6/27/2013 - If you’re not smarter than a fifth-grader when it comes to the American Revolution, a quick and satisfactory fix is the latest by New England historian Joseph Ellis, Revolutionary Summer.
Deceptively thick, the main text is a mere 185 pages (eight of them pictures); footnotes and an index give the book a modest heft. That said, it is no beach read. The problem with historical non-fiction is that it tends to be written by historians, who tend not to be the life the party, off-campus anyway. And Revolutionary Summer does, at times, drift into the tone and tenor of the waning moments of a high-school lecture. (Bueller? Bueller?) But on the whole, it is a well-crafted and concise tale of an extraordinary summer that even manages to surprise the reader with little dribble of tension. This, like the triumph of the colonies against the crown, is no small feat, given that the whole world knows how this story turned out.
This is the 10th book for Ellis, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers and the National Book Award for American Sphinx. We’re all supposed to have forgotten the unpleasantness of 2001, when it was revealed that he had invented, among other things, a record of military service in Vietnam, a professorial sin for which he temporarily lost an endowed chair at Mount Holyoke College. After a sabbatical and the issuance of one of the most humble apologies ever uttered — “What I did was not just a mistake, it was a sin,” he has said — his professional life resumed apace, and he remains the Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Mount Holyoke and teaches in the Honors College at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The incident remains a bewildering footnote to an otherwise distinguished professional life by a man who is obscenely qualified to periodically remind the nation of the high-school and college educations we failed to retain. While most of us revisit the Revolution while accidentally landing on The History Channel, or by the occasional visit to a battlefield, Ellis has spent a lifetime boot-deep in this stuff. This enables him to write the story of the summer of 1776 with a depth of detail that eludes lesser historians.
In Revolutionary Summer, Ellis paints a chaotic landscape in which the political machinations of revolution are distant and often at odds with the military battles. It’s not quite that the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing, more that it was willfully looking away.
While George Washington was gathering forces that would endeavor (in vain) to keep the British from capturing New York, the states’ representatives, in Philadelphia and at home, were still languidly discussing reconciliation. The history of the Revolution is usually told as a single story, in a straight line, when actually, it is two interwoven tales: the story of how the flamboyantly diverse colonies came together to secede, and how a hastily trained Army combined with state militias of farmers and mechanics and triumphed under the direction of a Secretary of War (John Adams) who learned everything he knew about warfare from books.
By constructing parallel story lines, Ellis retells an oft-told tale with a deftness that may, at times, have you wondering if the Redcoats might win after all.
Along the way, he gives glimpses of the humans behind the Mount Rushmore carvings: Adams, who had been “auditioning for the role of American Cicero in the privacy of his own mind for nearly a decade” and found a ready vehicle to greatness in pursuit of “The Cause”; Benjamin Franklin, who turned his back when his illegitimate son was arrested and detained as a “dangerous Tory”; and Thomas Jefferson, whose prose still inspires a nation, but who sulked like a child over changes the Continental Congress made to his beloved Declaration.
Ellis even reveals a comic side now and then: “Indeed, if you were a king and were shown a document that began with the word ‘Whereas,’ you should expect a list of grievances to follow and realize that your reign was likely to be of short duration.”
These are worthy nuggets, but yes, this still is a history book, and sometimes we wish for collaboration between Ellis and, say, Dan Brown. Plus, let it be noted that the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries, for all their courage and genius, tended to talk in really stilted ways, such as when Washington said to Hancock, “Give me leave to say, Sir, that your Affairs are in a more unpromising way than you seem to apprehend.”
The dialect of the 1700s can be incredibly elegant, or drily repellant, which may be why most of us are not historians and spend too little time reading history books. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to read it, but thanks to Ellis, it’s not a wholly unpleasant task. B — Jennifer Graham