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  • Writer's pictureJulie Mackin

Cruel Summer

On Tuesdays we are going to talk History, probably my favorite subject. I generally read across a lot of historical time periods, but my Massachusetts Center for the Book Challenge book was Stacy Schiff's biography of Samuel Adams, so this year, I am going to focus most of my historical reading on the American Revolution and the run up to it. I'll probably also throw in a few biographies too. I've got a great TBR list with some books I've been trying to get to for ages and to start off, here is a review of an older book (published in 2013).


Revolutionary Summer by Joseph Ellis

A story in which our heroes realize they are in for the long haul

Stars: 4.5/5


“In general, our Generals were out generalled.”

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 10/8/1776

This is an excellent book, immensely readable. The subtitle, the birth of American independence, speaks not just to the beginning of the revolution, but also to the full blown idea that America will be independent from Britain. That was not exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when events transpired at Lexington and Concord. As Ellis notes, they were looking for something like the current Commonwealth; a country with the monarch as figurehead but run by Americans with their own parliament. The change from that to a completely separate country is what was truly revolutionary. By the end of that summer it was evident that a full, drawn out war was looming and that forging a new nation would be just as difficult as fighting the British. These were not a totally united states yet and there were still very many issues that needed to be worked out, not the least of which was slavery.

Ellis’s book is a dense but thorough investigation of the summer of 1776: how what came to be the Continental Army was shaped and how the disastrous battles on Long Island and Manhattan would change the way that Washington waged the war. Ellis also highlights voices in Parliaments and in the British military that advocated for a quick resolution that would have emphasized peace with the colonies. Ellis highlights the actions of the British General William Howe in attacking Washington’s forces and that Howe, in the view of his subordinated Henry Clinton, could have destroyed the American militias and ended the rebellion while the troops were in Manhattan. Would this have broken the spirit of the American rebellion is hard to know and Ellis clearly illustrates that.As with most history, especially for an American reading about the Revolution, the sense of inevitability is hard to overcome. We know how it is going to end so making the events suspenseful is difficult, but Ellis succeeds.


Not just a history of that summer and the turbulent events that occurred, the books shows us the changes in the heroes of the Revolution. Washington, Adams, Franklin and Jefferson all started the war with different expectations and it was over this summer that those expectations changed. Jefferson, in Philadelphia and drafting the Declaration of Independence, wants to be back in Virginia, helping them draft their state constitution, but comes to see the importance of the document he created. Franklin abandons his alliance to Britain and fully embraces this war for independence, pushing further than anyone else for expanding the rights of the populous. Adams, always a believer, champions the middle road, trying to forge a way for the north and the south to meet. And finally we see in Washington, a man once so concerned with honor that he hesitates to order his troops to withdraw, realization that he is going to be in this for the long haul and he will no longer hold on to his belief in many British traditions.

I really liked this book; I love that Ellis thanks his assistant and gives a shout out to his dogs. And he has almost twenty pages of notes in a book that is only 208 pages long, that makes my heart glad. But the best part? He uses fun quips from John Adams, giving us the funny Adams, not the cranky Adams. How can you not love that?

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