Revolution’s in the air


The author weaves together threads of political and military tactics in the summer of 1776.

Through two decades of writing terrific books on America’s founding era, Joseph J. Ellis has sounded a theme he repeats at the beginning of Revolutionary Summer: Narrative is “the highest form of analysis.”

Ellis’ dictum is a blind. His books are chock-full of penetrating analysis, from their often-innovative structures to the provocative insights woven into their narratives. Revolutionary Summer is no exception. But his dictum reflects the fundamental truth that by caring deeply about storytelling, by first engaging the reader’s imagination and curiosity about the human beings trapped in historical events, the writer can win an audience that will appreciate the larger truths that emerge from that narrative.

Ellis keeps the focus tight in Revolutionary Summer, exploring a few months of intertwined political and military events surrounding the colossal decision to claim independence from Great Britain in 1776. For the political story, he highlights the inspired work of John Adams in the fractious Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The military story follows Gen. George Washington’s serial blunders through weeks of the nearly catastrophic Battle of New York.

In Philadelphia that summer, the revolutionary spirit inhabited Adams. During those months, the prickly Massachusetts lawyer felt deeply the pulse and rhythm of the moment. As he relentlessly pressed Congress toward independence, events almost obediently supported his cause. In pivotal Pennsylvania, whose congressional delegates shied away from independence, a grass-roots movement brought in a provisional state government that gave him crucial support. A similar movement in New York broke down that state’s resistance to independence.

Ellis’ admiration for Adams is infectious. In truth, it is difficult not to be charmed by a politician who exchanged such genuine and intelligent letters with his wife, Abigail, and who, when forced to evaluate military strategy, sought ideas from the classical historian Polybius. That no record survives of Adams’ great speech to Congress on June 28 — a silence that has allowed Jefferson’s magisterial Declaration of Independence to dominate the independence drama — is one of the irreparable vagaries of history.

When Ellis turns to the military scene, he finds a leader hobbled by traditional notions of honor and virtue. Washington, yearning to win a decisive, set-piece battle, dangerously flirted with the prospect of squaring off against the British as they drove the Continental Army across the islands of New York Harbor. The Americans’ hair’s-breadth escapes depended at different times on a clever 20-year-old named Aaron Burr and a providential early-morning fog.

Against his core warrior instincts, Washington slowly accepted that his first duty was not to seek battlefield glory but to preserve the army. “The strategic center of the rebellion was not a place,” Ellis explains, “but the Continental Army itself.“ Tracing how a great leader grudgingly abandoned cherished values, he teaches the importance of adapting ideas to the real world of events and circumstances.

Equally valuable is Ellis’ account of the political stalemate that occurred when Congress tried to draft a new charter of government, the ill-fated Articles of Confederation. ”Beyond independence,“ he observes, ”Americans had no consensus on what being an American meant.“ Through the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and 27 constitutional amendments, Americans have continued to grope for that consensus.

Like any first-rate history, Revolutionary Summer leaves the reader wanting to know more. When asked who was the most important single actor in making the revolution, Adams answered: King George III. Perhaps Ellis next will turn his gifts to the other side of the Atlantic and explore how the British king went so far wrong.

The book’s one modest misstep comes unexpectedly in its final paragraph. Ellis poses a provocative question: If the British had destroyed the Continental Army in New York in 1776, would they have quelled the revolution? He offers a diffident and unsatisfying answer: that ”the balance of historical scholarship over the last forty years has made that a highly problematic assumption.” An endnote reveals that Ellis polled four eminent colleagues on the question and that they split 3-1 in favor of the revolution surviving the loss of the army, but he never offers his own answer.

David O. Stewart reviewed this for The Washington Post.

Read more Books stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">STONE MATTRESS: </span>Nine Tales. Margaret Atwood. Nan A. Talese. Doubleday. 288 pages. $25.95.


    Past looms large in new stories from Margaret Atwood

    In Margaret Atwood’s new collection, the past looms large for aging protagonists, but sympathy and regret abound, too.

  • What are you reading now?

    “I just finished Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran, which I love, love, loved. It’s a mystery set in New Orleans shortly after the storm and solved by girl detective, Claire DeWitt, who applies her special method of detection which is pretty much based on yoga and Buddhism combined with the altered mind states of drugs, drink, dreams and growing up in Brooklyn.”

 <span class="cutline_leadin">WHAT STAYS IN VEGAS:</span> The World of Personal Data — Lifeblood of Big Business C — and the End of Privacy as We Know It. Adam Tanner. PublicAffairs. 316 pages. $27.99.


    ‘What Stays in Vegas’ examines data packaging and the end of privacy

    Journalist explains how data packaging makes American companies the biggest threat to privacy.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category