A Washington Post Notable Book
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The summer months of 1776 witnessed the most consequential events in the story of our country’s founding. While the thirteen colonies came together and agreed to secede from the British Empire, the British were dispatching the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic to crush the rebellion in the cradle. The Continental Congress and the Continental Army were forced to make decisions on the run, improvising as history congealed around them.
In a brilliant and seamless narrative, Ellis meticulously examines the most influential figures in this propitious moment, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Britain’s Admiral Lord Richard and General William Howe. He weaves together the political and military experiences as two sides of a single story, and shows how events on one front influenced outcomes on the other.
By the spring of 1776, British and American troops had been killing each other at a robust rate for a full year. While the engagements at Lexington and Concord had been mere skirmishes, the battle at Bunker Hill had been a bloodbath, especially for the British, who lost more than 1,000 men, nearly half their attack force. The American dead numbered in the hundreds, a figure inflated by the fact that all the wounded left on the field were dispatched with bayonets by British execution squads enraged at the loss of so many of their comrades. Back in London, one retired officer was heard to say that with a few more victories like this, the British Army would be annihilated.
Then, for the next nine months, a congregation of militia units totaling 20,000 troops under the command of General George Washington bottled up a British garrison of 7,000 troops under General William Howe in a marathon staring match called the Boston Siege. The standoff ended in March 1776, when Washington achieved tactical supremacy by placing artillery on Dorchester Heights, forcing Howe to evacuate the city. Abigail Adams watched the British sail away from nearby Penn’s Hill. “You may count upwards of 100 & 70 sail,” she reported. “They look like a forrest.” By then the motley crew of militia was being referred to as the Continental Army, and Washington had become a bona fide war hero.
In addition to these major engagements, the British navy had made several raids on the coastal towns of New England, and an ill-fated expedition of 1,000 American troops led by Benedict Arnold, after hacking its way through the Maine wilderness in the dead of winter, suffered a crushing defeat in the attempt to capture the British strong- hold at Quebec. Though most of the military action was restricted to New England and Canada, no reasonable witness could possibly deny that the war for American independence, not yet called the American Revolution, had begun.
But if you widen the lens to include the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the picture becomes quite blurry and downright strange. For despite the mounting carnage, the official position of the congress remained abiding loyalty to the British Crown. The delegates did not go so far as to deny that the war was happening, but they did embrace the curious claim that George III did not know about it. Those British soldiers sailing away from Boston were not His Majesty’s troops but “ministerial troops,” meaning agents of the British ministry acting without the knowledge of the king.
While everyone in the Continental Congress knew this was a fanciful fabrication, it was an utterly essential fiction that preserved the link between the colonies and the crown and thereby held open the possibility of reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson undoubtedly had these motives in mind when he crafted the following words a few months later: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient reasons; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
One might argue that those wounded American boys who were bayoneted to death on Bunker Hill amounted to something more than light and transient reasons. Washington himself, once he learned of those atrocities, let it be known that he had lost all patience with the moderates in the congress who were—it became one of his favorite phrases— “still feeding themselves on the dainty food of reconciliation.” Though he made a point of reminding all his subordinates that the army took its orders from the Continental Congress—civilian control was one of those articles of faith that required no discussion—Washington did not believe he could send brave young men to their deaths for any cause less than American independence. That was what “The Cause” had come to mean for him and for the army. His civilian superiors down in Philadelphia were straggling behind him on the patriotic path, but Washington simply presumed that, sooner or later, they would catch up.
In the meantime, however, during the final months of 1775, the military and political sides of the American Revolution 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.
It was clear at the time, and became only clearer in retrospect, that the obvious strategy of the British government should have been to exploit the gap between these two positions by proposing some reconfiguration of the British Empire that gave the American colonists a measure of control over their domestic affairs in return for a renewed expression of American loyalty to the king. Two years later, the British ministry actually proposed just such an arrangement, but by then it was too late. Too many men had died or been maimed for life, too many women had been raped, too many lives had been altered forever. Nothing less than complete American independence would do.
How had it come to this? A comprehensive historical account would need to spend many pages reviewing the constitutional arguments over the preceding decade that began with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. A more succinct distillation of political history would cast the core of the constitutional argument as a conflict over the question of sovereignty. The seminal argument on the British side was most clearly and forcefully made by the great British jurist William Blackstone, who, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765), insisted in his most authoritative tone that there must in every state reside “a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii; or the rights of sovereignty reside.” In the British Empire, that supreme authority was Parliament. Once you accepted this argument, it followed logically and necessarily that Parliament possessed the authority to levy taxes and make laws for the American colonies.
The colonists had resisted that constitutional interpretation, resting their case on the semi-sacred Whig principle that no British citizen could be taxed or required to obey any law that was passed without his consent. And since the American colonists were not represented in Parliament, the statutes passed by that body were not binding on them, who needed to obey only the laws passed by their own colonial legislatures.
By the early 1770s, then, the argument had reached a logical and legal impasse in which two conflicting views of the British Empire were forced to coexist: the resoundingly imperial view, in which sovereignty resided in Parliament; and the American view, in which consent was the ultimate priority and sovereignty resided in multiple locations, the only common American allegiance being to the king. The British model took its inspiration from European empires of the past, chiefly the Roman Empire. The American model had no precedents in the past, but fore- shadowed what, a century later, became the British Commonwealth.
In 1774 the British government decided that this impasse was intolerable, and in response to a wanton act of destruction in Boston Harbor called the Tea Party, it decided to impose martial law on Massachusetts. In retrospect, this was the crucial decision, for it transformed a constitutional argument into a military conflict. And it raised to relief the competing visions of a British Empire based on either coercion or consensus.
But at the time—that is, early in 1775—voices on both sides of the Atlantic urged caution, fully aware that they had more to lose than to gain by a war and wholly committed to avoid it at all costs.
On the British side, the arguments to change course came from two of the most prominent members of Parliament. In the House of Lords, no less a leader than William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, the acknowledged architect of the British victory in the French and Indian War, rose to condemn the decision to militarize the conflict. He recommended the withdrawal from Boston of all British troops, who could only serve as incendiaries for a provocative incident that triggered a war. The British government should then negotiate a political settlement in which “the sacredness of their property remain[s] inviolate and subject to their own consent.” Pitt was arguing that the American colonies were too valuable to lose, and that the British government would be well advised to give them everything they were asking for.
Edmund Burke rose in the House of Commons to make many of the same points, though Burke’s emphasis was on the Whig values that the American colonists embraced and on the more menacingly coercive values that the British ministry was advocating. As Burke saw it, the Americans had the better part of the argument, and if a war should ensue, they were likely to win. So the essence of political wisdom was to avoid such a war and the painful consequences it would entail.
Pitt and Burke were two of the most eloquent and respected members of Parliament, and taken together, by early 1775, they were warning the British ministry that it was headed toward a war that was unwise, unnecessary, and probably unwinnable.
Voices on the other side of the Atlantic also counseled caution and compromise. Within the Continental Congress, most of the moderate delegates came from the middle colonies, chiefly Pennsylvania and New York. For at least two reasons this made excellent sense: first, the full wrath of British policy had been directed at Massachusetts, and while the residents of Philadelphia and New York felt obliged to make common cause with their brethren in Boston, that feeling did not translate into a willingness to be carried over the abyss into some brave new world of American independence; second, the population of the middle colonies was more diverse ethnically, politically, and religiously than New England’s, more a demographic stew in which Germans, Scotch-Irish, and French Huguenots coexisted alongside a Quaker elite to create a social chemistry that put a premium on live-and-let-live toleration.
As a result, the political as well as the seasonal climate was milder southwest of the Hudson. If the lingering vestiges of Calvinism gave New Englanders like John Adams a sharp edge, prominent leaders in the middle colonies tended to resemble smooth stones that skipped across the surface of troubled waters. It was no accident that Benjamin Franklin would become the self-invented paragon of benevolent equanimity only after moving from Boston to Philadelphia.
The epitome of this moderate mentality in the Continental Congress was John Dickinson. Physically as well as psychologically, Dickinson was the opposite of Adams: tall and gaunt, with a somewhat ashen complexion and a deliberate demeanor that conveyed the confidence of his social standing in the Quaker elite and his legal training at the Inns of Court in London. His early exposure to the cosmopolitan world of British society had convinced him that the British Empire was a transatlantic family bound together by mutual interests and mutual affections. Unlike Adams, who regarded Parliament’s efforts to impose taxes on the colonies as a systematic plot to enslave them, Dickinson believed these impositions were temporary aberrations, merely another family quarrel, waves that would pass under the ship.
During the early years of the imperial crisis, Dickinson was perhaps the most prominent advocate for colonial rights within the empire, chiefly because of a series of pamphlets titled Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer (1768), which argued that Parliament not only lacked the authority to tax the colonists but also could not regulate trade for he purpose of raising revenue. Alongside Adams, he was generally regarded as the most impressive constitutional thinker on the American side, and his selection as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774 was a foregone conclusion.
But whereas Adams believed that the denial of Parliament’s authority must inevitably lead to American withdrawal from the British Empire, Dickinson clung to the conviction that there must be some middle course that preserved colonial rights but averted American independence, which he regarded as an extremely dangerous course. The British were certainly not going to permit the colonists to go in peace, which meant a war that the Americans could not hope to win:
We have not yet tasted deeply the bitter Cup called Fortune of War . . . A bloody battle lost . . . Disease breaking out among our troops unaccustomed to the Confinement of Encampment . . . The Danger of Insurrection by Negroes in the Southern Colonies . . . Incidential Proposals to disunite . . . False hopes and selfish Designs may all operate hereafter to our Disadvantage.
This was not an unrealistic vision. (Indeed, everything that Dickinson foresaw came to pass.) There was every reason, then, to find a way out of the impasse short of independence. And so, while Dickinson was resolute in his support of the beleaguered citizens of Massachusetts, to include the raising of money and men for a Continental Army, his fondest hope was for the appointment of a peace commission that would travel to London and negotiate some kind of sensible compromise.
Though such a commission was never appointed, the outline of a Dickinsonian compromise was reasonably clear. The British minis- try would recognize the sovereignty of the colonial legislatures over all questions of taxation and legislation. The colonists would voluntarily consent to Parliament’s regulation of trade, not for the purpose of raising a revenue but to ensure a privileged commercial relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. The colonists would also pro- fess their loyalty to the king and their desire to remain within the protective canopy of his paternal affection. It was, in effect, a return to the status quo ante that existed in 1763, before the British ministry had attempted to impose its misguided imperial reforms.
As long as the imperial crisis remained a constitutional conflict, the Dickinsonian compromise provided an eminently viable solution, indeed the obvious answer that British statesmen like Burke and Pitt were prepared to embrace. But once the fighting started in April 1775, and even more so after Bunker Hill, the shift from a constitutional to a military conflict altered the political chemistry forever. Moderates on both sides of the Atlantic were swept to the sidelines, and the obvious compromise became a casualty of war.
Excerpted from Revolutionary Summer by Joseph J. Ellis. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph J. Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.