“We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations,” John Adams wrote to a friend in early June 1776.
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 the 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 until 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 American colonies, meant to crush the rebellion once and for all by a massive military blow that would destroy the fledgling American army and bring the rebellious Americans to heel.
You can see the logic.
The Howe brothers, General William, and Admiral Richard commanded the 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 leaders to reconsider their rebellion.
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, noting 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’s 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.
Failure to Crush the Rebellion
An interesting question—it’s a leitmotif of Joseph Ellis’s marvelous 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 wasn’t to be, partly because of the conviction, shared by Franklin and Adams, that American independence wasn’t hostage to the Continental Army.
“If the Enemy is beaten, 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,” Franklin observed.
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 wouldn’t 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 40 years has made that a highly problematic assumption.”
To win the war, Britain wouldn’t only have needed to destroy the American Army, it would also have needed 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.
Minds of the People
On this July 4, 2021, nearly a quarter of a millennium after the exploits Ellis recounts, it’s worth recollecting and celebrating the spirit that, even more than Washington’s armies, made American independence possible.
Just a week or two back, the president of the United States said that if people unhappy with the American government wanted to challenge it, they would need “F15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.”
As I observed elsewhere in response to that extraordinary claim, if the sovereign in this country—that would be “We, the people,” not the occupant of the White House—wanted to move against the government of the United States, it wouldn’t need F-15s and nuclear weapons.
It would need legitimate free and fair elections.
It was because of serious doubts regarding the 2020 presidential election that hundreds of citizens, and not a few rabble-rousers and FBI instigators, marched on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
As C. Bradley Thompson reminds us in his new book “America’s Revolutionary Mind,” this is a point that John Adams made repeatedly.
Writing to his old nemesis Thomas Jefferson in 1815, Adams asked the key question: “What do we mean by the Revolution?”
Not the war, Jefferson answered.
“That was no part of the Revolution.”
The war itself, he said, “was only an Effect and Consequence” of the Revolution.
The true Revolution “was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of 15 years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”
A few years later, Jefferson took up this theme again.
The “real American Revolution,” he said, was brought about by a “radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of the American people.
In this era of bloated governmental intrusiveness upon the rights and liberties of citizens, it’s worth pondering what future that spirit is likely to enjoy.
“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” someone asked Franklin as he left the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
“A Republic,” Franklin replied. “If you can keep it.”
Can we? I wish I felt more certain about the answer than I do.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the Fate of Freedom in the 21st Century.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.