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July 4, 2013: Thinking about the Summer of 1776

July 4th, 2013 - 7:07 am

“We are,” John Adams wrote to a friend early in June 1776, “in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations.”

Adams was right, but it took prescience to discern it at that moment.  In the aftermath of the costly British victory at Bunker Hill the year before — a few more victories like that, one former officer observed, and British army will be annihilated  — George Washington had driven the Brits from Massachusetts, but they were on their way back with the largest armada ever sent across the Atlantic till that time.

Asked later who was primarily responsible for pushing the American colonists to embrace independence, Adams liked to cite King George III. His implacable demands made reconciliation impossible. And now Lord Germain, the king’s minister for the America colonies, meant  to crush the rebellion once and for all by a massive military blow that would destroy the fledging American army and bring the rebellious Americans to heel.

You can see the logic. The Howe brothers, General William and Admiral Richard, commanded overwhelming military force.  The Continental Army, such as it was, presented a sorry face to the world — “half starved,” as Washington later recalled, “always in Rags, without pay.” Yet the Howes, notwithstanding their mandate from Whitehall, tried desperately to avoid carnage.  They pleaded with colonial — from the beginning of July and the official declaration of independence, they were national — leaders to reconsider.  In August, after the rout of American forces from Gowanus Heights, Long Island, Howe forbore to pursue the Continental Army. That show of force, and of magnanimity, should have been sufficient. Surely, the Americans could see that resistance was futile.

Early in September, Howe convened a parlay.  Benjamin Franklin and Adams (both of whom, should the British have been victorious, would surely have been hanged) led the American contingent. A friend of Franklin’s in earlier days, Howe expressed his affection for his American cousins, adding that “if America should fall, he should feel and lament it like the loss of a brother.” Franklin, Adams recalled years later, bowed, smiled, and replied: “My Lord, we will do our utmost to save your Lordship that mortification.”

It is easy to forget now, but the summer of 1776 was a deeply inauspicious time for the American revolution. Washington’s decision to stay and attempt to hold New York was a costly, near fatal, blunder. At any point until November, when the Continental Army managed to slip away to New Jersey, the Howes, commanding absolute naval superiority as well as a vastly superior and more numerous army, could have “corked the bottle” that was Manhattan and trapped them.

An interesting question — it is a leitmotif of Joseph Ellis’s marvelous new book Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence — is whether, had the American army been destroyed early on, the rebellion would have guttered and died. The Howes never put it to the test. As Ellis shows, able military men though they were, they aspired to be diplomatists more than conquerors. They wished to return to England not as military heroes so much as such successful statesmen, having brokered a peace and reconciliation more than having won a war.

It was not to be, partly because of the conviction, shared by Franklin and Adams, that American independence was not hostage to the Continental Army.  “If the Enemy is beaten,” Franklin observed, “it will probably be decisive for them;  . . . But our growing Country can bear considerable Losses, and recover them, so that a Defeat on our part will not by any means occasion our giving up the Cause.”

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 formally acknowledged the American triumph at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. In the years that followed, there was much soul-searching in London to explain what happened. One current of thought, pushed by Germain and others, assumed that, had the Howes acted more aggressively in 1776 they would not only have destroyed the Continental Army — almost everyone agrees that they would have done so — but also that they would thereby have crushed the rebellion and ended the war.  Ellis acknowledges that we can never know for sure what would have happened.  But his book eloquently argues that “the balance of historical scholarship over the last forty years has made that a highly problematic assumption.” To win the war, Britain would not only need to destroy the American Army, it would also have to subjugate the American people as a whole. And that, as Franklin saw, was a task that not even all Europe could accomplish.

It’s a heartening but also a sobering thought. On this July 4, 2013, nearly a quarter of a millennium after the exploits Ellis recounts, it is worth recollecting and celebrating the spirit that, even more than Washington’s armies, made American independence possible.  It is also, in this era of bloated governmental intrusiveness upon the rights and liberties of citizens, worth pondering what future that spirit is likely to enjoy.  “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” someone asked Frnalin as he left the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  “A Republic,” replied Franklin, “If you can keep it.”  Can we?  I wish I felt more certain about the answer than I do.

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Top Rated Comments   
You sound like a Howe. In a respectable effort to present a statesman's outlook you forget that some cats cannot be put back in the bag. A light perusal of our history and changes during would show we have come far from the founders' plan. Almost all of us on the right are aware that changes today are fundamentally shifting the foundations of the country.
1 year ago
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All Comments   (10)
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The State of Dissent in America: Flex Your Rights By Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers: July 04, 2013
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In New England, where I grew up during WWII., there was a lot of patriotism. We lived among all the battlefields and in American history. also among immigrants. Two of my aunts are Italian. We always had friends of other nationalities. All "lived the American dream" and were successful. All appreciated the need for education. My mother's ancestors had come from
England in 1637. Ancestors were fought at Ft. Ticonderoga, Gettysburg, and all the wars between and after. I had nothing negative to say about the United States until the 60s when we started having revisionist history and blacks suddenly overtook the media. I knew nothing about civil rights problems until I was a college graduate and made a trip to Georgia. I feel absolutely no guilt about the "problems" . I still feel that there are opportunities for all. Some become rich in material goods with little effort. Opportunity is all what one makes of it. Granted, the founders could not have anticipated the world as it is now but the basic ability still remains. America is still a cvlassless society in which anyone can make it.
Enough minorities succeed to show that it is possible to rise above the ghetto. Asian minorities are often very successful. Americans have contributed a great deal to the world. I have contributed to the upkeep of thousands of starving babies in Africa and yet they continue to be born. Gallons of American blood has been spilled to save the world. How much more can we give...both materially and in other ways.Some of these nay sayers should start putting their body and their money where their mouth is.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To my understanding, during WWII, more men volunteered for the Marines from Massachusetts, per capita, than any other state.

How times have changed.

Today, I'm hard-pressed to say whether or not most people here would even defend themselves if confronted by a butter-knife wielding attacker.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Times haven't changed, but the wars in which we have chosen to involve ourselves have. I have no doubt that if the circumstances of WWII were to be repeated (God forbid), the response of the people of Massachusetts would be the same.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Perhaps it might also be relevant to read some quotes by the Declaration's author, as a reminder of precisely what he meant by 'Independence":

“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

“In a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance”

“The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it.”

"I have examined all the known superstitions of the world, and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth."

"Fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

-- Thomas Jefferson
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
More quotes from Jefferson, which clearly show that he did not bear any enmity towards those of a religious nature, and surely would not have endorsed the current climate of disrespectful public discourse regarding Christianity as a guide for political principles, and expressing public contempt and hostility towards those whose political views are founded upon deeper religious convictions. The Founding Fathers were some of the wisest and noble souls who ever walked the earth, envisioning a society where men would examine each other's character, and not their status or creed.

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."

"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

"It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God."

"It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read."

"I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others."

"Truth is certainly a branch of morality and a very important one to society."

"The Creator has not thought proper to mark those in the forehead who are of stuff to make good generals. We are first, therefore, to seek them blindfold, and then let them learn the trade at the expense of great losses."

"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 are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well we've kept it for a while now, and we get points for that whatever happens tomorrow. More on that subject, I cannot say.

But for 1776 and Generals Howe, well, over the next five years the Continental forces were wiped out several times, and reconstituted. Just how and why that happened is a curiosity about which I have not seen all the analysis I'd like. There seemed to be a lot of men available for low pay, and it did not seem terribly ideological for most of them. As so many wars, after the fact it seems a terrible waste from one perspective, but the world is just like that and sometimes requires a high price for what seems "obvious" to at least one side. As well ask Generals Howe to have British troops assault and pursue British citizens at home. Well, 80 years later we did see that scenario as the US had its own civil war. Well that Howes avoided started anything like that.
1 year ago
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