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.

The American Revolutionary War’s Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 1776–January 1777

On March 17, 1776, the 11-month colonists’ Siege of Boston ended when the British troops and their dependants evacuated the town of Boston. A fleet of 120 British ships set sail for a British military base in Halifax, Nova Scotia with nearly 10,000 British troops and over 1,000 dependants. This was discussed in a prior post.

New York City, 1776
New York City area, 1776

Both sides’ attention next turned to New York City, which then was a town of 25,000 at the southern tip of the island of Manhattan (then known as York Island). This post will review what is known as the Campaign for New York and New Jersey, March 18, 1776, through January 1777.[1]

For the British, the City was an obvious strategic target. It had a large harbor from which the vastly superior British navy could easily command the area and be a base to conquer the middle colonies to the south and west. The terminus of the Hudson (or North) River into that harbor would provide the British with a route north to connect with British forces in what is now Canada and thereby potentially separate New England from the other colonies. Moreover, many British Loyalists lived in the City and thus made it a friendlier host for British troops than Boston had been.

General George Washington

The strategic importance of the City also was obvious to General George Washington. Not knowing that the British troops were going from Boston to Nova Scotia, he was worried that they would instead be sent directly to New York. Therefore, Washington immediately after the British evacuation of Boston sent some colonial regiments from Boston to New York to join the colonial forces already there under the command of General Charles Lee. Thereafter other colonial troops were sent from Boston, including my 5th maternal great-grandfather, Perley Brown, and his brothers William and Benjamin. Perley and his comrades arrived in New York City in late July on a ship from New Haven, Connecticut.[2]

These transfers of troops from Boston were not easy. The men first had to march 100 to 120 miles over five to seven days to the Connecticut ports of New Haven or New London, where they boarded sailing ships to take them via Long Island Sound to New York City.

Archibald Kennedy Mansion

General Washington himself arrived in the City on April 13th and established his headquarters in the Archibald Kennedy Mansion at No. 1 Broadway.[3]

Washington soon discovered that much work still needed to be done to finish the construction of fortifications in Brooklyn on Long Island and on York Island. He was kept busy supervising their continued construction, inspecting the troops and deciding on command assignments and troop deployments.

Another problem faced Washington in the City. The soldiers were growing sickly. Smallpox appeared causing the deaths of several of the men. In the summer heat, “camp fever” became epidemic, and poor sanitation caused dysentery. At least 3,000 to 6,000 men were ill at one time or another, and many died. One of the victims of these illnesses was William Brown (Perley’s brother), who died in a City hospital on August 27th after being sick for eight days. Also sick at this time was brother Benjamin, but his health improved so he could return to active duty.[4]

New York Harbor & Sandy Hook

The long anticipated arrival in New York of the British troops began on June 29th when 120 British ships arrived at Sandy Hook, a barrier spit jutting northward into Lower New York Bay from the New Jersey shore. Three days later (July 2nd) 9,000 British troops from their Nova Scotia base left these ships to establish their new base on the unguarded Staten Island southwest across the harbor from York Island and directly west of the present-day southern part of Brooklyn.

British fleet @ Staten Island, July 1776

And the British ships kept coming with another 15,000 British and Hessian soldiers soon thereafter. On August 13th 96 more ships entered the harbor plus 20 more the next day. That summer more than 400 British ships with 1,200 cannon and 10,000 sailors under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe were anchored in the harbor, and more than 32,000 British and Hessian troops under the command of his brother, General Sir William Howe, were on the nearby land. This turned out to be the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century.

Admiral Lord Richard Howe
General Sir  William Howe

The British, however, did not launch an immediate attack.

Instead General Howe, on July 14th sent a messenger from Staten Island to York Island with a letter addressed to “George Washington, Esq.” conveying an offer to meet and discuss ending the rebellion. Washington’s assistant rejected the letter because it was not addressed to “General George Washington” and because there was no one there by the letter’s simple title. Three days later (July 17th) a second letter was sent; this one was addressed to “George Washington, Esq., etc.,” which also was rejected for the same reason. The next day (July 18th) the British returned to York Island to ask if General Washington would meet with Adjutant General Patterson, and Washington said “yes.”

On July 20th such a peace conference was held at the Kennedy Mansion on York Island. In the midst of polite formalities Washington said he understood that General Howe only had authority to grant pardons, but that those who had committed no wrongs wanted no pardons. This ended these British peace efforts.

In the meantime, General Washington had 19,000 colonial troops in the area, but did not know where the British planned to attack. Therefore, Washington split the Continental Army into fortified positions in Brooklyn on Long Island and in Manhattan with some held in a reserve so-called “Flying Camp” in northern New Jersey to be deployed when they knew where the British were going to attack.

The fighting phase of the campaign for New York and New Jersey began on August 22nd when the British troops invaded Long Island. Thus began what turned out to be the largest battle of the War (the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn) that lasted until August 30th with a British victory.

Staten Island Peace Conference

Soon thereafter– on September 11th (an ironic date in light of its 225th anniversary falling on the day of  the 9/11 attacks of 2001)–another attempt was made to end the rebellion peacefully at the Staten Island Peace Conference.

The Conference participants were Admiral Lord Howe and Continental Congressmen John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge. The Americans insisted on British recognition of their recently declared independence. Admiral Lord Howe said he could not do that. Howe was also pressed to repeal the Prohibitory Act that authorized a blockade of the colonies, but he said he could not do that either. Instead, Howe offered to suspend execution of the blockade if the Americans agreed to end hostilities and make fixed financial contributions to Britain. This offer was rejected by the Americans. There was no peace agreement. The War continued.

With the exception of an American victory at Harlem Heights on York Island,  the British won all the military encounters of this campaign through Christmas Eve Day (December 24, 1776) and forced General Washington and the Continental Army to retreat from New York into New Jersey and then from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Future posts will review the Battles of Long Island (Brooklyn), Harlem Heights and White Plains.

The British victory in this campaign looked secure at that time. But on Christmas Day (December 25th) Washington and 2,400 of his troops made their now famous “crossing the Delaware River” maneuver. They crossed the partially frozen river from Pennsylvania to return to New Jersey to make their successful surprise attack on British and Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. This was followed on January 3rd with another successful colonial attack at Princeton, New Jersey and Washington’s establishing his winter headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey.

Fighting essentially ceased in January 1777 due to winter conditions.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the British won the Campaign for New York and New Jersey and that the British occupied New York City for the duration of the War.


[1]  In addition to the hyperlinked sources in this post, it also draws from David McCullough, 1776 at 110-154 (New York; Simon & Schuster 2005). See also, e.g., T. Harry Williams, Richard N. Current & Frenk Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], at 151 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1959); Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris, The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, Ch. Eleven (New York: Harper & Row, 1967). From July 1966 through March 1970, I worked for a New York City law firm with offices in the Wall Street district at the southern end of Manhattan.As a result, I frequently walked around the area where General Washington and the Continental Army troops lived and worked 190 years earlier, but unfortunately I did not scout out where things happened in the Revolutionary War.

[2] Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 18-19 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letter, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776)).

[3]  By July 1776, Washington moved his abode and headquarters to City Hall because it was deemed to be more secure. By the way, No. 1 Broadway now is the location of an office building known as “1 Broadway.” Facing Battery Park, it was built in 1884 and extensively remodeled in 1921.

[4]  Carol Willits Brown, William Brown–English Immigrant of Hatfield and Leicester, Massachusetts, and His Descendants c. 1669-1994 at 7, 20-21, 24-25, 31-32, 210-11 (Gateway Press; Baltimore, MD 1994) (letters, Perley Brown to his wife Elizabeth Brown (Aug. 1, 1776; Sept. 9, 1776; Oct. 4, 1776).