A word to know: semi-quincentenary, which will appear more and more frequently as the 250th anniversary of American independence approaches. Joseph Ellis, author of renowned biographies of America’s founders, came out early with a history of the revolution.
Or, as he calls it, “American evolution”. For generations, the treatments of the revolution reflected the interests and prejudices of their time. Ellis provides many analogies to the politics of the day, including fierce opposition to a strong national government, the dangers of debt, and misplaced pride.
The work covers familiar ground from his other works with an emphasis on “bottom-up” politics. Ellis calls the story “The Cause”, because the Patriots used it as “the operative term from summer 1775 to summer 76”. Leaving aside the real cause of the split (briefly, “power, not money” and the policies of George III after the peace of 1763), Ellis emphasizes the uncomfortable nature of his legacy and its impact on politics. The revolutionary “cause” contained the seeds of others.
That the promises of the revolution and Jefferson’s “inalienable rights” have failed, especially with regard to slavery and Native Americans, is a shameful scourge on the foundation. But as Ellis writes, “not all revolutions end with gulags and guillotines”. Compromise was essential to unite 13 colonies and achieve victory.
Did this compromise the gasoline of the revolution or a painful cost of it, by depositing a deposit or a “promissory note” of freedom? On this question depends the meaning of the revolution, both for a better understanding of the past and for applying its lessons to the present.
Ellis is more successful on the former, noting the unease many Founders have with the compromises they have made.
In politics, Ellis takes the division back to war itself, when the conspiratorial “real Whigs” asserted that those in favor of a strong national government sought to replicate the power of George III, even then. that the Continental Army was not paid; and that Washington was preventing a military coup. against Congress, shaming those who “would overthrow the freedoms of our country and open the floodgates of civil discord”. The conspiracy mindset found a home in the early days of 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 story for the general reader, reflecting contemporary concerns, including relative brevity. There are a few curious omissions, most notably the Boston Massacre, in which Crispus Attucks, a Black and Native American patriot, was likely the first to be killed. Ellis cites three, not all four, of the coercive acts of 1774. Writing about the British North America Act (Quebec) would have enabled him to address religious prejudices in American history. More prosaically, Emerson, not Longfellow, wrote of the “gunshot heard around the world.”
Much of the book is about military history. The analogies between Vietnam and Iraq with British politics and war serve a purpose but become boring. Ellis argues that “Britain never had a realistic chance of winning… the American victory was not a miracle; it was predestined ”.
It seems wrong. A failed Delaware crossing, an annihilation of American forces on Long Island (where even Ellis admits that “the fate of the war … would have become uncertain”), Cornwallis escaping to Yorktown, the French fleet not arriving in time, war – there are many points where the military outcome could have been different, despite the repeated failures of the British leadership. Here, the “triumphant” perspective (which Washington endorsed, calling the victory a “permanent miracle”) seems justified: the world upside down. Valley Forge was truly as terrible as popular myth claims, Washington’s leadership preserving the military under impossible circumstances was just as strong.
There is an urgent need for history for the general reader. Ellis’ story is generally well told. British perspectives receive sensitive attention, carrying on a tradition exemplified by the great Bernard Bailyn.
Ellis ends with a moving account of Washington’s resignation from its commission in 1783, but also on a sour and pessimistic note, describing an “anti-national”, even “anti-government” sentiment seeing “an American nation-state as an absurd distortion of the cause “. He identifies two legacies of the revolution: “Any robust expression of governmental power[…]was placed on the permanent defensive; second, conspiracy theories that might otherwise have been dismissed as absurd cries from the mad fringe have enjoyed a favorable environment because of their sacred association with The Cause ”.
This is most likely a description, not an endorsement. But then why not add a chapter retracing history to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, to show the victory from the nationalist point of view defended by Washington? Ellis has already written this.
It is necessary and wise to shed light on terrible moments in American history and to broaden the understanding of the foundation to include other voices. Contemporary Americans should understand that “The Cause contained a double-edged legacy: government was ‘Them’ and government was ‘Us’” – a debate that continues hotly today.
The danger, however, is that Ellis’ approach will only become the story of an era of demystification of history, which contains its own dangers – especially when others try to come up with an “alternative” story for it. theirs for conspiracy programs. Ellis tries to defend against both “presentist” and conspiratorial views, but might not do as well as he hopes.
“Like the deepest meaning of The Cause itself,” he wrote, “if you hadn’t experienced it, no one could explain it to you”. That’s what historians are supposed to do – explain. Ellis eschews triumphalism, but on occasion even he is caught in awe of it all: America’s role in the British Empire.
Despite the grave “discontents” and compromises of the revolution, perhaps it is not necessary to force the choice between triumphalism and skepticism. Perhaps we can even envision the place of idealism, allowing Americans to once again draw inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and Valley Forge – and redeem their implicit promises of union, freedom and justice. for everyone.