defeat to bring him to the table or to convince the people to abandon the effort. Howe’s peace treaty offered pardons to the citizens if they bowed to the King and relinquished their aims. Once this condescending offer was published in the newspapers, Howe lost any chance to appeal to the moderates. 

Ellis goes on to state, “Any historical reconstruction of the crowded political agenda of the continental congress in midsummer 1776 inevitably imposes an ex post facto sense of coherence that the delegates at the time, doing their best to manage events that were coming at them from multiple angles and at very high velocity, did not share. They were trying to orchestrate a revolution, which almost by definition generated a sense of collective trauma that defied any semblance of coherence and control. If we wish to recover the psychological context of the major players in Philadelphia, we need to abandon our hindsight omniscience and capture their mentality as they negotiated the unknown.” Into this chaos rose Adams, trying to juggle both military and political responsibilities, in what Ellis calls, “his finest hour.” Meanwhile, Franklin played the part of the sagacious statesman insisting that “the cause of American independence had providential winds at its back.”

Meanwhile, back on the military front, the British flanked the American army and incited a panicked retreat. “Beyond the sheer calculus of casualties and captured, however, the will of the Continental Army had been broken and any semblance of military discipline destroyed. Thoroughly discouraged, Washington was able to evacuate his troops in a miraculous retreat from Long Island to Manhattan in what Ellis calls, “one of the most brilliant tactical withdrawals in the annals of military history.”

The faith of the congress in their cause could have suffered a fatal blow at this point, except that Lord Howe stepped into snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He wined and dined one of the captured American generals, Sterling and then sent him back with his renewed peace proposal. He reiterated again that they were subjects of King George III in rebellion and absolute submission would potentially earn them pardons. Their outrage at the King's lack of understanding at the plight of the colonies so outraged even the recalcitrant members that their revolutionary fervor was renewed. 

Washington, seeing the military defeat for what it was, did not share their enthusiasm, saying, “Our situation is truly distressing. The militia, instead of calling forth their utmost efforts... are dismayed, Intractable, and Impatient to return [home]. Great numbers of them have gone off, in some cases by whole Regiments.” Finally the decision was made not to try to defend New York, and Washington was given the green light to retreat from Manhattan. Fortunately at this time, the newspapers, acting on patriotic fervor refused to print the truth of the desperation the Americans were facing. So the people continued in their support of the Revolution. Only New Yorkers knew how bad it was, and they fled to the British in droves!

Once again, the Howe brothers helped out Washington. They took their time pursuing the patriots up Manhattan and captured New York without a fight. But Washington, thinking the British sought to crush them once and for all battled a small force sent to push the rebels farther north. Although it was not a major battle, the Americans performed well and renewed Washington’s confidence that perhaps his forces could muster a defense. From his position at Harlem Heights, Washington finally got the Congress to understand the need for a regular army with longer enlistments, officer training academies, and regular systems in place. Yet even though they supported his reforms, with no power over the states to make it happen, the Congress would not be able to implement them until after the war was won. 

Adams, in voraciously studying military history to prepare him for his role as congress’ military advisor, realized that history had provided him an answer. Because of their faith in The Cause, the Americans did not need to defeat the British, per se, but like the Thebans, had only not to lose. It took a herculean effort on Washington’s part to see the wisdom of this strategy. The faith in The Cause espoused by the Americans meant the British could never win and the patriots must not lose. In order to “not lose,” Washington evacuated his troops again off of Manhattan and into White Plains. The Howes gave Washington ample time to escape and prepare his defenses. 

“It was the end of the beginning for the American side, meaning that its army had managed to survive what proved to be their most vulnerable moment of the war. Washington, from lessons learned at New York would never again allow the survival of the continental Army to be put at risk. Though it ran counter to all his instincts, he now realized that his goal was not to win the war but rather not to lose it. 

It was the beginning of the end for the British side, meaning that the Howe brothers, despite their tactical brilliance, had failed to deliver the decisive blow that would have killed the rebellion at its moment of birth. Indeed, they had deliberately decided not to do so.” The summer of 1776 did not end the war, but it put in motion the events and mentality that would.

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