In the early summer of 1776 in Philadelphia, where our founders were waxing eloquently about their newly declared independence from Great Britain, modern day Tea Partiers would have felt at home.
There was a lot of talk there about freedom, small and limited government, low taxes and individual freedoms. The Tea Party would have cheered the founders’ resolve to toss off the large, greedy and oppressive government rule of the British and their insistence that it not be replaced with an American version of the same thing.
Modern Tea Partiers would not worry that these patriots could not agree on how their new government should work, what it should do, or how to secure the resources necessary to protect their newly declared independence.
Even as 427 British ships were bringing 1,200 cannons, 32,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors to conquer New York City, the members of the Continental Congress assumed General George Washington and the smaller numbers of his raw troops could defeat much superior and better-led forces of the British.
They gave cheers to Washington, but little else. The Tea Partiers would understand. “Make do with what you have,” they might say, “maybe with a little less.”
How Washington’s army and the dysfunctional new American government survived the summer of 1776 and got in a position to win its war of independence is the subject of Joseph Ellis’s short new book, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.
Having thoroughly covered the events of 1776 in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, what more does Ellis need to teach us?
The publisher suggests Revolutionary Summer “tells an old story in a new way, with a freshness at once colorful and compelling.”
Ellis says his goal is to treat the military events and the political ones “in tandem.”
At the beginning of 1776, Ellis explains, the aims of the American military and political sides “were not aligned. There were, in effect, two embodiments of American resistance to British imperialism, two epicenters representing the American response to Parliament’s presumption of sovereignty. The Continental Army, under Washington’s command, regarded American independence as a foregone conclusion, indeed the only justification for its existence. The Continental Congress regarded American independence as a last resort and moderate members under the leadership of John Dickinson from Pennsylvania continued to describe it as a suicidal act to be avoided at almost any cost.”
What brought Dickinson and other moderates to support independence was the decision of the British government to impose its will by overwhelming military force.
Confident that the British could never subdue them, the signers of the Declaration of Independence looked to General Washington’s Continental Army to turn back the British advance on New York City. Washington was determined to defend the city. That determination, in the face of overwhelming British strength, might have led to disaster.
It gave the British the opportunity to surround and trap the American army on Manhattan Island and destroy it. But the British commanders, brothers Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe, passed by that opportunity and delayed their assault.
Washington took this second chance to retreat from the city and thereby saved the army.
Washington was, by temperament, an aggressive commander. In New York, he learned, according to Ellis, that retreat and defensive operations would be his best strategy to preserve the army and wear down the British forces.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the political leaders could not reach an agreement on how the new states would organize and govern. Important questions like slavery, proportional representation, taxing power, a standing national army and what other powers, if any, the national government should have, only brought temporary compromises.
But somehow, having survived the summer of 1776, the Continental Army and the new government developed a growing resolve that made the ultimate victory possible, something we can celebrate on July 4 every year.
—D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch.