July 4, 2013: Thinking about the Summer of 1776

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.