Summer Of 1776 Set The Stage For Independence

Jul 5, 2013
Originally published on July 4, 2013 5:02 pm

As we celebrate the birth of the nation on this 4th of July, Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph Ellis joins us to look back on events of the summer of 1776.

That’s when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress.

Ellis’s new book is “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence (excerpt below).”

Book Excerpt: ‘Revolutionary Summer’

By: Joseph J. Ellis

Chapter 1: Prudence Dictates

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 the book REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER by Joseph J. Ellis. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph J. Ellis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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And as we watch the developments in Egypt, we are also marking the 237th birthday of our own country. On July 4th, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's document that declared the colonies free of British rule. The Declaration was, of course, a crucial moment, but it was really just one scene in a drama that played out over several months before and after that momentous event in Philadelphia.

That drama plays out in a new book by historian Joseph Ellis. It is called "Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence." And Joseph Ellis joins us now from WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. Professor Ellis, welcome.

JOSEPH ELLIS: Hey, it's a pleasure to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, it's great to have you. And these characters and the territory that you cover in this book have been written about a lot, by a lot of people. So I'm wondering first if you could just tell us: What are you trying to do here that hasn't been done?

ELLIS: One of the things that I found that isn't part of the normal story is that two things were going on at the same time in the summer of '76. There's the political story happening in Philadelphia and the Continental Congress, ending with the Declaration, and then there's the military story going on down in New York, in which the Continental Army is about to face off against a British force of 42,000 soldiers and sailors, the largest amphibious force ever to cross the Atlantic.

You have to put those two stories together to understand the chemistry of the moment, and that really, the consensus for American independent only took shape once the colonists realized they were being invaded. It wasn't a constitutional issue anymore. It was a military issue.

HOBSON: And I want to talk about that, but another thing that's very interesting about this - and the title of the book is "Revolutionary Summer." I mean, I think we think about the Revolution as a long process, but it's amazing how much happened just in a short period of time.

ELLIS: Yeah. This is the crescendo moment, in which they make the decision for independence. They commit themselves to go to war with the British army in a full way. They'd been pretending the war didn't exist, but, in fact, people should remember, the war really has been going on for 15 months. It's 15 months between Lexington-Concord and the July Declaration.

Not only that politically, but militarily, the things that happen in the summer of '76 create the framework for the rest of the whole war, how it's going to be fought and, indeed, in some sense, what the outcome's going to be.

HOBSON: Well, what did you find in your research was more important here? What was happening on the political side, or what was happening on the military side? Could either have survived without the other?

ELLIS: No. They're totally equal and reinforcing. Up until the late spring and early summer of '76, a majority of delegates in the Continental Congress and the best we can know, people out in the countryside, were committed to opposing British right of taxation and legislation. But they weren't committed to secession from the British Empire.

What changes people's minds in the May and June and July of '76 is this huge invasion force, and that the British have decided that they're not going to end this diplomatically. There was a diplomatic solution to this, but that they're going to quash this thing, because it's an early version of the domino theory. If we let the colonists get away with what they want to get away with, what's going to happen in Scotland? What's going to happen in Ireland? What's going to happen in India?

Plus, we have the military resources - the best combination army and navy in the world - to quash this thing in the cradle. Yet that very decision is what galvanizes popular opinion for independence.

HOBSON: And everyone on both sides of the Atlantic understood the value and importance of New York. Talk about that - which culminated, of course, in a battle.

ELLIS: Yeah. New York is the major port, and the British want to get it so that their navy can have a base. But not only that, there's a plan put together by the equivalent of the British secretary of war, Lord George Germain. He's going to send over the largest amphibious force ever to cross the Atlantic. The next time a force this big goes across the Atlantic is during World War I. We're going to take New York.

And the two British commanders - they're brothers, the Howe Brothers, Richard the admiral and William the general - are going to then, once established in New York, move up the Hudson, meeting the British army coming down from the Hudson and seal off New England, which is the cradle of the rebellion, and then march across New England and put down all of the insurrection and end it then and there.

It's a pretty good plan. They never are allowed to implement it fully. But it's their way of trying to recognize that they have to end this insurgency fast. If it's a protracted war, it's going to be difficult to win.

HOBSON: Did the political leaders on this side of the Atlantic realize what they were up against there?

ELLIS: Yes, but with a certain qualification. There is a profound awareness on the part of many delegates, especially those who are reluctant revolutionaries, that this might very well be a suicidal act. And Jefferson's words in the Declaration, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor, were not rhetoric. They realized they were risking everything.

But there was a recognition on the part of some of them - especially people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin - that it wasn't going to be a war between armies. It was going to be a war in which the British had to subjugate the entire American populace. And I think our own experience in Southeast Asia and later in the Middle East makes us more aware of the problem that the British were going to face in trying to squash this rebellion.

And so they had to win it quickly, and if they didn't, it would start to drain on them, and it would end up being a war that was going to be difficult for them to win.

HOBSON: And they didn't. So why didn't they? What did they do wrong?

ELLIS: What they did wrong is not end it quickly. And they had a chance when Long Island and Manhattan, did the Howe brothers, to annihilate the Continental Army. They had the opportunity to do that, but they don't want to do it. They are people who think this war is misguided. They've come to deliver a stunning, but proportional blow, and then hope that the Americans will come to their senses and negotiate a peace. That's their real goal: to try to deliver a stunning blow and then serve as peace brokers. But as a result, they miss the one chance to win the war.

HOBSON: That's Joseph Ellis, a professor of history emeritus at Mount Holyoke College. His new book is called "Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence." And when we come back, we will talk about some of the characters of the Revolution.


Look forward to that, and to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED later today. Quick note: They'll have the story of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the son of a Cuban refugee, but his hard-line stance on immigration has alienated Latinos. That's later today. Back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.


HOBSON: Welcome back to our conversation with historian Joseph Ellis about his new book "Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence." It traces the political and military events of the summer of 1776. Now, there was, of course, the Declaration of Independence, but it was also the summer when a huge British force trapped the Continental Army at New York, then let them slip away, missing - as Professor Ellis said before the break - their chance to win the war.

And Professor Ellis, I want to talk to you about some of the characters here, starting with John Adams, who many Americans know a lot about, especially after David McCullough's famous book and the HBO series. But what I learned about him in your book is that he is kind of the guy who just wants to make this happen, even if he has to make sacrifices to do so.

ELLIS: Yeah. He's the radical in Congress in '75 - '74, '75 and early '76, when the vast majority of people are moderates. They're searching for a way out of this. Adams basically says they're searching for a messiah that will never come. He knows before anybody else that this is not going to end peacefully, and he's committed to pushing that agenda. It makes him unpopular in the Congress.

He says he makes himself obnoxious, because he keeps telling them that it's not going to work as the way they want to, and he keeps being right. This is really his finest hour. You know, he later goes on to be vice president and president of the United States, but this is the hour where he is the man on the spot in the most important moment in American history, and he's the guy who pushes for independence.

Then he's made secretary of war and ordinance in June of '76, the equivalent of secretary of defense. And he says I'm not qualified for this job, and he writes to his friends in Cambridge and asks them to take out all the books at the Harvard library on how to run an army.

But for the next year and a half, he's in charge of military policy. So he is probably the key player on the political side during this period.

HOBSON: What about Benjamin Franklin? He, on the other hand, came a bit reluctantly to the cause. He was not as adamant about breaking away from the British Empire.

ELLIS: He had been spending the last 20 years of his life in London. He was an American agent in London for the colony of Pennsylvania. And so he's not aware of the degree of grievance in the colonies towards the taxation policies of parliament. And he's got a son who's actually a loyalist governor of New Jersey.

But though he's late to the game, he comes back to America and immediately assumes a leadership position. And he's the sort of grandfather amongst the fathers. He's the most famous American of his time, especially abroad, because of his role as a scientist, as well as a statesman. And he's immediately elected to the Congress and becomes one of the major figures.

HOBSON: And then there is someone who does not have near the name recognition of John Adams or Benjamin Franklin, and that is John Dickinson. Tell us about him and the role he played.

ELLIS: Dickinson, at the time, was regarded as perhaps the single most prominent figure in the Continental Congress, because he spoke for the majority position, which was the moderate position. He believed that the American position, constitutionally, that parliament had no right to legislate or tax, was right, but that there had to be a diplomatic way to avoid a break in the empire, because any war with Great Britain was going to be ruinous for both America and Britain.

He's a Quaker. He's married to a Quaker woman. He's a pacifist, though eventually, he serves in the militia himself. And he's regarded as one of the leading spokesmen for a position that, up until the late spring of '76, is the majority position. He's undone by the fact that George III simply decides he's going to make this a war.

HOBSON: Now, there's a question that comes up over and over again when we look back on this history: Why didn't the founding fathers acknowledge slavery when they fought for independence? Because it so obviously violates the principles they were fighting for.

ELLIS: They knew that. That is to say, even Southern planters like Jefferson and Washington were aware of the fact that the principles on which the Revolution was based were incompatible with slavery. And yet slavery was embedded in the economy of states south of the Chesapeake and south of the Potomac, I guess, and in a way, that made it very difficult to end it easily.

And whenever it came up - and it came up for the first time in June of '76, when they're debating what kind of government they want to have after they are independent. They can't address slavery directly. It's so volatile and toxic an issue, explosive an issue, that if they address it directly, it's going to blow the whole independence movement up.

And once it comes up explicitly, South Carolina says: If you have to talk about slavery, we're seceding. That is - you're not going to get a union. You're not going to get a unanimous vote on independence. Georgia would have probably gone the same way. The same thing's going to happen in the Constitutional Convention, 1787.

So slavery, on the one hand, is morally reprehensible. On the other hand, it's politically impossible to talk about it, because you won't get an independent - you won't get a consensus on independence if you insist on putting it on the agenda.

HOBSON: Did that surprise you when you were doing your research about that, that the big picture, if you will, was being overshadowed by what they needed economically to keep their states going?

ELLIS: No. I've seen this before, but it's dramatic here. And Adams, who is a Northerner, never owned a slave, opposed to slavery, writes the Massachusetts Constitution that eventually is the document that makes slavery illegal in Massachusetts. But he's the one that insists: Do not bring it up. It is a deal-breaker. And you can argue that justice delayed is justice denied, but Adams is a person who thinks that the key item at this moment on the political agenda is consensus on the question of independence.

And if you destroy the independence consensus, then you don't have a republic that can make rulings on slavery later in the day.

HOBSON: So, in the end, Joseph Ellis, as you look back on this period in history - which is something you've spent your career doing - what is your message? What should Americans be thinking about on this Fourth of July, 2013?

ELLIS: Well, I think if you go back and try to immerse yourself as I did in the data of the summer of '76, the extraordinarily dramatic and almost improvisational character of the way it played out, recovering not the inevitability of it, but the problematic character of it, but also the magic words of American history are penned then, and I think that amidst our barbecues and our fireworks, maybe trying to decide what we think those words mean for us now.

And what they meant then was a little different. But those are the magic words: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Lincoln thought those words were incompatible with slavery. The women's movement thought they were incompatible with sexual inequality. Martin Luther King thought they were incompatible with segregation. And I think the question for us is whether they're incompatible with discrimination against gays.

HOBSON: Joseph Ellis, his new book is "Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence." You can read an excerpt at Professor Ellis, thank you so much for speaking with us, and happy Fourth of July.

ELLIS: Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: And a lot to think about there, but one footnote to all this, Robin: We're celebrating the Fourth of July today, of course, but John Adams actually thought July 2nd should be the big day. That was the day the Continental Congress resolved that the colonies should be free.

YOUNG: Well, here's a letter that Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail. It's read by Peter Drummey of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

PETER DRUMMEY: (Reading) It ought to be commemorated with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, forevermore.

YOUNG: Well, he didn't get the day right, but he got the look just fine. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.