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DC at Night

Friday, July 11, 2014

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of the American Revolution

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Today, we have Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Joseph Ellis talking about his latest book Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.  This post will appear both here and in By the Book DC in full.

We hope you like By the Book DC and here's to you, good books, and great reading.

Joseph Ellis signs copies of his new book
after his talk at the National Archives
When Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author Joseph Ellis told his colleagues he was going to write a book called Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, his colleagues were less than supportive. 

"They asked - are you crazy? We already know how the American Revolution happened," Ellis said. 

But, after 6 months of research, Ellis was convinced that there were still some questions about the period that hadn't been definitively answered. His book is an attempt to deal with those questions and he recently appeared at the National Archives to discuss his findings.

Question 1: Was the American Revolution inevitable?

Ellis believes it wasn't. "It didn't happen in an evolutionary way, but in a revolutionary way," he said.

There were many in Britain who felt it would be best to compromise with the American colonies. "If that had happened, they would have invented the British Commonwealth 100 years earlier," Ellis said.

But others argued that British superiority and rule must stand. "They said 'there cannot be many Gods 
(or kings), there must be only one. Then they believed in an early form of the domino theory. Finally, they were convinced that Britain had the military might to squash an American rebellion easily," Ellis said.

"That side won and decided on a military solution to put the rebellion down. In retrospect, it was the biggest blunder in the history of British statecraft," the historian added. 

Question 2: Why did Americans congeal around the idea of revolution? 

Ellis says that much of the credit has gone to the popularity of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" pamphlet. "That's true, but everything happens in a social and political context," Ellis said. "The deciding factor was the (British) invasion. Many people felt they didn't declare independence from Britain, George III declared independence from them. The British Empire caused the American Revolution to happen."

Question 3: Why is July 4th celebrated as Independence Day?

Ellis says that actually many of the delegates didn't sign the Declaration of Independence until August 7. "Oh, and by the way, there was no signing ceremony," he added. So where did July 4th come from. Ellis said that the printer of the Declaration put that date on what was signed. Actually, Revolutionary leader and later American President John Adams believed that Americans would make July 2nd the celebratory day. 

"But then both Adams and (Thomas) Jefferson made it right by dying on July 4th," Ellis said with a smile. 

Question 4: How did the Americans pull off the military victory?

Actually, they didn't win militarily, Ellis contends. They just didn't lose. 

"The British thought it was going to be a cakewalk," Ellis said. And there was much to support that view. Britain had the world's best navy. It's fighting force was well-trained and augmented by Hessian mercenaries from Germany. Most importantly, those who figured that Britain would win looked at the experience factor.  The average British fighting man had 7 years of military service. That same time for the Colonial Army amounted to less than 6 months.

But the leaders of the Revolution never really doubted the outcome. 

"You can't kill us as fast as we can raise an army," John Adams said. "We don't have to win. You have to win."

Benjamin Franklin was even more direct with his remarks to British leaders. "You have said that we have no chance, but, in truth, you have no chance," Franklin said.

At the end of his engaging talk, Ellis was asked what George Washington might think of military America today if he were somehow able to visit this age. The historian said he was certain that after years of America engaging in wars with such small, distant countries as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Washington would be succinct with his response. 

"We have become the British," he would say. 

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