The “Revolutionary Summer” of 1776

 

U.S. Declaration of Independence
U.S. Declaration of Independence

Revolutionary Summer

Today is the 237th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

That document, however, is only one of the important events in Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, the latest book by American historian, Joseph J. Ellis.[1] Here are comments on only a few of those other important events.[2]

In May of that year, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution that John Adams, its principal author, later saw as the real declaration of independence. This  resolution “recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general. “[3]

That resolution’s resolution preamble set forth an indictment of King George III. He had “excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain.”

Therefore, the resolution’s preamble continued, “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.”

Thereafter the legislatures of New England and Virginia voted in favor of independence while those in New York and Pennsylvania did not. But in Pennsylvania mechanics, artisans and farmers created a provisional government that supported independence. A similar movement in New York was blocked, and its legislature did not join the independence movement until after the Congress had issued its Declaration of Independence.

More generally, the Ellis book asserts that the period from May through October of 1776 was the pivotal moment in American history when “a consensus for American independence emerged and was officially declared, the outlines for an American republic were first proposed, the problems that would shape its future were faced and finessed, and the largest armada ever to cross the Atlantic arrived to kill the American rebellion in the cradle, which it then very nearly did.” The political and military events of this time influenced each other and need to be told together, says Ellis.

As the author of several posts about the American Revolutionary War through the summer of 1776,[4] I was reminded by the Ellis book that for nearly 15 months the War had been fought without a collective decision that the objective for the colonists was independence from Great Britain. It started at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts in April 1775 and continued through the American siege of Boston and the Battle of Bunker Hill. This uncertainty about the American purpose in the War officially ended with the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, or with the May congressional resolution previously mentioned.

Until the Declaration of Independence the official policy of the Continental Congress remained loyalty to King George III, and one of the congressional leaders, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, ardently believed that seeking independence would be suicidal to be avoided at almost any cost. Dickinson and others in the Congress sought to find a compromise that would preserve colonial rights without independence and that would end the War.[5] Similar efforts in Britain were lead by Edmund Burke in the House of Commons and by William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, in the House of Lords.

These efforts, of course were unsuccessful, and the War resumed that year with British victories in the Battle of Long Island (Brooklyn), the Continental Army’s withdrawal from Manhattan (after its success in the Battle of Harlem Heights) and the Battle of White Plains.

These British military victories were made possible by the massing of a large British military force in New York that year.

As Ellis notes, in early July, Lord Germain, the British Foreign Secretary, “managed to defy the insuperable obstacles of space and distance to coordinate [a] three-pronged assault so that it converged on Staten Island … [nearly] simultaneously.”  First under the command of General William Howe were the 9,000 British troops that had evacuated Boston and retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Second under the command of General Henry Clinton were 2,900 British troops from the South Carolina coast. Third under the command of Admiral Richard Howe were 150 ships, 20,000 troops and a six-month supply of food and munitions from Great Britain; it was “the largest armada to cross the Atlantic” before World War I. This accomplishment “was eloquent testimony to the matchless prowess of the Royal Navy.”

Indeed, the British, and especially its military leaders (General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe) had ample reason to believe that the obvious superiority of their forces would cause the colonists to recognize the futility of their effort and to seek peace. As a result, the Howe brothers repeatedly refused to press their advantage in the field and destroy the Continental Army. In retrospect, they “lost a golden opportunity to end the American rebellion at its inception.”

The British military solution, however, had precisely the opposite effect on the American people and on the Continental Congress. It helped to build support for American independence.

As he concludes his book, Ellis says there were three major results of the Revolutionary Summer. First, “the Continental Congress was immune to any British proposal for reconciliation.” Second, there was no American consensus on how the former colonies would be united and as a result no consensus on creating a fully empowered Continental Army. Third, these prior results “virtually ensured a long conflict that the British could not win for political reasons and that the Americans could not win for military reasons.”


[1]  Ellis is History Professor at the Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He previously taught at Mount Holyoke College and at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is one of the nation’s leading scholars of American history and the author of prize-winning books about the revolutionary era.

[2] Reviews of the book have appeared in the New York Times by Andrew Cayton and by Michiko Kakutani and in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

[3] In the Spring of 1776 John Adams focused his attention on devising a framework for an American government after independence, and he wrote four memoranda on the subject, the last of which was published in April as “Thoughts on Government.” Each state government, it suggested, should have an elected governor as executive, an elected bicameral legislature and a judiciary.

[4] The prior posts provide an overview of the American Revolutionary War and discussions of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the mustering of the Minute Men, the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island), the Battle of Harlem Heights and the Battle of White Plains.

[5] In July of 1775 Dickinson was the principal author of the American Declaration on Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms that has been seen as a statement of a self-defense rationale for the American rebellion that is consistent with the doctrine of just war.

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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