A word to know: semiquincentennial, which will appear with increasing frequency as the 250th anniversary of American independence approaches. Joseph Ellis, author of well-regarded biographies of America’s founders, is out early with a history of the revolution.
Or, as he terms it, the “American Evolution”. For generations, treatments of the revolution have reflected the interests and prejudices of their times. Ellis provides numerous analogies to the politics of the moment, notably bitter opposition to a strong national government, the dangers of debt and misplaced hubris.
The work covers some familiar ground from his other works with a focus on “bottom-up” politics. Ellis terms the story “The Cause”, because the patriots used it as “the operative term from the summer of 1775 to the summer of ’76”. Leaving aside the actual cause of the split (briefly, “power, not money” and George III’s policy after the peace of 1763), Ellis’ emphasis is the uncomfortable nature of its legacy and its impact on politics. The revolutionary “cause” contained the seeds of others.
That the promises of the revolution and Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” failed, not least on slavery and Native Americans, is a shameful blight on the founding. But as Ellis writes, “not all revolutions end in gulags and guillotines”. Compromise was indispensible to uniting 13 colonies to achieve victory.
Was that compromise the essence of the revolution or a painful cost of it, laying a deposit or “promissory note” of freedom? On that question hangs the meaning of the revolution, both for greater understanding of the past and applying its lessons in the present.
Ellis succeeds more on the first, noting many founders’ discomfort with the compromises they made.
On politics, Ellis takes the division back to the war itself, when conspiracy-minded “True Whigs” asserted that those who favoured strong national government were seeking to replicate George III’s power, even as the continental army went unpaid and Washington prevented a military coup against Congress, shaming those who would “overturn the liberties of our country and open the flood gates of civil discord”. The conspiratorial mindset found a home early in American politics.
History is by definition selective, and what is selected reflects the historian’s perspective as well as the zeitgeist. This is a relatively short history for the general reader, reflecting contemporary concerns, including relative brevity. There are some curious omissions, notably the Boston Massacre, in which Crispus Attucks, a Black and Native American patriot, was probably the first killed. Ellis cites three, not all four, of the 1774 Coercive Acts. Writing about the British North America (Quebec) Act would have enabled him to address religious prejudice in American history. More prosaically, Emerson, not Longfellow, wrote of the “shot heard round the world”.
Much of the book concerns military history.Vietnam/Iraq analogies to British policy and warfare serve a purpose but become tiresome. Ellis argues that “Great Britain never had a realistic chance to win … American victory was not a miracle; it was foreordained”.
That seems wrong. A failed crossing of the Delaware, an annihilation of American forces on Long Island (where even Ellis admits “the fate of the war … would have become uncertain”), Cornwallis escaping at Yorktown, the French fleet not arriving in time, Americans tiring of war – there are many points at which the military outcome could have been different, despite repeated failings of British leadership. Here, the “triumphalist” perspective (which Washington endorsed, calling victory a “standing miracle”) seems justified: the world turned upside down. Valley Forge really was as terrible as popular myth holds, Washington’s leadership preserving the army in impossible circumstances was equally strong.
There is an urgent need for history for the general reader. Ellis’s story is generally told well. British perspectives receive sensitive attention, continuing a tradition exemplified by the great Bernard Bailyn.
Ellis ends with an emotional recounting of Washington’s resignation of his commission in 1783 but also on a sour, pessimistic note, describing an “antinational”, even “antigovernment” feeling seeing “an American nation-state as a preposterous distortion of The Cause”. He identifies two legacies from the revolution: “Any robust expression of government power … was placed on the permanent defensive; second, conspiracy theories that might otherwise have been dismissed as preposterous shouts from the lunatic fringe enjoyed a supportive environment because of their hallowed association with The Cause”.
This is presumably description, not endorsement. But then why not add a chapter taking the history to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, to show the victory of the nationalist view Washington espoused? Ellis has written this before.
Shining a bright light on terrible moments in American history and expanding the understanding of the founding to include other voices is necessary and wise. Contemporary Americans should understand that “The Cause contained a double-barreled legacy: government was ‘Them’ and government was ‘Us’” – a debate that continues sharply today.
The danger, though, is that Ellis’ approach merely becomes history for an age of debunking history, which contains its own dangers – not least when others try to offer “alternative” history for their own, for conspiratorial agendas.. Ellis tries to defend history against both “presentistic” and conspiratorial views but may not succeed as well as he hopes.
“Like the deepest meaning of The Cause itself,” he writes, “if you had not lived it, no one could explain it to you”. That’s what historians are supposed to do – explain. Ellis eschews triumphalism, yet on occasion even he gets caught up in the wonder of it all: “There was something almost elegiac about ordinary farmers, accustomed to gather in order to pass regulations about roaming cows or pigs, meeting now to debate the fate of America’s role in the British Empire.”
Despite the revolution’s serious “discontents” and compromises, perhaps one need not force a choice between triumphalism and skepticism. Perhaps one may even consider the place of idealism, permitting Americans to be inspired once again by the Declaration of Independence and Valley Forge – and to redeem their implicit promises of union, freedom and justice for all.