Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, by Joseph J. Ellis, published by Vintage, 2014
Written by Pulitzer-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, instead of a bird-eyed generalization of its historic environment, this book stands out by offering an intimate depiction of the thoughts and the intertwined relationship among America’s revolutionary figures. With the benefit of hindsight, America’s independence is often taken for granted, yet the book warned against this assumptive attitude in its final chapter, with a quote by George Washington:
“If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the pages of History with the advantages
that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this
contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been
obtained, it is more than probable that posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and
marks of fiction; for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed
for eight years in this Country could be baffled … by numbers infinitely less, composed of
men oftentimes half starved, always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.”
The Independence of the United States was indeed full of uncertainties and Ellis argued that the miscalculations made by British Generals in the early stages of their campaign, most notably not wiping out Washington’s forces, was one of the major downfalls that led to their defeat.
The ‘American’ Revolution
Before the war, call for Independence was nowhere near a landslide and Ellis even argued that the term ‘American Revolution’ was misleading as the union between each colony (later renamed as State) was only expedient and the allegiance of the scattered population in North America often remained local or at best regional.
In other words, ‘American Nationalism did not exist in 1776’. In Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Ellis even noted a surge of latent separatism not sooner after the founding of United States. By the end of 1775, the Continental Congress was still lukewarm towards Independence, with most moderate seeing independence as suicide. It was not until Thomas Paine published his famous pamphlet titled ‘Common Sense’ in 1776, that the support for Independence became the majority.
In spite of that, loyalist remained influential in parts with close commercial ties with Britain such as New York and Pennsylvania, yet the empire failed to utilize their support and loyalist movement eventually died off.
Internal conflict and Total war
New York was an important battlefield in the early stages of the war for independence. The inhabitants of Staten Island submitted to the British army once they landed and welcomed them as one of their own. A significant portion of New Yorkers also refused to recognize the Declaration of Independence and went on regard themselves as residents of the British North America colonies.
In August 1776, after the British emerged victorious in the battle of Long Island, they did not chase down the revolutionaries for a crushing victory as the British saw the revolution as an internal conflict to be negotiated, instead of a total-war. They believed that their victories had sufficiently demoralized the continental army and wished to reduce further casualty. At the end of the day, Washington’s broken troops were able to break through British encirclement.
The crushing defeat at New York sent a shockwave through the continental congress. However, the revolutionaries believed that the ship had already sailed and they had passed the point of no return after declaring Independence. Among them was Benjamin Franklin, whose faith in America never faltered, stating that:
“They have got possession of three small islands on the coast of America…, and yet if every Acre of American territory is contested in the same Proportion, the Conquest would ruin all Europe”.
War is nothing like chess
The only thing predictable about history is its unpredictability and such was the case of the American Revolution and the central thesis of this book.
In the 1970s, no one believed that the Soviet Union was going downhill and till the 90’s, many still believed that its collapse is nigh but impossible. Nevertheless, the impossible turns out to be unbelievable, and finally into a part of history.
A game of chess has often been used as an analogy to war, yet there is a distinct difference between the two: War is clouded with uncertainty (which coined the phrase ‘fog of war’) and shouldered by lady luck.
In his work Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb argued that the obsession with forecasts and predictions was one of the greatest folly of modern society and those who understand history, understand the line ‘never say never’.